By Dr Christina Limbird
There are many reasons why children and young people with a neurodiverse learning profile are more likely to experience poor mental health. If we consider the four overarching risk factors stemming from a Biopsychosocial Model of mental health, it is clear that children with specific learning disabilities, children on the autism spectrum, and other neurodiverse learners have immense hurdles in their social-emotional lives.
Of course, as no two neurodiverse students are the same, and since no two schools are the same, these risk factors will play out differently in every school.
The one thing that is consistent across any school context are the strategies we can use to support our neurodiverse students’ inclusion and wellbeing. Here are nine strategies (some big, some small) that any school can take to do just that.
Consider selecting just one or two to start with in your school for the new year!
STRATEGY #1 Promote school culture that makes clear that neurodiversity is part of a diverse global community
Of course culture is slow to shift, but you can break this challenge down into smaller steps such as:
Implementing social emotional learning programs that recognize and embrace neurodiverse children.
Making sure each classroom has inclusive books about neurodiverse children.
Providing explicit instruction about neurodiversity in classrooms and discuss that fair and equitable are not the same
Bring neurodiverse children into the process of determining their support programs and needs.
Give neurodiverse students a sense of responsibility over their own learning to build confidence and self-efficacy. This can include inviting them to IEP meetings and meeting with teachers to decide on what additional supports or accommodations are most helpful.
Implement a mindfulness curriculum
Mindfulness programs and approaches help neurodiverse children along with everyone else in a school community by boosting mental health practices. Mindfulness is an easy to learn coping strategy that can be used by all students and teachers to reduce stress and anxiety, thus easing one more risk factor for neurodiverse students.
Bring the Zones of Regulation program into your school
The Zones of Regulation is a systematic approach using cognitive behavior therapy strategies that helps students build skills in emotional and sensory regulation, executive functioning, and social cognition. This is another example of a program that will benefit EVERYONE in your school community while boosting the mental health resilience and awareness for your neurodiverse students
Have enough counselors to attend to neurodiverse children
Make sure you have a robust enough counseling or pastoral team to be able to check in regularly on your neurodiverse students. These students may not be able to identify when they are in need of help. With regular check-ins, at-risk students are comfortable with those adults in a position to help, and counselors will be able to monitor difficulties or provide support.
Provide Social Skills groups for neurodiverse children
Remember: neurodiverse kids are not antisocial. They lack the skills to connect, which often leaves them lonely and isolated. School counselors are great at designing and implementing social skills groups for all ages.
Celebrate neurodiverse students' successes and consider the messages they are getting on a daily basis
Shift your focus toward strengths instead of weaknesses in neurodiverse children to build confidence, resilience and a positive healthy self-image. This will serve as a protective factor against depression and anxiety.
Implement early intervention systems
The younger neurodiverse students are, the easier it is for them to build strategies to be successful in a typical educational environment. This also means having a strong network of psychologists, behavior specialists, and speech therapists working together with your teachers and families.
Intentionally teach organizational skills in the mainstream classroom
Working on time management, executive functioning, and organizational skills in the mainstream classroom benefits students of ALL ages. For neurodiverse students and students with mental health difficulties, this has the added benefit of reducing anxiety. With good planning tools and systems, students can better predict what will happen next and reduce the amount of things in their lives that can feel out of control.
Finally, it is important to remember that by embracing our neurodiverse students and by modeling how we all can support them, we are building a more empathetic and inclusive generation of young people. Students are watching us as role models when it comes to neurodiversity, and we can make a tremendous impact on their views, attitudes, and perspectives as well. Hear what 11 year old Dilan, from an international school in Germany has to say about that…
"It is important to embrace neurodiverse students
because we need different perspectives."
- Dilan, 11 years old
Find out more about our Neurodiversity Support Team. Our Neurodiversity Support Team of educators, therapists, and psychologists are committed to helping young people thrive and reach their highest potential, socially, emotionally, and academically. We strive to help neurodiverse children and teens to navigate all aspects of daily life as they reach their full potential to be active members of their communities.