The numbers of pupils needing EHCPs and support plans are increasing in schools, and the numbers of children and young people struggling to attend school due to unmet needs are also escalating. This correlates to the rise in the number of neurodivergent children (those diagnosed as autistic, adhd, dyslexic or any other neurodivergence). As teachers we need to think about what we can practically do in school to support neurodivergent children and enable them to access an education that meets their needs and allows them to thrive.
Firstly, it is important for all teachers to recognise that neurodivergent children are 83% more likely to have at least one neurodivergent parent (Sandin, 2017). This fact is significant as it has deep implications when communicating and working with families. A difference in neurotype means a difference in processing, responding, and communicating with the neuro-majority/neurotypical person. This creates a double empathy problem as highlighted by Damian Milton (2012), it means that effective communication between teachers who may be neurotypical and parents who may be neurodivergent (or the other way round!), could be more complex and difficult for both parties. However, it is essential there is an effective partnership between school and home for children and young people’s needs to be met and for them to succeed. Listed below are some ideas for teachers to consider when working with all parents and specifically to bear in mind when working with neurodivergent parents and carers.
Supporting Parents / Carers
Listen and validate parents’ thoughts and opinions - they know their child best.
Ask what works well at home for the child or young person, and consider if similar strategies could be adapted or integrated into the school environment. If not, work together with the young person and see what could work instead.
Ask all parents/carers how they prefer to communicate (not just the ones you know are neurodivergent or have a difference of needs - disabilities can be hidden).
Be flexible and offer email communication or online meetings instead of in person – ask what works best for them.
It may be beneficial to give an agenda to parents before any meetings so they can prepare and have a chance to think about what they want to share with you.
Provide a written summary of points after a meeting to clarify the meeting and to ensure everyone is on the same page.
Ask how the parents are doing, do they need more support themselves? It can be challenging for a family whose children are struggling in school (there is additional signposting for parent support on my website). If parents are struggling with mental health issues or their own trauma and disabilities this is likely to have an impact on the children too.
It is important to remember parents need support, not blame. No one wants to be in a situation where their child is struggling in school. It is a sign of unmet needs and everyone needs to work together to support each other.
If the relationship between school staff and the family is not balanced with mutual respect and understanding then it will not help anyone, everyone must work together.
'They seem fine in class’
It is estimated that around 1 in 10 people across the UK are neurodivergent, meaning that ‘the brain functions, learns and processes information differently' (Embracing Complexity Coalition, 2019, cited in DFE 2021). All children are unique and have a range of needs, but the needs of neurodivergent children are often misunderstood for a variety of reasons. There is often a disparity between children's presentation at school and at home, and when parents inform teachers of the struggles their children are having at home, teachers may maintain, 'they seem fine in school'.
As a teacher it is hard to address a problem if you don't see it in class. However many autistic children mask in school (to a large extent subconsciously, so they fit in). This can result in a build-up of emotions throughout the school day, and can lead to after school sensory and social meltdowns and shutdowns when they return to their safe home environment.
It is important that teachers listen to parents and understand that if there is a significant difference between how a child is presenting at home and school, then something somewhere is causing the child distress. This is a red flag and a warning sign, it is a sign of dysregulation and unmet needs.
Unless action is taken, and things change to meet needs, it could lead to escalating difficulties and potential mental health problems.
Embracing neurodiversity means embracing everyone's needs and valuing everyone, regardless of any difference they may have. Embracing a neurodivergent friendly school culture means the needs of all students will be met and differences valued. It does not mean putting the needs of neurodivergent pupils above everyone else's needs. Neurotypical pupils will not miss out or be hindered. Rather, a neurodivergent friendly school is inclusive and benefits everyone. It is about embracing difference rather than seeing differences as deficits and problems (for more information look up the Neurodiversity Paradigm and medical vs social model of disability).
What could a neurodivergent friendly classroom look like?
A neurodivergent friendly classroom meets the needs of all children and does not see the needs of autistic, adhd, dyslexic pupils, or any other neurodivergence a pupil may have, as a problem to be fixed. To be neurodivergent friendly may involve a change of perspective and a flip of narrative, it may take time for this to be implemented in every class in every school. However, as an individual teacher you can begin to make a change in your own class today. This change could significantly support one pupil to have better access to an education, a better school experience and improved mental health, and that is valuable and a fantastic starting point. Much of the provision within neurodivergent pupils’ support plans or EHCPs could be integrated into a neurodiversity affirming, neurodivergent friendly whole school approach and would benefit everyone. This would then leave more scope for teachers to focus time and resources on those students with other specific learning needs. It does not cost more money to make your classroom or school neurodivergent friendly, it takes an open mind, some creative thinking and a bit of research to find out what works best for your own pupils. I have listed some general ideas below to consider when thinking about making your school or class neurodivergent friendly, however it is important to remember that just as every child is unique, every classroom and school is also unique.
Ideas for a Neurodivergent Friendly School:
Ensure establishing positive relationships with students is a priority, right from the time of transition into that setting or classroom. Learning will be more effective if there is a meaningful connection and mutual understanding and respect between staff and pupils as a secure foundation stone to build on.
Work collaboratively with parents/carers, pupils and any other multi agency professionals and school staff. There should be no hierarchy of knowledge or authority, everyone's opinions are valid.
Consider the double empathy problem when working with neurodivergent students and families (and also staff!).
Adopt a total communication approach across the school so everyone benefits from a range of strategies. As an example, those that need visual timetables should not be singled out for using pictures to support their learning, everyone can benefit from visuals.
Offer a range of seating options - standing desks, wobble cushions, mats for anyone to use as and when they need them. The aim is for pupils to learn in the most effective way possible.
Promote a relaxed uniform policy. Have an option for comfortable clothes such as hoodies or sweatshirts rather than a policy to only wear a shirt and tie. This could make an enormous difference for many children every day - you can't focus on learning if your body is not comfortable or you are in sensory pain.
Consider flexible assessment procedures and think about the specific needs of your children. Are you assessing writing skills or subject knowledge? Could children present their understanding in different ways that suit their specific needs (e.g. orally, computer, 1:1, small group).
Have some flexibility within the timetable for children to regulate and have a sensory break out of class if needed. This should be allowed without children having to justify why they need time out, and without adding extra pressure of then being expected to ‘catch up’ or do extra homework. Expecting pupils to do extra homework can cause more anxiety and defeat the purpose of the sensory break.
Consider break times. It may be that busy noisy playgrounds or school dinner halls are not an effective 'break' for those with heightened sensory systems and social anxiety. Think about what other spaces you can provide for your pupils to regulate between lessons and at lunchtime.
There are many ways to make schools and classrooms neurodiversity affirming and neurodivergent friendly. Teachers need to be flexible in their approach, as everyone’s sensory, communication and mental health needs fluctuate through the day. We must go with the flow and work with our pupils in the moment, be understanding, responsive and kind. We need to model the way forward to a neurodiversity affirming and accepting future. A neurodivergent friendly classroom is a successful classroom that benefits everyone. A neurodivergent friendly classroom is inclusive and embraces difference, connections, relationships, and the unique potential of every student. Have a think about what you could change to make a difference in your classroom.
**Article written from my lived experience as a parent and teacher.
Knowledge gained through various personal research and neurodivergent communities.
Autistic Realms is a space for parent support and teacher guidance.
I am not a medical professional or therapist**
What is Ableism? - Twinkl The Nurture Approach - Making Inclusion Work In Your Classroom (twinkl.co.uk) Resources My One-Page Profile Template - Primary Resources - Twinkl We Are All Different PowerPoint - All About Me Story Books EYFS (twinkl.co.uk) Sensory Breaks for the Classroom - Primary Resources (twinkl.co.uk)