214: Helping Teachers Understand Behavior & Neurodivergence, with Emily W. King, Ph.D.

Picture of hosted by Penny Williams

hosted by Penny Williams

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Biology influences behavior. Being neurodivergent in a neurotypical world does, too. The challenges neurodivergent kids experience at school and in their classrooms are tied to their neurological differences and how their bodies interpret their environment and gauge their safety. When kids don’t feel safe, they cannot regulate and they cannot learn. 

In this episode, Dr. Emily King helps us understand the added layer of complexity that neurodivergence adds to a student’s school experience. We discuss the importance of regulation, choice, and interests in helping kids feel safe and helping their bodies be available to learn.


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My Guest

Emily W. King, Ph.D.

I’ve spent the last 20 years working with neurodivergent children and teens along with their families and teachers in schools and private practice. Children I have worked with over the years have taught me so much, and so have their parents and teachers. Yet, I have another teacher. My son has taught me everything I didn’t learn in graduate school. I’ve sat on both sides of the IEP table first as a school psychologist and then as a parent. I know the feeling of thinking you are out of ideas to support your child or your students. This feeling inspired my passion for helping parents and educators collaborate so that all students succeed is my life’s work.



Emily King 0:03

Teachers are starting to understand that a child cannot learn before they feel safe and regulated. And so when we help empower teachers to understand that they do have some power, they can build a relationship with that child in their classroom, they can figure out how to help that child feel safe, and help that child regulate. And then they can teach that child.

Penny Williams 0:26

Welcome to the beautifully complex podcast, where I share insights and strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author and mindset mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your a typical kid. Let's get started. Welcome back to the beautifully complex podcast, I am thrilled to have Dr. Emily King here with us. And we are going to talk about helping teachers understand both behavior and neuro divergence. And I'm sure we'll talk about how those two things are intertwined as well. I am always so excited to talk to you. And I'm really thrilled that you're here with us on the podcast. We'll use start just by letting everybody know who you are and what you do.

Emily King 1:18

Yes, Penny, thank you so much for having me back. I love coming on this podcast and chatting about how parents and teachers can come together for our neurodivergent kids and teens. So I am a former school psychologist. So I initially went to school to get a doctorate in School Psychology and worked for five years and public schools, working with really the most complex kids that had a lot of emotional and behavioral needs that were interfering with academics. So after kind of falling in love with working with those kids, I realized that I wanted to be in private practice so that I could work across disciplines, really with schools and with psychiatrists, and with pediatricians and with parents, and OTs and speech pads, the whole team of people who come together to support our kids as they're growing up. I'm also a parent of a neurodivergent kid, the teenager now actually, and have spent lots of time making deposits into the parent teacher relationship dynamic and seeing the benefits of that, as I've worked with families in private practice, and in schools with teachers. So all of that has kind of evolved over time, I've been on all sides of the IP tables. So I like to say that I understand the parent hat and the teacher hat and the administrator hat and the school psychologist hat. And I understand that we all have these ideas. And we all have limits to what we can do and what we feel like we're capable of and what can be done. But we all have to come back down to the idea of what's best for this child, and re centering on that. So that's what gets me up every morning. And I'm happy to be here to talk about it.

Penny Williams 3:01

Yeah, I love that you have this broad background in the school. Because I think a lot of times when we have these conversations for parents, we often don't really understand what it's like for the people who are in the school building who are on that side of the process. And so it's really important that we're thinking about everybody who is sort of coming to the table to help this kid. It's not just the parent, it's not just maybe a classroom teacher, or there's so many people that come in and out of our kids lives in that environment that can have a real positive impact. I want to start our conversation, just defining what neurodivergent is. Because I think that people are starting to hear that term more and more now we're using it a lot more. Which is great, actually, because we are saying that there's diversity in the way that human beings move through the world and react to the world and function and get things done. And that's a really important awareness to build. So I want to make sure that we all understand though, what goes into that bucket of neuro divergent.

Emily King 4:09

Yeah, so I think about this as we are all neuro diverse as a population and then some of us are neurodivergent. So this would include if you are identified as autistic or you have a diagnosis of ADHD or anxiety and giftedness or twice exceptionality, just any type of learning pattern, or cognitive processing that makes your brain different from the general population and again, different is not less, but it is different from how our educational system is designed in an extremely standardized way. And we can certainly have conversations and get into how, in many ways our education system can feel outdated to not just students and parents but to teachers, and how the standardized way that the world is is designed is very at odds with how unique and non standardized our brains are. And so I think that we do a disservice to just think about in the education realm of regular education and special education, we are all unique, we are all neurodiverse. And there are going to be kids with, let's say, a diagnosis of ADHD that don't need anything extra in school, but it's helpful to know that they have ADHD. So they might need to stand while they do their work. But they don't need an individualized education plan. You know, there's all these variations of things that we understand about kids.

And it doesn't mean necessarily that they are needing something over here or over there or separate, it just means that they need a better fit with how their brain works, and how they're being educated. And there's a lot of frustration. I know, with teachers who are asked to teach the standardized curriculum, yet, they're starting to understand and see all these neuro differences in their students. And parents who are really trying to help teachers understand their child and help teachers understand this is what's working for my kid, or this is not what's working. So we have a long way to go and helping everyone understand because every single kid is a different, unique brain. But that's what's so incredibly complex and exciting. I think about working with teachers and working with parents, and there's no other way to go about this than collaboratively. So that's where I always start is communication between parents and teachers? Because when we can't collaboratively communicate, we're kind of wasting time and not solving problems for the child.

Penny Williams 6:48

Yeah, absolutely. And how do we reconcile this friction between the standardized system and actually having a neuro diverse population of students, you know, there are laws to educating in a standardized way? So how did teachers navigate that? What are they supposed to do with those sort of boundaries that are set for them when they know that they shouldn't necessarily be set for them?

Emily King 7:16

You know, my thinking always goes back to my dir floor time training. And when I was trained in floor time, which is very much you are following the child, and you are not following the agenda of what you think a certain age or a certain grade should be able to do, but we are trained and floor time to enter that child's world, connect with them, and then build the skills organically from there. And so I always think about that lens, when I think about education, because we could sit here and talk about all of the bureaucracy and the red tape and the funding and all the legislators that don't fully understand educators, there's so much we could talk about that we really would get frustrated pretty fast. And we would feel like we weren't making much progress. So where I land with this through my lens of honestly, child therapy and floor time and collaboration is thinking about that education system, from a bottom up way, not a top down way, which we are all trained to think about brains from a bottom up way, but systems are a bunch of brains together, right? When you really think about it, a school is built on the people. I'm asked this a lot from parents, like what's the best school?

What's this or that, like, there's no better or worse, it's about fit, it's about the people. And it's about the fit of the relationship with your child. And when I think about education systems, from a bottom up standpoint, I think about you know, school districts, of course, there's first state level funding, and then their school districts and then their actual school buildings, and then there's administration and then we get down to the classroom teacher. And I feel like when I talk to teachers, the part of it when I, you know, brainstorm with them, what do they need, you know, they can't change necessarily changed their curriculum, they have more flexibility if they are educating students in a special education environment, because that child might have a five or four or an IEP and they can adapt things, but just in a regular classroom, what kind of flexibility do they have, from a bottom up standpoint, like that classroom is the bottom right of the education system. So I do feel like when we talk to our teachers, when we talk collaboratively with our teachers, that's where our power lies and making some change.

Teachers can make small tweaks in seating and movement in pacing and you know, different regulation patterns that they see in their kids because you Teachers are starting to understand. And this is what I, you know, talk with teachers about all the time that a child cannot learn before they feel safe and regulated. And so when we help empower teachers to understand that they do have some power, you know, they can't go to Washington or to the Capitol in your state, and change the laws, but they can build a relationship with that child in their classroom, they can figure out how to help that child feel safe, and help that child regulate. And then they can teach that child. And so those are some things that always come to my mind when I think of just the frustrating parts of the structure of education and really leaning into where teachers do have that power within the classroom.

Penny Williams 10:44

Yeah, I always think back to my son's first grade teacher, because she was really big on differentiated instruction. And so every lesson would reach kids who were kinesthetic learners, kids who did better visual audio, you know, all these different learning styles. And that was really important to her. And she had the power to do that, that she had the power to say, this is how I'm going to teach these things that, that I'm mandated to teach. And there's so much good that can come in the classroom, just from one teacher in making those accommodations or just shifting in ways that help all of the students, you know, you and I've talked before about this, that a lot of the changes that we ask for for Neuro divergence, students actually help every kid in your classroom, right? They're good for all little human beings, or teenage human beings.

Emily King 11:43

Exactly. And sometimes teachers will come back to me with the statement, well, my administrator wants me to do it this way. So I just think we have to keep talking about this. And keep listening to what's working and what's not working. Because even if a teacher is getting pushback from administration, what I do know for sure, is that teachers want students to succeed, administrators want students to succeed. And so there are just some things that are not going to get students to that success. And so if we can help all the, you know, teachers, any other school staff, administrators, even district level staff understand that this is what's working, let's do more of this relationship, differentiating, aligning with regulation, aligning with interests, you know, that's going to hook a kid into learning and light their face up. And this other thing we're working on of this top down of do it because it says so in the curriculum, or we say that we're doing that today, we just need a little more flexibility.

Penny Williams 12:43

Yeah, that reminds me of something Dr. Ross Greene says, you know, showing him flexible kid, and I'll show you an adult who's equally inflexible, exactly so often asked for that flexibility. But we're really rigid in the way that we do that. And we really have to be able to step back and notice that, but I think that you hit on two things that stuck out to me, which was light them up, and regulation. So you know, if we just get excited about getting kids excited about learning, and we make sure that they have the tools to regulate, how much different would our classrooms be? It would be night and day, it would be night and day?

Emily King 13:23

Absolutely. And you're reminding me of something, too, that I often will say to parents is, do you want to work for someone who doesn't get you like, of course, we work for people, and we do our job and all of that. But how do you really feel about working for someone who doesn't understand you or doesn't get you or is asking you to do something that is higher than your capability that day, like, like just out of the realm of what you're capable of. So when we feel seen and understood, like there's no adult that doesn't also love that, right? No, that's just human nature. So yes, we have to think through what works for us. And that's usually the same thing that works for kids. And, and that's why I always start with helping teachers understand regulation, and helping teachers understand that all kids regulate in a different way.

Early regulation and young children is very similar to how we end up coping with our stress when we're older. You know, some people need to move some people need to home some people need to take thinking breaks or water breaks. Some people need connection more than others. Some people need alone time and to get the noise out of the situation of whatever's going on. So I always start there. And then I tend to only at this point work more heavily with elementary teachers because that spark and that lighting their face up if we haven't gotten that by fifth grade. We might not get it and so that's what I get really passionate about is We've got to get this right in elementary school because it just gets harder. And really, by middle school, we're just asking them to be more independent. So they don't like learning then and they don't fully understand their strengths and their needs for support. By then it's harder for them to feel confident or advocate for themselves when they are met with something that's hard.

Penny Williams 15:26

In this conversation about regulation, I always imagine our classrooms where we start the day with regulation activity, we build one in in the middle of the day, we do one toward the end of the day, like, it makes so much sense. But it's not commonly known that we need to do it or should do it, or even what it looks like. And it's so simple, it's so incredibly simple, to help kids to be more regulated, and then they're available to learn. I just like I always, I just visualized, like my kid in elementary school, what that would have been like, right, and how different he would have been when he came home from school, and how different school avoidance might have been had, he felt good when he was there. And I think we don't think about that enough. And you had mentioned, kids have to feel safe, to be able to learn, and how they feel safe, is to feel regulated, their body has to feel, you know that psychological safety is what we're talking about here. And we don't focus on it, and therefore we don't build it into the day. But it can be so easy to do that.

Emily King 16:38

Yeah, and I'm seeing a little bit more post pandemic, where teachers are absolutely recognizing that kids, especially in elementary school, these are kids who learned online probably too early for their brains. And that was the necessity that we had at the time. But you know, just a reminder, at the time of this recording, the third graders are the ones who went home for the pandemic in kindergarten, right? So March of kindergarten. So if you think about just the skills, you need to become a student, the regulation, you need to learn to, you know, transition into the classroom. And I always call it transitioning from your your home co regulator to your school, co regulate or from your parent to your teacher, you know, some of that was disrupted and feeling safe at school, teachers have had to work extra hard on that post pandemic. So I have seen more of this, there's, of course, so much more we can do. But I always tell teachers, everyone has a morning meeting.

So this is just something you can incorporate into your morning meeting with everyone is teaching a new coping strategy, helping kids understand what breathing does to their nervous system, helping kids understand when to ask for help, and when to try again, you know, building frustration tolerance, because that's something we're also seeing that kids are not having a lot of, because they've had had fewer school experiences. So kids who are second, third, fourth grade that are quicker to anger and quicker to be frustrated, because they haven't had as much school experience compared to their peers that didn't go through K through two of a pandemic. So those are just some some quick ideas that when we build some of those things into what's already structured for a teacher in terms of their schedule and their time, then kids can learn this stuff so easily.

Penny Williams 18:26

Yeah. And I always imagined, I'm like a regulation corner to where there's just this corner with some tools, and you're allowed to go over there and do a little short activity and feel better, so that you can get back to work like, you know, we treat school like boot camp. And that just doesn't work for everyone. And I would argue it doesn't really work for anyone. Very few kids leave school excited about learning when they graduate.

Emily King 18:54

We're making some progress. And I know that anyone who wants to learn more about this Conscious Discipline, of course does a great job with calming corners, or regulation stations or whatever we want to call it that are part of the classroom that are not like I go there just when I'm upset, but it's a place to go. When your body is feeling maybe so excited. You just need to chill before you get back to learning. So regulation is not just a negative emotion. Regulation is a misalignment with what you are doing in the moment. So here's an example. Let's say you're at a rock concert and you're asleep. That's dysregulated. Right? So right or you're, you know, you're playing outside and everyone's really, really excited and you're so excited. You're just right in the mix with everybody that's actually regulated in that moment. So thinking about the fit of the moment and your body's regulation is what regulated and dysregulated is truly

Penny Williams 19:56

Yeah, so managing that energy level that's required of you for that that activity? Yeah, yeah, so often we kind of think about regulated as calm, but it doesn't always, sometimes calm is not appropriate, as you were just illustrating. And that's really, really crucial, I think, for people to understand. Again, you know, we can't fit everybody in the same box, right? If we think, Oh regulated as calm, and it looks the same on every kid, we're missing the whole point there, we're missing the key piece of it, I want to talk a little bit about control a sense of control, as well, because we see so often that behavior kind of goes off the rails, when a kid really feels like they have no autonomy, they have no choice in what they are doing, what is happening to them.

And I think that they get a lot more sense of that at school. Because again, it's this, you know, system, and there's supposed to be compliance, and everybody's supposed to be the same. And we end up making kids feel like they have absolutely no control over what happens to them. And then we see all kinds of issues, you know, and if I feel really upset about the fact that I have to sit here and I have to do this particular thing, and I don't like it, or I don't understand it, it's going to make me less able to do it, it's going to make that task less doable, which we forget all the time. But how do we start implementing more choice in the classroom for kids?

Emily King 21:33

Yeah, I think we need to start with noticing what a child is resisting. So of course, many teachers will call this non compliance or refusal. So I do not like those words. The reason I don't like those words is because they have connotations of choice of I am actively choosing to make this difficult for everyone around me, right? Usually what actually is happening is either a lagging skill, or a stress response, or a combination of both. where a child is presented with a task, that's too hard. So the expectation is higher than their skill level. So it feels too hard. So I'm going to use the strategies I have, which is avoid, or maybe I'll, you know, it's like fight or flight, maybe I'll read the paper, or I'll avoid. And then there's also possibly a stress response, which is the same thing just ratchet it up a little bit more emotionally, it could look like anger, it could look like arguing or negotiating. So all of these are really control grabs, right?

It's a child trying to control a situation that feels out of control. And the way that we start to really reverse engineer this is to look for patterns of what a child is resisting, or avoiding, or, you know, not getting started on, what are those patterns? And is there an academic weakness? Is there a time of day fatigue? Is there something about a distraction or a sensory overwhelm at that moment? What is the pattern that might be getting in their way? And then we're getting curious, and we're backing it up to figure out, what do they need, so we can front load them with more support. But when you talk about choice, my mind immediately goes to what are they interested in? Because usually one of the most successful tweaks, especially for autistic students at any age, is to incorporate interests and incorporate not only their strengths, so they feel confident, but their interests because if we can make tweaks to what a student reads, and then measure their reading, or what a student writes about, and then we're measuring their writing, you will get a more regulated student who is engaged, who then you're not measuring their love of that topic you are measuring, they're actually writing or reading or expression, verbal expression abilities.

Penny Williams 24:13

Yeah, every time this comes up, it always reminds me of my son in fifth grade, he had a teacher who gave them writing assignments based on a box of photos. And every writing assignment, you went to the box, you grab something that really spoke to you. And then you took it back to your seat and you wrote about it. And my son has dysgraphia and written expression disorder, like getting one word on the page by himself was so incredibly difficult. Everything was very brief, you know, no adjectives and things like that, but he really struggled. He wrote the most amazing things in this class with this teacher. I love that idea. He needed that visual, and then he could describe the visual he needed to see He it in order to write about it. And he put a lot of imagination to it, you know, he wasn't just writing exactly what he saw. But he needed something that one, it was of interest, because he got to choose from all these different pictures. But also it incorporated that visual piece that nobody had ever thought about before that, you know, every year in school, he just struggled so hard with writing.

And this really made a huge difference. And then it sort of went away when that strategy went away. And so we started thinking about how do we try to continue to incorporate this in future years and future assignments, but, you know, just like thinking about how can I get all the kids more interested in what we're doing, could make such a difference in that right and giving them you know, these huge choices, there was everything in that box, from Star Wars, to bats to tigers to I'm sure there were some people, probably a few 100 different pictures for them to choose from. And it didn't matter what they chose, what they were trying to do was see how well they were writing. And it kind of even the playing field a lot more for the kids in the class, just because they got to choose. And they had that interest, right involved in that it was such a great strategy on the part of that teacher.

Emily King 26:21

That is a great strategy. And then also what that visual is supporting is executive functioning, too. So writing is one of those hardest tasks where you have to incorporate language and fine motor and executive functioning, planning. And when you visualize it like that when it's a picture. And it's interesting to you, so your attention is piqued. And you can rely on the picture for some cues of holding those probably words he was coming up with, in his mind just character words from the picture. And it's just a jumping off point. And so many students and adults that I talked to with ADHD will say, I have to see it before I can visualize it in my brain. Whereas many people without ADHD can draw this picture in their brain and then write about it right based on hearing verbal language. And this is just a perfect example of neurodiversity. Right? Yeah, we all get to the act of writing in a very different way there. Have we ever wondered why some people hate writing? And some people love it? It's something about this, right? So yeah, it's just such an important thing to talk about. Because I want all parents and educators to be thinking about, we have to adapt some of this stuff for everyone, because there's no way that the standardized curriculum will thoroughly educate our kids because they don't have standardized brains.

Penny Williams 27:43

Yeah. And the more and more we get into the future, the more and more neurodivergent human beings are walking around on this planet. And so it just is, is a growing need, over time as well. We could fast track it, or we could take the painful resistant. And we don't want to do that. And I think you know, just thinking about to this idea of like the box of pictures, that's work that a teacher is going to have to do right time that it would take to create this box. But you could get your students involved, you could ask parents to each contribute five or 10 pictures. I know, I would have been willing to do any sort of thing to help in my son's classrooms. And I did do things at times, but like I was always offering Well, you know, it would be better if this was visual, how can I help you with that? How, you know, I know that teachers don't have time to get all these things done and to individualize for a bunch of students. So, you know, I think it's okay for teachers to ask to have the parents in their classrooms, or make it a project with the students like find a creative way to create some of these tools for your classrooms. Absolutely. What else do we need to talk about? We're about at the end of our time together anything else that we I know, there's a million more things we could talk about on this topic, but very specifically for today.

Emily King 29:11

Something you just said reminded me, I often get the question from parents of how do I bring something up to the teacher without making them feel like I'm stepping on their toes. I think some parents don't communicate or don't help, because they don't want to, you know, step on the teacher's toes. But then there are also I think, other parents who are worried about oversharing or contacting the teacher too much. And this is where the collaboration piece comes back in. And I think that we are not in a state where we can you know, Miss ideas just because we are worried about hurting each other's feelings. I just feel like if you're educating the neurodivergent student, if you're raising an or divergent kid, if you find that something is working, tell your child's teacher about it and vice versa if you have a teacher listening to this that I figured out something that's working and telling the parents so the way I usually will share or recommend that parents share these ideas is just like that, say, I figured out how to get my kid to brush their teeth.

This is how I did it. I know you don't have to get my kid to brush their teeth, but just filter that through your teacher limbs and see if you can make something happen in the classroom with this system, I figured out in the same way goes back and forth. Because I think that we forget, I think that we're all just helping kids move along. And elementary school is, you know, a time where they're very supported. And we're scaffolding a lot of things. But the goal is for them to learn how to self advocate to learn what they're good at, and what they need support with. And they're watching us, they watch how we are solving the problems. They're watching how we communicate, because that's how we want them to communicate. I don't want them to fire off an email at their, you know, high school English teacher about something they're mad about. That's not collaborative. So great. Just think about what we're modeling and think about what you want your child to eventually do and let that drive how you collaborate with your child's teacher.

Penny Williams 31:12

Yeah, when I was having those conversations with teachers, I would always add to the end of it. What do you think about that? Do you think that would work in your classroom, you know, so that it is input from both parties. So everyone feels like they have a voice. And that, you know, teachers don't feel like parents are trying to tell them how to do their job. Yep. And parents the same, right? Don't feel like teachers are telling them how to parent. And it's just true collaboration, when both people have a voice, and a seat at the table. This has been so helpful. I know that teachers are having an even harder time right now, since the pandemic sense, all of these things that you're just talking about kids are different, they have different needs a lot of greater needs. I think now, especially the younger kids, we're seeing so much more anxiety.

And we need to figure out how to support those kids and support the teachers as well. And that just understanding piece goes so far, just understanding where the behavior comes from, what neurodivergent kids might need, why we need to do things differently for different kids, it really helps to further that conversation that we need to be having. So I'm so thankful for your voice in that conversation as well. And I want to let everyone know who's listening to go to the show notes for this episode at parentingADHDandautism.com/214. For episode 214. I will have links there to any resources that we've talked about, as well as to Emily's website and trainings, and social media and all that good stuff so that you can continue to learn more from her. And I encourage you to do that. And I thank you again for collaborating with me and trying to better the world for our neurodivergent kids.

Emily King 33:01

Thank you so much for having me, Penny

Penny Williams 33:03

and I'll see everybody next time. Thanks for joining me on the beautifully complex podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share. And don't forget to check out my online courses and parent coaching at parentingADHDandautism.com and at thebehaviorrevolution.com

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Thank you!

If you enjoyed this episode, please share it. Have something to say, or a question to ask? Leave a comment below. I promise to answer every single one. **Also, please leave an honest review for the Beautifully Complex Podcast on iTunes. Ratings and reviews are extremely helpful and appreciated! That's what helps me reach and help more families like yours.

I'm Penny Williams.

I help stuck and struggling parents (educators, too) make the pivots necessary to unlock success and joy for neurodivergent kids and teens, themselves, and their families. I'm honored to be part of your journey!

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About the show...

I'm your host, Penny.

Join me as I help parents, caregivers, and educators like you harness the realization that we are all beautifully complex and marvelously imperfect. Each week I deliver insights and actionable strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids — those with ADHD, autism, anxiety, learning disabilities…

My approach to decoding behavior while honoring neurodiversity and parenting the individual child you have will provide you with the tools to help you understand and transform behavior, reduce your own stress, increase parenting confidence, and create the joyful family life you crave. I am honored to have helped thousands of families worldwide to help their kids feel good so they can do good.

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