We’ve focused on academics for the last two years. As we approach the upcoming school year, we need to focus on neurodivergent kids’ mental health.
It was another school year of change and challenge. Many school schedules transitioned from hybrid to in-person — and then back to hybrid because of new strains of COVID. Kids had to navigate shifting mask mandates and social distancing protocols. And just when it felt like school was settling back into some semblance of normal, tragedies struck across the country, leaving many families concerned and frightened about their children’s safety in the classroom. For parents of kids with learning and thinking differences, whose children face more difficulties with changing routines and managing emotions, these experiences were often more complex and acute.
As we approach the next school year, it’s not just about keeping up with reading or handwriting practice. It’s about prioritizing neurodivergent kids’ mental health.
According to the Understood.org Neurodiversity and Stigma Study from April 2022, kids with learning and thinking differences were more likely to face emotional challenges this school year compared to their neurotypical peers. More than 70 percent of parents of kids with learning and thinking differences said their child had difficulty managing their emotions, compared to only 27 percent of parents of kids without learning and thinking differences. More than 50 percent of parents of kids with learning and thinking differences said their child experienced anxiety, compared to 27 percent of parents of kids without learning and thinking differences. And 69 percent of parents of kids with learning and thinking differences said their child struggled with self-esteem, compared to 27 percent of parents of kids without learning and thinking differences.
These signs of mental health issues in neurodivergent kids can likely be traced back to the day-to-day challenges they face: stereotypes and stigmas related to their neurodiversity, difficulties with school or work, or trouble making and sustaining relationships. And while these common situations are difficult enough for neurodivergent kids to navigate, they just scratch the surface of what these kids are facing.
The nuanced intersection of neurodiversity, mental health, stigma, and the state of the world
The recent tragic events in Uvalde, Texas, reaffirmed that in the eyes of many, extreme violence is inextricably linked to mental health. Pinning these horrific acts on mental health issues alone is faulty. It’s also problematic and concerning for kids with learning and thinking differences, given that they’re more likely to experience challenges with mental health.
The stigmas around learning and thinking differences and mental health are already pervasive. Nearly 70 percent of parents of kids with learning and thinking differences say stigmas negatively impact their kids’ mental health. And according to Mental Health America, more than half of people with mental illness don’t receive treatment, because seeking help can result in embarrassment or shame.
When conversations in the news, on social media, and among influential figures continue to associate extremely violent behavior with common mood challenges like anxiety and depression, parents and kids are less likely to talk about their mental health and differences. This perpetuates the cycle of stigma and prevents many from getting the support they need.
“Kids with learning differences are forced to navigate stigmas and stereotypes regularly. But right now, their experiences with mental health issues and emotional development are under a microscope,” said Dr. Andrew Kahn, Understood.org expert of psychology and learning. “Even if a neurodivergent teen is having a typical experience with anxiety, they’ll likely think twice about if and how they ask for help because of how mental health challenges are perceived right now. This is highly problematic for neurodivergent kids’ short- and long-term health.”
It’s also worth noting the polarizing perceptions of social-emotional learning (SEL) right now. Life skills, like managing emotions and making responsible decisions, are critical for neurodivergent children’s overall development and success beyond school. SEL has historically been tough for teachers to embed in their teaching. And now, these skills are at risk of being stripped from the classroom altogether if they continue to be used as a political bargaining chip.
What experts recommend
Dr. Kahn isn’t saying to scrap activities related to academics altogether this summer — but that working on life skills to support emotional development in neurodivergent kids is the priority. And continuing to talk about mental health is paramount.
“When we focus solely on academics with our neurodivergent kids, instead of other life skills like managing emotions and communicating, we’re telling them that one part of them — their intellect — is more important than the other — their mental well-being,” said Dr. Kahn. “The truth is, if we want to help our kids succeed and regain their footing in the classroom, we need to make sure they’re able to show up to school as their best selves and ready to learn. Data has shown that with the combined impact of recent tragedies and the tumultuous events of the past two years, what neurodivergent kids need most right now is support with their emotions, not just academics.”
Dr. Kahn recommends the following for prioritizing neurodivergent kids’ mental health:
Understand the signs and keep track. Parents, teachers, coaches, advocates, and other influential people in a neurodivergent child’s life can only help if they know what to look for. Using a log or tracker to jot down potential signs or behaviors related to mental health challenges — things like school refusal, irritability, trouble sleeping, and more — can help identify triggers and potential solutions.
Learn about SEL and the benefits it provides. There’s a lot of misinformation about SEL right now. It’s critical for schools, advocates, and parents to truly understand what it is, how it works, and why it’s impactful for neurodivergent children. Learn more about the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), as well as the research that shows how SEL supports increased academic performance, classroom behavior, ability to manage emotions like stress, and more.
Model self-calming practices. We can’t ignore the reality that parents are facing their own mental health crisis. In fact, a study cited by the CDC found that one child in 14 has a parent/caregiver with poor mental health, which goes on to impact the child’s mental health. As the saying goes, parents need to put on their own oxygen masks first. Taking time — even five or 10 minutes a day — to practice deep breathing, mindfulness, or exercise does two powerful things. First, it helps parents take care of themselves and their needs. And second, it lets kids begin to see mental health care in practice and pick it up themselves.
Combat stigma and build community. The stigmas around neurodiversity and mental health are impossible to overcome if we don’t educate ourselves. Learn about and listen to the real experiences of neurodivergent people and their perspectives. Pay attention to your language, and avoid terms like “the neurodivergent” that can make neurodivergent people feel “othered” or less than. Our actions can help create environments where neurodivergent kids feel accepted, valued, and empowered.
Another school year of uncertainty lies ahead. Kids with learning and thinking differences need practice and support to navigate the feelings they’re experiencing now, as well as the feelings that may arise more intensely when it’s time to go back to school. If there was ever a summer to prioritize mental health, it’s this one. It’s never been more urgent.
For other resources related to mental health challenges and supports for kids who learn and think differently, visit:
Understood.org | How to help kids cope when they get upset
Understood.org | Having hard but necessary conversations
Understood.org | Facebook Groups to connect with others
Child Mind Institute | What to do (and not do) when children are anxious