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Neurodiverse children – Behaviour management strategies for teachers

Girl on swing, representing neurodiverse children

A one-size-fits-all approach to behaviour management can hit struggling students hardest…

Catrina Lowri
by Catrina Lowri
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PrimaryHealth & WellbeingSEND

It is true that all children need boundaries to feel safe, supported, and successful. However, rigidity in defining and enforcing these boundaries can lead to automatic sanctions for types of behaviour that are more often displayed by neurodiverse children (ND).  

This would go some way to explaining why suspensions, exclusions and attendance issues are disproportionately higher in these and other SEND pupils than in their neurotypical peers. 

Whether we refer to rigid behaviour management policies as ‘no excuses’, ‘zero tolerance’ or even ‘warm strict’, a neurodiverse pupil is negatively affected by such attempts to view all behaviour through the same lens. 

The history of behaviour management

Although such ideas are hailed as a sort of new packaging of ‘traditional’ views about education and set aside from so called ‘progressive’ views, the truth is that neither mindset is new.   

In fact, they stretch back to philosophy in ancient Greece. Those with ‘traditional’ views on behaviour hark back to Plato. His core belief was that children were savage and needed to be tamed. ‘Progressives’ on the other hand, owe their ideas to Aristotle. He taught that children were innocent and needed to be nurtured.   

In truth, of course we can’t make blanket statements about children. They’re not a homogeneous group, but individuals with diverse needs. 

Dogmatic behaviour practice assumes two things. The first is that all children are equal, with the same levels of privilege, understanding, intelligence and cultural experiences. The second is that they all understand and consent to the rules.

This is not the case in any school or cohort. That’s why neurodiverse children may suffer when we blindly enforce such policies. 

Effects on neurodiverse children

Neurodivergent individuals include those with conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and others, who may have unique learning and behavioural needs.

Let’s look at some ways in which rigid behaviour policy might affect pupils with these conditions. 

Misinterpretation of behaviour

Pupils may exhibit behaviours that teachers and school staff misunderstand. For example, a student with autism may engage in stimming behaviours as a coping mechanism. We can misinterpret these behaviours as disruptive or non-compliant, leading to punitive measures.  

Inflexible discipline

Rigid behaviour policies may have a one-size-fits-all approach to discipline that doesn’t take into account the individual needs and characteristics of ND pupils. These policies often rely on punitive measures like detention, suspension, or expulsion, which can exacerbate the challenges ND pupils face. 

Overemphasis on conformity

Pressure to conform to standard behavioural norms can make it difficult for ND pupils to express themselves or learn in ways that suit their unique needs. This lack of a sense of belonging can lead to feelings of frustration, anxiety, and exclusion. 

Challenging environments

Some ND pupils are sensitive to sensory stimuli, which can be overwhelming in a typical school environment. Strict behaviour policies that do not accommodate sensory needs can lead to meltdowns or shutdowns in these students. 

Communication difficulties

ND pupils, especially those with conditions like non-verbal autism, situational mutism or social communication disorders, may struggle to express themselves effectively. Teachers may apply punitive measures when students are unable to communicate their needs or intentions clearly. 

Inadequate support

Rigid behaviour policies often lack the necessary support systems for ND pupils. Schools may not have trained staff, resources, or individualised education plans in place to address the specific needs of these students. 

Disproportionate punishment

ND pupils may receive harsh punishments for behaviours that appear deliberately disruptive, but in fact stem from their neurodivergence. This can contribute to a cycle of negative behaviour and discipline, hindering their academic and social development. 

The solutions – more inclusive behaviour management

To address these issues, it’s essential for schools to adopt more inclusive and flexible behaviour policies. This doesn’t mean lowering standards. Far from it.

What it does mean, is looking at the strengths and needs of individuals and cohorts and adapting behaviour policies to provide support for both pupils and staff.  

These measures should include:

  • provision of staff training
  • the creation of individualised behaviour plans
  • sensory accommodations
  • the fostering of a culture of acceptance and understanding  

Inclusive policies like these can help neurodiverse children thrive academically and socially, unhindered by expectations that can sometimes seemed designed to see them fail. 

Catrina Lowri is a former SENCo, and founder of Neuroteachers. This helps educational settings work with their autistic and neurodivergent learners to find simple solutions for inclusive practice. Find out more about her work at @neuroteachers and Read about behaviour management strategies for secondary.

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