I moonlight as a swimming instructor every Sunday morning. In other words, I spend four hours of my weekend showing children how not to drown. It’s not an easy job, but it is rewarding.
I’ve always felt as comfortable in the water as I am on land. There’s something wonderful about that moment I hit the water. The outside world goes quiet as my brain taps into my muscle memory built from years of doing laps at my local swimming club (I still have the shoulders too!).
The greatest challenge is teaching the neurodivergent kids. Often, their parents will drop them off with an off-hand, “Oh, by the way, my son has autism,” or “My daughter has dyspraxia,” as if this critical information were an afterthought. It’s also usually stated when we’re about to hit the pool with 20 other kids, most of whom have no desire to behave. My “training” never prepared me for this, but it suddenly became a me-problem.
I absolutely love my neurodivergent students. I have one kid who won’t stop ducking underwater while everyone else leans on the edge of the pool watching him. I can be as sarcastic as I like about his behavior because he can’t hear me — he’s underwater. We now fist bump to make sure he’s listening to the short instructions I give, and he’s the best in class. It’s great!
I live for these breakthroughs with a child and my neurodivergent kids give me complete creative freedom over how I teach to get there. It’s like I’m working on a psychological puzzle, searching for that one puzzle piece to get them to do what I (and they) need. They may keep tearing my imaginary puzzle apart, but I’ll be damned if I don’t finish it. One way or another, little Timmy the Terrible will become Aquaman under my watch. It’s on!
[Self-Test: Symptoms of Hyperactive Impulsive ADHD in Children]
How to Teach Neurodivergent Students: Don’ts
I didn’t always have an affinity for teaching neurodivergent kids.
My career always has had two simultaneous prongs: teaching and writing. Both jobs are challenging, rewarding, involve people, and (I hope) make a difference. Before I can influence minds and create change for the better, I have to embark on an arduous journey that can result in me (and occasionally an entire school) learning the exact limits of my patience.
I remember one student, Theo, from my time teaching English in Jakarta, Indonesia. His behavior was so bad after our first class together that I wanted to sentence him to life without recess. Instead, I sent him out of the classroom. He cried, but I don’t regret it. After an hour and a half of testing my patience, he deserved the consequence.
I didn’t want to teach that class again. It was utter chaos, and the students had gotten under my skin. I felt disrespected, powerless, and like I was wasting my time and energy. I dreaded it so much that I couldn’t sleep the night before the next class.
[Use This Free Handout: Solving Challenges in the Classroom]
I arrived at class ten minutes late because I was in my boss’ office fruitlessly begging him to take them off my hands. Defeated and dragging my heels, I went to the room, counting down the clock before I even got to the door.
Because I was in a bad mood and still had a job to do, (My boss told me it was okay to half-ass it if it meant I wouldn’t lose my cool again.) I let them watch a movie clip while I flipped through the textbook piecing together a quick lesson plan that I should’ve already finished.
How to Teach Neurodivergent Students: Do’s
They watched a clip from the movie 300 — the scene where the movie’s star, King Leonidas (actor Gerard Butler), kicks a Persian emissary down an artesian well and shouts the iconic line, “This is Sparta!”
I turned off the movie since the battle between the Spartans and Persians probably wasn’t school appropriate. Then I saw how excited they were. They kicked, posed, and did other “macho” stuff you’d expect to see in an epic blockbuster. The clip captivated them. For the first time, they were focused. I had an in!
We were supposed to work on learning superlatives. Boring! At that moment, I took their actions and adapted them into a game I call “Spartan Superlatives.”
I took a garbage bin lid, a broomstick, and a motorcycle helmet and told Theo (all his pent-up energy and unconfirmed ADHD) to put them on and take the lead. We all took turns screaming sentences like, “A SPARTAN NEVER [that was the superlative] EATS BROCCOLI ON A WEDNESDAY!” and “A SPARTAN WOMAN ONLY [superlative again] HAS 200 HEDGEHOGS IN HER HANDBAG!”
It was creative genius! We stuck random English words on the board to use and laughed while doing it. It was the most beautiful sound, and they really learned their superlatives.
Because I changed how I taught my partly neurodiverse class, they responded in a way none of their teachers had ever seen before. They gave me feedback, participated, and were confident and capable learners. As I got to know those eight kids over the next few weeks, they became my favorite class.
I once put on Frozen while we worked together on the floor (because they wouldn’t sit still in their chairs). Theo closed his eyes and started singing along, blissfully unaware that the rest of us were watching him in stunned silence. It was the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen.
Neurodivergent Kids Can Push My Buttons — I’m OK with It
I loved the class so much that, when it was time for me to leave the school, I swapped lessons with another teacher to have one more “last class “with them. It was so emotional. Theo waited after class to give me a gift. I had become his favorite teacher! It’s been seven years, and I still miss them.
Neurodivergent children can push teachers’ buttons at times, but I wouldn’t want to teach any other students. Learning is about experience and discovery, whereas class control is about creating and maintaining order. This mindset has dogged everyone with ADHD. My advice to teachers with neurodivergent students is to let go of shoulds and play into how they think. Don’t fight for control and order. Adapt to their lead and channel that energy into your lessons. You’ll find that they’re fantastic learners — and kids. And you can be as sarcastic as you like! It’s all part of the game of learning.
Neurodivergent Kids: Next Steps
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