Neurodivergent traits – at school
It helps neurodivergent young people if you try to understand their world at school better.
Below is a list of some common things that parents or school staff might notice. Everyone’s different, so they won’t all apply, but you might find that several are familiar.
These traits may fit with all sorts of neurodivergence, including autism, ADHD, language disorder, social communication disorder etc, or a combination of these. Some traits may be caused by other things too.
- Before and after school
- In the classroom
- Outside the classroom
Before and after school
- Difficulty going into school because of anxiety due to needs not being met
- Overwhelmed by the effort of masking at school. Meltdowns or shutdowns seen at home after school to let off tension
- May get by in primary school but moving to secondary school becomes overwhelming
- Appears frequently tired and needing down-time when after school
In the classroom
Reported by teaching staff to show ‘good behaviour’ and to be ‘managing ok’. They often doesn’t ‘cause trouble’ or attract much attention
Likes specific, literal instructions
Perfectionist – hates getting things wrong but struggles to understand what’s expected
May be academically able
Dislikes group work – finds groups easier when they include their close friend. Usually prefers working on their own so they have autonomy and control.
Bothered by mistakes – will correct teacher and parents/carers; strong desire to be right
Gets bored waiting for teachers to explain topics to others that they’ve already grasped
May doodle, fiddle, fidget, not look at teacher or appear to daydream because it helps them focus and listen
Annoyed and distracted by unrealistic scenarios in hypothetical problems – eg ‘John has 143 apples’
Finds transitions in the day (eg between classrooms) difficult
Finds sudden changes to usual routine or timetable difficult – eg around Christmas, beginning and end of term, transition to secondary school
May find it easier to chat to teachers or other adults that they like, than to peers
Finds it hard to understand social hierarchy
Finds it very difficult to focus on subjects or tasks that they do not like or find interesting
Finds it difficult to ask for help or to express any needs in the classroom, eg:
- May use compensation techniques to disguise difficulties from teachers
- May be unable to use strategies like ‘time out’ cards because of anxiety
- Unwilling to do homework unless they understand the reason for it
- May not raise a hand in class or be reluctant to speak when called on.
- May experience less difficulty and anxiety if seated with a friend, and if the seating doesn’t change
Outside the classroom
Dislikes PE because of lack of structure/discipline, confusing rules, and sensory, hypermobility or coordination issues
May be uncomfortable with unstructured time at school and need support for these times more than lessons
Can find lunchtimes difficult, eg:
- Slow eater
- Food has to be eaten in a specific way or specific order
- School lunch is different from home
- Cutlery is different from home and harder to use
- Other children are distracting
- Other children finish faster and they want to go out to play with them instead of eating alone
- School policies around what and how much lunch has to be eaten by pupils
May prefer their own company
Can look to a casual observer that they are playing in a natural way, but in reality may be mimicking peers’ behaviour consciously to fit in
Focuses on one particular friend and finds it difficult to share them with others
Very uncomfortable with conflict
Finds playtime difficult because of lack of structure and unpredictability
Finds it difficult to choose between different friends to play with – very worried about hurting others’ feelings. Can overlook their own wants and needs to appease others.
Likes leading games and finds it difficult to play according to someone else’s rules, or to change the game suddenly
Can appear to be quite passive because that seems like safer ground, socially
Isolated and sometimes bullied for being ‘different’ or not playing in the ‘expected’ way
Often very compliant and wants to ‘please’ peers, but confused by social norms. Can be manipulated by others to do extreme things in order to be socially ‘accepted’
Doesn’t like others breaking the rules, and will police other children if they are. The concept of ‘telling tales’ is confusing
Finds aspects of school uniform (or other clothes) difficult or impossible
Can be distressing to eat in the dinner hall due to the sensory aspect of smell and so many people
Finds assemblies difficult due to proximity of so many people
Startled and scared by teachers suddenly raising voice
Finds noise of busy classroom overwhelming
Reasonable Adjustments in school
Here are some possible reasonable adjustments that can be established in schools to make neurodivergent pupil’s school careers more equitable with their peers. All schools, employers, local authorities and shops or services like leisure centres have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people under the Equality Act, 2010.
This may mean:
- Changing the way things are done
- Changing a physical feature, or
- Providing extra aids or services
Going Into School and the School Day
- Should be able to go in at a different time to avoid crowds
- Provide an alternative to the school bell
- Uniform regulations need to be relaxed on an individual basis for sensory reasons
- Check attendance and behaviour policies to make sure they are inclusive of all pupils including those with SEND
- Check policies on exclusions to make sure pupils are not being punished for behaviours relating to their SEND
- Have a whole school understanding of neurodiversity
- Understand and teach others about interoception and alexithymia
- Understand and teach others about communication styles and how they differ across neurotypes – difference not deficit
- May require a dedicated teaching assistant who understands the child, preferably one who is autistic
- Give understanding support over change and transition and consider small as well as big transitions
- Play therapy or Lego therapy may be appropriate (as long as it isn’t trying to modify autistic behaviour)
- Speech and language therapy may be beneficial (as long as it isn’t trying to modify autistic behaviour)
- Develop an active relationship with parents and communicate about the school day – not just academic or behavioural stuff
- Even at secondary, copy parents in on important communication
- Support students to be able to independently chunk and plan tasks in a way that works for them
- While not all autistic students think visually, a visual timetable adapted for how they process information may be helpful
- As always, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. All autistic children are different and will have variable strengths, interests and support needs
In the Classroom
- Make sure the child knows what’s going to happen – no sudden surprises
- If you promise something, keep that promise
- Sitting at the front/back/near doorway of the classroom (student’s choice)
- Use of fidget toys – may be restricted to those that don’t make a noise
- Seating that allows movement
- Movement breaks as necessary
- ‘Timeout’ card to leave class (but child may feel too self-conscious to use it)
- Tasks to be chunked down and presented in different formats appropriate to the learner
- Instructions to be written as well as verbal
- Use of voice to text software, reader pens, scribe etc
- Modelling the work and/or providing a visual explanation (though not all autistic children are visual learners of course)
- Use of ear-defenders/noise-cancelling headphones and music if required
- Adapt lessons to pupil’s passionate interests
- A laptop may be preferable to writing – but listening and taking notes at the same time may not be possible
- A ‘sensory diet’ may be crucial to school bearability – needs Occupational Therapist input
- Provide specific and adapted sex/relationship education which uses clear and unambiguous language and is inclusive (see the section on this in our white paper here)
- Keep shouting and telling off (by the teacher) to a minimum. The autistic child may not differentiate between the whole class or another group being told off and them being told off
- Do not force an autistic child to take part in group work with students they don’t know, or be called on in class
- Do not change seating arrangements without prior preparation
- Consider not giving neurodivergent children detentions/exclusions at all, but definitely not for anything caused by executive function or processing issues eg. Forgetting equipment, being late, being unable to find the class, being slow to get changed, being slow to form a group
- Understand that other neurotypes experience the world in a different way to you – not better or worse but different
At Break Times
- At least one special person who understands that student and who they can go to if needed
- Some structure and scaffolding for neurodivergent pupils
- A safe place to go to eat or chill out
- An alternative to the dining hall to get food, or the facility to go in without all the other pupils
- Clubs which are interesting for your neurodivergent pupils and NOT just the same old sports and computing clubs, eg. Anime, Pokemon, K-pop, rock painting, etc.
- Access to an area for sensory input and regulation
- Relaxation of food rules if ‘safe foods’ are not what is considered healthy eating
- May need adult support to be reminded to eat and drink
- A mentor/TA/LSA should know the pupil well enough to be able to recognise situations which will be difficult to navigate and provide scaffolding
- Any ‘interventions’ or therapies should be neuro-affirmative and not seeking to make an autistic child more neurotypical (eg. Not teaching to make eye contact)
- Any accommodation that is usually given in class
- Extra time
- A quiet room – may need to be on their own
- Specific teaching (preferably informed by a neurodivergent teacher) to be able to interpret ambiguous (to a non-neurotypical person) wording in exam papers
School Work at Home
- Little to no homework at home
- Where possible ‘homework’ should be done at school
Literally anything is possible!
School anxiety and refusal
This information is taken from the Young Minds website:
It’s normal for children and young people to feel worried about something that’s happening at school – for example, when starting a new school or during exams. Sometimes, however, school can become challenging, stressful or distressing over a much longer period of time.
If your child is feeling anxious about school, or not able to go, it can be exhausting for both of you. Mornings in particular can become really stressful for the whole family, as you try to juggle your child’s feelings alongside the need to get them to school and get on with your other responsibilities such as work. Even if you manage to get your child to the school gate, you might know how difficult they’re going to find the day – or know that you’ll be facing the same problem tomorrow morning.
When anxiety builds up to the point that a young person cannot go to school, this is often called ‘school refusal’ – and you might hear the school or other professionals using this term. However, many young people and parents do not like this term because it implies that ‘refusing’ school is a choice, and you may prefer to use terms such as emotionally-based school avoidance (ESBA) or anxiety-related absence.
What makes young people feel anxious about school?
Young people can feel anxious about school for lots of different reasons. They might be worried about making friends or fitting in, find schoolwork or lessons confusing, feel pressured to learn in a certain way or find their relationships with teachers difficult.
Sometimes, going through difficult experiences outside of school – such as bereavement, an illness in the family or being a young carer – can also make it harder for a child to feel settled at school.
For some young people, the school environment isn’t right for them, and trying to fit into it can create a huge amount of stress. This might be the case if they are struggling with their mental health, or have a neurodiverse condition or Special Educational Need (SEN) such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia or dyspraxia. This can make the school environment anxiety-provoking and exhausting, especially if their condition or need is undiagnosed or not being well supported.
Young people might show they’re feeling anxious about school by:
- not wanting to get up and get ready
- saying they can’t go
- worrying a lot about small issues, such as having the right equipment for a lesson
- feeling sick, or having stomach aches or headaches
- not sleeping well
- not doing schoolwork, or their grades dropping
- being angry or upset, or acting out – at school or at home
- withdrawing – seeming low, quiet or depressed
Finding out what’s going on for your child
Sometimes it can be difficult to work out what’s making your child feel anxious, and the first step is often helping them to identify exactly what’s worrying them. Once you understand the problem, you’ll be in a much better position to make changes that can help.
Young people can find it hard to explain what’s causing their feelings, and might not be able to answer direct questions like ‘what’s going on?’ Using an anxiety iceberg can help to open up the conversation – giving you a more relaxed way of exploring together what’s causing their anxiety.
If you’re making an anxiety iceberg with younger children, you might want to draw images on the iceberg, or encourage them to write simple words. With older children and teenagers, you can ask them to write key words and phrases on the iceberg, or do this as a mind map, with ‘school’ in the middle and all the things they’re finding difficult around the outside.
Through this exercise, you might identify worries such as arriving at school, finding the environment noisy or overwhelming, finding lessons confusing, feeling lonely through the day, or feeling uncomfortable during specific subjects.
Making changes at school
Once you understand what’s going on for your child, you can use their anxiety iceberg or mind map to communicate with the school and ask for specific changes.
Follow these steps to start a conversation with the school:
1. Ask for a meeting with the class teacher or tutor group lead, the pastoral lead or the school’s SENCO.
2. Make notes of what you want to say beforehand, and during the meeting go through the specific things your child is finding difficult. You can also ask the teacher whether they have noticed any situations that seem particularly challenging for your child.
3. If you and your child have already identified some things that might help, ask for specific changes. If you’re not sure where to start, you can ask them what changes the school can offer – or have a look at our ideas below.
4. Take notes during the meeting, agree any changes you’re going to try, and follow up with them afterwards by email. You could also ask for the changes to be formalised in an Individual Education Plan. This is a plan schools can use to make sure your child is given consistent adjustments across all of their lessons.
5. Arrange a time when you will check-in again to see if things have improved, allowing some time for your child to try out the new change or routine.
6. If the person you’re speaking to isn’t helping, find someone else who will – such as their head of year or the deputy head. If you need to, you can also escalate the problem to the head teacher, governors, academy trust or the Local Education Authority.
Here are some examples of things you can ask the school for:
If your child finds arriving at school difficult:
- Younger children might find it helpful to arrive ten minutes early and have a job to do like tidying the classroom or setting the first lesson up. This gives them a calm start to the day with a clear purpose.
- Teenagers might like to have a safe space where they can sit at the beginning of the day with a staff mentor, such as someone from the pastoral team. They can then return to this space if they need to at particularly difficult moments through the day.
- Having a flexible start time can help to take the pressure off.
- Having a friend meet them at the gate can reduce anxiety around walking into school and getting to the classroom.
If your child is finding things overwhelming or confusing:
- Being given a visual timetable, with pictures to represent registration, different subjects and breaktimes can help give them a clear structure.
- Having a ‘now, next, then’ card, which your child can edit through the day to keep track of what’s coming next, can break the day down into smaller steps.
- Being given written instructions when they’re asked to complete a task can help if they’re finding it difficult to hold spoken instructions in their head.
- Providing support when moving between lessons, and being given a warning before the next transition, can reduce how overwhelming it might feel.
If your child feels anxious or uncomfortable through the school day:
- Linking your child with a peer buddy or mentor, or a staff mentor, can give them a safe person to talk to and make sure someone is regularly checking in with them at school.
- Being given a safe space, such as a wellbeing room or the pastoral team’s office, which they can drop into when needed, can help them to manage difficult moments.
- Having an ‘exit card’ that lets them leave a lesson if they’re too anxious, and a safe space or person to go to, can help them know they have an ‘out’ when things get too much.
- Having a flexible or reduced timetable can take the pressure off.
If your child is feeling isolated or finding relationships at school difficult:
- Having activities and clubs they can do at break and lunchtimes can provide some structure and reduce feelings of anxiety about what they’ll do.
- Being part of a club, or being given a responsibility such as library monitor, can make them feel more involved.
- Linking your child with a peer buddy or mentor can help them to feel there’s someone at school who cares about them.
- Some schools may run groups about things like making friends, which can help your child to meet peers in a smaller group and think about these issues in a safe space.
Remember that even though this situation can be really tough for you and your child, it’s a good idea to maintain a positive relationship with the school. Recognise the support they’re offering and any changes they’re making. This will help you work together to make things better for your child.
Strategies you can try at home
Create a morning routine or timetable – Having a routine for getting up, getting dressed, having breakfast and leaving the house can create a sense of security and reduce stress for you too. Try to prepare things like checking their timetable, packing bags and laying out clothes the night before. In the morning, focus on the one thing they need to do next as you work your way through the timetable, rather than thinking about a big goal like ‘getting to school’.
Think together about how your child can manage their anxiety- Younger children might like to take something from home, like a favourite toy, into school with them – or use a worry box at home to help contain their anxieties. Teenagers might like to fill a box with things that help them feel calm.
Encourage them to do things that help them relax – Having time to unwind after school can be important. This could be spending time with friends and family, listening to music, going for a walk or run, playing sport, baking, drawing or watching a favourite film.
Recognise small achievements – Notice small successes such as getting out of bed at the right time or handing work in at school – and tell your child you’re really impressed with them.
Try to take the pressure off- On some days your child may not be able to manage schoolwork or homework. Remember their mood will go up and down and you can always try again the next day.
If your child isn’t able to go to school at the moment
If your child isn’t going to school at the moment, this can be incredibly stressful and exhausting for you – and really tough for your child. You might be worried about whether they will be able to get back to school or the impact on their education. Or, you might feel overwhelmed because you’re juggling this alongside work and other family commitments.
If your child’s anxiety about school has built up to the point where they can’t go, it’s a good idea to get them some professional mental health or SEN support
Helping your child return to school after an absence
Getting back to school after weeks or months may feel extremely difficult for your child, but you and the school can help make it more manageable. Here are some things you can do to help:
Set small, achievable targets, such as visiting the building outside school hours or attending one lesson.
Request a home visit from a school staff member so your child can check in while feeling safe, see that the school cares and discuss any strategies that might help them.
Ask for a reduced timetable, with regular reviews to discuss building back up at a manageable rate.
Discuss changing classes or sets if your child thinks this would help.
Focus on qualifications needed for what your child wants to do next, perhaps dropping a less relevant GCSE to reduce stress.
How to support neurodivergent children and young people in the classroom
Every classroom is neurodiverse. Each pupil will have a different way of thinking, feeling, and learning. This should be encouraged and supported.
While some neurodivergent pupils might need specialist support, many will benefit from changes to the environment, and better understanding and support from their peers and school staff.
Empower neurodivergent children and young people
Follow neurodivergent pupils’ lead to help them to feel safe and able to act authentically. Work with individuals to meet their specific needs and build on their strengths. This might include creating an individual learning plan.
Create an inclusive learning environment
Carry out a sensory audit and consider adapting your classroom. Try to give all pupils the option to work in a quiet area if they prefer. Use visual aids and other communication devices to support learning and communication differences.
Gather student voice on neurodiversity and neurodivergence
Create opportunities to listen to neurodivergent pupils and staff. Use this feedback to reflect on your school’s culture, environment, and policies to ensure that they are inclusive.
Teach your pupils about neurodiversity
Use assemblies, tutor time and RSHE as opportunities to teach pupils about neurodiversity and different kinds of neurodivergence, such as autism.
Celebrate neurodiversity in your school community
Promote understanding of neurodiversity and neurodivergence by marking events such as Neurodiversity Celebration Week.
Advocate for increased awareness of neurodiversity throughout your school or college by adopting a whole-school approach to neurodiversity and mental health.
Information for schools regarding behaviour
Think of the last time a student called out in class, pushed in line, or withdrew by putting their head down on their desk. What was their behaviour telling you?
In most cases, behaviour is a sign they may not have the skills to tell you what they need. Sometimes, students may not even know what they need. What are your students trying to communicate? What do they need, and how can you help?
Respond to students, not their behaviours.
First, know that when students act out, those actions can bring about emotions in teachers and other adults. Given all the pressures placed on teachers, you may already feel stressed or emotional. It’s normal to take students’ behaviours personally because of your own feelings and needs in the moment.
How can we help?
I want help with:
- everyday skills
One way to reframe your thinking is to respond to the student, not the behaviour. Start by considering the life experiences that students bring to the classroom.
Some students who learn and think differently have negative past experiences with teachers and school. Others may come from cultures in which speaking up for their needs in front of the whole class isn’t appropriate.
Students who have difficulties with food may push others out of the way at lunchtime to make sure they get something to eat. Students who have experienced trauma can often be wary of others. They may be hypervigilant and prone to what looks like overreactions to simple things. Keeping these experiences in mind can help you respond to the reasons for student behaviour and not simply react to or correct the behaviour itself.
What student behaviour is telling you:
Figuring out the function of, or the reasons behind, a behaviour is critical for finding an appropriate response or support. Knowing the function can also help you find ways to prevent behaviour issues in the future.
Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance), an organization that provides resources for educators to create civil and inclusive school communities, offers the acronym EATS to highlight some possible functions of behaviour. EATS stands for Escape, Attention, Tangible gains, and Sensory needs. Here’s a breakdown of what that means:
Escape: Some students use behaviour to avoid a task, demand, situation, or even person they find difficult. Escape behaviour can also be quiet, like students who ask to use the bathroom every time it’s their turn to read.
Example: Sofia, who struggles with reading, often breaks the rules during her language class. She refuses to take out her book during silent reading time. She eventually throws it to the floor, calls the teacher a name, and gets sent to the office.
What her behaviour is saying? : Sofia is communicating that she’s struggling with reading and would rather get into trouble than be asked to do a task that is challenging for her without the support she needs.
Attention: Some students behave in ways that are designed to gain attention. They may feel unsure about when or whether they’ll get your attention otherwise. Attention-seeking can play out in positive behaviours as well, such as when students work hard on a task to get your approval.
Example: Nevaeh is what you might call a clingy student. She really wants to show how hard she worked on her maths. She puts up her hand and calls the teacher’s name over and over. When she doesn’t get a response, she walks across the room, taps the teacher’s arm, and pulls on her sleeve.
What her behaviour is saying? : Nevaeh is trying to tell you that she’s unsure about her strengths. She’s communicating that she needs your approval to be sure she’s done a good job on her math.
Tangible gains: Some student behaviour is aimed at getting what they want when they want it. This type of behaviour is very common for students who struggle with impulsivity or flexible thinking.
Example: Joseph often talks back to his teacher and appears to be disrespectful. He misses or ignores his teacher’s hand gestures to lower his voice. Joseph gets agitated when he’s told to stop. He argues that he’s just trying to get answers to his questions. He believes the teacher should respond to him right away.
What his behaviour is saying? : Joseph is communicating that he needs more information to understand the lesson. From past experiences, he may have learned to talk or question the teacher continuously until he receives a response. His behaviour represents potential challenges with communication skills. That means there’s an opportunity to teach the social skill of waiting to talk. In not responding to the teacher’s subtle cues to stop talking, he’s not simply being argumentative. He’s showing that he needs explicit help learning to respond to cues appropriately to have his needs met.
Sensory needs: Students’ brains are constantly taking in information from their senses. For some, processing that stream of input is a struggle. “Sensory seekers” underreact to sensory input or need more of it to function. “Sensory avoiders” overreact to sensory input. They may become overwhelmed and hyperactive. Those behaviours become problematic when they are disruptive or interfere with learning.
Example: Ethan tends to be “hands on” with other students. It’s particularly a problem when he’s standing in line. He complains that he feels crowded. He may push other students out of the way.
What his behaviour is saying? : Ethan is trying to let you know that he’s overwhelmed by being so close to other students. He is literally moving them out of his personal space, which may be a larger area than is typical for others.