230: Setting ND Kids Up for Success at School

Picture of hosted by Penny Williams

hosted by Penny Williams

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School is hard for neurodivergent kids — there’s no question about that. Traditional educational systems are not designed for kids who learn differently. That means we have to advocate for our children and take steps to provide a path for success.

First and foremost, we must understand the end goal of schooling: to provide our children with the education and skills they need to thrive as adults. We can’t achieve that if we get caught up in just conforming to a rigid system. Instead, let’s focus on nurturing their individuality and helping them discover their sense of purpose. Our kids need to understand why they’re learning certain things and how it will impact their lives.

And here’s the key: we need to create opportunities for them to experience success, no matter how small. Remember, learning and growth is a process, and it’s important to meet kids where they are, celebrate their victories, and empower them with ownership and control over their education. Listen in to learn how.

3 Key Takeaways


Understand the end goal: Our goal is not to produce individuals who can simply recite facts or conform to a rigid system. We want our kids to have the necessary education and skills to navigate life successfully. Keep this in mind when supporting your child’s learning journey.


Give them a sense of purpose: Neurodivergent kids thrive when they understand the why behind what they’re learning. Help them connect their education to their own lives and future aspirations. Purpose can be found in various forms, including social connection and pursuing personal interests.


Celebrate successes: It’s crucial for our kids to experience success and feel good about their achievements in school. By providing them with opportunities for small wins, we keep them motivated and eager to continue learning. Remember, building executive functioning skills is a gradual process, and it’s important to meet kids where they are to foster engagement.

What You'll Learn

The significance of meeting kids where they are in order to engage them and foster a willingness to try

The importance of defining the end goal and anchoring education around that goal

The need for purpose in learning for neurodivergent kids

Finding purpose in social connections, interests, and personal fulfillment

Recognizing that importance may not engage neurodivergent kids as effectively as urgency and interest

The necessity of individualized approaches and recognizing the unique needs of each student

The importance of structuring opportunities for success in order to maintain motivation and engagement

Highlighting the significance of small successes and progress, rather than focusing solely on grades or academic achievements

Emphasizing the gradual process of building executive functioning skills and meeting kids where they are in their development

Encouraging ownership and control over one’s learning journey to foster engagement and motivation


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Penny Williams [00:00:00]: You. We can't snap our fingers and have a kid who has really poor executive functioning suddenly functioning like they have the greatest executive functioning on the planet. It just can't happen. This is a process and we have to meet kids where they are first in order to engage them, in order to have them feel successes so that they're willing to try. 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 atypical kid. Let's get started.

Penny Williams [00:00:53]: Welcome back to the Beautifully complex Podcast. I want to talk to you today in this episode about setting our neurodivergent kids up for success at school. So many of our kids struggle at school, struggle with schoolwork. Maybe they struggle socially or emotionally or behaviorally. And it creates a lot of stress for not just our kids, but our whole families and for the educators who are working with them and trying to help them learn as well. And here we are back to school. Some of you haven't quite started yet. Others may have a week or two of this new school year under your belt.

Penny Williams [00:01:35]: And I think it's a good time to really go over exactly what needs to happen in order for your neurodivergent kid or student to be able to succeed. And the first thing we have to think about and consider and talk about is the end goal. What is that very end goal for our kids? Why do we send them to school? Well, we send them to school because we want them to learn things. Correct? They need to learn some information and some skills so that they can succeed in their adult lives. That's the goal. The goal is not to be able to, at age 55, recite all of the dates of the Civil War, is it? It's not. The goal is for our kids to have some education, some learning, so that they can move through life successfully. When we use that as our anchor in what we are talking about with school, our anchor in what we are working toward it is that final goal.

Penny Williams [00:02:50]: Then we can be very open minded to how our kids learn and how they show what they have learned. And our schools seem to be a very rigid system, especially here in the United States. They were designed for conformity. And now we are just not living in a time and a culture where we need so much conformity. What we need is to raise individuals who can be their authentic selves and who have the skills for life. And we often lose sight of that, I think in education we say, here's this curriculum, these are the things you have to know. These are the things you must know in order for us to give you a graduation diploma and send you further into the world. We tell kids that they must do well in high school to get into college.

Penny Williams [00:03:50]: They must go to college to be a successful adult. They must get that degree and that success looks like a prominent job or a really strong income. And that just shouldn't be our measure of success. Each person needs to define what feels successful to them, what brings them joy, what helps them have purpose in life. And that's the second aspect here of setting kids up for success at school that I want to talk to you about, which is giving our kids a sense of purpose. Often the purpose that we give them for going to school is because you have to, because that's the law, because I said so. All of these very abstract and not meaningful reasons for our kids. And so many neurodivergent kids need reasons for things.

Penny Williams [00:04:44]: They need to know why they have to learn a certain thing. They need to know why it is going to matter to them in their lives and in their futures. And so they need that information and that sense of purpose. And many of our kids can't think about maybe in elementary or even middle school needing a high school diploma to set themselves up for success later. That's way too far in the distance for it to be a really meaningful motivation for our kids. So there has to be more to that conversation. There has to be more to why they go to school, why they learn the things they learn. How are they going to impact their life and help them in the future? Purpose can also be found in social connection.

Penny Williams [00:05:37]: Participating in things, being a helper for a teacher or another student, finding fulfillment by studying something that they're interested in. It can look like a lot of different things. It doesn't just have to be the why behind what they're learning, but they have to have a sense of purpose. Think about a time when you weren't sure why you were doing something. It felt like it was not beneficial to you. It felt like there was really no reason for it. And maybe you were able to say, okay, well, this is important and so I'm going to get it done. But for a lot of our neurodivergent kids, especially those with ADHD, importance is not making their brain fire on all cylinders, is not getting their brain engaged.

Penny Williams [00:06:28]: Urgency is and interest is, but importance is not. And so you just telling a child that this math worksheet is really important, is not going to help them to make the connection that is needed so that they are regulated, so that their thinking brain is online. All the parts of their brain are working in harmony and they're able to learn, they're able to listen, they're able to focus, they're able to get the work done. Without that, it is not doable. And we have to look at doability on an individual kid, individual student basis. We can't say every 6th grader has to do this thing in this way and it's doable for every 6th grader. That just isn't reality. It's not reality.

Penny Williams [00:07:20]: And we need to be serving all of the kids. We need to be helping all of our kids to learn and formulate success for themselves. Number three in setting kids up for success at school is that they have to experience successes. They must experience success and feeling good about something that they have done that relates to school in order to keep trying again. Imagine a time where you just kept working at something and working at it, working at it, working at it, and you never ever were successful with it. Eventually you stop doing it right. Eventually you give up and you quit. That is human nature and that is what is happening to a lot of our kids who struggle in school.

Penny Williams [00:08:09]: They are not experiencing any success no matter how hard they try, and so they give up. What in the world is the reason for doing it again and again and again if success is never going to happen? If you want a motivated kid or student, if you want a kid who's engaged in school, you must structure it so that they have opportunities for successes. And I'm not talking about opportunities to make A's. I'm talking about opportunities to complete assignments and to get decent grades pass right. For a lot of our kids, passing a class is even hard. It can be something as small as making a successful social connection. It can be something as small as not getting called out for behavior in class or in the hallways or at a school event or function. It can be something really small.

Penny Williams [00:09:14]: Hey, I got my paper turned in today the first time my teacher asked me, and then you work from there. We're not losing sight of teaching skills, improving executive functioning. We are just recognizing that it's going to take small, consistent steps to build those skills. We cannot build them all at once. We can't snap our fingers and have a kid who has really poor executive functioning suddenly functioning like they have the greatest executive functioning on the planet. It just can't happen. This is a process. And we have to meet kids where they are first in order to engage them, in order to have them feel successes so that they are in it.

Penny Williams [00:10:04]: They're willing to try, they're willing to be vulnerable, to try something and to keep working at their education. The fourth aspect is ownership and control, which I just sort of alluded to there. When we have anxious kids, they are really needing some control over what is happening to them. And so many of our kids are walking in the school building and it's being dictated to them what they have to do, when they have to do it. There's no purpose to it, really, for them, at least in their thinking, and they have no say, they have no say in how they're going to learn it. They have no say in how they're going to show what they're learning and think about how stressful that is, how anxiety provoking that is for a kid who just can't walk in the door and do things in a neurotypical way and succeed. So kids need to have a sense of control over what's happening to them again, to get that buy in, to get them engaged in the learning in the process, in what you're asking of them, they otherwise are eventually going to shut down. As we talked about earlier, when they don't experience successes, they shut down.

Penny Williams [00:11:26]: If they never have any control and nothing ever goes well, they're going to shut down. They're going to disengage. This school year, it's time for your child to learn to their potential. At Lindamood-Bell Academy, especially now, their highly personalized and engaging approach to education can enable your child to experience success in the 2023 2024 school year. While many students attend their neighborhood school without issue, some are challenged by slow or fast paced curriculum or lack of individualized attention. At Lindamood-Bell Academy, every one to one and small group class is live and interactive. You can be confident that their specially trained instructors engage with students positively. Using an evidence-based approach.

Penny Williams [00:12:16]: Students feel success right from the start. One student's father said it was monumental. The difference versus three years of him spinning his wheels and getting nowhere. Jump leaps and bounds of improvement from the instruction at Lindamood-Bell, admission is rolling and you can apply anytime. Call us now at 800-300-1818 to talk to us about your child.

I want to talk a little bit about what these kids might look like because often it looks like a behavior issue. It looks like a kid who is lazy or doesn't care. And that is actually not true.

Penny Williams [00:13:00]: It's not what's going on under the surface. And as adults, we tend to make assumptions of what is going on for our kids. We know exactly why it's happening and we know exactly what's going to fix it. And I will tell you, probably 70% of the time or more, we get it wrong. We make assumptions that aren't correct for our kids and are 100% unhelpful to them and we're just getting it totally wrong. And we're pushing them further away, we're pushing them further towards shutdown when we make assumptions because the message that they're getting is that we don't get it. And honestly, if that's what's happening, you probably don't get it yet. You're not understanding it on that deeper level of what's going on underneath that you really need to be seeing and helping with.

Penny Williams [00:13:51]: We have to focus on the whys. We have to be digging deeper and looking at why things are happening so on the surface, you might see a kid with their head down on their desk. You might see a kid who has school avoidance or refusal is not making it to school, is not making it to class. You might see a student who tends to sort of lash out at everyone or gets really upset and has big emotions about small things. You might see a kid who is sitting alone at lunch or a kid who just doesn't have people around them and connecting with them. These are all signals that something is going on that is making school difficult for that child, that is creating stress. And that stress is going to keep them from being able to learn and to perform at all academically. And I want you to really consider, as you're thinking about just outlining, what can I do that is going to set my kid up for success at school? Teachers, what can I do that is going to make sure that I'm setting every kid in my classroom up for success and really walking through each one of these items that I've outlined in relation to either your specific child or your classroom and figuring out what can you do to provide some ownership and some control for these kids.

Penny Williams [00:15:28]: What can you do to make sure that each kid is able to experience successes? What can you do to make sure they feel purposeful in going to school and completing school tasks? And what can you do to make sure that the ways in which you're teaching and the ways in which you're asking students to show what they've learned are going to work for all students? One thing that really worked for my son well in that area was giving a menu of the ways in which a task or an assignment or a project could be completed. So, for example and this really started happening only in high school, and sometimes I knew to sort of ask for that potential or have him ask for that earlier than high school. But really in high school, we started to see that it was being offered. It wasn't just that we had to advocate and ask for it, but some teachers were recognizing that kids needed to be able to choose what ways they wanted to do projects or show what they had learned. And that was when my kid would engage a lot more rather than feeling like already it's something that he can't do. For example, he has Dysgraphia, and so handwriting is really tough for him. Writing in general is really tough for him. So if you have, say, a project, you're studying acid rain in biology.

Penny Williams [00:17:04]: Allowing kids to choose how they're going to research that and show what they're learning provides the ability for kids to engage in that, to get excited, to be interested, to feel like they can succeed. My kid with Dysgraphia, if you said, hey, you've got to write a five page paper on this, it was very likely to not get done. It was very likely that I was going to have to do a lot of the pushing and prodding, and I would have to scribe and I would have to help him outline. It would take a lot more support for him to be able to have any success in that. And he wouldn't feel fully successful in that because he needed so much help. But if he was given choices, if he was given an assignment, and the assignment said, you can write a paper, you can create a poster, you can create a PowerPoint slideshow, you can give a talk to the class, you can make a video, then there were options that felt really doable and felt like he could be successful. Now you've got his attention, you've got his engagement, he's feeling ownership and control, and he's seeing much more purpose in that. And that is how we really set kids up for success.

Penny Williams [00:18:26]: Opening the doors wide to all students. And again, as I talked about in the very beginning, we have to keep our eye on that anchor of what is the ultimate goal, the ultimate goal of education, that is learning and being prepared for life beyond school. So if my child is learning about acid rain and biology, does he have to write a five page paper in order to learn about acid rain, retain what he's learned and show what he's learned? And the answer to that is always going to be no. This is how we open our minds and get creative in learning for our kids that just go about it differently, that need us to really be open minded and creative so that they can have success at school. So to recap, I want you to sit down, pen and paper, and think about these four areas and how you can provide these different areas for either your own child or children or the students in your classroom. They were feeling a sense of purpose, experiencing successes, no matter how small, ownership and control and being open minded and creative in the ways that your child learns, practices or shows what they've learned. And I'll give you some more examples. I talked about high school and those teen years and having sort of a menu of how you would complete assignments in elementary school.

Penny Williams [00:20:16]: Very early on, like first grade, second grade, we were getting super creative at home with the ways in which we would practice things like spelling words and math facts. And I actually had just a ton of creative ideas and things set up for him to choose how he wanted to do it. So, for example, with practicing spelling words, the assignment was typically to write the words three times each or something like that. Maybe later on they were to also write the word to use it in a sentence. For my kiddo, we had Play DOH and a set of alphabet cookie cutters. He could take that Play DOH and cut out the letters and practice spelling each word. That way he could use dried pasta, or you could even cook. The pasta might be more fun.

Penny Williams [00:21:11]: It would be a little more tactile if it was sticky. So he would maybe break the spaghetti and use it to make the letters on the table. Or maybe use elbow noodles because they're curved. And he could make curved parts of his letters and put those together with straight parts from spaghetti and curved parts from maybe the elbow macaroni. Sometimes we would put shaving cream on the table and he would spell the words out with his finger in the shaving cream. Sometimes we used paint and a big sheet of paper, whatever was of interest to him. He could even use a little Lego dude. And the little Lego dude walks out.

Penny Williams [00:21:54]: The ways he spells the letter walks out forming the letters and the ways he spells the words. We would do it orally sometimes, because orally really worked for him. But it's knowing what's going to work for that kid or that student. Also, what is their learning profile? What is their sensory profile? How are you going to get them engaged? We would practice math facts orally, and he would bounce around the house on a hop ball, which is like a big inflated ball, almost like a yoga ball, but it had a handle. You could sit on it and just bounce around something sort of, well, very slightly similar to like a pogo stick when I was a kid. But he needed that movement, and so he was getting the movement. He was having fun, but he was also learning and committing to memory and practicing his math facts. Sometimes he would do his reading under the table in a little fort with a sheet, just being totally open minded.

Penny Williams [00:22:53]: Ask your kid, okay, I see you've got this assignment you need to do. This worksheet. You need to practice these facts or your spelling. How do you want to do it? Start there and then work toward some way that is going to work toward that end goal, which, remember, is just learning the information and showing what you learned. There are always so many ways that you can do that. So I hope I've given you some structure here. A framework of making sure that we're setting kids up for success at school when they're neurodivergent. And also some ideas that maybe you can incorporate in your home or in your classroom to make education more engaging and more accessible to your kid who has learning differences.

Penny Williams [00:23:40]: I hope that you'll take a few minutes after you listen to this and sit down with that pen and paper and really work through it concretely. It will make a huge difference for your kids, but also for you. When we make learning less stressful for the kids, we're making the experience less stressful for the adults in their lives as well. And that is it for show notes for this episode. Go to parentingadhdandautism.com/230 for episode 230 and I will see you in the next episode. In the meantime, I want you to take good care. 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.

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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