Neurodiversity and mental health in the classroom

Written by: Helen Osgood | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There is a growing and wide range of needs among children and young people that teachers and support staff are increasingly being expected to meet in the classroom. With a few small steps, we can make things easier for everyone, says Helen Osgood


We know that, long before the pandemic, mental health support services for education were under pressure, with long waits for assessment and schools often taking the financial hit to provide support in the intervening time.

The government did commit funding to try to address this, with £1.25bn invested specifically in young people’s mental health by 2025, alongside improvements to NHS eating disorder services, backed up by a new standard so that young people who needed help could be seen within four weeks, or one week for urgent cases.

Furthermore, the 2017 Green Paper, Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision, stated that schools would be supported to “develop approaches within which pupils can achieve their full potential”, including “supporting schools to have a clear offer to promote pupils’ mental health and wellbeing”, but we continue to wait for this to have the positive impact it could have had, and the situation has now reached crisis point in many areas of the country.

Behaviour issues – often as a result of poor social skills and self-discipline and low self-esteem – have risen in prevalence due to children spending long periods of time at home throughout the pandemic.

Schools have been encouraged to focus on education recovery and “catching pupils up”, without being given the time and resources to support the underlying issues.

The new SEND Green Paper talks about the importance of early intervention and how this is the way to both improve pupil outcomes and reduce the burden on health and social care providers over the long term.

But, with waiting time for an initial assessment running at 24 months, when children are assessed, they are way past the early stages and they and their families are in desperate need of support.

And it is not just children and their families. Our members working in mainstream schools feel overwhelmed by the wide range of needs in their class, and the expectation of leaders that learning can be differentiated for each and every child, believing they need to do something wildly different for each child individual

To be clear, Ofsted does not require schools to provide individual lesson plans nor previous lesson plans. Ofsted does not specify how planning should be set out, the length of time it should take, or the amount of detail it should contain.

Inspectors are interested in the effectiveness of planning rather than the form it takes. But this does not stop schools from placing such demands on their teachers and support staff, leading to anxiety and stress as workloads increase, exacerbating the retention crisis.


So, what should we be doing?

Schools are already doing the best they can within stretched budgets, so it is positive to see that the Department for Education is providing funding to encourage schools and colleges to identify a senior mental health lead (DfE, 2021) to work alongside the SENCO and have strategic oversight of the approach to mental health and wellbeing.

We hope that this will start to have a positive impact on outcomes for pupils where their neurodiversity can finally be taken into account.

For too long, we have focused only on those with identified SEN, despite the fact that around 15% of the UK population are neurodivergent. Early intervention does not have to mean referral to external agencies – it also means making subtle adaptations in the classroom to support those with, for example, autism, ADHD, dyspraxia and dyslexia but who do not quite meet the criteria for a diagnosis.

Supporting these pupils and meeting their needs in the classroom will avoid situations spiralling and potentially causing disruption later on.

Victoria Honeybourne (2018), a specialist advisory teacher, writes that there are some steps schools can take to anticipate and prepare for a neurodiverse student population before pupils set foot through the door. These include:

  • Making equipment and resources, such as pencil grips etc, available to all, reducing the stigma for those who need to use them.
  • Producing written materials and signs which are clear and illustrated for those who struggle to read.
  • Reducing unnecessary stimulation to aid focus and concentration, which could mean removing some displays from classrooms and keeping rooms quiet.
  • Giving everyone the opportunity to work in quiet areas when needed and the option for social times to be quiet times too.
  • Having policies and practices which do not discriminate or place neurodivergent students at a disadvantage.

With policy and simple strategies in place, together we can support our pupils to achieve and forge a strong and positive work ethic. We can also support classroom colleagues, because meeting the pupils’ needs should reduce workload, address behavioural problems and doesn’t have to include huge amounts of planning.

There is a growing need among our children, and with a few small steps we can make things easier for everyone.

  • Helen Osgood is national officer for education and early years with Community trade union.


Further information & resources


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