Help for Homeschooling the Intense Child

Are you homeschooling a difficult or intense child?

Maybe you have a child with ADHD or another neurodivergence, a child adopted from-a-hard-place, or a kiddo who is resistant to learning math. One of the things that helped us immensely with our child from-a-hard-place is a program called The Nurtured Heart Approach. The overarching idea is to for parents to choose not to give big responses to negativity, but rather save our high energy for when things are going well.

Sometimes homeschooling makes it harder to notice what our kids are doing well. Spending 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with each other also makes it easier to take each other for granted. With so much of the responsibility for growing a decent human being on the shoulders of the parents, we often notice what is wrong and resort to prodding and cajoling to fix the broken – rather than noticing what our children are doing well.

And, let’s face it, it is human nature to notice what is going wrong in any given moment rather than what is going well. Before continuing to read, ask yourself what you see in this graphic:

Did you say you saw a teal dot? You wouldn’t be wrong.

But what else do you see? In truth, there is a whole lot of white going on, isn’t there? Much more white than teal.

This is how it is with our kids. There is often so much going well that we miss because we aren’t attuned to it. Even a child with a lot of behavioral or medical issues isn’t being difficult every minute of every day. For real – most of them at least sleep a few hours of the day! Even with lots of teal dots in his or her behavior, you can still find some white space if you look for it.

Today in your homeschool, try looking for some of that white space – whatever is going right. When you find something, say what you’ve noticed out loud for the kids to hear.

Here are a few specific ways to this:

  1. Think of yourself like a lawyer who is putting your child on trial for doing something well today. Your job is to prove – to yourself and to your child – with clear evidence that he or she is being successful in one way or another. Using one of those phrases from 101 Ways to Praise a Child just doesn’t seem to work with intense children. Howard Glasser, founder of the Nurtured Heart Approach, explains why in his book Transforming the Intense Child Workbook:

“…a certain kind of praise is, at best, unhelpful, and at worst, toxic: generic praise that has no connection to the lived experience of the child being praised. A child who hears “You’re awesome!” or “Good job!” or “You’re great!” without any context (How am I awesome? In what way did I do a good job? How do you know I’m great?) might feel a momentary thrill, but ultimately, such praises don’t build inner wealth – especially on a day when the child is feeling the opposite of awesome, good, or great…Although the average child might feel somewhat seen and acknowledged by non-specific praise, it feels hollow and dishonest to the intense child. That intense child’s portfolio is too full of experiences of being seen and connected with most passionately around her wrongdoings. She needs detailed evidence about her greatness in order to shift the leanings of that portfolio.” 

Transforming the Intense Child Workbook, by Howard Glasser

Kids who are used to disappointing parents or being in trouble much of the time just won’t buy it when you throw a lot of toxic positivity their way. They know better. They might be difficult, but they aren’t clueless. You’ll want to lead them into an evidential moment, where what they are doing right at that moment is irrefutably obvious

“You gave the last piece of gum to your sister without being asked. That shows me you are generous.” 

“You came to dinner when I called. This shows me you are respectful.”

“I need to accuse you of putting your cereal bowl into the dishwasher. This proves you are responsible.”

2. Another idea is to look for what is NOT happening at the moment that would be really annoying if it were happening. What could be going wrong but isn’t? Johnny could be complaining about math right now, but he isn’t. Jill could be rolling her eyes or pestering her big brother, but she is not. Notice those things. It sounds like a bad idea to say out loud what could be going wrong. No one wants to “jinx” a moment of peace! But noticing what is not going wrong and how great it is that things aren’t going awry *at this moment* doubles your playing field in giving you options of what to observe and be excited about.

Looking for what is NOT going wrong also removes the question of whether our child can be respectful, or whether they can be responsible. They ARE being respectful (even if it is just this instant you catch them doing so!). They ARE being responsible (even if it’s just one math problem they did without complaining!). Often our more intense children need to know that achieving these feats are in the realm of possiblity for them. 

“Johnny, you did Problem #3 on the math worksheet without sighing or complaining. You could have complained, and you did not. You are responsible!”

“Jill, it has been a full 30 minutes since you have teased your brother. You could have been teasing him all morning, but you haven’t been. This shows me how self-controlled you are, and that you are respectful.”

3. Recognize when your child came close to breaking a rule and did not. We often want our children to steer so clear of rule-breaking that they never come near to the limit line. But have you ever noticed that often BIG points are scored in sports even when the player is really close to the line? The tennis champion who was a quarter inch from going “out” still hit the ball inside and won. In sports, we get points for NOT breaking the rule, even if we are really close to breaking the rule. When we start to recognize our kids’ successes, even when the win was a narrow one, they strive to be more successful.

“Jenny! You were so tempted to yell at your sister but you didn’t! How respectful, kind, and thoughtful of you!”

“I noticed from your facial expressions that considered ‘talking back’ to me just now. I know what enormous amount of self-restraint you used to keep yourself from doing so. You are self-controlled and respectful.”

“Dad told you not to touch the TV remote again. You walked right up to it and almost touched it – but you held yourself back! This shows me how you are obedient and respectful.”

Each of these ideas are just suggestions to help you get started noticing what positive traits your child has. Children are born with a radar for authenticity, so saying these types of things to your kids only works when you truly mean them. Making sure you are being authentic and genuine when you notice what is going well will go a long way toward helping these words land well with your child. 

Keep in mind that you’re not flattering the child to get the behavior you want from them. Instead, you are truly looking around and trying to FIND what the kiddo is already doing that you enjoy. When you notice what is going right, you simply mention that aloud. Here’s the big secret: When you begin to notice what is going well, YOU CHANGE! You become more content when you begin to see what goodness surrounds you. And, as a matter of course, the children begin to work harder and do better because they enjoy celebrating with you. 

For more ideas on ways to recognize what is going well, please check out the Nurtured Heart Approach. I highly recommend the Nurtured Heart Approach for helping parents learn how to notice what is going “right” in the midst of the most difficult of situations, and learning how to express what we notice in a way that our kids hear and internalize what we say.