Neurodivergent pupils: 10 strategies for schools

Written by: Dr Pooky Knightsmith | Published:
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How best can we support neurodivergent children during these uncertain times? Dr Pooky Knightsmith offers 10 simple strategies for schools


I have been asked a lot lately about the specific things we can do to support autistic students and those with ADHD as we enter the next phase of the pandemic. As ever, there is likely to be a halo effect from applying these ideas and you will certainly do no harm – so take a read and maybe consider if you can adopt an idea or two from the list below.

1, Focus on wellbeing to avoid burn-out: Burn-out is a regular feature for neurodivergent children (and adults). There is no quick win or easy fix here but taking a look at lifestyle factors and how to live well is important. This is more important than ever in the current climate. We are living in times of high anxiety and uncertainty and as such the risk of burn-out is greater than usual.

2, Human not hero role model: As a trusted adult there are many things we can role model to neurodivergent children. This does not mean that we need to be perfect though. Thinking aloud and helping children in our care to understand how we respond to challenge and what we do next when things go wrong is more helpful to them than putting on a “perfect show” which may feel completely unrelatable to them.

3, Rules, routines and rituals rock: One of the quickest routes to enabling children to feel safe and settled is to create a consistent and predictable environment. This can be challenging in times of uncertainty and constant change, so it is important that we look towards what we are able to control and how we can introduce elements into the day and week that feel predictable.

4, Mini-mindful moments: As well as looking at general wellbeing factors to avoid burn-out in the medium and long-term, we can also work on this day-to-day and try to keep children within their “window of tolerance” by building in mini-moments of mindfulness or reset that allow them to take a breath, “re-centre” and continue.

5, Scaffold and support when scared: When a child is scared, our temptation is often to help them to avoid the thing that makes them scared. Sometimes this is the right thing to do but we must always consider whether we risk feeding the anxiety cycle. Each time we avoid perceived danger our brain heaves a sigh of relief, but the perception of danger continues. When appropriate, scaffolding and supporting a child to do the thing that scares them can help their brain to understand that the danger is perceived and not real. This can prevent the shrinking of their world.

6, Concrete communication and plans: Simple, clear, slow and calm communication will help neurodivergent children to understand what is expected of them and what is going on. Ensuring that we say only what we need to, that we never speak in “riddles”, and that we are clear and consistent in our planning and the sharing of those plans will help neurodivergent children to thrive in a range of situations.

7, Build bridges via their interests: Many neurodivergent children have special interests. These are topics that they are passionate about and will often talk about at great length. While neurodivergent children are often encouraged to broaden their interests, one way to build a bridge with a child you are supporting is to lean into their special interests. Ask questions and allow yourself to be swept away by their interest and passion. Illustrating new ideas and skills using examples drawn from their special interest can really aid learning, understanding and motivation, too.

8, Skills refresh: Simply managing day-to-day life requires a lot of skills that neurotypical people may take for granted. Things like turn-taking in conversation or understanding how to read and respond to a social situation. There is a myriad of things we do every day that require great skills that come naturally to many but not to neurodivergent children. We get better with practice, but in the current context, some skills may be rusty and the context may be continually changing so it can be important to revisit these skills to make sure children do not fall behind in skills or confidence.

9, Look past the mask: Neurodivergent children often expend a lot of energy trying to “pass” every day. They do not necessarily know they are doing this but clues to those around them can be that they are often very tired or anxious (imagine how overwhelming it can feel trying to fit in and do the right thing when you are plunged into an unfamiliar culture). One of our roles is to create an environment where it feels safe for a child to let the mask slip, where they can unashamedly be themselves, take a breath and work with us to take the steps to enable them to thrive.

10, Enable belonging: Finally, consider how you can enable the child you are supporting to find their tribe and feel a sense of belonging within the neurodivergent community. Finding our tribe can be exciting and helps us to finally make sense of our feeling of otherness. Having a trusted adult to support us in making sense of that can be really liberating and confidence-building.

Every child is different and the best way to help any individual child is to get to know them and to work with them to find positive ways forwards. Hopefully the ideas I have shared above will give you some starting points to explore together. Good luck!

  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith is a passionate ambassador for mental health, wellbeing and PSHE. Her work is backed up both by a PhD in child and adolescent mental health and her own lived experience of PTSD, anorexia, self-harm, anxiety and depression. You can contact Pooky via www.pookyknightsmith.com or follow her on Twitter @PookyH. For her previous articles in Headteacher Update, visit http://bit.ly/htu-knightsmith


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