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Struggling to Connect with Your Neurodiverse Students? Focus on These 3 Strategies, says Neurodiversity Expert Chezzy Kennedy

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With a deep sigh, you enter the classroom. Another Monday. Another explosive class to survive.

You’re afraid of kids with earsplitting voices and disarming energy.

While sipping your coffee, you skim through your notebook—the best classroom management strategies.

But guess what?

Nothing feels right.

You don’t want hysterical adult screaming. You don’t want abusive discipline.

You want to empower your students, touch them with your words, and spark their belief in themselves.

So, how can you create a smooth, enjoyable teaching experience, and make your classroom the desert water hole your neurodiverse students crave?

Let’s take a look at these 3 empathy-based strategies.

1. Embrace an empathy-based mindset

I get it.

From dealing with explosive behaviour in the classroom to confronting raging parents, to the itty bitty support you get from school management—embracing empathy can feel like the tip of the iceberg.

But the truth is, neurodiverse students are often misjudged and mishandled.

For example, my son, AuADHD, struggles with sensory input and says, "It's hard to listen when you hear everything at once."

So, what's the answer?

Try to remember that behind each detention, suspension, and expulsion there's a child.

In her TEDx Talk, neurodiversity expert Chezzy Kennedy says:

“There’s no such thing as a naughty child. Just the child whose needs haven’t been met.”

This mindset has guided me more than anything else during my teaching career. It boosted my student-teacher relationship and encouraged an empathy-based mindset.

That’s why—students do well if they want to—attitude is a relationship killer.

Try—students do well if they can—and let it guide your beliefs, your actions, and communication.  

2. Identify problems with empathy

Every student is different.

The trouble is, they all share a common problem; understanding what makes their behaviour challenging.

You see, challenging behaviour creeps up when your expectations and demands outstrip the skills neurodiverse students have to respond.

Kennedy says:

We need to understand and be ready to explore that all behaviour is communication.”

So when arguments hit the high decibel range, and negative communication spreads and destroys like wildfire—take a deep breath.

Get ahead of the noise and use empathy-based communication to deal with conflict.

Here's an example of Kennedy describing the time when a student called Henry refused to come into class.

"When asking nicely didn't work, the teachers began to threaten Henry with taking away his playtime. That's when Henry threatened to set off the fire alarms. At this point, I stepped down to Henry's level and asked him to guide me to a safe place in school, giving him control over the situation.

Henry brought me to the medical room, and I asked him what he needed to feel better. Henry said he needed to go home because his dog was at the vet and he didn't know if he was okay.

Just think about it, a whole morning wasted because the teachers focused on modifying Henry's problematic behaviour instead of focusing on the problem causing the behaviour.

Nobody cared to ask Henry the simple question, "What do you need?"

There's no denying it.

When you focus more on the problems causing the behavior instead of desperately trying to modify a student’s problematic behavior and you'll become more attuned to their needs.

3. Be empathetic

It's heartbreaking to see punitive and exclusionary discipline used in schools around the world.

Not only that, but things in the United States are cringeworthy.

According to recent research Lives in the Balance, 98,000 children a year are physically restrained and secluded.

And, 92,000 are corporally punished. And it's a nightmare for black and LGBTQ+ students.

The good news?

Research shows teachers who cultivate empathy and try to solve problems collaboratively and proactively, manage neurodiverse students' behavior better.

Fortunately, there is an evidence-based, compassionate alternative to guide you.

A great place to learn more is the non-profit organisation, Lives in the Balance.

The founding director, Dr. Ross Green advocates for compassionate, proactive, and collaborative, solutions (CPS model), and offers free resources and training globally.

His book, Lost At School and The Explosive Child has helped thousands of teachers, like me, approach and understand more easily frustrated, chronically ill, and neurodiverse students.

There's no other way to put it.

Act as a mirror and help your neurodiverse students identify their problems, then work with them to develop the communication skills they lack.

Be that warm hug, that comforts and makes them feel safe.

Invigorate your students and help them thrive

By now you may feel like things have gotten away from you.

You may wonder how to get back on track—or whether that’s even possible.

That’s normal.

But, imagine a classroom where your neurodiverse students come to you.

Imagine a classroom where your neurodiverse students trust you with their worries, fears, and challenges.

Come on. Dare to change your classroom to the desert water hole your students crave.

And, let your empathy shine, sparkle, and glow.

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