Neurodiversity and mental health

Long before COVID, mental health support services were under pressure, with long waits for assessment and schools often paying for support.    

The government has committed £1.25 billion for young people’s mental health by 2025, alongside improvements to NHS eating disorder services, backed by a new standard for young people to be seen within one to four weeks.  

The 2017 Green Paper, Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision, stated schools would be supported to ‘develop approaches within which pupils can achieve their full potential,’ but we await a positive impact, and the situation’s reached crisis point in many areas.   

Behaviour issues have risen due to children spending long periods of time at home through the pandemic.  Schools have been encouraged to focus on education recovery, without being given time and resources to support the underlying issues.  

The new SEND Green Paper talks about early intervention to improve pupil outcomes and reduce the burden on health and social care providers.  But, with waiting time for an initial assessment running at 24 months, by the time children are assessed, they’re in desperate need of support.  

Members also feel overwhelmed – by the wide range of needs, and leaders’ expectation that learning can be differentiated for every child. However, Ofsted does not:  

  • require schools to provide individual or previous lesson plans; or
  • specify how planning should be set out, how long it should take, or the detail; and
  • inspectors are interested in planning’s effectiveness rather than its form.

But this doesn’t stop schools placing such demands on staff, leading to anxiety and stress as workloads increase, exacerbating the retention crisis.  

What should we be doing?  

Schools and colleges are doing the best they can within stretched budgets, so it’s positive to see the DfE providing funding to encourage schools and colleges to identify a senior mental health lead, to work alongside the SENCO and have strategic oversight of the approach to mental health and wellbeing.  We hope this will start to have a positive impact on outcomes for pupils where their neurodiversity can finally be taken into account.  

For too long, we’ve focused only on those with identified SEN, even though around 15% of the UK population are neurodivergent.  Early intervention doesn’t have to mean referral to agencies, it also means subtle adaptations in the classroom to support those with autism, attention deficit disorder (ADHD), dyspraxia and dyslexia, for example, who don’t quite meet diagnosis criteria. Supporting them will avoid situations spiralling and potentially causing disruption later on.  

According to specialist advisory teacher Victoria Honeybourne, there are steps schools can take to prepare for a neurodiverse student population, including: 

  • availability of equipment and resources, such as pencil grips etc, for all, reducing the stigma for those who need them; 
  • clear and illustrated written materials and signs for those who struggle to read; 
  • reducing unnecessary stimulation to aid focus and concentration, which could mean removing some displays and keeping rooms quiet; 
  • the opportunity for everyone to work in quiet areas and have quiet social times; and 
  • policies and practices which don’t discriminate or disadvantage neurodivergent students.

With strategies in place, we can support pupils to achieve and forge a strong and positive work ethic.  We can also support colleagues, because meeting pupils’ needs should reduce workload, address behavioural problems, and doesn’t have to include huge amounts of planning.  

There’s a growing need amongst children, and a few small steps can make things easier for everyone. 

With thanks to SecEd.

This article is from the autumn 2022 issue of the members’ magazine Your Voice in education and early years.

Read more articles about education and early years in Your voice magazine.

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