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Supporting neurodivergent students who are struggling to attend school

Updated: Oct 28, 2023

Data shows that the number of pupils with identified SEND needs are rising. There is an increase in the number of pupils diagnosed as being neurodivergent e.g. Autistic, ADHD, Dyslexic, PDA or with sensory processing difficulties. We are also in the midst of a huge education attendance crisis demonstrated by the rising numbers of students currently not able to attend school. 12.1% of enrolments missed 10% or more possible sessions in the 2020/21 academic year (DFE data accessed March 2023). In a report by Clifford Chance for the School report 2021 ( it was reported;

  • There are over 160,000 autistic pupils in schools across England. (This figure is just for those children already diagnosed; the real number is assumed to be significantly higher).

  • "Over 70% are in mainstream school, with the rest in specialist education, home educated or out of education altogether."

  • 74% of parents reported that their child's school did not fully meet their needs.'

These statistics speak for themselves and is further evidence that we are in a national education crisis, which has spiralled due to the mental health implications on families and children post Covid-19 lockdowns. These figures are not a coincidence, there is a strong correlation between those with SEND and non-school attendance. Ideally we need a whole revolution of our education system. To meet the needs of everyone, schools will need to adopt new approaches:

trauma informed

neurodiversity affirming

neurodivergent friendly

The reality of any significant changes happening in our education system will take time and need government direction. However, there are children, young people and their families struggling today that need support. As you are reading this article, some children and young people may be struggling in their class at school, some may be currently using their 'time out passes' as they may feel unable to cope in the classroom environment. Some may be masking , trying to get through the day but feeling anxious or experiencing sensory overwhelm and experiencing mental health issues. Some pupils may not have been able to leave their house all week, or may be longer, and there are large numbers of pupils that have not returned since Covid-Lockdown in 2020.

We need to be think how we can support all children, young people and their families today so that tomorrow can be better and more manageable. There are a myriad of reasons why a child or young person may not be able to attend school ranging from physical and mental health difficulties, family circumstances, difficulties with academic work or it may be the actual school sensory environment. As a community of teachers, we have a duty to try and meet the needs of all children / young people and their families. Everyone deserves an education, but more importantly I believe every child and family deserve to feel understood, validated and supported. Parents of children that are struggling with attendance should not have to battle to ensure their child's needs are met and that they feel happy, safe and secure in school. All children deserve an education and to be able to learn in an environment where they are happy with their peers alongside supportive, caring adults. Here are my top tips for working with children, young people and their families struggling with school attendance:-

1. Listen to the child or young person Develop a positive relationship with the pupils in your class and provide time and space for that connection and relationships to develop. School days are busy but taking time to sit and listen to what a child or young person has to say is important. It maybe they find talking / writing / drawing / using a computer / tablet is an option if they find speaking about their difficulties difficult. We need to have a flexible approach. Fostering a whole school culture where pupils feel confident talking to any adult in their setting will help with this alongside having a key member of staff / team assigned to specific children. This will enable the children who need extra reassurance to know that there is a consistent reliable adult who understands them whom they can talk to when they feel they need extra support. Providing space and time for consistency is really important to develop meaningful connections and relationships. If children / young people are transitioning to a different class / phase / school this is even more important to consider and more time may be needed for this to be effective. Neurodivergent children may find transitions and change harder to manage and need more time than some of their peers. It is also important to consider other factors that neurodivergent children / young people may be experiencing that could affect communication. Sensory issues, alexithymia and interoception awareness can all significantly impact communication and make things more complex. Factors that affects a pupil one day may not affect them the next, emotions and the sensory system are all fluid. The fluidity and changing nature of neurodivergent needs have to be considered, accommodated.

We need to develop compassionate connections, an adaptable environment and flexible approach. Children and young people need to feel understood and validated. To tell children to 'just try and get through the next lesson' is not necessarily helpful in all situations. The word 'just' is harmful and invalidating. As teachers we need to acknowledge children and young people's struggles and support them to find solutions as to why they are finding that lesson/ moment difficult rather than telling children to 'pull them selves together and be strong and resilient'. Children will do well when they can, when they feel safe, supported and are able to regulate. Encouraging children who are already struggling to battle on, manage one more lesson, one more day and 'just get on with it' is not helpful, it can eventually lead to mental health issues and Autistic Burnout.

2. Listen to parents/carers Developing a positive relationship with parents / carers is also essential. It is important to find out how best to communicate with the family, find out what communication method works best for them; diary, emails, phone calls or face to face meetings or a combination. Parents / carers want the best outcome for their children just as much as a school will want their pupils to be in school learning. It is important to consider that Autistic children are 83% more likely to have an Autistic parent (Sandin 2017). When you are talking to parents about their neurodivergent children / young people's needs it is also important to consider parents needs. Parents mental health maybe impacted by the stress of caring for a neurodivergent child that is struggling in school. Everyone needs to work together to make life a bit more manageable and think of ways to move forwards, you could consider:-

*What are the child / young person's / parent / carers ideas? *What is working at home? *What is working at school? *What are the child /young person's interests? *What do they like / dislike? *What do they find difficult / triggering? *How does the child feel about everything?

3. Do not force a pupil into school We need to encourage children to do what they are able to manage, a "child will do well if they can" (Ross Greene 2005). Penalising children (taking away rewards) and issuing threats of penalty fines to parents if their child does not attend will not help these families as it will potentially only add to stress the and mental health concerns of the whole family.

If a child is unable to attend school, it is important to remember that this is not a choice, it should not be classed as truancy. No child, young person or family would ever want to be in such as stressful situation. Similarly, offering pupils incentives, reward charts and reduced timetables is very much a 'plaster' situation for most children. It will not get to the bottom of the issue that is causing the problem, it is just like putting a plaster over the top of a wound, it will only hide or mask the problem. A reduced timetable may alleviate some anxiety and give some lea-way in the week for a pupil to re-charge, an incentive such as a reward chart may work for a few weeks but the underlying problem will still be there and is likely to resurface at some point, possibly far more complex with great mental health needs. 4. Follow the pace and lead of the child / young person

If an Autistic pupil is struggling with school attendance then we need to listen to them and follow their lead. If they have been unable to attend school for some time then we need to think about what has changed in the school environment to enable a successful return at their own pace. Potentially, if a child or young person has been unable to attend school due to Autistic Burnout then it is going to take a considerable time to heal and be able to return. Unless significant changes have been made to the school environment to meet needs then there is a risk that they could end up back in a cycle of Autistic Burnout again. It may be that even in the most compassionate and understanding school and with teachers that understand and are trying their best to support, that the specific school environment they are in that resulted in Autistic Burnout will never be able to meet their needs. It may be that the child or young person will need an alternative setting or alternative provision to enable them to move on and achieve their potential. Further Reading The recently published book by Eliza Fricker (2023) Can't Not Won't: A Story About A Child Who Couldn't Go To School is a highly valuable and relatable text that explores the finer details of how school attendance difficulties affect a family. There is a section with guidance for schools and professionals with further practical ideas from Sue Moon and Tom Vodden. Additionally I would highly recommend Fran Morgan and Ellie Costello's recent book (2023) Square Pegs: Inclusivity, compassion and fitting in – a guide for schools. Square Pegs shares real life case studies as well as bringing in theory and ideas for practical solutions to put into practise today. The system of trying to fit square pegs into round holes will never work, it leaves those that are already struggling and marginalised even more broken. The law around school attendance and the whole current framework of our education system needs to change, this is a massive task and will not happen quickly. However, there are practical ideas in this book based on real case studies to support those willing to consider a change of narrative and create a positive difference. Autistic Burnout: A Family Guide is available here: Shop | Autisticrealms

There are further websites and organisations listed below that may be able to provide additional support and signposting advice:


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