In a webinar, Dr Emily McDougal of the Anna Freud centre shared insights from her work into supporting neurodivergent students in schools and classrooms. Here are the key insights from the discussion.
While it is important to take an individualised approach to working with and supporting neurodivergent students, there are some commonalities that may provide a useful starting point for understanding neurodiversity. These include sensory processing differences, executive function skills, and mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression.
Neurodivergent students generally have differences in the way they experience sensory information. Sensory processing refers to receiving and interpreting information that we receive from the senses, including vision, sound, smell, touch, taste, as well interoception (which refers to senses from within the body, such as feeling hungry or thirsty, or needing to use the bathroom), and proprioception (or the awareness of the body in space). Sensory processing differences can be distracting, and present a range of challenges for students in the school setting. For example, some students may find certain sensory information overwhelming, which can be enormously stressful in school environments. Others may seek sensory stimulation and engage in a range of sensory-seeking behaviours, which may be perceived as strange or disruptive by others.
Neurodivergent students may often struggle with certain executive function skills, which are cognitive skills including cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, and working memory. Neurodivergent students, especially autistic students, tend to struggle with cognitive flexibility, or the ability to switch attention from one thing to another, so find it difficult to transition from one task or activity to another. While the overall structure of the school day can provide a positive support for autistic students, rapid or unplanned transitions can create stress and anxiety, so trying where possible to give warnings of upcoming transitions can be very helpful. At secondary school, allowing neurodivergent students to arrive a little late to class can help by giving them a chance to take a short break and manage the transition from one class to another.
Working memory refers to the ability to work with information in short-term memory, and many neurodivergent students have challenges with working memory, making it difficult to do things like remember a long set of instructions. There are simple ways to support students with this, such as breaking down instructions into smaller steps and providing instructions in writing, or allowing students to have a mini whiteboard on their desk on which to note down instructions from the teacher.
Inhibitory control can also be challenging in school settings, and this is where most perceived behavioural difficulties tend to appear. Behaviours such as shouting out can be challenging for everyone in the class, so it is helpful for teachers to have an awareness and understanding of the causes of behaviours that arise from lack of inhibitory control, and to support other students to also understand that the behaviours are not deliberate, disobedient, or intended to cause disruption. Neurodivergent students can also find paying attention challenging for a number of reasons, but it also important to be aware that often students may be listening, even if it doesn’t appear that they are paying attention. For example, autistic students may find it difficult to listen while looking at the teacher.
Neurodivergent students are far more likely than their neurotypical peers to experience mental health challenges. For example, they very often struggle with anxiety. This may particularly relate to the anxiety induced by transitions, and by both expected and unexpected changes or events. The sensory environment of school can also be extremely anxiety-inducing for neurodivergent students. Differences with communication and understanding social cues and behaviour between neurotypical and neurodivergent people can also be a source of anxiety. Neurodivergent students are also known to frequently struggle with depression and low mood, which can be triggered by feelings of not wanting to come to school because of the many challenges it presents, along with the many challenges of trying to function in a neurotypical world.
It is vital to have a whole-school culture of awareness and understanding. Neurodivergent students are often bullied because their behaviour is seen as unusual or outside the norm by other students. Implementing whole-school approaches to learning about neurodiversity, for both staff and students, helps to build knowledge and understanding. It is important to create safe opportunities for students to ask questions about neurodiversity and what they have observed about their neurodivergent peers without fear of judgement, as bullying behaviours can often come from a place of not understanding. It is also valuable to have safe spaces for neurodivergent students to go to when they feel overwhelmed, need to self-regulate or be supported to regulate, or just need a break. Some schools have sensory rooms for this purpose.
Classroom-based approaches should be tailored to the needs of the individual student. It is important to start with an understanding of the student’s individual challenges, and put in place appropriate strategies. Working with individual students to identify their triggers and how to tell when they are feeling overwhelmed, and then putting appropriate strategies in place is also valuable, as is supporting all the students in the class to know how to support their peers when they are struggling, and giving them to agency to help.
To learn more about strategies for supporting neurodivergent students, particularly in primary school settings, click here.