Neurodivergence: different brains mean different skills

This article is the fifth article in a series of six from Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, Joanna Grace. The activities described in each article build up to form a toolkit for celebrating difference and neurodivergence within your setting in a way that will benefit both the children and the adults. Joanna runs online training courses focused on strategies for supporting differently-abled children and promoting inclusive practice. Click here for more information. In this article, we delve into what it means to be neurodivergent and explore the importance of celebrating difference in the early years.

Through these articles, we have been approaching conversations about neurodivergence in our physical appearance and differences in the way we think and feel in a non-judgemental way. I know it’s been a challenge but you’ve been doing well! At first, the small adjustments in language can seem pretty pointless, but once you start and realise the power of it you find yourself combing through the minutia of your daily exchanges to find what else you could tweak. You are creating a culture that understands and accepts difference and that is empowering to the children and the adults….but…

But I expect there is one difference that is still taboo in your setting. Even with all the activities, we have explored, and how open and non-judgemental we have been. I bet there is still one difference you avoid mentioning! And there is a reason for this too. But it is important we talk about it. So, what is it?

What Are We All Not Talking About?

The difference I am thinking of is that of perceived educational failure. So whilst we are very likely to publicly praise a child who achieves in an educational landscape we are very unlikely to speak about the child who fails to achieve. “Look Sia has written all her numbers to 10, well done Sia!” Meanwhile Jake hasn’t managed to write any of his numbers.

Of course, I am not suggesting we hold up failure in the same way as we hold up success “Sia has written her numbers, Jake hasn’t!” No that would cause harm. But actually, the harm is still there as we speak about Sia and do not mention Jake. It is implied. It is felt. 

We used to shame children who failed academically. Children were once sat in corners of classrooms and made to wear a dunce hat. The idea being that the shame of failure would drive them to succeed next time. The idea didn’t work, and thankfully we have moved on. But we have not moved on as far as we might think.

We have moved from shame to taboo.

We do not shame them for failing, but we also do not mention it. And we do mention the success, so if you are not being mentioned, if you are not a part of the conversation, you are very likely to feel left out, rejected, to feel you have failed. 

The narratives around educational success and failure are usually about concentration and effort. Sia was able to write all her numbers because she concentrated and tried. Jake was not because he didn’t concentrate, he didn’t try hard enough.

What about if we considered a different starting point to our narratives? What if we said all children try equally hard. 

All children want to succeed as much as one another. If we start from this presumption of equality what do we say next?

“Sia has written all her numbers, you’re brain must be so good at numbers Sia, well done”

“Jake you haven’t written all your numbers, your brain must find numbers tricky, I can help you.”

Now Jake is a part of the conversation too. And actually, it’s not just Jake this benefits, it’s Sia too, because it is unlikely that she is good at everything, so the patterns we are establishing through using language like this will inform her too. When tomorrow she tries to skip with her friends but her feet get tangled in the ropes perhaps she will think “My friends are good at skipping but my body finds it hard maybe someone can help me.” You can see the power in these stories we create!

In articles two and three we made reveal pictures to give children a hands-on experience of hidden differences. In conjunction with this article you can make brain boxes, not only are these great for fine motor development they are once again the opportunity to have a hands-on experience that relates to something abstract we are talking about.

Each child’s brain box will look the same from the outside, but when explored they will respond in different ways. What we can do is determined by the brain we have. How much we achieve is in part determined by the brain we have and in part determined by how we use it. If we can understand neurodivergence then we can each play to our own unique strengths.

Joanna provides in-person and online training to settings looking to enhance their inclusive practice for more information visit www.TheSensoryProjects.co.uk where you can also find resources to help you include children of all abilities. Jo is active on social media and welcomes connection requests from people curious about inclusive practice.

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.

Consistently rated as “outstanding” by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special-school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and neurodivergent conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.

Joanna has published four practitioner books: “Multiple Multisensory Rooms: Myth Busting the Magic”“Sensory Stories for Children and Teens”“Sensory-Being for Sensory Beings” and “Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia”. and two inclusive sensory story children’s books: “Voyage to Arghan” and “Ernest and I”There is new book coming out soon called ‘”The Subtle Spectrum” and her son has recently become the UK’s youngest published author with his book, My Mummy is Autistic.

Joanna is a big fan of social media and is always happy to connect with people via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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