Photo by - Ksenia Chernaya  - Children-with-her-students-holding-different-color-bells

Empowering Neurodivergence within the Education System

Written by Suzanne Robertshaw and interviewed by Nicole Fernandes


When my husband was 10 years old, he told his mum, “One day there will be a name for this thing I have.” It would be another 17 years before he received his diagnosis of ADDi (Attention Deficit Disorder with inattentive subtype), but even he realized at such a young age, that there was a reason why he felt different, ‘othered’ by the environment that he had only spent 10 years of his life in.

What he shared with me about his experiences at school – and life in general – upset me a great deal. I felt such pain for this little boy who, despite being full of energy, creativity and having an exuberant curiosity about life, had been made to feel like he was just not good enough to fit into (what we now know as) a largely neurotypical world.

And that was enough to inspire me, as a teacher, to do whatever I could to try and lessen that experience of any other neurodivergent young person I came into contact with.

So, I began reading as much as I could about specific learning differences (SpLDs) and putting myself on training courses with The ADHD Foundation. This eventually led me to undertake a Postgraduate Certificate in Dyslexia Research and Practice, which covered all SpLDs, not just dyslexia. Since then, I have been training teachers and have set up my own company – Teaching with a Difference – where I try and advocate for people who are neurodivergent by raising awareness of the positives and challenges that it can bring.

I also decided to write a book for children: A Gobblegark’s Guide to your Brilliant Neurodivergent Brain, because I had witnessed firsthand (through the work I’d done with students and the experience of my son who has dyslexia and ADHD) that, sadly, many things in the education system had not changed since my husband had been at school in the 70s and 80s.

Although the education system is progressing and trying to become more inclusive, there are still many systems and attitudes present that place neurodivergent children, such as those with ADHD, under a lot of unnecessary pressure. For example, the traditional school day in the UK is from 8.30 to around 2.30 with very few breaks in between. High school-age children are expected to be seated for most of this time and get penalized if they fidget, ask to go to the bathroom too many times, forget school equipment or talk too much. All these things highlight children’s need to move to learn, and also executive function skills such as memory, which can be very weak in individuals who have a specific learning difference, like ADHD.

There are plenty of strategies that can be employed to support students with ADHD (at school and home). I felt strongly that I needed to share this in my book (as I do regularly when I train teachers). It’s not just neurodivergent children who need to feel empowered, it’s their teachers too. Research shows that many educators currently feel significantly deskilled when it comes to teaching students who are neurodivergent. But, as I often tell them, there is no big secret to being inclusive. It’s simply learning a little bit about how a ‘differently-wired’ brain works best and then playing to its strengths.

For example, a good start that all teachers could follow would be to adapt all boards and handouts to have automatic dyslexia-friendly fonts and backgrounds. This is free, takes seconds to change and is automatically inclusive. Not just to those with dyslexia, and visual impairments, but also perhaps to other students in the class for whom it allows easier processing of written information.

Connected to this, teachers should be encouraged to cut down on the amount of text they use when explaining concepts to students. Sentences should be short, literal and to the point. Better still, if you can transform a long, wordy instruction into a visual diagram, then someone with ADHD can process this information much easier without losing focus and having to re-read sentences.

Many of the teachers I train now do these things automatically. They approach the planning of each class as if the whole class is neurodivergent, which is an example of very good teaching. If you widen the net to include as many learning styles as possible, then you will automatically ‘catch’ more and stop those who do not respond well to ‘traditional’ teaching methods from falling through.

A few years ago, I also decided to start working as an ADHD consultant, offering support to families who had children with ADHD. I noticed that more and more parents were becoming frustrated with the negative impact the education system was having on their child’s confidence. So, I would meet with them and offer advice on how to build their child’s self-esteem back up, alongside providing reports on how the school could adapt and be more inclusive to that child in its approaches and teaching strategies.

I was often surprised by how little the parents and carers of the child knew about ADHD and neurodivergence in general. Unfortunately, the current medical model is set up to highlight the deficits of someone who is neurodivergent. We only have to look at what the acronym ADHD stands for and it’s right there! I believe firmly that – although we must not diminish the challenges a neurodivergent person has to face in our society – it is extremely important that everyone from the parents, school and especially the child, must follow a strength-based approach according to their learning styles, interests and talents.

The narrative needs to change from ‘What’s wrong with this person and what can we do to fix them and make them closer to what we think is typical’ to ’ Let’s focus on what this person can do well and support them in this to allow them to achieve more.’

I push this ideology strongly in my role as a teacher trainer because I feel passionately that every educator needs to have a neuro-affirming mindset at all times. Teachers should never feel that having a child with a learning difference in their class is extra work or stress. I want them to feel inspired and curious about exploring new and creative methods that allow the entire class to flourish.

Something that I always include in every training session are several simulations that are designed to mirror as closely as possible, what it may feel like to be a neurodivergent student in a traditional classroom. The idea is that teachers are put in what often can be uncomfortable and very vulnerable situations – much the same as many students with SpLDs. Once they experience this from ‘the other side’ it provokes a lot of strong reactions and I believe it is the key to changing one's mindset. Walking in someone else’s shoes will always leave much more of a visceral imprint than any textbook can.

When I am writing – both on my Instagram page, @teachingwithadifference; and in the articles and blogs I produce, I try to raise as much awareness as I can about the challenges and strengths of the neurodivergent experience. I hope it serves a dual purpose to impact fellow educators’ teaching approach and make neurodivergent people (and their loved ones) feel that they are not alone.

Sadly, the flip side to social media is that there are still many conspiracy theories about neurodivergent children and in particular, those with ADHD. I think it stems from the fact that ADHD can be treated with medication. There is a whole movement against big pharmaceutical industries (some of which I am sure are justified). The problem happens when people who have been born with a genuine, neurodevelopmental condition that is impacting their life become scapegoats for a wider, societal anger. That not only diminishes the experience of the person with ADHD, but it also adds to the dangerous narrative that the individual is the problem – not society.

On a positive note though, certainly where I work, I can see a positive change transpiring in that teachers are making real efforts to ensure that the learning environment is as comfortable as possible for everyone in the classroom. That can include things like – making boards and written information more accessible, speaking at a slower pace, allowing learners to wear noise-cancelling headphones (wherever possible) and – in my office, I have managed to even get the invasive, strip lighting removed and a soft-glow lamp installed instead.

That leads me nicely to recommend my 3 favourite products from June Adaptive.

Indigo Kidswear hoodie featuring a " you're made of Magic" design with pockets at front.

You're Made Of Magic - Kids Hoodie

I love the idea that a child can wear a positive message about themselves for all to see and the dyslexia-friendly font is a nice touch. It is also very inclusive in that the material has been designed to be soft and cuddly, taking into account a child’s possible sensory sensitivities

Front of the Navy Women's Sherpa Lining Shoes

Women's Extra Wide Sherpa Lining Shoes

As someone who has suffered from foot myopathy for years, I can confirm that being able to wear shoes that are both comfortable and adaptive is so important. This is a kind of combination of a slipper and sports shoe, which, for me, ticks all the boxes.

Women's Cozy Plush Shawl

Women's Cozy Plush Shawl

The shawls are absolutely gorgeous and I love the pastel colours. They are so easy to slip on – either for slightly older people who may have mobility issues or anyone who feels uncomfortable getting dressed. They look so cozy and warm and I personally think they look very chic too.



Follow Suzanne's work on: 

Instagram: @teachingwithadifference

Website: @suzannerobertshawauthor

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