Ruth Glover is the Chief Executive Officer of Springboard Opportunity Group, a specialist early years provider for young children with special educational needs and disabilities. With more than ten years’ strategic leadership experience as Head of Early Years for a local authority, and lead adviser for Inclusion in Early Years, as well as direct leadership experience as Headteacher of a small independent primary school, Ruth brings a compassionate and values-led focus to leadership thinking. Ruth began her career in education as a childminder and then Reception Teacher in an area of high deprivation, where she developed her passion for making a difference in children’s lives.
Supporting Your Team to Embrace Neurodiversity
Being a leader of an early years setting at the moment is not an easy job. Staff retention and recruitment is challenging not to mention making funding and fees stretch to cover costs. Add in ‘covid’ children, cuts in support services that may have supported us in the past and we are in the middle of a perfect storm.
Our staff work hard. They want to do a good job and want to make a difference to all children in their care but when they struggle with a particular child’s behaviour or when they notice that their usual care practices don’t work, when children display neurodivergent behaviours, what can we as leaders and managers do to support our teams?
When you consider that it is estimated that 1 in 7 people in the UK have some kind of neuro difference (NHS, 2023), it is important to support a holistic understanding of neurodiversity and move away from the idea that differences and diagnoses are deficits.
This new EEF blog by West Somerset Research School about ‘Special Educational Needs in Mainstream Schools’ applies as much to early years settings as it does schools.
How do we do this?
In short, we support our teams to engage in reflective thinking about the children they work with and provide the tools and inclusive strategies that will support them.
We enable our teams to develop their own thinking and reflect on how they can give the children a voice that can be heard and considered when planning their provision.
What is neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity is a broad term, used to describe the many and varying ways in which human brains process information. The term neurodiversity includes all of us, neurotypical and neurodivergent. To some parents and professionals, the term ‘autism’ can feel like a very negative label. Equally, parents may not be comfortable with terms such as ‘social communication difficulties’. Neurodivergent, however, may have a more positive feel and is a useful term for us be familiar with when discussing a child’s needs.
Kerry Murphy has written an excellent Guide to Neurodiversity in the Early Years, for the Anna Freud charity. In this she explains the different neurodiversity terms to know.
I lead teams of expert early years educators who work in four specialist SEND early years settings, working with a wide range of neurodivergent children. I asked our practitioners what are the most effective strategies that make the most difference to children’s wellbeing, emotional regulation and development.
They agreed the following seven strategies that make a real difference to neurodivergent children in early years settings:
1 Use of visual aids
Visual aids help children to see and understand what is being communicated. These can be objects of reference eg showing a nappy to a child to indicate it is time for a nappy change, photos of resources or people, pictures or diagrams of activities. Visual aids can be used as timelines so that children know what will be happening. They can be used for first and next boards and visual aids can also be used as a communication aids. For example showing a picture of toilet to ask a child if they need to use the toilet.
I cannot stress enough the importance of visual aids such as these in an early years setting.
2 Use of clear boundaries and routines
Clear boundaries and routines that are kept to and pointed out to children help children understand their world ie when is circle time, when is snack time, when can I go outside? For example, if children must take their boots off when they come in from outside play, use a now and next board to reinforce the rules; first boots off, next play with trains.
3 Supporting transitions form one activity to another
For example, using count downs from 10 to 0 with number cards as visual cues with a few seconds between showing each card which help children to prepare themselves of a change.
4 Regular routines
Using routines such as bucket time which are described as ‘an irresistible invitation to learn’. These types of activity help children to develop shared attention skills. The regular and systematic use of this type of strategy really helps children to understand that they can and should attend, watch, listen to something or someone else along with their peers.
Singing instructions which use information carrying words and language and repetition so that children hear the message. For example, ‘put your picture on the board on the board, put your picture on the board on the board, put your picture on the board, put your picture on the board, put your picture on the board on the board.’ ‘Put your bottom on the chair, on the chair’ (tapping chair) etc
6 Use positive language
Use positive language for those non-verbal children or children with delayed language skills. For example, use ‘stop’ rather than ‘no’. Use ‘feet on floor’ rather than ‘don’t climb on the chair’.
7 Use gesture/signing support systems
Train your staff to use Makaton or other gesture/sign support systems. These systems really help develop children’s vocabulary and language when used consistently. For an example see the EEF Evidence store ‘Story one-to-one (Bath Time) here.
None of the strategies described above are ground-breaking. All of the strategies would be recommended by a speech and language therapist to support children’s developing understanding of language. It can be hard, with all the day to day pressures in an early years setting, for practitioners to have time to reflect on the benefits to all children by integrating these strategies routinely in daily practice.
If we, as leaders and managers of early years settings can focus on reframing our own thinking away from the idea that differences are deficits, if we encourage our staff to celebrate these differences, if we can ensure our staff have the skills and tools that they need to support neurodivergent children, then children are authentically included and happier, work becomes more satisfying and as a leader, you are meeting the needs of your children and staff.
A Guide to Neurodiversity in the Early Years by Kerry Murphy for the Anna Freud charity
The EEF evidence store: Early Years Evidence Store | EEF (educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk)
NHS (NHS, n.d.). (2023, May 2ns). Cambridge University Hospital. Retrieved from What is neurodiversity: https://www.cuh.nhs.uk/our-people/neurodiversity-at-cuh/what-is-neurodiversity/
NHS (2023, May) Sirona Care and Health, Retrieved from Advice and Signposting: https://www.sirona-cic.org.uk/nhsservices/childrens-services/advice-and-signposting/