All I could think about was the amount of money his parents were spending on me, and I felt that it was wasted because I had exhausted just about every tool I had in my kit. That is, every tool that eight years in the state education system had taught me. The sad thing is, for the previous year we had built up such a great relationship and made such progress and that all just ground to a halt.
My frustration began to show.
But then, I could see that my frustration was also having a negative impact on him. Aware of how easily he reacted to my energy, I decided to sit back and observe, without judgement, as he balanced precariously perched on the back of a chair eating the syrup from a tin of fruit with a fork. He did this for a good 15 fifteen minutes or more before I took it off him and let him go.
The voice of my late brother, Paul, filled my head: “don’t give up on him. Everyone else will give up on him. Everyone gave up on me, but you won’t.” My brother had ADHD and Dyslexia and we were children of the 80’s and 90’s. He was sent away to my grandparents in Wales after the divorce because my single mother couldn’t cope; and after being thrown out of several schools, he was finally placed in a ‘naughty boys’ school’ he had to be driven by taxi over an hour to get to. That’s what we called them back then.
Back when we knew nothing.
Paul ended up in prison where he finally found a way to learn and came out a changed man with a love for nature and Arboriculture – and all the qualifications to go with it. It was so great to see who he had become when he came out of prison and set himself up in business as an arborist. He would talk at great length about every tree we passed with a glint in his eye. The one I remembered as children before the world, a world that had no time to understand him, snuffed it out. Paul died when he was just 36 after being out of prison for only a year. A tragic accident at work where was he pulled out of a tree.
Paul’s story is everything.
I, remembered, as I sat observing my client, that I knew nothing. My eight years in the state education system, despite all its window dressing about ‘inclusion’ had taught me nothing. It teaches us nothing other than ‘pack em in’ ‘bums on seats’ - stick the SEND kids in the corner with a TA.
But then, after years of austerity and diverting money back to the Cayman Islands, they sacked all the TA’s. Like dominoes teachers are lining up to be signed off by doctors on mental health grounds and quitting the profession in their droves. In my final year of teaching, I had no TA. It was my first year without one. I had 32 children and half of them had SEND or could not speak English. A quarter of them had an EHCP. One child was quite literally swinging from the lampshades.
Another child haunted my nightmares - where they followed me around all needy and desperate, looking up at me as I tried, with impunity to quite literally hold the whole world together as it was falling apart around me.
I realised, without support, I knew nothing. Without my TA, I could not breath. Feeling like a failure, I asked my doctor to sign me off.
More than drowning, I felt like I was failing. I was failing these children. Either I was, or the bankrupt state system was. Either way, it was time to go. I’ll never forget that haunting look of the child in my nightmares.
So how does any of this relate to the title of the blog?
People’s journeys to what they know are everything. I wasn’t about to give up on my chosen path or on the children that I knew I was having a positive impact on. Even if it is apparent that the schools are. That’s why I set up GLA Tutors and that is why I set it up with the intention of creating the Jade and Paul Scholarship Fund. Jade was Paul’s daughter and she also died just a couple of years after Paul at age 14. She also had ADHD and Dyslexia and she also felt that the school had ‘checked out on her.’ She was already taking herself out of school because the trauma of being in there was more than she could bare.
While watching my client eating liquid with a fork for 15 minutes perched on the back of his chair, and hearing my brothers voice, I had to ask myself: “have I really tried everything?!? Have I really come to the end of all possibilities or were there things I still did not know?”
Of course, you don’t know what you don’t know; and there is always something that you have yet to discover.
I told his mum that coercing him into reading and writing was having an increasingly damaging impact on his mental health. It was time for a break and then a new approach. Right now, he needed to focus on that painful transition into Year 2 and he was going to need every bit of emotional support to get him through that.
This boy was exceptionally bright and highly self-aware and reflective. A lot of children with ADHD and Dyslexia usually are. He has a high level of emotional intelligence and because of that, we needed to understand him better to meet him where he is and not where we wanted him to be.
That’s when I went away and came across this site: https://www.additudemag.com/
I spent weeks lost ‘down the rabbit hole’ in the multiple pages of this site; and every other word was like learning something for the first time. I was finally beginning to truly understand my client, my brother, my niece, my sister, and every other ‘tricky’ child I ever had in my classes. Like climbing inside their minds, I began to accept some base absolute truths.
The one truth that sticks out the most is this one – ‘neurodiverse people will never be neurotypical’.
Let that sink in for a moment.
This was a very hard truth to accept when you are conditioned by a system with one way of learning and one curriculum that is designed for the ‘ARE’ child, and with one way to deliver it - one teacher talking to one particular child: that homogeneous group of 30 that have no time to think about what a growing minority might be feeling.
In that respect, the state system hasn’t changed that much since Victorian times.
It still assumes that all children will be moulded into that one particular type of ‘ARE’ child. This is self-evident by the simple fact that all children will eventually sit the same exam.
Despite their differences, they will be made to sit exams that are designed in a way that guarantees the failure of, and instils that feeling of failure in, all children that are neurodiverse. It fails to recognise or even celebrate the huge number of extremely creative and successful people in the world economy that are neurodiverse. People like Richard Branson and Albert Einstein - who need no introductions, Sir Richard Rogers - a renowned architect, Chris Packham – a respected naturalist, John Elder Robinson – an author and respected voice of the Autistic Community. This is not to mention the likes of Cher, Picasso, Emma Watson, Tom Cruise, and Michael Phelps. The list of those who have become experts in their field is endless and many of them did not get to where they are because of what they got in school.
That’s the biggest irony of all: most of these children, who will fail by design, are some of the brightest and most intelligent children of all. But, with that collective mantra that I hear daily from teachers in schools – “they are very low, they can’t access the Foundation Subjects” – nothing is changed or adapted significantly enough for those children to access, or show what they do know about, those subjects; and they know a great deal, often they know more than the teacher.
That’s incredibly frustrating for these children.
When you look at it closely enough, there are no writing objectives in any of those Foundation Subjects or in Science or Maths. Yet, schools are more about evidence gathering for OFSTED and getting children to pass that one, ‘catch-all’ exam than teaching in any meaningful way.
When you can see that reading and writing is a barrier to learning, it should no longer be a barrier to learning, but it remains so. Despite our marvellous leaps in modern technology and all that knowledge that we have at our fingertips about neurodiversity, we rely too much on the pen to keep OFSTED at bay.
For its obsession with evidence gathering, the system has not been brave enough to remove that barrier for these children and is unlikely to do so any time soon.
The mere suggestion, or even thought, of having to read or write can act as a trigger for these children, who will do everything they can to avoid that feeling of incompetence and failure. That’s where impulsivity, something they cannot control, takes over and displays in unwanted behaviour. This only gets worse as the torture of a system that is not designed for them tries to force them to become neurotypical on its own terms and in its own time frame. It is perhaps one of the biggest traumatic experiences that that these children will face – and it will be drawn out for sixteen years.
Neurodiverse minds do not beat to ‘everyone else’s’ drum.
Where they [schools] fail, they write the children off and often blame the parents for lack of structure at home. But, meanwhile, no one is addressing the elephant in the room: the phenomenon of the rapid increase in the number of neurodiverse children.
What future does the state system have if it cannot / will not adapt its Victorian structures and ethos in any truly impacting or significant way?
My client (and my brother) taught me this: If I really cared about him and wanted to help him, then I had to accept that I knew nothing. I had to unlearn everything that I thought I knew as a teacher and begin to step inside the mind of the student and meet them where they are, not force them to come to me. This required patience, acceptance, and great deal of understanding.
And it might take some time.
Time is something schools do not allow its teachers.
I already knew about growth mindset and mindfulness and practiced it a lot with my children, but Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – in any meaningful way – was something I was yet to try.
I began my journey with CBT after having read an article titled ‘The Secrets of the ADHD Brain: why we think, act, and feel the way we do’ by WILLIAM DODSON, M.D. from the editors of ADDitude. Ultimately, the article rephrased an important question in my mind. Instead of asking ‘why are you behaving like this? I considered ‘why might they be feeling the way they do? Do they even understand why they feel that way?’
Cognitive behavioural therapy is a type of psychotherapy that helps people identify and change their thoughts and behaviours. It is a short-term, focused approach to therapy that can be used to treat a wide range of neurodiverse and mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
How does CBT work?
CBT is based on the idea that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are all interconnected. When we have negative thoughts, it can lead to negative emotions and behaviours. CBT helps us to identify and challenge our negative thoughts, so that we can change our emotions and behaviours for the better.
CBT therapists typically work with their clients to develop a treatment plan that is tailored to their specific needs. This plan may include a variety of different techniques, such as:
● Cognitive restructuring: This technique involves identifying and challenging negative thoughts and beliefs. For example, if you have the thought "I'm a failure," your therapist might help you to identify the evidence for and against this thought, and to develop more realistic and helpful thoughts.
● Exposure therapy: This technique involves gradually exposing yourself to feared situations or objects. For example, if you have anxiety about public speaking, your therapist might help you to start by giving a short presentation to a small group of people, and then gradually work your way up to giving longer presentations to larger groups.
● Behavioural activation: This technique involves increasing your participation in activities that you enjoy and that are meaningful to you. For example, if you are feeling depressed, your therapist might help you to set goals for increasing your social activities, hobbies, or exercise.
Benefits of CBT
CBT is a highly effective form of therapy that has been shown to be helpful for a wide range of mental health conditions. Some of the benefits of CBT include:
● It is short-term. CBT is typically a short-term therapy, with most people seeing results within a few months.
● It is focused. CBT therapists focus on helping clients to identify and change the specific thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that are causing them problems.
● It is skills-based. CBT teaches clients skills that they can use to manage their own mental health and prevent problems from recurring in the future.
Who can benefit from CBT?
CBT can be helpful for people of all ages who are struggling with a variety of mental health conditions. Some of the specific conditions that CBT can be used to treat include:
● Anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder
● Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa
● Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
● Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
● Bipolar disorder
● Chronic pain
● ADHD and Dyslexia
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that can be helpful for children with ADHD. It is a short-term, focused approach to therapy that can help children to identify and change their thoughts and behaviours that could have a lasting impact on them.
CBT can be used to treat a variety of symptoms of ADHD, including:
● Inattention: CBT can help children to learn how to pay attention better and to focus on tasks.
● Impulsivity: CBT can help children to learn how to think before they act and to control their impulses.
● Hyperactivity: CBT can help children to learn how to manage their energy levels and to be calmer.
What might an inclusive classroom look like for a neurodiverse child?
CBT requires a wholesale shift in culture, both at home and in school. People don’t just need to be preaching it, they ought to be practicing it themselves. ‘Cognitive restructuring’ can be delivered in group sessions or even in a whole class approach where children are regularly invited to identify and challenge negative thoughts and beliefs. For example, if a child has the thought "I'm stupid," their teacher, parent or carer might help them to identify the evidence for and against this thought, and to develop more realistic and helpful thoughts.
Sharing the different perspectives that other children have can be instrumental in helping children rationalise and challenge their negative thoughts. They might also gauge that others are not thinking quite so negatively about them as they do about themselves.
Children will also learn empathy: an important skill that should be taught as early as possible.
A whole class approach to ‘behavioural activation’ might look like the teacher finding times during the cumbersome timetable to take more breaks and engage in activities that a child enjoys and that are meaningful to them – something that the whole class would benefit from. For example, if a child is displaying signs of ‘checking out’ the teacher might change direction or drop in some movement breaks, dance routines, songs etc. because, even if some children don’t often display it, we all know that no one can stay focused for too long without zoning out.
Breaking down the timetable in to smaller, more manageable chunks, is not a bad thing for anyone, but sitting to attention for up to an hour and forty minutes at a time is good for no one.
Parents are just as lost in all of this as teachers so ’parent training’ might mean taking a good hard look at that ‘teacher, parent partnership’ or acknowledging the lack of it. Teachers and parents need training in skills that they can use to help their children manage their ADHD. For example, helping children to manage their expectations and avoid over reaction to sudden changes, learning how to set clear expectations, provide positive reinforcement, and re-channel the energy of unwanted behaviours and, more importantly helping children to reflect on their thoughts, behaviours, and choice as often as possible.
Here is a list of CBT activities that may help:
● Thought logging: This activity helps children to identify and track their thoughts. To do this, have the child write down their thoughts in a journal or on a piece of paper. They can then identify any negative thoughts and work on challenging them. For example, if a child has the thought "I'm going to fail this test," they can challenge this thought by saying "I've studied hard for this test and I'm confident that I can do well."
● Positive self-talk: This activity helps children to develop more positive thoughts about themselves. To do this, have the child practice saying positive things to themselves, such as "I'm smart," "I'm capable," and "I'm a good friend." You can also help the child to identify their strengths and accomplishments, and to focus on these things when they are feeling negative.
● Goal setting: This activity helps children to set and achieve goals. To do this, have the child set small, achievable goals for themselves. When they achieve a goal, help them to celebrate their success. This will help them to build confidence and motivation.
● Problem-solving: This activity helps children to develop problem-solving skills. To do this, present the child with a problem and have them come up with different solutions. You can also help the child to break down large problems into smaller, more manageable steps.
● Relaxation techniques: This activity helps children to relax and manage their stress levels. There are many different relaxation techniques that children can learn, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization.
You can adapt these activities to make them appropriate for your child's age and developmental level. It is also important to make sure that the activities are fun and engaging for your child.
Here are some additional tips for using CBT to create a more inclusive classroom and home life:
● Keep the activities short and focused. Children with ADHD have short attention spans, so it is important to keep the activities brief.
● Use visual aids. Children with ADHD often learn better visually, so try to use visual aids such as pictures, charts, and diagrams in your activities.
● Make the activities fun and engaging. Children with ADHD are more likely to stick with activities that they enjoy.
● Be patient and supportive. It may take some time for children with ADHD to learn and implement CBT skills. Be patient and supportive and offer praise and encouragement along the way.
So, what did CBT look like for my client in Year 2?
For a month, my clients school allowed me to go into school and support two children, both my clients, with their work in school. One of them had an EHCP – which their parents had obtained themselves – and the other one had not, even though his needs were far greater, and his parents had been fighting tooth and nail to engage his school into getting one. Schools have quotas for the number of EHCP’s they can apply for each year and will avoid doing so for as long as possible. There is a theory that schools receive extra money for an EHCP, but with most schools running in deficit, that money does not exist.
It’s a bit like an IOU that never arrives.
So, the parents paid for me to go into school to support their children.
Because I could see that my client’s sense of failure was impacting on his mental health, causing anxiety and depression, I immediately set about implementing CBT. First, I gave him the space to move about in freely and safely. I never met his impulses with resistance but allowed him to have the time learn how to self-regulate. I have learnt that meeting their impulses with resistance only entrenches that impulse in that moment and the situation heightens.
The less resistance I gave and the more space I gave him, the more it felt like a partnership and the more control he felt that he had, this made him less inclined to impulsivity.
We began to discuss feelings and emotions. I gave him the vocabulary he needed to identify, understand, and express the huge range of emotions he was experiencing. Over a few weeks we recognised that those feeling often change and can be fleeting. We then began to link our thoughts with the feelings and then, in turn, link them to our actions and impulses.
We engaged in a range of activities that might have meant leaving the classroom when he needed to. We made a list of various activities that diverted our attentions and refocused our energies. Activities that also helped with motor skills and eye to hand coordination: or overall coordination. We paid attention to how those activities refocused us.
Eventually, I introduced him to his diary. This was more inspired by how diary writing revolutionised my sister’s life. She never learnt to read or write until she was 12. But the first thing she got into was writing a diary after a teacher suggested she record things about herself and her feelings. In no time at all, she filled up two books.
Now she writes exceptional poetry and song lyrics with a talent for expressive and emotive words.
She began to understand herself and navigate her way through life with a greater sense of control over her own destiny simply because someone gave her the language to communicate effectively. Eventually, this would lead to a top customer’s service role selling luxury cars for BMW, despite her lack of academic qualifications for the role. She became one of BMW’s biggest assets on Park Lane. Until Brexit.
My sister was the first person to give me feedback on this article and she read it in one sitting. Probably because it was something she found relatable. Her first instinct was to point out I made some mistakes and she quipped that ‘I must be smarter than I think’. She is 36 now.
Then, she said she could not actually believe that ‘things haven’t changed at all since the 90’s’.
My sister felt more like my other client – the one I haven’t mentioned – the one that is often overlooked. Sense the irony. Sat at the back of the class and often forgotten because she was quiet and not ‘acting out’ like the other ‘tricky kids’ The ‘H’ in ADHD is not often apparent in girls as it is in boys. They can be quieter and introverted, but their mind is still hyperactive, unable to focus on one thing without support or hold on to a train of thought for very long.
“I just sat there wondering what it would be like to understand the way everyone else understood. I remember this feeling as far back as infant school. Very lonely. I felt I could never understand why they put their hand up and knew the answers when I couldn’t even take in the question. As mad as it sounds, I am 100% still like that today in my job. I am just a master at hiding my lack of understanding now and I can manipulate my way out of situations that make me feel uncomfortable, because I just ‘understand people…”
This is why neurodiverse children become ‘tricky’: they are learning how to avoid uncomfortable situations because they do not understand why they are so different. Why don’t they ‘fit in’. No one has, and no one will, explain to them that they are neurodivergent and, most importantly, explain to them that it is a completely normal thing. Noone will explain to them that they are not stupid. That they just have a different way of learning because a ‘different way of learning’ is not – cannot – be provided for them.
No one will explain to them that the only reason they are in this situation is because it makes adults feel better about themselves for being all ‘inclusive’. Keeping their neurodiversity, a secret from them only confirms and compounds the stigma attached to the condition. Its high time that society grew up a little.
Back to my client.
His peers, his mother, his occupational psychologist, and other helpers began to witness a rapid transformation in his wellbeing, his self-regulation, and his level of participation with the class. This was after just four weeks of CBT and having someone work with him instead of forcing him to conform. He began to engage more with the learning, he began to trust in his ability more and showed less resistance to reading and writing tasks.
We would write, following writing prompts in his diary, things like: ‘Today I feel …’ ‘This morning I felt…’ ‘My feelings changed because … ‘I find … challenging because …’ ‘My goal today is …’ Things I am trying to remember are …’ ‘We would suggest new ideas that would help him overcome those challenges or help him achieve his gaol.
I would record all his responses and the answers that he gave to the work set in class so his voice – this knowledge – was finally being recorded.
In no time, he began to see work appearing in his book. His own words, his own knowledge. Every day, we would look back on what he was capable of and how clever he was. Every time he achieved his goal, he got a sticker in his diary saying: ‘today I achieved my goal’. For first time, he was feeling a sense of achievement and began to have pride in himself.
He looked happier.
He pushed himself for more. Began to read more, write more. He read more books in three weeks than he read in 3 months. We recorded all these achievements in his diary and kept reflecting on it. Gradually his impulses became less and less. We had to leave the classroom less often.
Colouring – perhaps the most underrated skill of all – was his thing.
He was allowed more time to colour in at will. In three months, he went from scribbling all over the page to staying neatly between the lines. Demonstrating a sense of planning, he would carefully select the colours and started making carefully considered choices about how each colour might affect the overall design. The patterns he got became more intricate.
He recognised how the activity refocused his mind, helped with eye to hand coordination and decision making; and, most importantly, improved his overall fine motor skills. This had a direct impact on the quality of his handwriting and ability to use a pair of scissors.
He was in awe when I showed him the progress he had made with handwriting and so wanted to write more.
Eventually, by week four, I would show up to school and he would already have the whole table laid out with all the things we needed to learn. Pencil sharpened, books out, diary ready, and he had already thought about his goals. We went from bartering over reading one page to reading whole books and from writing words to writing a sentence to writing sentences.
Something had changed in him. He was beginning to understand himself and his thoughts and feelings. He was showing more control, more self-regulation.
In the final two days of my intervention using CBT, he was sitting at his desk for one hour and forty minutes at a time – just like the rest of the class - without any uncontrolled impulses. I recorded reflections he made about his work like:
“I guess mummy is right, if you keep trying, you just keep getting better and better.” He was finally beginning to see this in the outcomes I scaffolded for him.
We had a strategy he loved. It was called ‘my turn’, ‘your turn’. In front of him he has a colouring sheet with lots of differing small things to colour in. Part of a larger picture. When it was his turn, he would colour in an object, then, when it was my turn, he would write a whole sentence. In one uninterrupted hour and forty minute he had written an entire fact file about himself for his literacy lesson in his new style of writing.
He said, ‘I like this strategy, taking turns, it’s great.’ I said, ‘it really works, doesn’t it?’ He thought about that. He thinks about everything. These children do.
It was then, that the school decided to end the sessions for both children, saying that: ‘It was not working out for their children, nor was it within the ethos of the school.’ This was contrary to all the evidence in the children’s books; the opinion of both parents, who said the interventions had been ‘transformative’ - one parent said that ‘he hasn’t called himself ‘stupid’ in a while, and that is a big win’ - and the evidence observed by the occupational psychologist who said the children were ‘completely different’.
The school reacted too quickly to rumbles from teachers who had made no attempt to reintegrate the children back into class when I departed them each morning, so they were quick to rest the blame of the children’s restlessness on the interventions that they saw as being ‘disruptive’. The same teachers, who grumbled at the mere suggestion that the children might benefit from more certainty or consistency in their timetable. The same teachers who never engaged with or showed any interest in either of the children because they were ‘too difficult’.
Only one member of staff in the school showed any interest in the outcomes that the children were now achieving.
Schools are underfunded, understaffed and under resourced, so it’s hard not to understand why they are like the way they are. Most adults that are still left are pushed to the absolute limit. Working at breaking point. Teaching has become more about damage limitation and firefighting. Everyone is under constant scrutiny and on the defensive: trying to cover up the fact that they are failing. And failing in a big way.
They don’t see outside support for what it is. They see it as more scrutiny. More attacks on the profession from politicians - who are saying they should work harder like the private sector. More attacks from disenchanted parents, from each other. So, the shutters come down when they feel exposed. All this makes for a toxic environment that is hard for even the most robust of us to bare for too long.
My client’s table is at the back of the class, by himself, facing outwards, out of the window with his back to the rest of the class. He has a tray on his table full of odds and sods to occupy him with while his teacher talks at the children from the front of the class for one hour and forty minutes. That’s where he gets sent when no one has time for him.
He cuts a very lonely figure by himself.
The solution for my other client was to send her back to repeat Year One. A solution she detests. She is a lot smarter than they know, certainly way ahead of Year One in Maths, but now she will never believe that for herself.
“I think all those years of looking and studying those other children in my class, trying to understand what made them tick, or stand out, or what made them smart – smarter than me – or trying to study the teacher, how I could get their attention, but in a good way, because liking me meant that I would get the extra help I needed or I could feel better about asking for help… all that made me an exceptional people person and that is how I have got to where I am.”
Every child is different, and every child develops a unique coping system that gets them through the trauma of not understanding, the trauma of being forced through a system that fails to understand them.
I must leave you with this question: ‘Do you honestly believe that the interests of our children with SEND are being met by the mainstream state system? There is a General Election coming up – possibly next year.
Ask yourself and then ask your local MP: Why is no one talking about education?
CBT has been shown to be an effective treatment for ADHD in children. It can help children to improve their attention, reduce their impulsivity, and manage their hyperactivity. CBT can also help children to improve their academic performance, social relationships, and overall quality of life.
If you are interested in trying CBT for your child with ADHD, you should talk to your doctor or mental health professional. They can help you to find a qualified CBT therapist who can work with your child. If you are unsure about how to use CBT activities with your child, you can talk to a qualified CBT therapist. They can help you to develop a treatment plan that is tailored to your child's specific needs.
GLA Tutors has compiled a list of strategies and interventions that parents can try at home: to download the list click here.
How to find a CBT therapist
If you are interested in trying CBT, you can talk to your doctor or mental health professional for a referral. You can also search for CBT therapists online or through professional organizations such as the British Association for Cognitive and Behavioural Therapies (BACBT). https://babcp.com/
Thursday 30th November 2023