Peter Gray: Education and Human Evolution (1h49m)

This episode features a lecture by evolutionary psychologist, research professor, and author Peter Gray from 2016 on how children’s natural curiosity, playfulness, sociability, and willfulness have all been shaped by natural selection to serve the function of education. Purchase books by Peter Gray on Amazon here.

Listen To This Episode (1h49m, mp3, 64kbps)

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How to Deschool Yourself for Success and Satisfaction

Most of us spent at least 15,000 hours of our childhood and adolescence being schooled before we turned 18. Now in adulthood, we may need to unlearn some of what we were taught and embrace self-education for career success and personal fulfillment.

Much of what we learned in school was dictated by others, disconnected from our own passions and proclivities. We were taught what to learn, and we learned to be taught. With self-education, we take back control of our own learning, exploring topics and skills that matter to us, free from coercion. In many ways, pursuing self-education is the difference between learning in a library and in a school. A library offers abundant resources to support our learning, including tangible and digital tools, optional classes, and helpful facilitators, but it is free from compulsion. Unlike K-12 schooling, we are not required to learn there under a legal threat of force. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me, winner of the 2015 National Book Award:

I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free. (p. 48)

Granted the freedom to learn, our true talents and ambitions can begin to emerge. But first, we need to deschool ourselves and shed some of the common myths we may have internalized about learning that could get in the way of our self-education and related success:

Myth #1: Color Inside the Lines

One of the first things most of us learned as a tot when we stepped into a classroom is to color inside the lines. Follow instructions, be neat, do what everyone else does. Now as we embrace self-education and discover our full human potential, we need to do the opposite. If everyone is coloring in the lines, we should be coloring outside of them. We should be looking at opportunities for creativity, not conformity. What do we see that no one else does? Where is the market possibility there? Coloring outside the lines may be messy, but it can lead to original ideas and novel inventions that make our lives and those around us better off.

Myth #2: Ask for Permission

In school, we quickly learn to ask for permission. Obedience is heartily rewarded, and non-compliance is swiftly punished. If we want to succeed at playing the game of school, we learn to be led. Now, as a self-directed learner with personal and professional goals, we need to be bold! If we wait around for permission to pursue those goals, we won’t get anywhere. Be intrepid.

Myth #3: Be Quiet and Stay Still

This schooled expectation is getting even worse than it was when many of us were kids. We were all taught to be quiet and stay still (especially when forming those straight lines in the hallway), but today young children are increasingly being diagnosed with and medicated for ADHD when they don’t keep still and remain attentive. Aside from the tragedy of medicalizing what, in many cases, is just normal childhood behavior, we become conditioned to stay passive.

But to achieve our audacious goals in adulthood, what we need more than anything is exuberance. We need to be constantly moving, constantly questioning, constantly exploring new pathways. Energy and agility are critical characteristics for achieving success in a fast-moving, always-changing world.

Myth #4: Don’t Read Ahead

Remember this one? We were often given reading assignments of certain pages or paragraphs with the warning to not read ahead. Now, of course, we need to be curious instead of compliant and seize all opportunities to read ahead! Digging deeply into topics that matter to us or reading a wide variety of different materials to broaden our worldview can help us to uncover our enthusiasms and crystallize our goals.

Myth #5. Winners Never Quit

One of the more pervasive myths we hang onto from childhood is the belief that we shouldn’t quit. Yet, some of the most successful people are those who stopped wasting their time and energy in jobs or activities that were not meaningful to them. As Rich Karlgaard, the longtime publisher of Forbes, writes in his new book Late Bloomers:

“How can the curious and creative, the searchers and explorers, jump off the dominant culture’s conveyor belt and begin shaping our own fates?” We do it by quitting. Quit the path we’re on. Quit the lousy job. Quit the class we hate. Quit the friends and associates who hurt us more than help. Quit the life we regret. (p. 148)

Myth #6. Failure Is Unacceptable

Failure can be as valuable as quitting. Contrary to what we were schooled to believe, failure is an important part of risk-taking and experimentation. If we spend our adulthood seeking only gold stars and Good Job! stickers, we may find only hollow rewards.

The first step in taking charge of your learning and livelihood is to shed these schooled myths and become adept at self-education. Trade conformity for creativity, obedience for curiosity, and compliance for exuberance. Don’t be afraid to quit or to fail. Setting your own path requires a great deal of coloring outside the lines. Don’t wait for the teacher or the buzzer to tell you when it’s time to go.

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I Do Not Fear Flat Earthers

Someone Tweeted the other day that what scares them the most is the growth of anti-scientism among the public, as evidenced by things like the niche of people who believe the earth is flat.

My first reaction to any fearful claims about the state of the world today is skepticism about the superiority of the past. Flat earthers have always existed. I’m not sure if they have actually swelled in number, or just been given a temporary internet celebrity status as the meme of the moment.

But let’s just accept that it’s true. Let’s say anti-scientism is growing. Why is this scary?

I heard someone say if you pursue any field of study deep enough you arrive at mystery. Yet the popular scientistic outlook is the opposite of mysterious. It presents a cocksure, “Everything’s settled but the details, and someone in a lab in Sweden is working those out as we speak”. What kind of invitation to inquiry is that? Where’s the adventure?

There’s a sense in which popular scientism makes the world smaller, rather than more expansive. Specialization need not lead to reductionism, but the fashions in science feel that way.

The funny thing is, scientific thought has a checkered history if you judge it by it’s own standards of what’s scientific. How many of the big conceptual breakthroughs come from alchemists, drug-trippers, and people who prayed to gods or sought mediums? You might be surprised. How many looming figures admit in private discourse their fundamental bafflement with reality, and belief that something like mind, or spirit, or consciousness must be at work in ways that don’t fit the models?

There’s a kind of arrogant front put forward by the PR arm of intelligentsia. If a public company presented it’s business condition in such a way it would be considered fraudulent. The nice, tight, all-but-the-details presentation is not only boring and wrong, it runs counter to the zeitgeist.

The current trend is for openness and transparency. So much so that satirical labels like “Struggle porn” have popped up. Today, people want an unfiltered, rambling, three-hour drinking session on the Joe Rogan podcast instead of a well-written statement at a press conference. People want Medium articles about what it’s really like to run a startup, instead of post-IPO retrospectives. Some entrepreneurs have gotten famous by publishing their monthly income statements for all to see.

What about scientists? We’re confidently assured that they know how the world works, and if we wait patiently a few more years for some lab somewhere to tally some numbers no one’s allowed to see, and submit it to some journals no one can access, and let some anonymous referees behind closed doors approve it, it will see the dark of day and get improperly summarized in a news story and used as a bludgeon against anyone openly exploring other ideas.

No wonder mushroom-taking conspiracy YouTubers are more interesting to people!

I see the openness to fringe theories as a good thing. I think the best way to understand the world is to question it. The more fundamental the question, the better. It’s excellent mental exercise precisely because it’s so hard. If an intelligent 10 year old asked you to prove to them the earth was round, could you do it without appeals to authority? It’s shockingly difficult! And that is the kind of difficulty that should be embraced! That kind of question is the gateway to scientific understanding, and possibly breakthrough!

I say bring on the scientistic skepticism. Hopefully it keeps curiosity in the driver’s seat, rather than an obsessive illusion that we have everything neatly labelled and understood.

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100 Reasons to Homeschool Your Kids

This is my 100th article for FEE.org, so here are 100 reasons to homeschool your kids!

  1. Homeschoolers perform well academically.
  2. Your kids may be happier.
  3. Issues like ADHD might disappear or become less problematic.
  4. It doesn’t matter if they fidget.
  5. YOU may be happier! All that time spent on your kids’ homework can now be used more productively for family learning and living.
  6. You can still work and homeschool.
  7. And even grow a successful business while homeschooling your kids.
  8. Your kids can also build successful businesses, as many grown unschoolers become entrepreneurs.
  9. You can be a single parent and homeschool your kids.
  10. Your kids can be little for longer. Early school enrollment has been linked by Harvard researchers with troubling rates of ADHD diagnosis. A year can make a big difference in early childhood development.
  11. Some of us are just late bloomers. We don’t all need to be on “America’s early-blooming conveyor belt.”
  12. Then again, homeschooling can help those kids who might be early bloomers and graduate from college at 16.
  13. Whether early, late, or somewhere in the middle, homeschooling allows all children to move at their own pace.
  14. You can choose from a panoply of curriculum options based on your children’s needs and your family’s educational philosophy.
  15. Or you can focus on unschooling, a self-directed education approach tied to a child’s interests.
  16. Homeschooling gives your kids plenty of time to play! In a culture where childhood free play is disappearing, preserving play is crucial to a child’s health and well-being.
  17. They can have more recess and less homework.
  18. You can take advantage of weekly homeschool park days, field trips, classes, and other gatherings offered through a homeschooling group near you.
  19. Homeschooling co-ops are growing, so you can find support and resources.
  20. Homeschooling learning centers are sprouting worldwide, prioritizing self-directed education and allowing more flexibility to more families who want to homeschool.
  21. Parks, beaches, libraries, and museums are often less crowded during school hours, and many offer programming specifically for homeschoolers.
  22. You’re not alone. Nearly two million US children are homeschooled, and the homeschooling population is increasingly reflective of America’s diversity. In fact, the number of black homeschoolers doubled between 2007 and 2011.
  23. One-quarter of today’s homeschoolers are Hispanic-Americans who want to preserve bilingualism and family culture.
  24. Some families of color are choosing homeschooling to escape what they see as poor academic outcomes in schools, a curriculum that ignores their cultural heritage, institutional racism, and disciplinary approaches that disproportionately target children of color.
  25. More military families are choosing homeschooling to provide stability and consistency through frequent relocations and deployments.
  26. While the majority of homeschoolers are Christians, many Muslim families are choosing to homeschool, as are atheists.
  27. Homeschooling has wide bipartisan appeal.
  28. More urban parents are choosing to homeschool, prioritizing family and individualized learning.
  29. Religious freedom may be important to many homeschooling families, but it is not the primary reason they choose to homeschool. “Concern about the school environment, such as safety, drugs, or negative peer pressure” is the top motivator according to federal data.
  30. Fear of school shootings and widespread bullying are other concerns that are prompting more families to consider the homeschooling option.
  31. Some parents choose homeschooling because they are frustrated by Common Core curriculum frameworks and frequent testing in public schools.
  32. Adolescent anxiety, depression, and suicide decline during the summer, but Vanderbilt University researchers found that suicidal tendencies spike at back-to-school time. (This is a pattern opposite to that of adults, who experience more suicidal thoughts and acts in the summertime.) Homeschooling your kids may reduce these school-induced mental health issues.
  33. It will also prevent schools from surreptitiously collecting and tracking data on your child’s mental health.
  34. Your kids’ summertime can be fully self-directed, as can the rest of their year.
  35. That’s because kids thrive under self-directed education.
  36. Some kids are asking to be homeschooled.
  37. And they may even thank you for it.
  38. Today’s teens aren’t working in part-time or summer jobs like they used to. Homeschooling can offer time for valuable teen work experience.
  39. It can also provide the opportunity to cultivate teen entrepreneurial skills.
  40. Your kids don’t have to wait for adulthood to pursue their passions.
  41. By forming authentic connections with community members, homeschoolers can take advantage of teen apprenticeship programs.
  42. Some apprenticeship programs have a great track record on helping homeschoolers build important career skills and get great jobs.
  43. Self-directed learning centers for teen homeschoolers can provide a launchpad for community college classes and jobs while offering peer connection and adult mentoring.
  44. With homeschooling, you can inspire your kids to love reading.
  45. Maybe that’s because they will actually read books, something one-quarter of Americans reported not doing in 2014.
  46. Your kids might even choose to voluntarily read financial statements or do worksheets.
  47. You can preserve their natural childhood creativity.
  48. Schools kill creativity, as Sir Ken Robinson proclaims in his TED Talk, the most-watched one ever.
  49. Homeschooling might even help your kids use their creativity in remarkable ways, as other well-known homeschoolers have done.
  50. With homeschooling, learning happens all the time, all year round. There are no arbitrary starts and stops.
  51. You can take vacations at any time of the year without needing permission from the principal.
  52. Or you can go world-schooling, spending extended periods of time traveling the world together as a family or letting your teens travel the world without you.
  53. Your kids can have healthier lunches than they would at school.
  54. And you can actually enjoy lunch with them rather than being banned from the school cafeteria.
  55. Your kids don’t have to walk through metal detectors, past armed police officers, and into locked classrooms in order to learn.
  56. You can avoid bathroom wars and let your kids go to the bathroom wherever and whenever they want—without raising their hand to ask for permission.
  57. Research shows that teen homeschoolers get more sleep than their schooled peers.
  58. Technological innovations make self-education through homeschooling not only possible but also preferable.
  59. Free, online learning programs like Khan Academy, Duolingo, Scratch, Prodigy Math, and MIT OpenCourseWare complement learning in an array of topics, while others, like Lynda.com and Mango, may be available for free through your local public library.
  60. Schooling was for the Industrial Age, but unschooling is for the future.
  61. With robots doing more of our work, we need to rely more on our distinctly human qualities, like curiosity and ingenuity, to thrive in the Innovation Era.
  62. Homeschooling could be the “smartest way to teach kids in the 21st century,” according to Business Insider.
  63. Teen homeschoolers can enroll in an online high school program to earn a high school diploma if they choose.
  64. But young people don’t need a high school diploma in order to go to college.
  65. Many teen homeschoolers take community college classes and transfer into four-year universities with significant credits and cost-savings. Research suggests that community college transfers also do better than their non-transfer peers.
  66. Homeschooling may be the new path to Harvard.
  67. Many colleges openly recruit and welcome homeschoolers because they tend to be “innovative thinkers.”
  68. But college doesn’t need to be the only pathway to a meaningful adult life and livelihood. Many lucrative jobs don’t require a college degree, and companies like Google and Apple have dropped their degree requirements.
  69. In fact, more homeschooling families from the tech community in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are choosing to homeschool their kids.
  70. Hybrid homeschooling models are popping up everywhere, allowing more families access to this educational option.
  71. Some of these hybrid homeschool programs are public charter schools that are free to attend and actually give families access to funds for homeschooling.
  72. Other education choice mechanisms, like Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and tax-credit scholarship programs, are expanding to include homeschoolers, offering financial assistance to those families who need and want it.
  73. Some states allow homeschoolers to fully participate in their local school sports teams and extracurricular activities.
  74. Homeschooling may be particularly helpful for children with disabilities, like dyslexia, as the personalized learning model allows for more flexibility and customization.
  75. Homeschooling is growing in popularity worldwide, especially in India, Australia, the United Kingdom, Israel, and even in China, where it’s illegal.
  76. Homeschooling grants children remarkable freedom and autonomy, particularly self-directed approaches like unschooling, but it’s definitely not the Lord of the Flies.
  77. Homeschooling allows for much more authentic, purposeful learning tied to interests and everyday interactions in the community rather than contrived assignments at school.
  78. Throughout the American colonial and revolutionary eras, homeschooling was the norm, educating leaders like George Washington and Abigail Adams.
  79. In fact, many famous people were homeschooled.
  80. And many famous people homeschool their own kids.
  81. Your homeschooled kids will probably be able to name at least one right protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, something 37 percent of adults who participated in a recent University of Pennsylvania survey couldn’t do.
  82. Homeschooling can be preferable to school because it’s a totally different learning environment. As homeschooling pioneer John Holt wrote in Teach Your Own: “What is most important and valuable about the home as a base for children’s growth in the world is not that it is a better school than the schools but that it isn’t a school at all.”
  83. Immersed in their larger community and engaged in genuine, multi-generational activities, homeschoolers tend to be better socialized than their schooled peers. Newer studies suggest the same.
  84. Homeschoolers interact daily with an assortment of people in their community in pursuit of common interests, not in an age-segregated classroom with a handful of teachers.
  85. Research suggests that homeschoolers are more politically tolerant than others.
  86. They can dig deeper into emerging passions, becoming highly proficient.
  87. They also have the freedom to quit.
  88. They can spend abundant time outside and in nature.
  89. Homeschooling can create strong sibling relationships and tight family bonds.
  90. Homeschooling is legal in all 50 US states and has been since 1993, but regulations vary widely by state.
  91. In spite of ongoing efforts to regulate homeschoolers, US homeschooling is becoming less regulated.
  92. That’s because homeschooling parents are powerful defenders of education freedom.
  93. Parents can focus family learning around their own values, not someone else’s.
  94. Homeschooling is one way to get around regressive compulsory schooling laws and put parents back in charge of their child’s education.
  95. It can free children from coercive, test-driven schooling.
  96. It is one education option among many to consider as more parents opt-out of mass schooling.
  97. Homeschooling is the ultimate school choice.
  98. It is inspiring education entrepreneurship to disrupt the schooling status quo.
  99. And it’s encouraging frustrated educators to leave the classroom and launch their own alternatives to school.
  100. Homeschooling is all about having the liberty to learn.

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Late Bloomers and the Benefits of Delayed Success

At a dinner party several years ago, a woman and I chatted about education and parenthood. I had just met her and when I told her about our unschooling approach to education that prioritizes self-directed learning, she was visibly perplexed. “Don’t you worry about outcomes?” she asked. Yes, I replied. I want my children to be highly literate and numerate, to live a meaningful life tied to their interests and talents, and to have a strong sense of personal agency. “Well,” she responded, “for my kids, it might as well be either the Ivy League or jail.” She was only half-kidding.

A Social Obsession with Early Accomplishments

The recent college admissions bribery scandal shows the lengths that some affluent parents will go to make sure their children get into elite colleges. But it’s not just wealthy parents who are worried about their child’s early success and college and career prospects. In his new book, Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement, longtime Forbes publisher, Rich Karlgaard, writes about our societal obsession with early accomplishment and its potentially negative impact on both individuals and communities. He writes:

What I suggest is that parents, schools, employers, the media, and consumers of media are now crazily overcelebrating early achievement as the best kind of achievement or even the only kind. We do so at the cost of shaming the late bloomer and thus shortchanging people and society.

Karlgaard is clear in saying there is nothing inherently wrong with early achievement. Indeed, we are all better off thanks to the inventions of young entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who both dropped out of college years ago to pursue their revolutionary technology companies. The downside is that now we often look to early markers of a narrow definition of success as defining a person’s worth.

How children perform at school, what kind of test scores they get, what college they get into at 18 become sought-after signals of accomplishment. Karlgaard suggests several problems with this outlook, including marginalizing highly-talented young people who may not perform well in conventional schooling and grow up with a sense of being less than their peers. He writes:

When so many people believe they are inferior based on a few narrow measurements made when they were children, society as a whole suffers.

Mounting Pressure During Childhood

More troubling is the mounting pressure on parents and children to begin this trail of achievement in preschool, depriving children of freedom and play in the name of academic rigor and triggering skyrocketing rates of adolescent anxiety, depression, and suicide. Karlgaard writes:

Excessively promoting the primacy of early measurable achievement—grades, test scores, glamour job, money, celebrity—conceals a dark flipside: If we or our kids don’t knock our SATs out of the park, gain admittance to a top-ten university, reinvent an industry, or land our first job at a cool company that’s changing the world, we’ve somehow failed and are destined to be also-rans for the rest of our lives.

Karlgaard explains that this “societal madness for early achievement” can be damaging to many children and young people. They may appear successful on the outside, but on the inside, many are hurting. He writes:

Early bloomers are in the headlines, but are they succeeding as much as the media lead us to believe? In fact, many early bloomers are suffering terribly. The pressure to achieve early success led to three student suicides in the 2014–15 school year at Gunn High School, a public school in Palo Alto, California, three miles from the elite Stanford University campus. All were good students striving for early achievement. By March in the same school year, forty-two Gunn students had been hospitalized or treated for suicidal thoughts.

Fortunately, Late Bloomers offers a dose of sanity for those of us who question the increasingly standardized, test-driven schooling model that can fuel a toxic early achievement culture, while also encouraging all of us that it’s never too late to pursue a passion, build a business, or change the world.

Late Bloomers

A late bloomer himself, Karlgaard had a hunch that there was great value in peaking later in life. His book is an extensively researched work that blends the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology with profiles of inspiring late bloomers to show that the push toward early achievement and career success may be unnecessary at best and harmful at worst.

While research shows that individuals on average have rapid brain functioning and memory skills in their 20s, it’s in their 30s and 40s that strong executive functioning skills, empathy, and level-headedness kick in, and wisdom really emerges after 50. These more mature qualities can be critical in helping late bloomers to launch new, successful endeavors and enterprises.

A primary characteristic of late bloomers is curiosity which, Karlgaard argues, is abundant in young children and is steadily eroded through what he calls “America’s early-blooming conveyor belt.” Late bloomers seem to hold on to their curiosity despite societal efforts to weaken it. They are seekers and explorers who aren’t afraid to experiment.

Quitting Your Way to Success

They also aren’t afraid to quit. Late bloomers tend to reject the myth that “winners never quit and quitters never win,” recognizing the opportunity lost when we spend our time in a job or activity that isn’t serving us well and that may distract us from pursuing our true talents. Karlgaard explains the importance of quitting to success:

As part of our obsession with early achievement, we’ve turned quitting into a pejorative, an insult that cuts straight to our sense of self-worth. And that’s not just unfair, it’s destructive. In a drive to suppress individuality and reinforce cultural norms, society has turned one of the most effective tools for self-discovery into a proverbial four-letter word.

Ultimately, Karlgaard’s Late Bloomers book is a refreshing reminder that it’s okay to slow down and move through life at our own pace, following our own pathway. Don’t let the societal conveyor belt of preschool-to-college-to-career achievement drown out your talents or derail your potential. Know that it’s never too late to begin or to peak, and that there is often great value that comes with time. Karlgaard concludes:

If we’re not forced to conform to standard timetables for success, we can—and will—bloom on our own schedules. And we can do it with a deeper sense of mission and a greater feeling of contentment.

This is sage advice, both for us to take and to give to our children.

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The ADHD Overdiagnosis Epidemic Is a Schooling Problem, Not a Child One

Childhood exuberance is now a liability. Behaviors that were once accepted as normal, even if mildly irritating to adults, are increasingly viewed as unacceptable and cause for medical intervention. High energy, lack of impulse control, inability to sit still and listen, lack of organizational skills, fidgeting, talking incessantly—these typical childhood qualities were widely tolerated until relatively recently. Today, children with these characteristics are being diagnosed with, and often medicated for, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) at an astonishing rate.

Early Schooling Contributes to Increased Diagnoses

While ADHD may be a real and debilitating ailment for some, the startling upsurge in school-age children being labeled with and medicated for this disorder suggests that something else could be to blame. More research points to schooling, particularly early schooling, as a primary culprit in the ADHD diagnosis epidemic.

Over the last several decades, young people are spending more time in school and school-like activities than ever before. They are playing less and expected to do more at very young ages. When many of us were kids, kindergarten was mellow, playful, and short with few academic expectations. The youngest children are the ones most often caught in the ADHD medical dragnet.Now, 80 percent of teachers expect children to learn to read in kindergarten. It’s not the teachers’ fault. They are responding to national curriculum frameworks and standardized testing requirements that over the past two decades have made schooling more oppressive—particularly for young children.

The youngest children are the ones most often caught in the ADHD medical dragnet. Last fall, Harvard researchers found that early school enrollment was linked to significantly higher rates of ADHD diagnosis. In states with a September 1 school enrollment age cutoff, children who entered school after just turning five in August were 30 percent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than children born in September who were about to turn six. Immaturity, not pathology, was the real factor.

The ADHD Fallacy

Marilyn Wedge, author of A Disease Called Childhood: Why ADHD Became An American Epidemic, sounds the alarm on ADHD overdiagnosis. In a Time Magazine article called “The ADHD Fallacy,” she writes:

By nature, young children have a lot of energy. They are impulsive, physically active, have trouble sitting still, and don’t pay attention for very long. Their natural curiosity leads them to blurt out questions, oblivious in their excitement to interrupting others. Yet we expect five- and six-year-old children to sit still and pay attention in classrooms and contain their curiosity. If they don’t, we are quick to diagnose them with ADHD.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percent of very young children (ages two to five) who were diagnosed with ADHD increased by over 50 percent between 2007/2008 and 2011/2012. As of 2016, data show that 9.4 percent of all American children, or over six million kids, had been diagnosed with ADHD, and almost two-thirds of current ADHD-diagnosed children were taking medication for it. A March 2019 report on ADHD by Blue Cross and Blue Shield found that among commercially insured children of all ages, ADHD diagnosis rates increased 30 percent in just eight years.

While the symptoms of ADHD may be troublesome, looking first at the environment, rather than the child, may be an important step toward curbing the ADHD diagnosis epidemic. In his book, ADHD Does Not Exist, Dr. Richard Saul, a Chicago behavioral neurologist, explains that individuals diagnosed with ADHD either have external factors that exacerbate normal symptoms or have some other underlying condition that should be identified and treated. In the latter instance, he finds that once the underlying condition is discovered and treated, the ADHD symptoms usually disappear. In the former instance, changing the environment is a key step toward improvement. This is true for both children and adults with an ADHD diagnosis. Dr. Saul writes:

Like many children who act out because they are not challenged enough in the classroom, adults whose jobs or class work are not personally fulfilling or who don’t engage in a meaningful hobby will understandably become bored, depressed and distracted. In addition, today’s rising standards are pressuring children and adults to perform better and longer at school and at work.

An Environmental Mismatch

Addressing an environmental mismatch for ADHD-diagnosed adults could mean switching one’s job or field of study or pursuing a true passion. Maybe you’re an accountant who wants to be a carpenter or a nurse who wants to be an entrepreneur. For ADHD children, changing the environment could mean removing children from restrictive schooling altogether. As Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray writes:

What does it mean to have ADHD? Basically, it means failure to adapt to the conditions of standard schooling. Most diagnoses of ADHD originate with teachers’ observations.

Jennifer Walenski saw firsthand how transformative removing her ADHD-diagnosed child from standard schooling could be. She shares her family’s journey at The Bus Story and told me:

Our kids were actually in public school originally. Our son also was diagnosed with both ADHD and autism while he was in the school system. And they wanted to medicate him. But we said no. Then we took him and his sister out of school and began homeschooling them. Fast forward several years, he has absolutely no need at all for medication. He is just a normal boy who did not belong in that kind of environment. And most of us don’t. Think about it.

Walenski’s experience echoes that of other parents who removed their ADHD-diagnosed children from standard schooling. In an informal survey analysis, Gray discovered that when ADHD-labeled children left school for homeschooling, most of them no longer needed medication for ADHD symptoms. Their ADHD characteristics often remained but were no longer problematic outside of the conventional classroom.

Self-Directed Learning

Gray’s analysis also revealed that the ADHD-labeled young people who fared best outside of standard schooling were those who were able to learn in a more self-directed way. He found that the

few kids in this sample who were still on ADHD medications during homeschooling seemed to be primarily those whose homeschooling was structured by the parent and modeled after the education one would receive in a conventional school.

Replicating school-at-home can also replicate the problematic behaviors found at school, whereas moving toward unschooling, or self-directed education, can give young people the freedom to flourish.

Ending the ADHD overdiagnosis epidemic depends on a societal reality check where we no longer pathologize normal childhood behaviors. Much ADHD-labeling originates from forced schooling environments with learning and behavioral expectations that are developmentally inappropriate for many children. Freeing young people from restrictive schooling and allowing them to learn and grow through their own self-directed curiosity can lead to happier and healthier families and children.

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