Neurodivergent-affirming classroom management: 3 perspective shifts for teachers

IMPORTANT: This blog is not a substitute for therapy, but provides evidenced-based education for the purposes of self-help, or to compliment the therapeutic process. ​ ​This blog is non-monetized.

By: Christina Crowe, RP, (S-Cert. OAMHP), and Sarah Palozzi, RP Qualifying

TEACHERS ARE SOME OF OUR MOST IMPORTANT LEADERS.

We can’t always ask our students to take off the armour at home, or even on their way to school, because their emotional and physical safety may require self-protection. But what we can do, and what we are ethically called to do, is create a space in our schools and classrooms where all students can walk in and, for that day or hour, take off the crushing weight of their armour, hang it on a rack, and open their heart to truly being seen. We must be guardians of spaces that allow students to breathe, be curious, and to explore the world and be who they are without suffocation. And what I know from the research is that we should never underestimate the benefit to a child of having a place to belong—even one—where they can take off their armour. It can and often does change the trajectory of their life.”

​- Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

TEACHERS, THIS ONE IS FOR YOU. 

​As we head back to school, now in a mostly post-pandemic September, one group of students we often hear teachers describe as ‘challenging’ in their classrooms are the neurodivergent kids, often unfortunately referred to as the ‘behaviour’ kids. While that’s tough to hear as an advocate, I also understand how hard it is when teachers haven’t been provided with the training, and are expected to manage a variety of needs with time constraints and pressures to cover ministry expectations.   However, once we know better, we’ve gotta do better, right? To clarify, “neurodivergent” very simply means someone who behaves, thinks and learns differently compared to those who have had a more (neuro)typical developmental trajectory. 

I empathize with the reality that while teachers are not mental health clinicians, they have been unfairly tasked with both identifying kids who have not yet been identified who need more support, and with managing and teaching these unique brains, regardless of how much outside-of-school support they are (or aren’t) getting.  

This article aims to lend support to some of that unfair task.  (The bonus feature here is that regardless of any formal assessments or diagnosis – these principles apply to ALL humans).

But first, an important question: What exactly does it mean to be a ‘neurodivergent-affirming‘ educator? 

When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.

– Alexander Den Heijer

Neurodivergent-affirming means intentionally taking a stance supporting the idea that people have differences in their abilities,  in how they interact and in how they experience with the world around them. Further, these differences are not automatically considered deficits requiring “fixing”.  Neurodiversity amoung humans itself is natural.  An affirming stance believes the world should be accepting of people’s differences in how they think, learn, process, and perceive information.

A few examples of neurodivergent conditions include:Autism,Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD),Dyscalculia (difficulty with math),Dysgraphia (difficulty with writing),Dyslexia (difficulty with reading),Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD),Tourette’s Syndrome,Other neurological conditions. ​
From a mental health perspective, neurodivergent-affirming care is a form of cultural competence. For example, psychotherapists who are neurodivergent-affirming have taken steps to be aware of their own possible biases and to gather appropriate knowledge about neurodivergent clients before working with them to avoid doing harm.

Life is complicated

​In a perfect world, we would all be accepted and understood.

But we know we aren’t living in a perfect world; we have bills to pay, performance standards to meet, bosses to appease and relationships to pay attention too.  However we show up in the world, we seek to understand ourselves and the others in our lives.

The natural history of growing up neurodivergent, therefore often misunderstood, is the collection of other mental health diagnoses we pick up along the way.  Because many of the symptoms of common neurodivergent conditions like ADHD, overlap very much with anxiety, depression, many kids go unidentified, undiagnosed, and therefore untreated and certainly underserved.
 
There is a careful balance of not shaming a child for having a different experience of the world (they didn’t ask for this), and  intentionally looking to develop their strengths. 

​While we are doing that, we want to ensure we don’t miss the opportunities to be a caring adult in a struggling child’s life. Small moments and interactions can course correct a child’s difficult emotional experience, by providing what all adults in the lives of children are called to do – to create environments of psychological safety. 

In this article, we’ll focus on the most common condition you’ll find in your classrooms, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Understandably, parents and teachers often don’t understand the complexities of ADHD, in all its different (and evolving) presentations. They have been told it is mainly about focus, or the inability to sit still.  

The good news is, the interventions discussed below are intended to help compliment the inherent structures that are likely in place in many classrooms. 

We know that a lot of what educators do innately, and what is likely already happening in classrooms, can be supportive for neurodivergent learners. Specifically, newer research acknowledges that for many younger kids, the structure of school can in fact mask symptoms, especially for the inattentive-presentation ADHD (the daydreamers); this is likely how many ‘inattentive’ types go undiagnosed – they have just enough structure provided by external environments to get by. When that structure disappears (transition home, or to a grandparent’s house, a weekend away, or a sleepover), the kid that is ‘fine’ at school, is not fine at home. 

While these strategies are designed to be generalized to support all students, best practices are always about tailoring your approach to the child in front of you. ​

3 perspective shifts FOR Back to School

SHIFT 1: Stop thinking about them as ‘behaviour‘ kids.  

If a child doesn’t feel safe in your classroom, they won’t be free to learn. If you aren’t quite sure if you have a child’s attention, get 1 on 1 and ask them. Labeling them in your mind as a problem to manage is already setting the relationship up for challenge.

ADHD is less about problematic hyperactivity, and more about a brain that learns differently from how yours might; this includes a genetically transmitted wandering attention, with a wide array of complex and sometimes contradictory tendencies.  

ADHD brains have no trouble focusing on the things that interest them (referred to as ‘hyperfocus’, which is difficult to pull out of voluntarily).  Unfortunately, a one size fits all (inflexible) teaching plan might miss a great opportunity to leverage a ADHD brain’s strengths.
 
This next part is REALLY important.
 
It is the brains inability to sustain attention that leads to inconsistent performance and underachievement in school (or, for adults, at work), not the choice of the child. That report card comment stings, “Chrissy has so much potential and could do so well if only she would apply herself.” Too often, teachers and parents jump to the “the moral diagnosis,” and mistakenly think it’s a deliberate choice – a lack of effort or laziness. This can lead to lectures, punishments, and a gradual depression of the child’s spirit, increasing shame and lowered sense of their own potential over time.  In fact, the correct diagnosis is a brain difference, not a brain ‘deficit’, and certainly not a moral failing.

SHIFT 2: Walk the talk: model what you are asking for. 

ADHD brains can be hyper aware of what is happening around them, but have a hard time regulating or describing it. The way others act around them has a significant impact. They will respond to a caring adult who takes the time to help them find their calm, one on one, and who helps them understand it’s okay, providing support and reassurance about how to manage that worries or anxieties. The calming presence of a safe, nonjudgemental, and regulated adult is oftentimes all a young ADHD brain needs to experience co-regulation, which is a necessary part of learning. 

Slowing down to explain steps, creating visuals and walking the talk allows you to practice ‘connection before correction’. ​ ADHD brains are involuntarily and constantly on the lookout for something that will capture their attention, which on the outside might look a bit constantly restless, or agitated.  This can take many presentations, and truly depends on the kid. 

It can be internalized hyperactivity (worry, anxiety, racing thoughts, unable to settle to sleep, needing lots of reassurance and repetition of answers to continually asked questions), or external (constantly moving, hair twirling, fidgeting, nail biting, knee bopping, needing to do something).  ​ADHD brained kids can’t easily “just stop” doing these things on their own like you think they should be able to.  But they will respond to a caring adult who takes the time to help them find calm one on one, who helps them understand it’s okay, and here is a way to manage that worry, anxiety, etc.  

SHIFT 3: Teach (and model) psychological safety in your classroom.

Psychological safety in the classroom simply means your students believe they will not be humiliated or teased for the ideas they offer, for asking questions and admitting to mistakes. When adopted in the classroom, students don’t worry about looking stupid, as the whole class knows that asking questions and making mistakes are crucial to learning. 

We know from research, kids with ADHD are negatively corrected an average of 25:1 every single day, compared to a kid without ADHD.   By the time a child reaches 12 years old, they have heard about 20,000 negative messages about themselves. Is later teenaged anxiety and depression any wonder then? 

Kids with ADHD (who grow into adults with ADHD) can be defensive, lie in advance to protect themselves, and seem like they are always hiding something, because they have learned to build defences against being blamed, shamed and punished.  

It doesn’t have to be this way. Our kids spend 40 hours (and sometimes much more) a week at school for 12 or so years – we know now how to make that feel like a better experience. 

Extra Credit: A Biology Lesson As a teacher, you have a classroom full of relational mammals, whom ALL need to feel psychologically and physically safe in order to engage and learn. Your psychological classroom prep then must include ensuring your classroom feels SAFE to each and every kid.  If a student is humiliated for asking a question or making a mistake, the brain interprets this as a threat, and a region known as the amygdala is activated. The amygdala is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, which encourages students to act quickly without thinking, meaning in that very moment, their higher thinking is off-line – that’s why it’s hard to reason with them.

​If the ADHD brains in your classroom have biologically lower dopamine levels, it’s good to understand they are internally driven to constantly seek balance (which is what mammals do – homeostasis).  Therefore you now have something to target.

Hot tip: A big dopamine booster for kids is positive attention from the (influential) adults in their lives. Connect with them before they connect with …. hey, look a squirrel!

Teachers managing a classroom full of diverse brains and emotional needs, have the unique power and privilege of providing those very essential components of psychological safety (safe connection), thus helping that ADHD brain find what it needs, before it finds something less beneficial to regulate. 

In summary,

​Gaining the trust of a kid with ADHD, and modeling accountability, becomes a great source of positive connection for them. 
 
When you can connect with an ADHD brain, and help them unwrap the gifts that are waiting for them (their untapped potential), there are amazing things your teaching style will facilitate. ADHD brains are typically the visionaries, dreamers, explorers, inventors (Thomas Edison, Leonardo DaVinci, Albert Einstein), path-finders, discoverers, entrepreneurs (almost all entrepreneurs have ADHD!), creative types, original thinkers, paradigm breakers, trend-setters, free thinkers, as well as being big-hearted, trusting, generous, and fun.

ADHD brains can be hard to follow or rein in, but they love to lead.  They can’t always be counted on, but they are usually great in a crisis.  They don’t read the directions, but they are the first to put the toy together.  They drive you crazy with their inability to follow through, but they sure are charming. These are all of the positive traits of ADHD brains that are yours for the leveraging in your new-normal September, where we all have to find some sense of okay in rolling with the punches.

Teachers and principals should know there are lots of resources and supports available, both through the school board or through a search for local ADHD-declared specialists in your community.  

​There are national patient associations (CADDAC) with free downloadable guides and classroom resources, and local Resource pages such as our ADHD Resource Hub.

Finally, if you yourself, or you child has ADHD (~ 1 in 20 Canadian kids), we also have self-paced, online DIY*ADHD courses (we hear a few boards have reimbursed teachers in Ontario for this continuing education). 
 
Finally, if I leave you with only one thing, it is this question for reflection: What can you personally do to keep your classroom emotionally safe (what do you need for that?), as we return to busy classrooms in September?  Anything that supports relational connection, healthy boundaries and positive reinforcement will pay dividends for the rest of your student’s lives, and benefits every human along the way. 

Godspeed! and #DigALittleDeeper

References

Howell, G. S. and S. (2023, May 31). 7 ways of creating psychological safety for students. ISTE. https://www.iste.org/explore/classroom/7-ways-creating-psychological-safety-students

InnerDrive. (2023, May 19). Psychological safety in the classroom. Safe Learning Environment. blog.innerdrive.co.uk/psychological-safety-in-the-classroom

Why psychological safety matters in class. Harvard Graduate School of Education. (n.d.). https://www.gse.harvard.edu/ideas/news/22/09/why-psychological-safety-matters-class

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Picture of ​Christina Crowe, H.BSc. MACP, RP, (S-Cert) OAMHP (she, her)

​Christina Crowe, H.BSc. MACP, RP, (S-Cert) OAMHP (she, her)

Registered Psychotherapist, Validated Clinical Supervisor, ADHD Therapist & Coach Podcast Host The Christina Crowe Podcast Christina is a Canadian Registered Psychotherapist, a member of CADDRA's Advocacy Committee and relentless mental health advocate. Christina believes great mental health information should be available to everyone, loves creating content that makes invisible things VISIBLE and finding new ways to bring healing experiences to as many people as possible.

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