Neurodiversity takes many forms including autism, ADD/ADHD and dyslexia and although these are unique conditions, there are some overarching characteristics common to all.
Without knowing your children and their individual needs, I cannot give out specific advice, I can however offer guidance and tips that will make homeschooling your neurodiverse child less challenging. A lot of unwillingness to work, on the part of the child, stems from insecurity and anxiety.
Children who are demand avoidant are often this way because they are feeling insecure and dysregulated and by taking control of the situation, by refusing to cooperate, they are giving themselves the control they need to feel safe. I hope that my tips below will allow you and your children to take some steps toward feeling in control of their studies in a sensitive manner. In the absence of school, the responsibility for putting these systems in place will fall to you, the parents and although my advice is fairly simple in theory, it requires significant parental presence, preparation and planning.
Create a detailed schedule so everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing at any given time. I have prepared a daily schedule for a family from 8:00am to 8:00pm with the day broken down into 30-minute increments. Although this may seem extreme, the feedback from this family is incredibly positive. The parents tweak it each day and report that if they haven’t printed the schedule on time, the children ask where it is. Examples of things on the schedule include, walks, OT exercises, Zoom drama club, school work, online educational programmes, online chess, play time, free choice on a screen, lunch, snacks…. You get the idea. Having the schedule allows the children to visualise what their day will look like and they can see the vast amount of non-academic activities dotted throughout their day, which puts the school- work-load into perspective. The schedule also fits into the parents’ work schedules so that they know the kids are occupied when they are in work meetings and can’t help them.
Ideally the day would start with some exercise followed by school-work. The earlier you can get through the academics, the better. We’re fresher in the morning so more receptive to learning, but psychologically there is something extremely rewarding about getting the work done so we can enjoy more pleasurable aspects of the day. I generally start the day with a lesson that is a medium challenge level, and then move onto something more challenging and then finish with the easiest topic. In my house, my son starts with maths, then English and finishes with a different topic. My twin daughters start with English, then maths and also finish with a different topic.
In my experience, having worked with a variety of neurodiverse children over the past 15 years, it is better to pepper the workload with small movement and exercise breaks, and then continue with the lesson. I am rarely able to get a child back on track after an extended break. I save the fun, creative activities like science and art for later as it’s more challenging to engage a child in maths and English after they’ve been to the park, had screen time or eaten lunch.
I am by no means advocating that your children sit at desks and work solidly for 2 hours, but rather encouraging you to think about your child’s needs, personality and attention span and plan your schedule accordingly. You may need to schedule in movement breaks or just look out for signs your child is restless and offer a short break. After completing a piece of school work, one boy I work with takes off for a lap around his house with some jumps from the trampoline to the sofa and then comes back and gets back to work. I never told him to do this, he just listens to what his body needs and follows its lead.
It’s useful to keep a list of activities to hand that you can try out to break up the work. Trampolining on a small indoor trampoline, dancing, wall handstands, star jumps, running up and down the stairs are all good ones. It can help to play a favourite song and move until the song ends which is the signal to get back to work. I used to teach a boy who loved “Baby Shark” and after every activity he would jump on his trampoline for two rounds of the song and there was no negotiating about getting back on task when he finished.
Schools should be sending the work in advance and if they are not, ask your teacher to send you the assignments at least the day before if not on Sundays. This is the part that’s labour intensive for parents. You need to go through every assignment and modify it for your child as necessary. You need to distil the purpose of each lesson and prepare that element of it for your child. Here’s what I mean: There is a maths PowerPoint on long multiplication that the children are expected to read with problems to copy down and complete. Review the presentation yourself and decide if your child will be able to access it. If not prepare yourself to explain it to them or find a YouTube or BBC Bitesize clip that teaches it. Print or copy out the problems yourself so that your child doesn’t have to use up “brain power” on mundane tasks. Copying from a board is challenging if a child has visual tracking issues, it’s also unnecessary writing if there are fine motor coordination problems and trouble with handwriting. The purpose of this lesson is to understand long multiplication so that should be everyone’s primary focus. If you copy out the maths problems yourself (as opposed to printing them) you can write them in a large font with plenty of space for working out. Your child may not have any problems accessing small font, but it’s not going to hurt to have everything written bigger than normal. I recommend ordering some centimetre squared exercise books from Amazon.
An English lesson might include some punctuation exercises where the children are asked to correctly copy and punctuate out the incorrectly punctuated sentences. This is a classic stress-inducing activity. Print it or retype it in a larger, clearer font and then print it and task your child with adding the correct punctuation. There is no need to waste your children’s time and energy on laboriously copying from the screen. If there’s a reading comprehension that you know your child cannot read, then read it to them and scribe their answers if necessary. The purpose of the activity is comprehension not writing. Be sure to give your child something else to read later that is at their level to make up for the fact that you read the comprehension to them.
All of this is a lot of work for parents, but it pays off as it will reduce your child’s stress and anxiety surrounding the work and allow them to focus on the key point of each lesson. I also highly recommend discussing this with your children’s teachers so that they can advise you and potentially reduce some of the planning and preparation you need to do.
Get everything in place in advance. Sometimes all it takes is a missing pencil to set a child off and send them into demand avoidant mode. Make sure absolutely everything you need is ready so there are no excuses for not getting started. Sharp pencils? Check! Favourite water bottle at exactly the right temperature? Check! Wobble cushion in position on the chair? Check! Work-space cleared of distractions? Check! Lights and curtains adjusted accordingly? Check! Glue-stick sticky and smooth and not dry and crusty? Check!
Let it go
If an activity is causing stress and panicking and shouting (you and/or your children), then let it go. It’s just not worth the upset. However, there are some things you can try before you give up. Sometimes all your child needs is for you to sit next to them… or to leave them alone completely and they’ll get on with the assignment. Ask your child what you can do to help. “Would you like me to read it to you?” “Would you like me to scribe for you?” “Would you like me to show you how to work it out?” “Shall I find another video that explains it in a different way?” “Why don’t you skip this one and we’ll come back to it later?” “Let’s hop on the trampoline and then try again.”
If nothing is helping, then let it go. It’s ok to say to your child "This isn’t working right now. Let’s move on to something else." You may revisit the activity later or never complete it. I’m really proud of my own children for working so hard, but there are definitely tasks that have not been completed and never will be and that’s ok.
Children respond really well to computer-based activities, particularly neurodiverse children and those with specific learning difficulties. There are several websites that deliver lessons and reinforce skills with games that motivate and reward children for their efforts. It’s worth checking with school to see if they’ll buy in a programme such as MangaHigh or Mathletics. Most offer free trials so it’s worth exploring them yourself. Reading Eggs is great for primary school English and it’s maths programme Mathseeds is brilliant for up to Years three/four. Code.org offers brilliant coding tutorials and activities. If your children are happiest on screens, but you don’t want them watching YouTube or playing video games all day then schedule in specific screen based activities for them to do. Chess, typing and coding are all activities they can do on their own. I recommend chesskids.com, BBC Dancemat typing and code.org. You can also find educational shows for them to watch. My eight year old watches an episode of Operation Ouch every day and will be ready to graduate from medical school by the time lockdown ends!
It takes time
As adults we “get” things pretty quickly. We know our times tables and don’t need to think particularly hard about the difference between a verb and a noun. Children don’t know these things as automatically as we do and neurodiverse children often need a few extra seconds to process and recall information. As frustrating as it can be for us, we have to silently count to 10, 15 or 20 before interfering and offering a prompt. Give your child time to think, time to work through the answer. You maybe surprised how much they know when given those few extra seconds to sift through the information.
You can find more homeschooling advice from Jenny on Kidadl, or find out more about her business, Homeschool UK, below.