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How schools can safeguard neurodivegent students
With increasing numbers of neurodiverse pupils being educated in mainstream schools, Dr Emma Mahoney, a Chartered Clinical Psychologist with over 20 years’ experience working with neurodivergent children, parents and families, explains how independent and boarding schools can safeguard their mental health.
How schools can safeguard neurodivegent students
With increasing numbers of neurodiverse pupils being educated in mainstream schools, Dr Emma Mahoney, a Chartered Clinical Psychologist with over 20 years’ experience working with neurodivergent children, parents and families, explains how independent and boarding schools can safeguard their mental health
We’re seeing growing numbers of neurodivergent people in the population and it is now estimated that around one in seven people in the UK are neurodivergent. Many neurodivergent students can achieve well within mainstream provisions if they are properly supported. With most mainstream classes now likely to have multiple neurodivergent pupils within them, it’s vital that schools are as inclusive as possible to help them thrive and to benefit from their unique perspective on learning.
This, in the first instance, requires a clear understanding of neurodivergence. Put simply, everyone's brain works and interprets information differently. No two people in the world are the same, and this can lead to many positive abilities for neurodivergent pupils including problem-solving, hyper-focus, great attention to detail, and visual thinking. Difference does not mean a disorder, deficit, or difficulty. Neurodivergence specifically refers to people with diagnoses or traits of conditions including autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dypraxia, dysgraphia and Tourette’s syndrome.
It is also important to understand the specific issues that neurodivergent pupils face, especially with regards to their mental health. Most neurodivergent people have had the experience of feeling different in some way. Perhaps a dyslexic pupil may see non-dyslexic classmates reading or writing with relative ease whilst it is difficult for them. An autistic child may communicate and interact in ways that are different from their non-autistic peers. A sense of difference can lead to isolation. During adolescence, when finding your ‘tribe’ is so important, isolation can lead to mental health difficulties.
Many neurodivergent people mask their difficulties and young people especially often want to fit in. Masking and compensatory strategies can be useful at times, but take effort and mean the young person often doesn’t feel that they can really ‘be themselves’.
Many neurodivergent people, particularly those who have received a late diagnosis, may have developed negative self-beliefs to explain their sense of difference. For some neurodivergent people, there can be difficulties with change of routine, such as the transition between home and school. Sometimes the routine and consistency of boarding schools can really help here.
Some conditions such as autism are associated with differences in experiencing, recognising and talking about emotions. This means that they may not recognise that they are struggling, it might not be apparent from the outside, and they may find it difficult to talk about. One autistic client of mine uses outcome measures to let himself know how he is feeling – it’s hard for him to describe his mood in general terms but he can answer clear, concrete questions which give him a score and allow him to track progress over time.
Technology can now help apply this same method to larger groups of students too. For example, one such platform I have advised on is Govox, which identifies those struggling. This is useful for all pupils, but particularly neurodivergent pupils who may find it harder than most to communicate how they are feeling. This technology was formed in collaboration with experts at King’s College London, NHSx and psychologists such as myself.
With Govox, very simple ‘check ins’ are completed – on a computer, phone or tablet – where, twice a term pupils answer short questions, analysing their overall mental health and providing an ongoing personal ‘wellbeing score’. The findings highlight those who may need extra attention and support.
As well as monitoring pupil’s wellbeing, schools must welcome neurodivergent pupils in. I would encourage schools that excel in this area to highlight it in marketing materials. Parents sometimes worry that neurodiversity could impact their child’s likelihood of receiving a place, and they can try and hide it. This is always at the detriment of the child, who needs it recognised. There must be discussion between school, parent and pupil about adjustments that may need to be made and what will work best for them. I find parents are often keen to hear about adjustments that have been made for other pupils to help guide them.
Schools can also try a whole school approach to creating a neurodiverse-friendly environment which accommodates many different ways of learning. There are many adjustments for neurodivergence that benefit most students such as regular movement breaks. There is an opportunity for schools to be innovators in this space. And above all else, I would encourage schools to celebrate and value difference.