Neurodiversity, or neurological difference, comprises a diverse spectrum of natural variations in the way that human brains are wired, leading to differences in sociability, attention, learning, and other cognitive functions. In this part we examine what differences we might notice in children with different neurotypes (types of brain) in regard to social and emotional competence.
Our aims for this part are:
- To understand how children’s neurotype may impact on their social and emotional competence
- To learn how to support neurodivergent learners in their social and emotional knowledge and skills
This will involve:
- Reading a research review about autistic children’s social and emotional strengths and challenges
- Watching a video in which Jessica Tupou discusses the differences in social and emotional competence and learning we might see with neurodivergent learners
- Reflecting on how well your setting supports and values neurodiversity and neurodivergence
- Watching a video in which Jessica discusses how to create a positive, inclusive, and culturally responsive environment that supports social and emotional learning
- Inquiring into the way in which one (neurodivergent/cultural minority) child experiences your ECE setting.
The further reading for this part offers you additional information on supporting specific types of neurodiversity, and also revisits ideas about responsive interactions for neurodivergent learners. Our online discussion question relates to the supports and modifications you make in your setting for neurodivergent learners.
Revisit your learning so far
What are the different components of executive function? Can you remember what each component enables children to do?
Read this piece on the social and emotional difficulties that autistic children experience, as well as strategies for supporting them. Although it focuses on autistic children, many of the points it makes are relevant for a range of neurodivergent learners.
Supporting social and emotional competence for autistic children
Many neurodivergent children have difficulties with social, emotional, and behavioural skills which may impact on their learning achievement and relationships both in early childhood education and at school. Skills for effective learning in school, including skills for positive peer interactions and cooperative and independent learning, are crucial to ensure successful transitions into school, and to the development of positive attitudes and dispositions towards school which are found to persist over time and impact on later learning.
How much research exists about neurodivergent social and emotional competence?
A large proportion of the research on neurodivergence and social emotional competence is focused on autistic children, and the research base remains limited. Further, many research findings are conflicting. For example, research has found both specific delays in emotion knowledge for autistic children and evidence of relatively less difficulty with understanding emotions. Similarly, higher levels of negativity in autistic children have been reported, whereas other studies have found no difference in negativity.
In addition, there is much individual variation between autistic individuals, and thus it is difficult to make generalisations. Much of the research assumes neurotypical norms and expectations for social behaviour, and presents differences in neurodivergent behaviour as a deficit. Further difficulties are present in evaluating the literature because ‘emotional regulation’ is not a common term: more common is reference to specific behaviours and actions stemming from poor emotional regulation, such as tantrums, meltdowns, and aggression.
What do we know about autistic children’s social and emotional development?
Autistic children may have increased difficulty in many areas of social and emotional competence, including executive function, emotion knowledge, emotional regulation, and social skills. Differences between autistic and allistic (non-autistic) children can be less apparent at younger ages, but may increase as children grow.
Autistic children often have difficulty in executive function skills, particularly with focusing their attention, changing focus, and inhibiting responses. They can also be challenged by joint attention or shared engagement with others, which requires them to regulate their focus and interest. Instead, autistic children often demonstrate intense focus on topics that are of interest to them, and this can lead to advanced knowledge or skill in a particular area. While this certainly should be seen as a strength, when combined with cognitive flexibility challenges, particularly changing focus or adapting plans, this can contribute to autistic children’s challenges with peer engagement and engagement in learning that is outside of their personal interests.
Knowledge of emotions is found to be linked to children’s social competence. Research evidence suggests that autistic children and many other neurodivergent children have difficulties and delays in their development of emotion knowledge. For example, autistic children are often challenged by attending to and interpreting facial expressions, although some evidence suggests that autistic children can have particular strengths in recognising and understanding simple emotions, such as happiness. They are more challenged by the recognition and understanding of negative emotions, including anger or fear, as well as ambiguous or complex emotions.
Some research provides support for an explanation of autistic people’s challenges with emotion as being caused by a heightened sense of emotional empathy, although this may be out of balance with their sense of cognitive empathy. This means autistic children may pick up on and share the emotions of others in an intense way, and instead of being able to acknowledge and understand another person’s perspective and context, they may take on that perspective and see things through it. Studies demonstrating autistic children’s greater ability to show facial affect than neurotypical children, and their ability to show appropriate responses to images of distressed people (often refusing to look at these), as well as practitioners’ and caregivers’ perceptions of a high sensitivity to the emotions of others, lend support for this view.
Research shows that from an early age, autistic children commonly have difficulty with emotional regulation, which is related to higher levels of negative emotions and poor repertoires of strategies for emotional regulation in later childhood and adolescence. Parents report their autistic children as having more negative emotions such as sadness, anger, shame, fear, and guilt. When children have higher levels of negative emotions, they may not be as able to take in important information from their social environment or develop effective strategies for solving social problems.
Autistic children are found to experience more emotional dysregulation, and be difficult to soothe, as well as having significant difficulties with self-regulation. Young children need to develop coping strategies for emotionally challenging situations. These may be relatively basic strategies, such as distracting themselves, avoiding the situation, or finding a way to vent their emotions (perhaps by crying). More advanced strategies include seeking support, problem-solving, and positively reframing difficult situations. Autistic children are found to be less likely to use advanced strategies, relying on avoidance and venting strategies rather than more constructive strategies, and are less likely to seek support from adults. Strategies such as venting and aggression are not found to be particularly effective at regulating children when frustrated, and in addition may predict conflict with peers.
Research shows that poorer emotional regulation leads over time to worsening behaviour, declining social skills, and fewer friendships, so that children with the lowest levels of emotional regulation skill fall further behind in their social and emotional competence and, as a result, their ability to learn in ECE and in school is increasingly compromised. Higher levels of emotional regulation, on the other hand, are linked to more positive engagements with peers and increased measures of social skills.
Despite some children’s disinclination to turn to adults when dysregulated, adults are an important source of regulation for children. Some research points to a link between early skills in engaging in joint attention with an adult and the subsequent development of regulation strategies, with children who spend more time in joint attention with a parent being more likely to use self-distraction when distressed. Episodes of joint attention may help children learn to control their attention in order to regulate distress.
Autistic children can often experience challenges with social interactions and peer engagement. They may be less likely to effectively initiate interactions or respond to peers, and may experience more disrupted interactions. They may not be accepted by peers, have fewer friends, and be less popular. This means that they are less likely to benefit from the support, assistance, and security that peers can provide. Peer rejection and low social status amongst peers in early childhood is found to be likely to continue into adolescence and adulthood. Peer rejection reduces opportunities for children to practise social skills and, in cases of aggressive behaviour, can exacerbate aggression, while being accepted by peers can act as a buffer for children’s difficult behaviours.
Children’s needs and strengths in relation to social skills will vary. Most neurodivergent children, including autistic children, may need more time than their peers to interpret and respond to social information. While some children may be disinterested in social engagements, many autistic children are keen to engage in social interactions and friendships, even if they have initial difficulties engaging. Some of the challenges children may experience include social-emotional reciprocity, examples of which include initiating interactions or approaching others in an appropriate way, engaging in back-and-forth conversation, adapting their behaviour for other people and contexts, or sharing interests, feelings, and emotions. Children also may have difficulties with non-verbal communication, meaning that they may not be able to integrate non-verbal gestures and gaze with their verbal communication.
It is important to note that, while much of the discourse on neurodivergent social competence focuses on deficits and difficulties, these same difficulties can be interpreted more positively as a form of competency. For example, research into autistic interactions (interactions between autistic people) found that some rather different parameters for social competence hold in these contexts. Although there are ignored contributions, parallel speech, and misinterpretations, these are not always seen as problematic because the expectations about co-ordinating conversations amongst neurodivergent individuals are different. Disconnected and disrupted conversational turns are somewhat mitigated by the way that autistic individuals generously assume common ground, which is found to spark productive and creative dialogue. This research highlights the way in which neurodivergent patterns of interaction, although unconventional, can be potentially rich and enabling of social relation and connection.
Strategies to support autistic children’s social and emotional development
Strategies need to be individualised to suit each child and their characteristics, existing skills, and needs, as well as the particular contexts in which they are living and learning. Not all children will respond the same way to planned supports, and there will be no one-size-fits-all approach to support. One general principle is to treat all children with respect and to offer highly responsive care. In addition, it is important to integrate the teaching and reinforcement of social and emotional skills into daily interactions with children, using consistent language to talk about the specific behaviours being taught, and seeking varied opportunities to reinforce them.
Engaging, one-to-one interactions with adults which offer opportunities for joint attention are very important in building social and emotional skills, and responsive interactive strategies have a significant influence on the social emotional development of autistic children. Responsive interactions are thought to promote the development of key social behaviours such as attachment, self-regulation, empathy, and cooperation. Increased responsive interactions are associated with improvements in children’s social and emotional competence, as shown by decreasing rates of behaviours such as detachment and dysregulation, as well as increasing levels of social interaction and improvement in skills such as empathy, cooperation, and higher communicative abilities. However, responsive interaction strategies are not found to be useful for teaching specific social or self-management skills and additional strategies may need to be put in place for this (see below).
It is also important to ensure that autistic children experience encouraging, positive and constructive interactions with peers and are supported to form friendships. In addition, autistic children may also need support to identify and implement effective strategies when they are frustrated, and benefit from co-regulation with an adult. In supporting children through co-regulation, teachers will need to draw heavily on their own emotional competence, and may even need to work on their own emotional development. Team members will also need to support and care for each other’s wellbeing.
Specific supports for social and emotional learning
Autistic children will not necessarily pick up social skills through implicit learning, and instead may need direct and specific instruction. Teachers might, for example, choose to focus on teaching specific social skills through stories, puppets, and role plays, discussing the behaviours, emotions, and consequences in particular social situations. It is also important to offer children opportunities to practise new skills with peers so that they learn to apply and adapt strategies in different contexts.
Research suggests that strengthening the emotion knowledge of autistic children and linking their emotion knowledge to different social situations is likely to be helpful. Recognition of different emotions is linked to children’s capacity to regulate their own emotions, and may support children in self-regulation. In particular, some research has shown that autistic children’s knowledge about negative emotions such as anger is associated with more positive social interactions with peers. Children with autism have been shown to benefit from games and activities about understanding faces and matching facial expressions with emotions.
Click here to read the fully referenced version of this research review.
Watch a video
In this video, Dr Jessica Tupou discusses the specific difficulties that neurodivergent learners may experience, and how teachers can best respond. As you watch, think about how Jessica’s interview strengthens a positive framing of neurodiversity.
About Dr Jessica Tupou
Dr Jessica Tupou is a postdoctoral research fellow at Victoria University of Wellington. She has a background in primary and ECE teaching and has spent the past 5 years delivering and researching early intervention for autism through Te Rāngai Takiwātanga, the Victoria University Autism Clinic. Her research focuses on culturally responsive support for tamariki Māori on the autism spectrum.
Jessica presents a really clear view of neurodiversity as a set of differences involving both strengths and challenges. This variation is clearly normalised when she reminds us that we all have moments of emotional dysregulation. It is possible that, for some of our neurodivergent learners, emotional dysregulation is experienced more regularly, as the research reported in the reading explained. However, it is important to remember that we shouldn’t make any assumptions about neurodivergent learners’ ability to develop skills for emotional regulation.
Jessica’s definition of emotional regulation as the ability to deal with the demands of your environment in a calm and skilful way is a really helpful one. She links emotional regulation to executive function skills, clearly defined as the ability to control your actions to achieve your own goals. Jessica sees being able to control and manage your own emotions as being related to those executive function control and attention skills. This suggests that if we support the development of children’s executive function skill, then at the same time we are also supporting them with developing the ability to regulate themselves at times of heightened emotion.
Every time Jessica discusses a particular challenge that a neurodivergent learner might experience, she also reminds us that these different neurotypes provide children with some significant and important strengths. In regard to emotion, Jessica notes that neurodivergent learners are often energetic and passionate individuals who demonstrate a strong sense of emotion. Neurodivergent children can be very sensitive to the emotional tone of people and places (one reason we need to pay special attention to the social and emotional climate of our settings, as we explored in Part 2 of the course). One of the examples she gives is of a child who tunes in very emphatically to the emotional expression in the songs of the pop star Adele.
With regard to executive function, and particularly the skill of paying attention, Jessica notes that the hyperfocus of some neurodivergent learners can be really productive, enabling children to learn an amazing array of knowledge and skills. Note how well this is framed so that it does not lean on a stereotype of autistic learners. Jessica also points out how the special interests of neurodivergent learners can be used as a vehicle for developing relationships with peers. Again, it is so important to focus on strengths and potential, and to maintain a positive attitude towards neurodivergent learners and their developing competencies. As Jessica reminds us, taking opportunities to recognise positives and being very intentional about seeking and pointing out these positive things is incredibly important to children who may be struggling to understand social expectations, constantly getting things wrong, and feeling a diminished sense of self-worth.
How well do you think neurodiversity is understood, accepted, and valued in your setting? What steps have you taken (or might you take) to introduce children to the concept of neurodiversity in a positive and strengths-based manner? What modifications have you (or can you) make to environments and routines in order to support neurodivergent children?
Watch a video
In the second part of her interview, Jessica talks about how to ensure an inclusive and culturally responsive approach for all children in order to ensure that neurodivergent children experience a positive social and cultural environment.
Again, Jessica challenges us to look past the traditional deficit approach to neurodivergent children, which, as she describes, focuses on teaching behaviours and skills to children, assuming that the problem rests with them. In fact, when we acknowledge and value neurodiversity as simply part of the many differences between people, we can flip this idea of the child containing the problem on its head and see that many of the difficulties experienced by neurodivergent children stem from the way the environment, or the behaviours and actions of other children and adults, are challenging for their particular way of thinking and being. In this case, we can think about how to adapt the environment for neurodivergent children. As Jessica mentioned in the previous video, this might involve rethinking practices such as having every child attend mat-time and sit quietly in a group, or looking at the way we expect children to transition between activities.
Other considerations to make the environment a more comfortable and less threatening space for neurodivergent children relate to the sensory environment. Many neurodivergent children have differences in sensory functioning and sensory processing, and this can mean that environments can be over- or under-stimulating for them (you can read more about sensory processing differences in the Further Reading section). Jessica also explains about the different arousal levels that neurodivergent children may experience, from hyper-arousal to under-arousal, and some strategies for helping children engage at a more optimal level. This is crucial for all learning, including the social and emotional learning that we focus on in this course.
Much of what Jessica shares in this video focuses on creating a positive social and emotional climate for children. Children experience positive environments when diversity, including neurodiversity but also cultural diversity, is accepted, valued, and celebrated in the early childhood setting, and when they have opportunities to demonstrate and experience success, and to make a contribution to the setting and group. This means taking special account of children’s cultural diversity and finding ways to incorporate elements that reflect children’s cultures, and in the same way, taking account of children’ neurodiversity and finding ways to value their neurotypes. All of this supports a sense of belonging and positive wellbeing for all children.
These two aspects come together. That is, making a commitment to inclusive practice and to valuing neurodiversity will involve us in changing environments and expectations in order to suit a wider range of neurotypes. At an individual level, we might value the intense focus that a particular child has for a particular activity, and demonstrate how we value that special ability to get highly absorbed by reducing and providing more time for transitions. We might support that child to take leadership in sharing the knowledge and skills they are gaining with the wider group. Their neurodiversity will be celebrated and acknowledged in a very positive way, and their emotional wellbeing, security, and relationships within the setting enhanced: all of this makes a large contribution to developing a positive social and emotional climate for all children.
Relate your learning to practice
For this part of the course, we want to focus on the way that an individual child (one who is at risk of being marginalised because of their neurotype, or perhaps their cultural background) experiences your early childhood setting, with a particular focus on social and emotional competence. You will be looking at how positive this child finds your early childhood setting – for example, how often they experience positive affirmation, or how well the environment is adapted to reflect their cultural background or their strengths and needs as a neurodivergent learner.
To evaluate this child’s experience of the setting, you might observe them at different times, perhaps as they enter the setting and settle down to play, or at a key transition or group time. Try to observe through the child’s eyes – what messages are they getting? What impact might those messages be having on their sense of self-worth and belonging? Once you have gathered this data, consider what adjustments you might make to your environment, your expectations, or your practice to improve the social emotional climate for this child and other neurodivergent children.
In this part of the course, we learned that:
- Variation in neurobiology means that children will have differing needs, strengths, and challenges with regard to social and emotional learning.
- Previous perspectives on neurodiversity presented neurotypes that differed from a neurotypical norm as deficit, with an emphasis on teaching and correcting differences in children’s social and emotional behaviours. Current practice values all variation in neurobiology in a positive way, within a perspective of celebrating diversity.
- Supporting neurodivergent learners involves coming to understand their specific strengths and needs, modifying environments and programmes, and providing plenty of affirmation and responsive interactions, as well as explicit teaching about social and emotional skills.
What supports or modifications do you make to your programme and environment to support neurodivergent learners? Use our online forum to discuss your personal experiences.
Read our guide to neurodiversity to learn more about this term and the implications it has for the way we work with children.
Take another look at tendril theory, developed by Erin Human.
Learn more about sensory processing differences here.
Finally, with so much benefit shown for developing strong relationships and responsive interactions with neurodivergent learners, take a look at serve-and-return interactions. We drew your attention to this resource in Part 4, but it really is so important for building strong relationships that we highlight it again. If you’ve already looked at this resource, you might enjoy reading an interview with Thalia Wright, the author of that serve-and-return piece.