Pandemic neurodiverse classroom management: 3 tips 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 and Clinical Supervisor

“TEACHERS ARE SOME OF OUR MOST IMPORTANT LEADERS.

We can’t always ask our students to take off the armor 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 armor, 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 armor. 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 in an uncertain September, one group of students I often hear from teachers described as ‘challenging’ in their classrooms are the neurodiverse kids. While can be tough to hear as an advocate, I get it.  I empathize with the reality that while teachers are not mental health clinicians, they have been tasked with both identifying kids who have not yet been identified as needing more support, and with managing these unique brains regardless of how much outside-of-school support they are (or aren’t) getting.  This article aims to support some of that unfair task.  (The bonus feature here is that regardless of any formal assessments or diagnosis – these principles apply to ALL humans). 

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Neurodiversity can cover a wide range of cognitive differences, from sensory processing disorder (SPD), the spectrum of Autism (ASD), the different types of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

​To complicate matters, many of the symptoms of these ‘conditions’ overlap very much with anxiety, depression and trauma, and many kids simply go undiagnosed, and therefore untreated.  Maturity and the heterogeneity of development also factor in, where kids with late year birthdays for example, just need to the time to develop.

The good news is, the interventions discussed below are very generalizable to all kids, and best practices are always about tailoring your approach to the child in front of you. 

In this article, I’ll focus on the most common neurodiversity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Parents and teachers often don’t understand the complexities of ADHD, in all it’s different presentations. They have been told it is simply about focus, or the inability to sit still.  

​Historically, the reason teachers are involved at all is kids spend 30 or so hours a week at school, and to be formally diagnosed with ADHD, the symptom’s must be present in more than one setting, usually home & school.  

Newer research acknowledges that for many younger kids, the structure of school can in fact mask symptoms, especially for the inattentive-type ADHD (the daydreamers). The lifelong consequences of unidentified and untreated ADHD can be heartbreaking,  for people who continue into adulthood without knowing why things have been so hard, and also increased their risk for further medical and psychological problems later in life.  With the usual supports of structure at school in non-pandemic times, this is likely how many inattentive types go undiagnosed (just enough structure).  

PANDEMIC CONSIDERATIONS?

In pandemic times, with schools not operating as usual, parents might see symptoms that they hadn’t seen before (and could be easy to blame on the pandemic). For many, the pandemic’s initial lockdowns removed the external structure from life, and in working from home, and with distance learning, we had to suddenly create structure for ourselves that previously had been handed to us.  For many people, this wasn’t very hard once we figured out this was necessary.  

​ADHD brains however, generally aren’t interested in creating their own structure, adult or child.  On top of this, it’s ADHD is familial, so, in many cases, a child is now home with a parent, who also isn’t prioritizing daily structure. ​

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3 TIPS FOR PANDEMIC-SEPTEMBER 

As previously stated, it doesn’t really matter whether you know for sure what condition a child may have, you likely know that parts of the school experience are distressing for them.

​These 3 bottom-line tips refer specifically to ADHD, but these are tips that are helpful for any child, and given our nerve-wracking pandemic conditions,  perhaps all of us. ​


TIP 1: IF YOU AREN’T QUITE SURE IF YOU HAVE A CHILD’S ATTENTION, GET 1 ON 1 AND ASK THEM. DON’T MAKE ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT THE CAUSE. 

ADHD is less about problematic hyperactivity, and more about a neurodiversity that includes a genetically transmitted wandering attention, with a wide array of complex and often 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, that isn’t always traditional neurotypical curriculum topics.

​This is easier to imagine in your inattentive daydreamers.  They aren’t causing you trouble in the classroom, but we can never be sure what where their focus is (the quieter “if only they’d apply themselves” kids). 

This next part is REALLY important.

It is this inconsistency of attention that leads to inconsistent performance and underachievement in school (or, for adults, at work). There is often the report card comment, “Chrissy has so much potential and could do so well if only she could apply herself.” Too often, teachers and parents jump to the “the moral diagnosis,” and mistakenly think it’s a lack of effort or laziness, which leads to lectures, punishments, and a gradual depression of the child’s spirit, increases shame and lowers their own sense of their potential.  In fact, the correct diagnosis is of a brain difference, not a brain ‘deficit’, and certainly not a moral failing.


TIP 2: TRY CONNECTION BEFORE CORRECTION, AND SLOWING DOWN TO EXPLAIN STEPS, CREATING VISUALS AND MODELLING THE APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOURS.  

ADHD brains are constantly on the lookout for something that will capture their attention, rendering them a bit constantly restless or agitated.  This takes many forms.  

​It can be internal (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).  ​

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ADHD brained kids can’t 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. 

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LET’S TIE THIS INTO A BIOLOGY LESSON, FOR EXTRA CREDIT!

Research supports this inattentiveness is biologically a function of lower dopamine levels, or dopamine receptivity in these brains.  Is this actually an abnormality or is it an adaption of evolution? (That discussion is broader than the scope of this article, but I might get to that in another post).  

It’s these lower levels of dopamine that are what contribute to what looks like on the outside as a lack of motivation:

  • a low tolerance of frustration (willingness to start learning what might seem like complex tasks) .. looks like giving up too quickly, 
  • tendency to have many things going on at once,  
  • trouble with follow-through,
  • tendency to multi-task,
  • trouble following sequential directions (missing the middle steps or social nuances), problematic in math for example.

Parkinson’s patients also have very low dopamine, and this manifests in things like forgetting to eat – because dopamine fuels all of our survival functions as mammals, which for our ADHD brained kids, includes protective connecting behaviours with their peers and family members. 

As a teacher, the helpful lens is that you have a classroom full of relational mammals, whom ALL need to feel psychologically and physically safe in order to engage and learn; your trueclassroom prep then must include ensuring your classroom feels SAFE to each and every kid.  

​If your ADHDer’s 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, 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. 


Image of a frustrated little girl, head in her hands.

TIP 3: ​TEACH (AND MODEL) EMOTIONAL/SELF REGULATION, AND LEVERAGE THE STRENGTHS OF NEURODIVERSE BRAINS. 

ADHD brains are very sensitive.  Kids with ADHD are negatively corrected an average of 25:1 every single day, compared to a kid without ADHD.  About 20,000 negative messages about themselves by the time they are 12, so later teenaged anxiety and depression makes a lot of sense.  They can be defensive, lie in advance, and seem not forth-coming, because they have learned to build defences against being blamed, shamed and punished.  

​Gaining their trust and modelling accountability becomes a great source of positive connection for them. 

Related, newer research is also confirming what clinicians have known for a long time, that emotional function can also be quite dysregulated in ADHD brains. This can look like a child or teen having a short fuse, anger issues, extreme emotional swings (beyond what you might expect from puberty).  

​Classroom self-regulation strategies and one on one attention can work wonders in helping kids understand how and why their bodies react to stressors the way they do. Videos that help kids understand their emotions as rational behaviours as mammals can be incredibly beneficial. 

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. 

IN CLOSING, 

While managing the symptoms of ADHD – in both the daydreamers and the constant fidgeters – aren’t within the scope of what teachers probably thought they’d be addressing, the symptoms of unidentified and untreated ADHD prevent optimal learning, and right now, are exacerbated by the pandemic. 

Teachers and principals need to know there are lots of resources and supports available, both through your school board and through a search for local supports in your community.  

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

Finally, if you yourself, or you child has ADHD (~ 1 in 20 Canadian kids), we created the online DIY*ADHD course, available here (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 do to keep your classroom emotionally safe, as we return to an uncertain 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 ​

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

General Back to School support:

Our first 3 ADHD coaching articles:

Recommended books relevant to this post:

  1. Smart but Scattered Teens: The “Executive Skills” Program for Helping Teens Reach Their Potential. by Richard Guare, Peg Dawson, Colin Guare 
  2. Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential by Peg Dawson, PhD and Richard Guare, PhD. 
  3. What to do when your temper flares: A Kid’s Guide by Dawn Huebner, PhD. 
  4. What to do when you worry too much: A Kid’s Guide by Dawn Huebner, PhD.
  5. Dare to Lead: Brave work, tough conversations, whole hearts. By Brené Brown, PhD.

ONE ON ONE SUPPORT:

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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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