Teaching in the age of anxiety, uncertainty, and neurodiversity.

Question: are you teaching to the brain? Or are you talking to the hand?

If you’re working in a school right now, you cannot fail to be aware of numerous diversities and pluralities in your classroom. The more we learn about what it is to operate with neurodiversities like ADHD, and ASD, the more we can see some cross-overs with what it is to have your mental health under pressure…to be in a state of chronic stress or anxiety.

Of course, the number of children in the population who are being flagged for and seeking assessment for neurodiversity is on a significant rise since the pandemic. But the awareness and acceleration in that direction certainly pre-dated COVID 19 and all the stressors and interruptions to education and social and emotional growth that came with it.

There are few – if any – classrooms in the land, that are without children who are suffering from anxiety -in its various forms – and from neurodiversity. You could argue that difficulties with executive function exist at all ages and stages regardless of neurodiversity. And there are some child psychologists who would maintain that if you reduce the stressors in that young person’s life, you’ll reduce the presenting symptoms also. (For instance Kim John Payne of Simplicity Parenting.)

I’m going to refer to Dr Thomas E Brown’s framework for Executive Function Challenge – where he outlines 6 specific areas of struggle that are typically present – and tend to be more prevalent – in those who have an ADHD profile.

  1. Activation – getting organised and getting started
  2. Focus – being able to filter and select priorities accurately – being able to be responsive to what is important.
  3. Regulating alertness – being able to sleep when you need to sleep and be awake and sustain effort when you need to. Processing speed is tricky – getting detail down on a page when you’ve identified the outline.
  4. Managing frustrations and modulating emotions. Over-focusing on irritants, easily becoming dysregulated and unable to interact in a nuanced / sensitive / attuned way. Rejection sensitivity.
  5. Working memory challenges – this is not long-term recall but short term working memory. Being able manage the traffic in our brain in order to remember what we need when we need it.
  6. Being able to monitor and self-regulate action – not purely physical hyperactivity, not being able to read the room eg misreading social situations.

T.E. Brown (2008) Executive Functions. Describing six aspects of a Complex Syndrome. Attention Magazine.

Of course, as he writes, every person with ADHD will have one or more combinations of these challenges to differing extents. Just the same as the maxim that if you’ve met one person with ASD (Autism), you’ve met one person with ASD.

Equally, we may recognise some of these challenges ourselves. When under stress, these features are by no means exclusive to the neurodiverse. Ever deferred marking or report writing till the last minute? Ever found yourself prone to irritability? Ever found yourself walking into a room and forgetting what you came for?

Quite often, we learn cognitively about neurodiversity, anxiety, mental health vulnerabilities, in different silos. We’ll have someone deliver some inset that informs us. We’ll have care plans logged in the pupil’s profile in the school database to refer to. We may get to sit down with the SENCO or school neurodiversity specialist to discuss ways in which we can differentiate for this or that student who has pronounces and specific learning needs.

All of which is great. It’s always helpful to have tips and tricks for ways to make our content more accessible for individuals. And the more agile, diverse, and flexible we are in our methods, the more inclusive our work is likely to be. These, however, tend to be fragments – bits and pieces relating to this or that student, this or that type of student.

One thing that is coming up more for me as a trainer – and in the reading and research I am lucky enough to make integral to my working life – is looking at ways of operating that are bottom-up, rather than top-down.

This goes to the heart of my topic. No matter who we are addressing and attempting to work with in the classroom, it is worth having the question am I engaging the children’s thinking brains? Or am I ‘talking to the hand’ of those whose internal landscape means they are less likely to be able to bring their focus, digest my material and engage with it – and engage with me as the teacher.

Quite often as a young person is into their teens, and has served a long stretch in school, they may well present themselves to teachers and parents as being complacent, not caring, or stubborn and disengaged when it comes to ‘doing the business’ – their job of being a student. Together with that, frequently they are not accepting the need for help, not getting help or engaging with help in a way that will enable them to take action on their struggles.

Sometimes this is because they are still struggling with the reality of their struggles and differences. They are in some kind of disbelief, denial, anger and frustration cycle. This may be expressed via provocation, disdain for the task, for trying, for fellow students.

Some have had their self-esteem so battered over the years that they have shrunk and withdrawn, flying below the radar, but then sadly, unable to receive much if any uplift, or reality check of their abilities – which nonetheless exist… Some kids are zoned out – because they are genuinely overloaded, or chronically discouraged, and missing in inaction in our classrooms.

At the same time, especially when we get to Year 5+ , Year 10+, Year 12+, there’s an urgency, a deadline…Secondary school transition, the GCSEs, A Levels…becoming a school leader…and suddenly the woods are on fire.

The fact is – especially if there’s ADHD or ASD in play, their day at school is likely to have been like driving a car on an ice-rink…they’ll have been whiteknuckling through a chicane of challenges:

  • Sensory overload
  • Hit-and miss-attempts to be on task and stay on task
  • Anxiety to somehow come up with some sort of respectable goods when they are asked a question, publicly by their teacher, but only really followed a part of the material…

There’s a HUGE emotional and cognitive, and sensory toll to that masking. So when they come home, they truly are likely to be quite depleted and want to/need to zone out in order to recover…Ditto for a young person who is struggling with their mental health, with anxiety, for whom the day holds so many landmines of uncertainty and potential exposure.

By the mid to late teens, there is likely to be less compliance, and more of a power-struggle in the dynamic, where the parent feels helpless, but is trying to push their teen into action.

This is where the combination of natural developmental separation from closeness with parents and authority figures can harden into more tricky dynamics of disconnection. This is where the ‘Why can’t you justs’ come out from the adults in their lives who can see – oh so clearly – what they need to do…At school and at home. So many teachers feel deflated and defeated from ‘groundhog day’ conversations and interventions with young people who just won’t take action or advice.

And of course that ‘Why can’t you just’ becomes a real hard rod to beat themselves with internally as they feel their struggles, and feel their difference… ‘Why can’t I just…’

Here’s a simple stepped process I learned about via one of the many online conferences I have attended in the past few months on neurodiversity. This comes from ‘Bright and Quirky’ founder’s talk on twice exceptional children – Debbie Steiner-Kunz’s core principles parents and educators can bear in mind to ease their struggles, and work towards empowering them to thrive.

The nutshell…8 core principles for working with young people who may be neurodiverse, or twice exceptional – gifted in some areas, lagging skills in others:

  1. Foster a possibility vs a deficit mindset – especially surrounding the outcome of an assessment. Start with strengths, what can be built on.
  2. Regulate the nervous system – help them get into their ‘green zone’ – rest & digest, safe & social.
  3. Forge connection, belonging
  4. Connect with and encourage strengths and interests.
  5. Identify and support challenges.
  6. Experiment and repeat – learn and grow – do the ‘me-search’ test and learn what works…
  7. Advocate for good-fit learning – at school, education and training pathways, skills…
  8. Notice and build on small gains – a culture of continuous improvement – less of what doesn’t work, build success on success no matter how small.

Source – look out the work of Debbie Steiner Kunz, her work on ‘Twice Exceptional’ children in her company ‘Bright and Quirky’.. see and her membership plans, conferences and resources: https://brightandquirky.com/

In this article, then, I am going to look in particular at the second point. If we have a classroom presence, and methodologies that are informed by understanding of our nervous system, and we encourage our students to be aware of their nervous system activation, then not only will we be materially assisting neurodiverse students whose experience of school life is particularly prone to lapses in stamina and focus, sensory overload, and overwhelm, we will help all our students.

By being a presence that is co-regulating, and modelling co-regulations skills, we will help all our students be better attuned and able to track where their own nervous system activation is at, and be able to self regulate with increasing skill. This means that their ability to be present as learners in our company is strengthened, and we may well be able to teach to their receptive brain, rather than ‘talk to the hand’.

As teachers, we are the tone-setters, the leaders in the classroom. We can radiate stress, strain, relentlessness, fear, anxiety. We can radiate calm, tolerance, patience, encouragement.

We are built to be in a more rested state than modern life and its relentless pace generally allows. We are meant to come back to base, after short term activation, whether that’s a fear-based spike, or a good old nervous system nudge. We are made to be in what Mona Delahooke (Beyond Behaviours, Brain body Parenting) calls the ‘Green Zone’ – where we can ‘rest and digest’ and be ‘safe and social’.

This ‘green zone’ calm, openness, curiosity, receptiveness, is the essence of what we need to exude, and the state we need the kids in our classes to be in if they are to have minds that are open to our content, and able to integrate and interact with our content.

How often is that so? When overnight, emails have poured in, and even whilst we are teaching, more messages head our way – from an increasing number of platforms. Crazy to say it – but when I started life as a Deputy Head in 2005, the leading independent school I was at still was not using email as the main form of communication. The pigeonhole was the hub. The noticeboard was the oracle.

Now how many platforms are in constant simultaneous usage? Outlook, Teams, Slack, CPOMS…And post-pandemic, how has the traffic increased? No longer simply colleague-related traffic…now also the floodgates are opened for parent and child to communicate. IT feels like we must do everything, everywhere, all at once. Whilst also teaching and assessing the progress of large groups of disparate children. Teachers speak candidly of email overload, and anxiety linked to checking it…the way it infects family time, time out from school is indelibly present thanks to the smartphone.

More than that, the stakes are high. Complaints can be vicious, highly personalised. There can be great fears of getting things wrong.

Professor Steven Porges, the founder of the Polyvagal Theory, and foundation for the future in our ways of working therapeutically with trauma and anxiety, writes and speaks of the need for us to be able to ‘co-regulate’ – be in the presence of others who are well-regulated and whose presence and capacity, helps us de-fuse an often inappropriately triggered activation system. He particularly talks about the way in which the autonomic nervous system, when at rest, is in its essence ‘safe and social’ – we are receptive to each other. We can bring our focus together and the mind and body are in a resting and resourceful place – out of the survival state.

School life is busy. Term time is brutal. We live by the bell and die by the deadline. As term progresses, many of us are living in a pretty constant state of red-zone activation…fight, flight, fast-fixes. Less attending to our pace, inner and outer. Less compassionate and self-compassionate. Running on empty, and running ourselves like machines. Onwards!

 And when we are that way, we have much less bandwidth, much less social wifi for those who need it most. The uncertain, the tentative, the anxious, the struggling, the vulnerable. We are not built to live in the red zone. That level of nervous system activation is not for long-term residency. Just temporary emergency accommodation.

How much of our lives to we spend there? How much of our lives do our students spend there? Especially those who have the added strain of neurodiversity…How easy is it to stay there? To chase feelings of safety and control by worry, thinking, imagining, scrolling…busy, busy brainwork…but not increasing our happiness, wellbeing, or sense of safety.

Graphic below based on Deb Dana’s Polyvagal ladder, and Steven Porges’ Polyvagal Theory….

Leaders of schools, leaders of classrooms, leaders in businesses, and leaders in family life, have the scope to observe the system at work. How is morale? How are relationships? Are we working in Eu-stress? Optimal challenge? Or actually are we showing the signs or symptoms of being in dis-stress.

Handy hint…when the system in an individual or group is overloaded…relationships get more frayed, conflict is both more likely and more sticky. And then we are right off to the races – because you then will have removed the key way we find solace…where social support is good, a workforce group is able to rise to challenge much more easily, and there’s less discontent, fewer narratives of cynicism and conspiracy.

We can control what we can control and decide whether the way we are leading – both our content and our approach is contributing to stress and fear, and hyperactivity, or whether both the content and the approach is contributing to a sense of calm, balance, optimism,

To unpack this more clearly, we might be directed to start with ourselves, and look within. Do you know – and can you identify – the signs and sensations of when your system is in ‘rest and digest’. Deb Dana (Author and Licensed Clinical Social Worker) and Steven Porges would call this ‘Ventral Vagal’…where the autonomic nervous system is at rest.

  • How does that actually feel? In your body? Your breathing? In your brow, neck, shoulders, back? In your mind? In your emotional state?
  • How do you see yourself? And feel about yourself, your capabilities?
  • How do you see the people around you? Are they helpers? How do you see friends, colleagues, pupils? Your community, the society you’re in when you are in the green zone? What sort of place is this world you find yourself in when you are in the green zone?

It feels good – right? It feels good, in your body. All is right with you and the world. There’s expansiveness, openness. We can do stuff. And life is more than manageable, it’s enjoyable. This is where we are meant to be – for our optimal cognitive, and interpersonal, relational, performance. This is where the brain is integrated – the stem, cortex, and neocortex. Where we have access to the prefrontal cortex and all its ability to be creative and solve problems.

Chances are we don’t really notice when we are in this state. We only glancingly acknowledge it – when we ought to be marinading in it. We don’t observe it, and we tend not to value it. We tend to be at the mercy of other imperatives, pushes and pulls of notifications, things we need, things we need to do…We are easily pushed on and urged out of it into restlessness. Striving can be good – of course it can. But if that comes from a place of deficit and discomfort, a fear, then it’s very easy not to be our own best friend.

We can probably recognise when we are in the red zone of ‘sympathetic’ activation (fight/ flight survival activation) more readily. We might notice our mind racing, our muscles tightening, tension in our hands, forearms,  and feet. We might notice our attention funnelling to threat. Yes. That child THERE who isn’t on TASK!

Our throats will be more constricted and the way we speak will be more choppy and hard. Also likely to be more monotone. This, plus the tightening of muscles around our eyes, brow, and jaw, will show that our threat circuitry is activated. And those around us will pick that up – and their sympathetic /fight / flight system will be activated in turn. And as we laser in on THAT child THERE who isn’t on TASK, and take corrective action, to command attention and compliance…the rest of the class start to wonder when their turn will come…Bingo. You’re not talking to the brain, you’re trying to teach to the hand.

You can’t change what you can’t see. When we are literate about what our green zone is to us, its value, how we nurture it…we can be intentional in how we pace and manage our energies, our bodies, our minds, and our mood. We can, when we are in class, read the room, and differentiate for the energies that manifest before us. Hyperactivation in the red zone, or hypoactivation in the black zone, where psychological safety may have taken a nose-dive and pupils are frozen and shrinking back from having a go.

We can have a range of strategies at our disposal, that will help change the pace, the tone, bring in a calm, bring yourself and the whole group back to base…This might involve various types of micro-practice to shake things up and reorient the brain-body connection. Doing this, modelling this, leading it, with intention and insight, will help equip and empower the kids around us to develop their own self-regulation and co-regulation skills.

And that skill of being able to track and regulate our nervous system is very specifically an issue for ASD and ADHD kids -and anyone under pressure. Disregulation is at the core of neurodiversity. And a key component of that is emotional dysregulation.

Richard Silver, psychiatrist, author of ‘Neurospicy’ and founder of his ‘Thrive Evolve’ practice supporting neurodiverse young adults, quotes an ADHD client recognising that he was ‘a pendulum without the dignity of a centre my entire life…’  

Deb Dana is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, author and therapeutic practitioner, who is the leading translator of Polyvagal theory to public and mental health practitioners teaches her clients and other clinicians to use her concept of the polyvagal ladder to be able to track and observe nervous system activation, and be able to work with that…So that the ability to move through the lower, challenging survival states, back up to that optimal ‘green zone state is something that will build resilience and reduce suffering.

Deb Dana’s Polyvagal ladder – adapted for teachers:

Top rungs- optimal state: Ventral Vagal – ‘Green zone’ – Safe and social, rest and digest. Open, curious, thoughtful, receptive, creative, problem-solving.

Some kids in your class will often be in this state and you’ll know them well – they will relate to you, be able to interact with your material and be forthcoming in answering questions and enthusiastic and independent in taking on challenge.

Mid-rungs – survival activation: Sympathetic – ‘Red Zone’ – activation, agitation, fight /flight operations. Armoured, defensive, avoidant, frenetic.

A number of kids will be in this zone in your class -what does it look like when they are? What happens to their focus? What sorts of questions and answers do they bring to the table? How easy is it for them to initiate independent work? How easy is it for them to collaborate and work in a group?

Lower rungs – ultimate survival state: Dorsal Vagal – ‘Black Zone’ – a state of overwhelm. Helpless, hopeless, withdrawn, collapsed. Inert – but actually a high stress state.

How many kids do you recognise as being in this state – highly unlikely to make any active contribution unless it’s carefully structured. How well will you actually know these kids? What do you notice in their posture? Their muscle tone? How easy is it to get them to speak? And when you are under pressure, pushed for time…what bandwidth do you have for coaxing them into action…?

If you’re interested in learning more – and specifically ways of bringing co-regulation skills into your practice as a teacher, get in touch to ask about training, or speak to colleagues who coordinate training at your school or in your school group.

https://emmagleadhill.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Emma-Gleadhill-CPD-for-Schools-June-2022.pdf

Headline ideas for building Green Zone access in your classroom. NB more depth and modelling enabled in a training session – available online for groups, or in person for a whole staff inset day.

  1. Cultivate a grounding, calming, co-regulating presence.
    1. Manage your breath, re-set the muscles around your brow, jaw and neck. Soften your eyes.Manage your tone of voice. Enhance its musicality – variety in tone, pitch, and pace.
    1. Radiate curiosity and wonderment. Get mirror neurons to work in your favour!
  2. Use warmth, welcoming skills, appreciation, gratitude, to collect your groups and individuals within it. Especially those who seem more on the outside.
  3. Connect with them as individuals. Don’t treat them as blank tablets when they come to you afresh at the start of the year. Find out about their profile and experiences and feelings as students of your subject…what might they be anticipating about what will challenge them, what they will or won’t enjoy. Enquire with curiosity about their mindset – peak experiences, darkest challenges, struggles and strengths. Store that information in shorter form and show that you hold it in mind. This builds a picture of you as an attuned, interested, facilitating presence in their lives, where they can be more open about their struggles, and you will hold it in mind in an non-judgmental way, and be able to work on those struggles, with them, together…
  4. Changes of pace. Use of quiet, reflection, processing time, scaffolding readiness to speak and interact around a topc…See ‘Lessons in Schooling’ article… https://mailchi.mp/bc87a0d9577d/lessons-from-schooling-reflections-on-a-trip-to-the-stables
  5. Encourage micro-practices of self-care and self-regulation…
    1. Physical resets – eg energisers to shake cortisol from the hands and feet pre-test. Inversions to get blood-flow to the brain.
    1. Stretches to release tension in the neck, shoulders, upper rib cage.
    1. Changes of ‘gestalt’ – lifting the gaze, focusing on natural light, nature beyond the windows.
    1. Slowing the outbreath deliberately for 3-5 iterations.
    1. Discussing reframing techniques…the stories they tell themselves about challenge and difficulty…ways of re-writing them.

To discuss: contact@emmagleadhill.com

So how does this resonate? Whatever age or stage your teaching career is at, your classes are at, or whatever vulnerable, struggling students are on your mind…we are all better off when we have a bit more information. Executive functions challenges come to all children and especially teens. Some more than others. How we show up around these challenges is crucial. Sometimes when we think we are helping, we are driven by fear and the desire to fix…and despite our best intentions, that can lead to disconnection and hurt.

If you know someone who might be helped by reading this, please do share and recommend. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, do get in touch. And if any part of this is helpful in shining some light on difficult and stuck situations, or helping give you some hope and courage around taking possible action, that is my dearest hope.

You may like to refer to my companion article – written for parents: https://emmagleadhill.com/articles/what-i-know-about-complex-and-challenging-kids/

Further reading and resources below.

With love and gratitude,

Emma.

Further reading and resources:

Linked articles by me:

https://emmagleadhill.com/articles/what-i-know-about-complex-and-challenging-kids/

https://mailchi.mp/bc87a0d9577d/lessons-from-schooling-reflections-on-a-trip-to-the-stables

Impact Parents.

https://impactparents.com/ Lots of free resources, coaching and training via Parent coaches Elaine Taylor-Klaus and Diane Dempster – both parents of complex children and certified coaches. You can pay to access their online conference recordings – eg the most recent one ‘Back on Track’ about supporting young adults with complex needs.

Bright and Quirky.

https://brightandquirky.com/ Membership plans, resources and conferences – headed by Debbie Steinberg-Kunz. She majors on her own specialism and network of specialists who work with twice exceptional student – those with strengths beyond their chronological age range, and also who have struggles – where they perform at a developmental level below their age range.

Elaine Halligan

https://www.elainehalligan.com/ In the UK – Elaine Halligan – author of My Child’s Different, a speaker, trainer, and coach like me who specialises in parenting and specifically parenting neurodiverse children.

Richard Silver

Author of ‘Neurospicy’ – more can be found in his website – Thrive Emerge. https://www.thriveemerge.com/welcome

Dr Thomas E Brown – clinician and author of ‘Smart but Stuck’.

Brendan Mahan – on all things ADHD  https://www.adhdessentials.com/podcasts/

Danny Henderson – Thriving with ADHD for Women, ADHD Workbook for Kids.

Dr William Stixrud – The Self-Driven Child – and his consultancy practice https://www.stixrud.com

More to explore