Supporting Neurodiverse Students Navigating School Life Together

Seniors celebrate over the next few weeks as graduation is in the air, from awards, to speeches, the prom and ending with graduation; Another May has arrived. This is a celebratory time for the student experience and us parents. Our journey is a hallmark of witnessing our children grow from childhood into emerging adulthood. Chapters end and new ones brightly begin for college-bound enrolled, seniors from Disneyland to Magic Mountain, a beach day, or the park; from friends’ homes to family pot-lucks, the events continue.

To celebrate that we accomplished this together is why I love this time of the year, but it is one of the most intensive times working with parents and supporting students to reach this pivotal moment—the end of their school year. I have learned to prepare myself over my many seasons as an educator for the unexpected. In working with parents and teens, I am always hoping for the best as the year comes to a close, but in the fourth quarter of any game, including the game of life, anything can come along and change our path or an outcome.

Last week, while I was attending the National Association for Women Business Owners of California’s Propel Your Business Conference 2023, focusing on my new professional goals, I was also fielding an emergency parent phone call from a mom of a senior. The parent was trying to manage a situation and sought guidance to support their teen, hoping to avoid a potential crisis. In understanding the circumstances, I specifically chose to view this “crisis” with the family as an ideal learning opportunity.  As the parents had questions about what role their student’s neurodiversity played here, I was able to reframe the situation, provide a few solutions, and prepare the parents and the senior for the different outcomes. The parents were initially not receptive as to why I was calling it an ideal learning opportunity. In fact, at one point, one parent noted, “My child is a victim; what learning opportunity are you talking about here?” This was perfect. I knew that I had a moment to be of service here. 

I could support them, they could be fully present for their senior’s experience by providing calm and steady guidance, contributing positively. As I worked to shift the focus to working with the parents to support their understanding of how they can support their senior, they shared that the school reported an investigation for plagiarism. Rightly so, the parents were distraught and seeking guidance about how to best support their student and how to best manage their teen’s social anxiety, ADHD, and language-based learning disability, especially when in discomfort and facing mounting anxiety surrounding the circumstances. The student did not have a history of dishonesty or plagiarism. They were experiencing mixed emotions and felt misunderstood. The student’s learning profile in the conversation concerned the parents should their teen need to speak to adults who are not familiar with learning differences or a peer group to explain their situation. The parents further elaborated, saying that they were unclear as to what they could do for their teen.

I accepted the phone call in the lobby overlooking the Capitol; These are my favorite phone calls because I knew I could make a difference. I had a solution for the student and parent to support the best outcomes possible, as I had been in this space many times with families and neurodiverse learners before. When we are neurodiverse, our world operates differently from how we think and sometimes from how we approach life in the smallest of ways and in our biggest decisions. In a split second, mistakes can be made, and in growing up, there is more to tease out and support when a learning profile impacts the experience. The parents were focused on the feelings in the moment, while I was supporting them to push past the feeling that is temporary and use the experience as a learning opportunity for their emerging adult student. 

As I was listening to the parents’ wishes, I paused and said, “Do you think this will be the only time in your teen’s life when they will find themselves in this situation? Do you think in college next year as an engineering major or on their professional path they won’t face obstacles like this one where they will have to navigate working with others, resolving concerns, and facing judgment?” This new view allowed the parents to see how they could best support their emerging adult, and an adult with a neurodiverse profile. My recommendation was simply to be a kind listener to the student, empathize, and practice with a plan to support the next steps. I also added, “Oh, and make them their favorite meal for dinner. This is not easy. Be kind.” Sometimes kindness to our own children can go so far, we won’t have the answers all of the time, or have access to a quick fix like when they were little. When life wants to give us learning opportunities, even during the last week of high school, we need to show up prepared for our students as their community, who loves and supports them during the highs and lows of life, for us to grow.

The differences in one’s profile might not be obvious to others for how we may communicate or respond to or within a certain situation, and this may impact a student’s experience and their potential outcomes. These moments  require a student support team to be accessible, communicative, and resourceful, knowing the student’s learning profile, growth, and goals moving forward, so we can work within the context for an authentic and structured approach to the student’s experience. 

The parents followed up a few days later to let me know that once everything settled, they shared their gratitude for me for understanding the challenges, providing support to ensure the students overall well-being, and that there was no question that without my guidance and care, their seniors may have had a different experience or outcome. To me, this means making a difference, one day at a time, in a young person’s life.

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