Why schools are failing neuro-divergent kids

I was a teacher for 18 years before I set up INTO THE WILD. I worked in leafy suburbs, inner city, post 14 University technical college, private school, all girls, all boys and finally applied to alternative education where I did not even get graced with a response.

In November 2019, my younger son was diagnosed with Autism spectrum condition, and I did not see it coming at all. In truth, I had no idea what autism was. I had taught loads of kids with Autism, but I had zero concept of what it meant, never mind how to meet their needs.

In my last teaching job I had a GCSE class of 15 students, 7 of whom had acute dyslexia. Conscious that I had never really had any formal training on the topic, I made an appointment to see the lead SENCO and the dyslexia lead. The meeting lasted no more than 3 minutes.

“It’s basically all about sign posting.” He said. I got out a note book. “And post it notes” I waited with baited breath….. Nothing more was offered.

“Are there some books or resources I could look through?”

“Oh yes. They are all in the staff library in the staff room.” This was the end of the ‘meeting’.

I looked in said book shelves. It was a strange system where staff could take what they wanted and there was a sheet to “sign out” the books.

I went to see the head librarian who was a good friend of mine. My son had recently had his diagnosis. “L, I am going to need everything you have on Dyslexia and on Autism. ” She scanned her computer.

“There are 4 books on dyslexia in the staff room.”

“They are not there. I already looked.”

“We have nothing on Autism.” She looked ashamed. “Tell me what you need and I will order it.” (The magic of private school libraries!)

“The thing is, when you google it, it is overwhelming, so I have no idea. I am only at the start of this journey and I have no one to ask where to start. “

Later that term I handed in my notice because I was getting called by my son’s school daily and I did not know how to help him. I made the decision to take a “Gap year” to explore my new forest school training and to try and flexi school him to help him catch up with the other kids. “He is well below expectations” I was told over and over. I assumed he was not very bright and I needed time to research and understand how his brain worked. I was a educationalist for goodness sake!!!! I could work this out.

In the following September I started a group in the local scout hut which I called Sensory art and science. A group of us mum’s noticed that Thursdays and Fridays our kids could no longer cope with school and so I designed some gentle activities which these kids could build their self esteem and have small group social interaction.

Slowly, slowly, gently, gently, we saw our kids come out of their shells and start to laugh. They started to play. They began to make friends. We (parents) started to cry. We realised that what we were being told by the school was not necessarily true. I realised that even though I was told that my child was “performing” 4 years below his age, he could do elements of spatial maths that some of my A level students had not been able to do. He was 7 years old. This was October 2019. We all now know what was coming next…..

Two years through the pandemic, and I continue to work with these families and a multitude more. We now call this group SENsory forest school and we have had an upgrade to the 20 acre Tortworth Forest centre and arboretum. It is a daunting experience to teach kids, with their parents watching. It is terrifying to get instant feedback. It is exhilarating to receive 8+ messages after a session telling you how emotional a parent feels, seeing their kid do something they have not been able to cope with for years, to feel part of a community, to feel valued, to be seen and heard. They often ask me to write a report to help apply for an EHCP or a disability living allowance, or to try to access a school place. The emotion expressed is perceivable. For often the first time, they feel that someone actually knows their child. And we all have a shared experience of being judged. Of feeling responsible. Of getting it all wrong. We are not only a forest school for the kids, we are a peer support group for the parents.

I do not have a PhD in Neuro- divergent education. I have immersed myself completely in a world of neuro-divergence and created an environment where all can fully be themselves, get angry, be sad, ask stupid questions, mess up, apologise when ready and in their own way and with support and embrace their true super powers. They know there is infinite forgiveness if they are willing to reflect and learn. We all mess up. There are no punishments for messing up. We do not operate on a crime and punishment system. We operate an agreed empathy system, for kids who really struggle with empathy. It is not impossible. It just needs more investment of time. Something schools do not hold value as a commodity.

I once heard the term ” Nothing outrumps lived experience” Not 3 post graduate papers, not writing a book, not being an educational psychologist. At the start of our journey, I assumed everyone knew more than me. I now can go into meetings with experts, and love to learn something new, but also can fully recognise when I am being told something false, or just plain illogical.

When parents call me to discuss their kids needs, they are excited but anxious about coming along to one of our sessions. When the kids come along, they are nervous but curious. I am yet to have a family, who do not come back. Both myself and Christina are yet to be phased. L, one of our “Veteran” attendees who has had 1:1, small group and forest group was overheard talking to a new participant who was wanting to ask me about taking some henna home “Sy is super chilled. You can ask her anything. She’s cool.”

My conclusion: Schools are not trying to fail kids. They are working under self preservation. They are working under “we know what we are doing” conditions. But that is a total lie. The minute I could say ” I have no idea what I am doing, how to deal with this, I am listening with open ears and want to work with you.” I could get results. The minute I stopped seeing the kids as a problem to be solved and an asset to be seen, we saw a human start to heal. And I revealed myself as a human. As fallible. I hold my hands up regularly and say “I got this wrong. I am sorry. Let’s work together to fix it.” Something inconceivable as a teacher.

There are a lot of tears in my groups but not for the reasons you might imagine. It’s 100% not a pity party. Most of the time it is for a 60 year old who has not cried since she was 10, or a parent who has never cried. I personally don’t cry, which is another blog. It is because, when someone reaches out and sees you, fully, and without judgement, it is emotional. When another human PROPERLLY hears you, it’s emotional.

I had to perpetuate the whole patriarchal lie of knowing it all, seeing it all and being above it all.

If you are interested in being part of the discussion about the solution :

https://widget.eola.co/bzqn2/activities

Let us share and grow and learn and evolve.

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