Ten tips to help your child navigate school with neurodiversity

School is tricky to navigate. It’s a whole world of swiftly changing social dynamics, mixed with academic anxiety and physical activity. It’s exhausting! Finding your way in this mix can be even more challenging if you’re dealing with neurodiversity, so we’ve collected some tips to help you help your child.

parent helping their neurodivergent child navigate school
Cluey Learning Monday, 21 November 2022

1. Choose your battles

It’s very easy to get swept up in trying to make things perfect – even more so if you have a neurodiversity that has prompted you to use perfectionism as a defence. Your child may struggle with not being able to stay on top of everything at school to the level that they think is right, and that can feel like failure. 

To help minimise and manage that feeling, pick your battles. If something is expensive or difficult to replace, help your child to prioritise looking after that piece of their school equipment. Decide not to care if the less valuable school kit disappears.

Instead of investing in the nicest lunchboxes and pencil cases, buy less fancy versions but more of them – a box of biro pens or a tub of lead pencils at home or in a school locker can help your child to feel prepared, and knowing that you won’t hit the roof over every lost water bottle will minimise fear of, or feelings of, failure. 

Showing your child how to pick their battles in this way is wonderful modelling for them for the rest of their lives – they’ll never be able to get everything perfect because they’re humans and learning that that’s okay from their family as early as possible can help to avoid or minimise anxiety.


2. Write your own curriculum

In the same vein, help your child to choose their learning battles. 

Neurodiversity often means having widely dispersed knowledge, being expert in some areas and finding others impenetrable. Whether it’s academic or social, work with your child to decide what challenges they want to prioritise tackling, what things seem easy and therefore boring, and which skills they truly want to work on. 

This might change every day, and you might get more of an academic focus as your child moves up the year levels, but by involving your child in negotiating their own education, you’re showing them that their interests and goals matter, that they have power in their own lives, and that it’s okay to deviate from the one-size-fits-most curriculum.


3. Use bracket goals

We talk a lot about setting goals, shooting for the moon and landing among the stars. This can be inspiring for some people, but for others it means that there is only one positive outcome among countless situations that amount to failure. Don’t do that to your neurodiverse child. 

Instead, when you’re talking about goals, think about them in terms of brackets. There needs to be at least two goal posts, and landing anywhere between them counts as success. The simplest example is giving visitors a bracketed arrival time; between 7 and 7.30.

Suddenly, instead of panicking at 7.01 that you’re late and have caused disappointment, or fearing at 6.58 that you’ll be rudely early, you’ve now got thirty whole minutes in which it is perfectly acceptable to arrive. What a relief!

Translate this to schoolwork with mark brackets like ‘we’ll be worried enough to talk to the teacher if it’s less than 60% but if it’s over 70% we’ll be delighted’ or effort brackets like ‘I’m proud of you already, and I hope you do your very best at the sports carnival, but I’ll be thrilled if you just give it a try.’

Practising this helps to teach your child how to be kind to themselves, set realistic goals and to be responsive to their reality in the moment.


4. Hack your home

Arriving at work when the commute was a disaster, your shoes don’t match, you only got a bite of breakfast and you can’t remember if you locked the front door is an awful feeling. It can derail your entire day.

Kids can feel exactly the same way if getting to school is a debacle for them, and their day can be ruined in advance if going home means facing a mountain of impossible chores. 

So, make your home user friendly. This does not mean making it perfect, nor does it mean making it permanently visitor-ready or perpetually Instagram proof. It means making your home work for the people who live in it. 

Not every hack is for everyone, but here are some to consider:

  • Give up on folding – if someone’s judging you based on the various underwear drawers in your house, ask them if they’re ok or if they need a hobby or a hug.
  • Socks don’t need to be paired – buy too many of the same style sock and embrace the chaos. As long as any differences are hidden inside the shoe, your child is unlikely to feel self-conscious about mismatched socks.
  • Tumble dried clothes don’t need to be turned right way around – the wearer will check and do that when they put the garment on, figure it out eventually or just not care, and that’s okay too.
  • Stock up on instant foods that occupy the healthier middle ground. Pre-cooked rice, deli meats, protein shakes, boiled eggs, and pre-made frozen meals are all more accessible to a hungry, growing, impatient person, and can help anyone with neurodiversity to take better care of themselves without getting distracted or caught in decision paralysis.
  • Tubs are your new best friend – having a sizeable, sturdy container to catch all the school gear near the door, and to hold ‘you’ll need this on Friday’ items, and that your child can see into from above with no hiding places, means giving them peace of mind. Struggling with object permanence is a common feature of neurodiversity, and it means that your child’s brain may not trust things to stay where they were left. Cutting down the possible places to check saves time, energy and panic. Tubs are great because they have handles so you can move them when company comes or over the school holidays.
  • Chore charms (a bunch of bracelets that have a tag with a job written on them) can be a helpful way to help your child keep track of what jobs they have to do before bed or a shower, whether they’re actual chores or self-care jobs like taking vitamins. When the job is done, they can take off the charm.
  • Use timers and set times for cleaning. Activating the competitive spirit can make boring jobs more interesting, so racing against the clock to get the laundry put away or the bedroom tidy might make it more likely that these things actually happen. It can also be soothing to decide that a particular time each week is deep-cleaning-the-house time. It means that you can ignore the less pressing cleaning jobs until that time comes, and then you have fewer decisions to make and less to worry about in the meantime. 

There are loads of neurodiversity-friendly home hacks out there to explore. The overarching point is that by editing your life-admin systems to be more forgiving for everyone, you’re showing your child that they don’t need to be perfect all of the time, and that calm functionality is worth cultivating for their internal and external wellbeing. School is easier when home is less work for everyone.


5. Embrace purposeful vagueness

Depending on your child’s neurodiveristy symptoms, age and management plan, it may not be necessary to tell many people about their neurodiversity.

Teachers need to know if there’s a medical reason for altering assessment conditions, and they appreciate knowing what strategies will support their students (all their students, not just the ones with diagnoses), but you don’t need to share any more than is necessary about your child’s brain. 

Being purposefully vague at the school gate can help your child to avoid feeling singled out or exposed for their neurodiversity.

Also, even though they’re only young, it’s still their brain, their personal experience and their private information so it’s worth being selective in who you tell and what you tell them about your child’s neurodiversity. 

Modelling purposeful vagueness can also help your child to feel more empowered in talking to other people. Many people with neurodiversities struggle to set up and maintain personal boundaries, and they may overshare about their inner lives more than they actually want to.

Having seen their parent explain their struggles as normal and fleeting with ‘oh, you know, organisation can be tricky at that age’ or ‘we could all use better focus, couldn’t we!’ gives them a script to use when they don’t want to explain the details of what they’re struggling with, and empowers them to shape their own identity and friendships.


6. Active rest

Pop culture teaches us that at the end of the day, we should come home, put our feet up and TV ourselves to sleep. On holidays we should lounge in hammocks or pools and just be still.

That might work for some people, but for neurodiverse minds, jumping from ‘go’ to ‘stop’ is rarely that simple, and trying to force it can be deeply frustrating.

This is where active rest comes in. Things like going for a run to clear your head or going on a hiking adventure holiday count as active rest, but there’s a whole spectrum of activities that might help your child unwind from the day and relax.

Gardening, learning languages, practising musical instruments, hobbies, crafts, physical practices like yoga or martial arts, cooking, reading and writing are all examples of active rest. If you can help your child to develop an array of hobbies, they can follow their interests and instincts towards the one that will give them the most satisfaction in the circumstances of exactly that day. 

Hobbies with different intensities and requirements are helpful to have in the active rest armoury so that your child can think something through, distract themselves, and get satisfaction from something unconnected to school or social life. Tubs may once again be your friend in managing hobby equipment.


7. Practice emotions like an instrument

Emotions can be tricky to figure out, for all humans. Developing a habit of talking about emotions objectively with your family can help your child with neurodiversity to learn how to notice feelings, what they might feel like, and how to express them appropriately. 

Executive function is deeply important for emotional regulation and neurodiversity tends to mean that executive function is unreliable or erratic.

This means that your child may have to work a lot harder than other kids their age to notice their emotions, to identify their emotions, to explain their emotions to themselves and to express their emotions to others. Showing them how to do these things, and creating a safe space for them to practice, can help lighten that load for them.


8. The Friendship Formula

Figuring out how to make friends can be a challenge for any child. But you can give them some frameworks to help them get there. 

First, decide who you want to befriend and why. Maybe it’s that girl who also loves insects. Maybe it’s that boy who practices judo on his own because he’s on his own. Maybe it’s that kid who smiled at them on the first day.

Making one friend at a time can be less daunting than trying to make a whole class like you, and your child might gain some momentum and safety from that first friendship. 

Knowing why you want to befriend someone can help in the next stage – making a connection. If an interest is shared, your child might be able to say ‘hello, do you want to hunt for ants together?’.

If they’re approaching someone who is on their own, ‘mind if I join you?’ can go a long way. If your child wants to join a group activity, something like ‘can I tag along?’ can make way for a connection. Even if it’s awkward for a little while, having an opening line ready to go can bring anyone a lot of confidence. 

Third, follow up. It can be awkward wondering if someone wants to spend time with you again, but it’s usually awkward for both parties. Having a line ready to go that connects to the previous interaction can help everyone to relax, things like ‘do you want to hunt for ants together again today?’ or ‘I enjoyed yesterday’s game, can we do that again?’

By phrasing these things as questions, your child can leave space for their new friend to say no, which will tell them all they need to know about whether that person is worthy of their company and energy at the moment.

This is a very basic starting point for talking about how to make friends, but it is a skill we tend not to talk about in any analytical depth as adults, and for a child with neurodiversity who may thrive on rules, protocols and plans, understanding how friendships can be forged can help them feel more comfortable at school.


9. Consider rejection and resilience

There will be times when your child gets or feels rejected. Things do not always turn out as we want them to. 

Neurodiversity can make rejection both harder and easier, depending on countless factors, but again, having a plan in place to manage rejection when it comes can help your child to feel more comfortable in the uncertain environment that is school. 

Neurodiversity can make rejection harder because of something called rejection sensitivity. This varies widely but it means that your child may see any criticism as a complete rejection, so a simple ‘oops, you’ve missed a comma’ from a teacher can feel like a total invalidation of your child’s existence. 

It’s not yet fully understood, but rejection sensitivity makes a lot of sense when you consider that neurodiverse children cop tens of thousands of behavioural criticisms more than their neurotypical peers by the time they’re ten.

Feeling like you have to be perfect to avoid such reprimands, and having any failure to be perfect noticed, can feel like the end of the world for a young person whose reserves of resilience might be more depleted than they let on.

Having a plan that works for your child on sensitive days and reminding them out of the blue  how wonderful they are, can help to navigate and minimise these moments. 

However, neurodiversity can give a child a brilliant defence against rejection. Lack of focus, distractibility and following intense interests can mean that your child can distract themselves from rejection almost instantly, discover when it comes that they actually weren’t that interested in the person rejecting them to begin with, and, if there’s any kind of delay between the behaviour and the rejection, they might have moved on so completely that they don’t remember doing the assignment that earned the poor mark, and couldn’t care less. 

Feeling rejection at school is a tricky thing to manage, but knowing that it might happen, and having strategies to use when it does, can help any child feel better about school.


9. Mental health days are for everyone

Finally, you’re not immune from your child’s exhaustion. If you both need a day without school or work then take it. Use a sick day, practice purposeful vagueness (‘my child’s not feeling 100%’ is almost never a lie and very difficult to interrogate) and embrace the day off.

Sunny day? Go outside! Rainy day? Cook something together! Have afternoon naps, eat well, have fun. Perfect attendance is worthless if it’s at the cost of your, or your child’s, mental health. 

How can Cluey help?

Tutoring can be a marvellous way of building your child’s confidence at school. By having a reliable opportunity to ask any questions that they may feel silly asking in class, and to extend their interests if they’re ahead of the class, your child can feel supported and calm at school. 

If you’re curious about Cluey’s approach to tutoring students with ADHD, get in touch with Cluey today.

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