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5 Ways to Help Your Neurodiverse Student Thrive This Semester

We’re one month into the spring semester, so now’s an ideal time to check in on your student and make sure they’re set up for success. You’re the expert on your child, after all: you can probably tell whether they’ve hit their stride by this point in the new semester. And, if not, there’s still time to make helpful changes before the semester ends, the report card is sealed, and your student moves to the next grade. This window of opportunity is especially important for students who have neuro-differences – such as ADHD, dyslexia, autism, giftedness, or executive function challenges- and may need additional support to nurture strengths and develop skills. Here are some tips to help parents and their neurodiverse kids get the most out of this semester.

1. Break “the problem” down

Let’s say you’ve checked in with your student and things aren’t going as well as you’d hoped. Maybe your student is melting down every night over homework. Maybe they just seem disengaged and distracted. You may have even gotten feedback from school that concerns you. Whatever the issue, it’s tough to see your kid struggle. 

A helpful step is to break “the problem” down. Missing assignments, homework meltdowns, and learning apathy are probably symptoms of a bigger issue: it’s likely that lagging skills are preventing your child from doing their best. If you can identify the underlying lagging skills, you’ll be in a better position to help your child make progress.

There are a number of resources parents can use to break the problem down and identify specific stumbling blocks. Dr. Ross Green, clinical psychologist and former Harvard Medical School faculty member, has developed an Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems (ALSUP). You can use this tool to identify the specific skills that may be missing in your student’s toolbox and link those missing skills to the academic problems you’re seeing. If your student’s challenges have to do with planning, organization, and related executive function skills, Drs. Peg Dawson and Richard Guare, of Smart but Scattered Kids, have a number of books for different ages that help break down executive functioning challenges into specific skill areas. 

2. Problem-solve and skill-build

Once you’ve identified the specific challenges getting in your child’s way, it’s time to start problem-solving. Dr. Greene’s Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS) model provides parents with a step-by-step approach to working with their children on home and school issues. Although developed specifically for behaviorally challenging children, the CPS model helpful for any family, because it provides specific steps and instructions that allow parents and kids to problem-solve together. It can also be a helpful model for gifted and twice-exceptional children.

When it comes to skill-building, the specific strategies you use will depend on the problems you’ve identified. For example, if your child struggles with time management or procrastination, getting an analog watch or wall clock can help your child build a better awareness of the passage of time. If completing homework is a struggle, it can help to break larger assignments into smaller chunks or change the order in which your child does their assignments. Maybe your child does the homework but then forgets to turn it in. You can work with your child to create a homework routine that includes putting the homework away in a specific folder and setting a reminder to turn it in the next day. Simple routines that you display visually in your home can be very helpful. 

3. Take a strengths-based approach

So far, we’ve talked a lot about “problems” and “problem-solving,” which is only natural when we’re concerned about how things are going at school. From the perspective of a neurodiverse kid, however, it can be demoralizing if the conversation is always about what they’re not doing, or at least not doing very well. Ned Hallowell, M.D. and John J. Ratey, M.D., ADHD experts and co-authors, advocate for the use of a strength-based model, rather than a deficit-only model, when supporting individuals with neuro-differences.¹ We have to solve that “homework problem,” but, while we’re at it, we should also start to find what our kids are naturally doing well, what they enjoy, and further cultivate that. 

Clinical psychologist, Lea Waters, who has developed a strength-based guide to parenting, explains that true “[s]trengths are things we do well, often, and with energy.”² She advises that parents watch their children’s daily behavior to identify areas of interest that meet these three criteria.

4. Reframe: determine where differences can be helpful

Focusing on strengths is a great way for you and your student to reframe their experience, especially if you’re raising a neurodiverse student. Yes, learning and thinking differences (like dyslexia) create real challenges in certain settings, like school and standardized tests, and that’s why schools and standardized testing agencies offer disability accommodations for qualifying students. Still, differences can also serve as strengths in other arenas. Many highly successful people have neuro-differences and they’re successful – not only because they’ve overcome their differences but also because they’ve learned how to leverage them. 

A great example of neurodiversity and success comes from Dr. Maggie Aderin-Pocock, a British space scientist and educator. Growing up with dyslexia, Dr. Aderin-Pocock had to work through challenges with reading and writing but she also leaned into her exceptional abilities in science and communication, allowing her to pursue advanced degrees in physics and mechanical engineering and build a highly successful career. In 2009, she was honored by Queen Elizabeth II for her work. As she explains, “Through my career, I have seemed to think differently from the others in my group and sometimes that can be so helpful…and I think that comes from the dyslexia.” Obviously, we’re not all rocket scientists, but every student has gifts and talents to offer, and a neuro-difference might be a part of that gift.

5. Get help if you need it

Supporting your child through academic struggles can feel like a full-time job. It’s never an easy task, and this year it’s been even harder, what with remote learning and shifting school calendars. If you feel like you need more help, you’ve got lots of options. You could join a Facebook group of supportive fellow parents and guardians who are raising children with neuro-differences, or start listening to a podcast on the subject. You may also consider professional assistance from a licensed therapist, tutor, or executive function coach. 

If your child has never been formally diagnosed with a learning difference (but you suspect they may have one), you can consider a formal evaluation, either privately or through your public school system. Joyce Cooper-Kahn and Laurie Dietzel’s book Late, Lost, and Unprepared has a detailed and incredibly helpful (yet easy to read!) breakdown of the many types of evaluations available. 

Finally, it’s important to remember that your child’s school – teachers, learning specialists, the school counselor – can serve as an important partner in addressing whatever concerns you have this semester. If you have questions or concerns about your student’s learning and performance, always reach out to them first.

¹ E.g., Hallowell, Edward M., and John J. Ratey, Delivered from Distraction: Getting the Most out of Life with Attention Deficit Disorder, Ballantine, 2005.

² Waters, Lea, The Strength Switch: How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish, Avery, 2017.

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  • Barry Marks

    Excellent article. I think online tutors are a great way to help neurodiverse students succeed in school and life. There’s no shame in asking for help, and it’s especially important for those with developmental disabilities to have access to the resources they need. That’s why platforms like Sweetstudy or Study Buddy have created online tutoring programs specifically designed to help students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), intellectual disability, and other learning differences.