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By CELA on 7 Feb, 2024

“Neurodivergent children are not deficient, or less than the average neurotypical child,” says Educational and Developmental Psychologist, Sandhya Menon. “Their needs are not special, but human needs that must be accounted for when planning for classrooms.” 

Sandhya gives the example of two children, one who has a need to play alongside others and one who needs to have alone time. She champions the fact that “one child’s needs are not more important than the others.” 

Unlike a one-size-fits all method or an approach that views neurodivergent traits as deficits, neuro-affirming practice fosters a learning environment where all children can thrive. To support this, educators tailor their teaching strategies to each child’s unique needs. 

The importance of neuro-affirming practice 

The Early Years Learning Framework is built around the concepts of Belonging, Being and Becoming. Neuro-affirming practice plays a central role in supporting all children, particularly neurodivergent children, to be and belong in the early childhood environment. 

Sandhya says that neuro-affirming practice helps children to develop positive self esteem and self concept in a social environment. But the benefits are far-reaching beyond this. 

“Neuro-affirming practice also helps neurotypical children adopt healthy attitudes towards inclusion and respond to diversity with respect,” she adds. “This can have longitudinal outcomes on societal attitudes and the inclusion of neurodivergent people in the workplace when we start in the early years.” 

Key principles 

At the heart of neuro-affirming practice lies a commitment to embracing and celebrating the individuality of each child. This approach is underpinned by a set of fundamental principles that guide educators in creating a nurturing and effective learning environment.

The key principles include: 

  • Individualised learning: Recognising each child’s unique learning style and adapting teaching methods accordingly. 
  • Empathy and understanding: Encouraging educators to empathise with and understand the perspectives of all children. 
  • Inclusivity: Ensuring all children feel valued and included, regardless of their neurological development. 
  • Flexibility: Being open to adjusting routines and expectations to meet diverse needs. 

By integrating these principles into daily practices, educators can create a dynamic and responsive learning environment. This environment not only respects and supports the neurodiversity of children but also fosters a culture of understanding and acceptance.  

Shifting mindsets 

These principles are not just techniques. They are a mindset that permeates every aspect of neuro-affirmative practice. 

Education consultant Rika Whelan worked in the sector for 19 years, as a teacher and most recently a centre director. She explains that an open mindset is critical to implementing neuro-affirming practice. 

“Unless we have an open mindset to neurodivergent children, the practice won’t really matter,” she says. “Often educators look at children from a group perspective. But every single child that comes into our services is an individual and they need to be treated as such.” 

Family engagement 

Rika adds that one tool she successfully used to support neuro-affirming practice was to engage with the families as the experts in their own children. 

“The parents might not be early childhood experts but they understand their child’s needs better than anyone else,” she explains.  

“Rather than assigning meaning and value that stems from a place of bias, educators can work with families to understand why behaviours are happening,” adds Sandhya. “Talking to families is often seen as a last resort. What I hear from families is that they’re so anxious that their child’s needs are not being met. They’re longing to be included as part of the conversation.” 

Embracing curiosity 

Professor Jodie Simpson is an autistic woman and mother of neurodivergent children. After a successful academic career, she has found a new purpose in life supporting other neurodivergent people. She also advocates for undergraduate education and health degrees to include study of how neurodivergent brains work, moving away from the medical model of disability. 

Jodie argues that curiosity is a necessary element of a neuro-affirming approach. 

“Curiosity is perhaps the answer to all of this,” she explains. “If a child is displaying a particular behaviour, we should be curious about why. Is it a sensory issue? Are they overwhelmed? Or uncomfortable? Curiosity allows us to support their individual needs.” 

A holistic approach 

Neuro-affirming practice should also consider the physical environment and curriculum and not just routine and educator/child interactions. 

“We can examine the physical environment and include ideas about altering the sensory environment in our planning,” explains Sandhya. “We can also incorporate children’s interests into the curriculum and allow that to be celebrated.” 

Jodie also encourages educators to be aware that there are sensory differences between children. 

“Some children work best when they can move around so requiring them to sit for activities can be really limiting,” she explains. “Some children are bothered by tags in their clothing or seams in a sock so recommending tag and seam free clothing can be a great alternative. Some neurodivergent children need to have safe and consistent food so you can build that into your menu planning.” 

At the end of the day, neuro-affirming practice is highly individual-centred. There’s no one way to implement it. But taking steps to explore the practice and challenge mindsets will go a long way to creating neuro-affirming environments for all children. 

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About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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