Self-Directed Education for Neurodiverse Children

When raising/educating neurodiverse children (autistic, ADHD, OCD, PDA, etc.), it can be a challenge to figure out how best to educate them so that they can succeed at school and in life. In A Different Way to Learn: Neurodiversity and Self-Directed Education, Naomi Fisher, a clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. in developmental cognitive psychology, offers some ways to approach the challenge.

When children attend traditional school, and sometimes even when they are homeschooled, “a lot of time and energy is spent trying to fit children into a system which was not designed for the full range of child development.” Dr. Fisher makes the following observation about forcing children to attend school when that is not a positive experience. “Going every day to a place you don’t like and that you cannot leave is a very quick way to feel terrible about yourself and the world.” In addition, children and even their parents may be blamed for their differences. Dr. Fisher encourages parents to begin with acceptance and embrace self-directed education to best meet their children’s needs.

Acceptance is at the heart of self-directed education, and also at the heart of neurodiversity. We start with the person with their interests and how they learn best. The focus in self-directed education is on enabling children and their parents to create an environment which works best for each child, free of unnecessary expectations and assumptions.

Dr. Fisher discusses external versus intrinsic motivation as well as the development of the adolescent brain (it’s a work in progress until the mid-twenties) and how we can help children develop self-control. She maintains that children “need experience of making meaningful choices and of problem solving in order to develop their self-control.” In a world in which they are constantly told when to do and how to do it, that doesn’t happen. “Self-directed education, then, is characterized by the learner being in control . . . the child has autonomy, but this autonomy is supported by the adults around them. They are supported to make choices, rather than left to figure things out.”

Children/teens must feel safe in order to learn. For those who suffer from anxiety, which is common in the neurodiverse population, this can be a hard task. Begin with creating a safe space in your relationship and the environment before introducing new places and new concepts. Moving out into the wider world may take many attempts. Sometimes, it seems as if little progress is being made, but it will happen. Find “new ways to help children learn while also keeping a foot in the Comfort Zone.”

There is so much helpful information in this book for parents of neurodiverse children. There are discussions on anxiety and trauma responses and working on both academic and non-academic skills. Even if parents choose not to pursue self-directed education, I think A Different Way to Learn is worth reading for the insight it provides for helping children who struggle to fit into a neurotypical world. It is written from a British educational perspective, but there are enough similarities to make it worthwhile for those from America.

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Author: Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur

Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur, editor of "Today's Catholic Homeschooling", is the mother of two biological sons and one adopted daughter. She is in her fifteenth year of homeschooling. She has a B.A. in History and Fine Art and a Master's Degree in Applied Theology. She is the author of "The Crash Course Guide to Catholic Homeschooling" and "The Fruits of the Mysteries of the Rosary". She blogs at spiritualwomanthoughts.blogspot.com