Understanding neurodiversity to help your child excel in school
Most people will be familiar with the concept of neurodiversity as it relates to people on the autism spectrum. But it can also encompass traits that include hyperactivity, compulsive behavior, and some mental health conditions. It’s important to recognize that neurodiversity isn’t about pathology. Rather, it describes those whose brains have evolved to behave differently.
These differences tend to allow neurodiverse individuals to experience the world in unique and powerful ways. Nevertheless, the traditional education system is not always well-designed to support anyone with atypical learning needs. As a parent, it is often down to you to establish activities and resources to help your child thrive.
This begins with gaining a better understanding of neurodiverse traits and how you can help your child navigate them to excel in school.
An apparent lack of focus can be a prevalent challenge for neurodiverse kids. This is common for children living with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, it can also be a feature of autism, particularly concerning subjects that don’t hold your child’s primary interests. This can obviously be difficult in an education system that often requires kids to concentrate on single tasks for extended periods of time.
One of the mistakes schools, teachers, and some parents can make is to treat this as “bad” behavior that needs to be corrected through discipline. Rather, it’s more important to establish what methods of learning can hold your child’s focus. Collaborate with your child’s teacher to better understand what learning approaches your child favors. Discuss how your child’s dominant interests can be inserted into the curriculum to maintain their attention.
While your child’s teacher is committed to providing quality education, they won’t always have time to tailor the curriculum. As such, it’s important to find learning activities you can offer your child outside of the classroom. Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education is particularly important to teach from an early age. Arranging hands-on creative activities, playing STEM games, and exploring nature can support the theory in ways that are more likely to hold your child’s focus. Importantly, it allows them to develop a passion for these subjects from their unique perspective.
Stimming and fidgeting
Stimming behavior can be a key trait of neurodiverse individuals. This usually takes the form of a repetitive motion or sound. Fidgeting can be common, too. In many cases, children start to develop these stimming activities as valuable coping mechanisms. The motions and sensations provide them with comfort in situations they find stressful. Historically, schools have treated fidgeting as a distraction to other students and discouraged it. But it’s important to work with schools to achieve a positive balance here.
This begins with meaningful communication with your child’s teacher. Talk about the reasons your child fidgets or stims and the role it plays in their wellbeing. It’s also worth discussing how fidgeting behavior can be instrumental in helping your child maintain their focus during lessons. In identifying how embracing this behavior can be a strength, you can also agree on appropriate classroom methods. This could include periods of doodling or utilizing small fidget toys.
Wherever possible, you should include your child in these discussions. It’s important to empower them to talk about and advocate for their needs from an early age. Encourage them to give insights into what actions have the most positive impact. Aim for these discussions to be about collaborating on solutions that are practical for everyone.
Those living with neurodivergent traits are often more sensitive to external stimuli. This could be in the form of loud or persistent sounds or harsh lights or colors; even the presence of crowds can be challenging. This means your child may find the traditional education environment to be overwhelming. The result is that their educational progress could be regularly disrupted. Not to mention that their schooling could theoretically harm their mental wellness.
In many cases, the solution here is not to exclude them from the school environment. For some children, there are certainly advantages to providing them with the most appropriate learning environment. However, unnecessary removal from traditional classes could exacerbate feelings of otherness and alienation from their peers. Rather, work with your child’s school to establish practical solutions. Suggest installing softer lighting in the classroom. Inquire about access to a quiet area for decompression.
From your child’s perspective, it is also important to work with them on identifying and recognizing their triggers. Help them understand that they’re not always going to be able to avoid stimuli. Establish tools and mechanisms that allow them to navigate such stimuli when confronted with them. There are mobile apps available to help them identify and track their feelings, thoughts, and behavior. The more your child can understand their own neurodivergent traits, the better able they are to thrive alongside them.
Not all people with neurodivergent traits have trouble with socialization, but it is a common factor. This often presents as difficulty recognizing social signals and behaviors that neurotypical individuals seem more naturally inclined toward. School is a valuable environment for students to practice the social and emotional skills they need to thrive in the adult world. But your neurodiverse child may find the experience of being thrust among groups of other people occasionally confusing and stressful.
Often, the best approach here is to talk to your child about any uncertainties they have about social situations. Practice recognizing social cues and understanding nonverbal behavior. Importantly, make it clear to them that it’s okay to make mistakes in this area. Teach them that honest communication is the key to overcoming such challenges and benefitting from the experience.
Your neurodiverse child has unique and valuable perspectives to offer the world. Nevertheless, it’s important to recognize the challenges these may present in a traditional school environment. With an understanding of their behavior and the reasons behind it, you can work with your child and their teacher on establishing tools to navigate their education. It can take some work and you won’t always get it right the first time. But with persistence and communication, your child can excel in school and beyond.
Charlie Fletcher is a freelance writer from the lovely “city of trees”- Boise, Idaho. Her love of writing pairs with her passion for social activism and search for the truth. You can find more of her writing on her Contently.