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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Lawmakers Want to Give Voting Rights to Teens They Treat Like Toddlers

Newly-elected US Rep. Ayanna Pressley caused a stir this month when she filed an amendment to lower the legal federal voting age from 18 to 16. While Pressley’s amendment failed to pass, the action brought attention to the place of teenagers in society. Regardless of how we may feel about the role of the voter, many of us would argue that teenagers should have more autonomy and agency and be more active, productive members of their communities. The irony, however, is that at the same time legislators seek to empower teens by expanding voting rights, they are increasingly infantilizing them in other pernicious ways.

Confining Teens through Compulsory Schooling

For instance, the call to lower the voting age comes at a time when more states are tightening compulsory schooling statutes, requiring teenagers to stay in school longer under a legal threat of force. As of 2017, 24 states plus the District of Columbia had raised the minimum age at which a young person can legally leave school to 18. Lawmakers in Oregon announced legislation last month to lower the voting age to 16, but the state also raised its compulsory schooling age to 18. Sixteen-year-olds may get permission to vote, but in school, they still need permission to use the bathroom.

The alleged goal of expanding compulsory schooling laws is to lower drop-out rates and improve academic and social outcomes, yet research shows no clear benefit in raising the compulsory school attendance age. In Pressley’s home state of Massachusetts, a Boston city councilor recently proposed offering an optional 13th year of public schooling, prolonging the state stewardship of teens.

More time in compulsory school settings means less time adolescents spend working or otherwise constructively engaged with their larger communities. In fact, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported a sharp decline in teenage labor force participation from a high of 57.9 percent in 1979 to just 34.1 percent in 2011. Much of this decline is due to the increased emphasis on time in school and academic performance while devaluing the critical life skills, mentoring, and real-life problem-solving that teens can experience through work and community involvement. Even summer jobs have been by replaced by school. According to the BLS, 42 percent of teens were enrolled in school in July 2016 compared to only 10 percent in July 1985.

Psychologist Robert Epstein points out how our society harms adolescents by stripping them of responsibility and authentic immersion into adult life. In his book, Teen 2.0, he writes that “high school is little more than a prison for many of our teens, and the time has come to explore bold new approaches to education that will allow our young to reconnect meaningfully with the adult world they are about to enter.” Dr. Epstein argues that the “artificial extension of childhood” past puberty is why so many US teenagers today are in turmoil.

The Power of Self-Education

The concept of adolescent empowerment and greater participation in the larger community is not new. For decades, social reformers have been advocating for more freedom and responsibility for teenagers. Paul Goodman brought these ideas to the forefront in his books, Growing Up Absurd (1960) and Compulsory Mis-education (1964). Goodman influenced John Holt, who took the ideas a step further. In his 1974 book Escape from Childhood, Holt promotes extending children’s rights, including allowing children the right to vote, as well as to direct their own education. The self-directed learning principle is critical for Holt. He writes in Escape from Childhood:

“A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us.”

Holt went on to coin the term “unschooling” in 1977 as part of the nascent homeschooling movement, urging parents to remove their children from institutional schooling in favor of non-coercive, self-directed learning. Today, unschooling continues to gain popularity, particularly as more self-directed learning spaces provide alternatives to school for children and adolescents.

Lowering the voting age is a reasonable proposition. Indeed, it’s something worth considering as a mechanism for inviting adolescents into the larger discourse of our society. But lowering the voting age while forcing these same teens to spend additional years in mandatory schooling environments, cut-off from authentic, inter-generational community interactions, is nothing more than a political ploy.

Teenagers are capable of being valuable contributors to civil society. They should be granted greater freedom and responsibility. Lowering the voting age while trapping them in compulsory schooling gives teenagers neither freedom nor responsibility.

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EVC Podcast Network & The Voluntaryist Premise (19m) – Episode 274

Episode 274 has Skyler giving his commentary on the following topics: the launch of the Everything-Voluntary.com podcast network; his forthcoming podcasts on logic, stoicism, personal belief, and unschooling; an article he wrote in August 2018 explaining the premises and hypotheses of voluntaryism; and more.

Listen to Episode 274 (19m, mp3, 64kbps)

Subscribe via RSS here, or in any podcast app by searching for “everything voluntary”. Support the podcast at Patreon.com/evc.

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Unschooling: Reclaiming the Term

John Holt, the well-known author and homeschooling pioneer, coined the term “unschooling” in November 1977 in the second issue of his fledgling newsletter for homeschoolers, Growing Without Schooling (GWS).

In this issue, Holt writes:

GWS will say ‘unschooling’ when we mean taking children out of school, and ‘deschooling’ when we mean changing the laws to make schools non-compulsory and to take away from them their power to grade, rank, and label people i.e. to make lasting, official, public judgments about them.”

It’s fascinating to consider how these terms have evolved since Holt’s definitions emerged. While initially meant to describe removing children from school, unschooling today is often more narrowly defined as a specific homeschooling approach that is self-directed rather than curriculum-driven. The term deschooling has also evolved from Holt’s initial definition advocating for eliminating compulsory schooling laws that was largely influenced by his interactions with Ivan Illich, the author of the 1970 book, Deschooling Society.

Today, “deschooling” is often thought of as the period of time it takes a child who has been schooled to overcome a schooled mindset and reignite her natural learning instincts. As most of us adults were also schooled, the modern use of the “deschooling” term applies to us as well, as we try to shed the idea that one needs to be schooled in order to learn.

Language changes, and it is no wonder that as the homeschooling population has soared over the last four decades its terms would also be stretched and shaped. This is a sign of success. Holt never imagined that more than two percent of the U.S. school-age population would be homeschooled; today, the percent is nearly double that.

I appreciate what the term “unschooling” now means for many families, particularly for the homeschooling families who navigate the many educational philosophies and approaches available to them in search of the best fit. I also think it is worthwhile to reclaim the term’s origins and dig deeper into Holt’s initial message–not because we should change how we currently use the language of unschooling, but so that we can expand it.

In the first pages of Holt’s inaugural issue of GWS, he writes about his disinterest in alternative schools except to the degree that they allow more families to take or keep their children out of conventional schools. Holt writes:

GWS will not be much concerned with schools, even alternative or free schools, except as they may enable people to keep their children out of school by 1) calling their own home a school, or 2) enrolling their children, as some have already, in schools near or far which then approve a home study program.”

In other words, Holt wasn’t supporting alternative schools but alternatives to school that would enable more parents to remove children from conventional schooling for unschooling–often using homeschooling as a legal designation where necessary. At the time, before homeschooling was fully legally recognized in all U.S. states by 1993, these alternatives may have been the only option for some families. I would argue that today, for many families, these alternatives to school are also the only option they have for abandoning forced schooling for unschooling. While there are plenty of single parents and two working parents who make family-centered unschooling work beautifully, for many parents this is not possible.

There are also many families who are deeply committed to unschooling but find as their children grow that their kids crave new and different opportunities, often surrounded by a gaggle of other kids. Some of these children end up going to school after years of homeschooling. With more alternatives to school, Holt’s vision of enabling “people to keep their children out of school” would be more widely successful.

By reclaiming Holt’s initial definition of the word “unschooling” to mean “taking children out of school,” and appreciating his tolerance for alternatives to school that make unschooling more possible for more families, we can help to make unschooling a more expansive, comprehensive term. We can affirm the homeschooling families who allow their children to learn at home and throughout their community in a self-directed way, while also embracing alternatives to school that empower parents to take charge of their child’s education and remove them from forced schooling.

And while homeschooling is now legal in the U.S., (but sadly not elsewhere) thanks to the efforts of Holt and others, compulsory schooling laws continue to define education as schooling and trap young people in coercive schooling environments for most of their childhood. I wrote recently about the Four Things That Would Happen If We Eliminate Compulsory Schooling Laws, including a disentangling of education from schooling.

So while the modern use of the term “deschooling” is helpful and important in allowing children (and ourselves!) ample time and space for detaching from a schooled mindset of learning, we would be wise to also expand its definition to include Holt’s vision for challenging compulsory schooling laws as a whole. In fact, in his 1981 book, Teach Your Own, Holt writes:

“At first I did not question the compulsory nature of schooling. But by 1968 or so I had come to feel strongly that the kinds of changes I wanted to see in schools, above all in the ways teachers related to students, could not happen as long as schools were compulsory.”

However we use the terms “unschooling” and “deschooling” the goal is clear: Help more parents to remove their children from coercive schools and create a world in which education is separate and distinct from schooling.

Originally published at Whole Family Learning.

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My Personal Views on Abortion

January 2019: I read this essay and added commentary for Editor’s Break 129 of the EVC podcast.

As a man, am I allowed to have a “personal view” on abortion? I think so. I have many women in my life, including a wife and two daughters. Any unexpected or unwanted pregnancy of these women will affect me to some degree. My daughters are probably at the top of that list. When asked, and I would be asked as their father whom they love deeply, I will be a source of counsel and comfort on any decisions regarding this controversial practice.

My wife would be next on that list, and as a matter of fact, the question of abortion has come up. In 2007 she had an ectopic pregnancy. We were told these were not uncommon. An ectopic pregnancy occurs when the fertilized egg attaches inside the fallopian tube on its way to the uterus. Fallopian tubes are not meant to be used as wombs, and so the baby would not have grown much at all before causing my wife even more pain than it was, and ultimately perishing. A chemical abortion was her only real option.

My personal preference is that no woman ever has the need or desire to have an abortion. I prefer that all would-be moms and dads treat the procreative power that nature has granted them with the utmost care. Be sure not to have an unwanted pregnancy, and you’ll never have cause for an abortion. Let’s say the unthinkable happens anyway, then what? I prefer that all expectant moms desire to keep and raise their babies, and to do so consistent with the principles of attachment/peaceful parenting and radical unschooling. For this reason, I am pro-life.

These are my preferences. If a woman in my life asked for my advice, this is what I would tell her. But also, I would throw my support behind her and be there for her. If this woman was one of my daughters or my son’s partner, they would hold no doubts that as their father I would do everything in my power to help them raise their baby. If the dad is out of the picture, then I feel it is my solemn responsibility to be the dad that every baby needs. I’m already prepared and willing to keep my children with us as they grow up, get married, and make families of their own. I strongly desire to build a multi-generational and extended family household, the sort which I feel is best able to meet the needs of everyone.

Beyond my preference and willingness to support any given woman who faces this question, I don’t feel I have any ground to stand on when it comes to this decision by women. If I’m not willing to throw my support behind a person to keep their baby, then their choice is none of my business. I prefer they make the choice to keep and raise their baby as already described, but I respect that they must do what they feel is necessary for them to do. I am not interested in any action beyond that.

I do not believe that it would be right for me to coerce a woman into making the choice that I prefer. For this reason, I am pro-choice. And as it would not be right for me to coerce a woman away from abortion, I should not expect others, such as those who call themselves “government“, to do it for me. This is one issue where every individual, family, community, and society must decide for themselves, without coercion, how they will act and react to this practice. Personally, I will not shame or push away any woman that makes the choice contrary to my preference. I can’t possibly understand why they did what they did, nor do I need to. If a woman is important to me, their personal choice here will not change that. And if they aren’t, I know how to keep my mouth shut.

I feel I’ve been clear sharing my personal views on abortion. I don’t want anybody to mistaken my position for something that it’s not. My preference is pro-life, but my actions are pro-choice. My daughters will not have to struggle with the question of support or shame if they find themselves in a situation which forces them to make this choice. And I hope all other daughters won’t either.

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Compulsory Schooling Laws: What if We Didn’t Have Them?

We should always be leery of laws passed “for our own good,” as if the state knows better. The history of compulsory schooling statutes is rife with paternalism, triggered by anti-immigrant sentiments in the mid-nineteenth century and fueled by a desire to shape people into a standard mold.

History books detailing the “common school movement” and the push for universal, compulsory schooling perpetuate the myths that Americans were illiterate prior to mass schooling, that there were limited education options available, and that mandating school attendance under a legal threat of force was the surest way toward equality.

In truth, literacy rates were quite high, particularly in Massachusetts, where the first compulsory schooling statute was passed in 1852. Historians Boles and Gintis report that approximately three-quarters of the total U.S. population, including slaves, was literate¹. There was a panoply of education options prior to mass compulsory schooling, including an array of public and private schooling options, charity schools for the poor, robust apprenticeship models, and homeschooling—this latter approach being the preferred method of Massachusetts education reformer Horace Mann, who homeschooled his own three children while mandating common school attendance for others.

The primary catalyst for compulsory schooling was a wave of massive immigration in the early to mid-1800s that made lawmakers fearful. Many of these immigrants were Irish Catholics escaping the deadly potato famine, and they threatened the predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestant social order of the time. In 1851, the editor of The Massachusetts Teacher, William Swan, wrote:

“In too many instances the parents are unfit guardians of their own children. If left to their direction the young will be brought up in idle, dissolute, vagrant habits, which will make them worse members of society than their parents are; instead of filling our public schools, they will find their way into our prisons, houses of correction and almshouses. Nothing can operate effectually here but stringent legislation, thoroughly carried out by an efficient police; the children must be gathered up and forced into school, and those who resist or impede this plan, whether parents or priests, must be held accountable and punished.”

This is the true history of compulsory schooling that rarely emerges behind the veil of social magnanimity.

So what would happen if these inherently flawed compulsory schooling laws were eliminated?

A Power Shift

First, power would tilt away from the state and toward the family. Without legal force compelling school attendance, parents would have the freedom and flexibility to assume full responsibility for their child’s education. They would not need government permission to homeschool, as is currently required in the majority of U.S. states. Private schools would not need to submit their attendance records to the state to show compliance. Public schools could still be available to those who wanted them, as they were prior to the 1852 law; but government schooling would no longer be the default education option.

More Choices

Because the state would no longer need to bless the creation of various private schools and ratify their curriculum and attendance protocols, an assortment of education options would emerge. Entrepreneurial educators would seize the opportunity to create new and varied products and services, and parents would be the ones responsible for determining quality and effectiveness—not the state. With less government red tape, current trends in education would gain more momentum. Virtual schooling, part-time school options, hybrid homeschooling models, and an array of private schools with diverse education approaches would emerge. As more education choices sprouted, competition would lower prices, making access to these new choices more widespread.

More Pathways to Adulthood

Without the state mandating school attendance for most of childhood, in some states up to age 18, there would be new pathways to adulthood that wouldn’t rely so heavily on state-issued high school diplomas. Innovative apprenticeship models would be created, community colleges would cater more toward independent teenage learners, and career preparation programs would expand. As the social reformer Paul Goodman wrote in his book New Reformation: “Our aim should be to multiply the paths of growing up, instead of narrowing the one existing school path.”

A Broader Definition of Education

In his biography of Horace Mann, historian Jonathan Messerli explains how compulsory schooling contracted a once expansive definition of education into the singular definition of schooling. Indeed, today education is almost universally associated with schooling. Messerli writes: “That in enlarging the European concept of schooling, [Mann] might narrow the real parameters of education by enclosing it within the four walls of the public school classroom.”² Eliminating compulsory schooling laws would break the century-and-a-half stranglehold of schooling on education. It would help to disentangle education from schooling and reveal many other ways to be educated, such as through non-coercive, self-directed education, or “unschooling.”

Even the most adamant education reformers often stop short of advocating for abolishing compulsory schooling statutes, arguing that it wouldn’t make much difference. But stripping the state of its power to define, control, and monitor something as beautifully broad as education would have a large and lasting impact on re-empowering families, encouraging educational entrepreneurs, and creating more choice and opportunity for all learners.


¹ Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, “The origins of mass public education,” History of Education: Major Themes, Volume II: Education in its Social Context, ed. Roy Lowe (London: Routledge Falmer, 2000), 78.

² Jonathan Messerli, Horace Mann: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), 429.

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