Learning to Parent for Neuro-diverse Learning Needs

I see her whole strength,” says Amelia Menk-Brown, Mom and Educational Technology leader, about her daughter who thrives academically in a highly challenging private school while managing her neuro-diverse learning needs.

Neurodiversity describes any person who thinks, learns or perceives differently than others but often refers to a person who is on the Autism spectrum or has been identified as having Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) or Dyslexia. And there are numerous other designations that fit the neuro-divergent term like mental health challenges (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder), Down Syndrome, Dyspraxia, Dysgraphia and more.1 The guesstimate is that 15-20% of the population are neuro-divergent thinkers and learners.2 Not only do traditional modes of learning in the classroom and at home not work, but also students are more likely to be bullied and picked on for their differences. For example, children with ADHD are twice as likely to be bullied than their neuro-typical peers.3

Though currently the types of learners who fall under the neuro-divergent umbrella are labeled with “disorders,” there’s newer research that suggests that the mental illness perspective may not be accurate at all.4 Indeed, neuro-divergent learners and thinkers may be an evolutionary adaptation of the human species to assist in quicker mental activity, extra-sensory sensitivity (as culturally we become more de-sensitized) and more.

Being a parent of a neuro-divergent student can be particularly challenging since most schools are set up for neuro-typical learners and many struggle with ways in which to support different and individualized learning needs.

Both “kids,” “A,” a sophomore in high school, and “B,” a freshman in college, struggled mightily with school. At a young age, each was diagnosed with ADHD and Dyslexia. As they grew, Amelia saw their identity emerging as “other” because she explained, “when you are neuro-divergent, you constantly question yourself. You feel like a square peg in a round hole all of the time because you just don’t learn in the same way others do.” She watched it taking hold of their self confidence — feeling guilty about struggling to do their schoolwork and labeled by teachers as “lazy, unwilling and hopelessly disorganized.”  

Even though her daughter has the equivalent of an individualized learning plan (or IEP) at school, she still feels like “nobody steps into her shoes and thinks ‘what’s it like for her and how can we optimize her journey?’.” Amelia confesses, “The worst nights are Sunday nights when she has avoided her work all weekend.” Amelia reads aloud so that A can consume the information in a way that doesn’t exhaust her so that she has energy to do the critical thinking and analysis (the thinking work) that is required of older students and adults. Those times Mom, Dad who is also on the learning support team and daughter are all exhausted and staying up late to get the work done. And the week has only just begun.

The family spent time advocating with teachers who were not well educated in the ways in which learning can happen differently for her children. That advocacy created the need for school changes. But also much of the educational process had to take place at home because school just wasn’t equipped. Both parents spent considerable time reading and learning about ADHD and Dyslexia and experimenting with new ways of taking in school material that could better support learning. But their parent learning supports go far beyond the mechanics of learning like reading aloud. 

Amelia has come to realize that a critical part of her role is to model and promote social and emotional skills in order to support Ada’s learning success. Frustration is naturally a part of learning but for those who experience the challenges and opportunities of neuro-divergent thinking, frustration is frequent and persistent. So self regulation is a critical higher order thinking skill to be developed and practiced. “When I’m frustrated” Amelia relays, “losing my self regulation helps nobody. I have to take a step back.” So she has adopted habits of pausing, of breathing, of taking time out and then, expressing her feelings. That emotional awareness serves as a crucial tool as A moves into high stakes academics during the school day and has to find ways to self manage. Amelia is aware that she has to model those skills first if A is to do the same. It also helps Mom let go and allow A to try and even fail at times but learn to do things for herself.

Amelia also engages her in metacognition, or thinking about her thinking processes and ways in which she learns best. Metacognition is a key higher order thinking skill that has shown to contribute to any student’s academic success and a particularly important strategy for neuro-divergent learners. They can approach a learning task understanding how they think and learn and take approaches that align with that awareness. 

Amelia feels passionate about helping her daughter reinvent her self perception as fully intelligent and fully capable. “I see her as a whole person with tremendous strength. There’s nothing wrong with her.” So she recounts stories to A of her persistence despite struggles and those stories of strength help build a new identity of resilience and confidence.

These social and emotional strategies contribute to the whole family’s sense of well-being as the parents feel agency that they can be supportive and the daughter and son feel they are capable and competent in their learning.

Other ideas for supporting neuro-divergent learners include:

ask first how they learn best and listen reflectively for needs, helpful supports and goals.

be present, observant and calm. This requires that both educators and parents adopt their own self management strategies including mindfulness practices.

use empathy. Articulate feelings. And remind yourself how your student feels when approaching more challenging tasks.

become sensitive to the environment and all five sense stimulations – sounds, sights, smells, and limit those to create quiet learning spaces.

create movement opportunities regularly – both small and large through hand manipulatives (fidgets, knitting, drawing) brain breaks, and outdoor time. Movement is not a distraction! It serves a key purpose to help integrate information in the brain.

use clear, direct language. Sometimes referred to as “clean language,” communications avoid sarcasm, euphemisms or subtle implied messages. 

break down tasks into small steps and if helpful, put in writing.

ask for help and find support! 

Be sure you have tools at the ready to support your efforts! We like the Zones of Regulation because it’s simple and they pair feelings with healthy responses. Also, check out our coping strategies lists — or make your own! – and keep it posted so your child can easily refer to it when frustrated. There’s so much more to learn about this topic on how we can better understand and support neuro-divergent learners so this is just a start!

And there’s more to Amelia’s story as well. As she took the time to be more present and put herself in daughter’s shoes attempting to see from her perspective, she grew a passion and sense of purpose for helping other students who struggle. Amelia has shifted her work to focus on building technology solutions that can help students who need different modalities for learning.

It’s clear that our support of neuro-divergent learners is mind and heart-expanding for neuro-typical learners. It can raise our social awareness and expand our creative thinking as we experience individuals who perceive the world differently.

Favorite Websites with More Support:

Conscious Discipline – on ways to support educators and parents in learning and promoting self regulation

Child Mind Institute

Understood

*Big thanks to Amelia Menk-Brown for her leadership on this topic and for sharing their family’s story!

References:

  1. Baumer, N. & Frueh, J. (2021). What is neurodiversity? Mind & Mood. Harvard Health Publishing, Nov. 23. Retrieved on 10/18/23 at https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/what-is-neurodiversity-202111232645

2.  Doyle N. (2020). Neurodiversity at work: a biopsychosocial model and the impact on working adults. British Medical Bulletin. Oct 14;135(1):108-125. Retrieved on 10/18/23 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7732033/

3. Cuba Bustinza, C., Adams, R. E., Claussen, A. H., Vitucci, D., Danielson, M. L., Holbrook, J. R., Charania, S. N., Yamamoto, K., Nidey, N., & Froehlich, T. E. (2022). Factors Associated With Bullying Victimization and Bullying Perpetration in Children and Adolescents With ADHD: 2016 to 2017 National Survey of Children’s Health. Journal of Attention Disorders. Retrieved on 10/18/23 at https://doi.org/10.1177/10870547221085502.

4. Hunt, A., & Jaeggi, A. (2022). Specialised minds: Extending adaptive explanations of personality to the evolution of psychopathology. Evolutionary Human Sciences, 4, E26. Retrieved on 10/18/23 at https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/evolutionary-human-sciences/article/specialised-minds-extending-adaptive-explanations-of-personality-to-the-evolution-of-psychopathology/EA63787E64435787ADEF5A0AC882593A.

3 Comments on “Learning to Parent for Neuro-diverse Learning Needs”

  1. This is super helpful as a mom of neurodiverse kid transitioning to high school soon; to put into context the 1. emotional awareness, 2. metacognition and 3. persistence despite struggles. I will use this framework to help my child advocate for himself when it comes to academic settings and challenges that come up as teens.

    • Thanks for writing! I am so glad to hear it’s helpful. I think so many parents feel alone in the struggle and unsure of how to support their kids. Will continue this work and look for additional ways to offer support! All the best, Jennifer

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