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Discussing learning and wellbeing for neurodiverse children and young people with Sue Murphy

Following a roundtable discussion on diversity and inclusion and the effects COVID-19 has had on people with disabilities and neurodiverse conditions, we caught back up with Susan Murphy, CEO of Sue Sanford Specialist Coach, to dive a little deeper into Sue’s personal experiences and the effects she is seeing first-hand in the educational sector.

My name is Sue Murphy. I am an experienced coach, often working with clients who have one or more neurodiverse conditions and I’m dyspraxic myself. Finding this out at 62 was a revelation and made a huge difference to the way I think and work. I hope it’s made me a better coach.

I’m also a proud grandma to 4 wonderful grandchildren, all in primary school. They and their parents have had to cope with the disruption of their school education for a year. They all did really well, yet It hasn’t been easy for any of them.

Three things in the last couple of weeks have made me think particularly about how lockdown has affected learning and wellbeing for neurodiverse children and young people;

Firstly, a recent online meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Dyspraxia, which heard from Dr Sally Payne and Sophie Kayani about how dyspraxic learners in school have been affected by home learning through multiple lockdowns, based on the findings of a survey of their parents and carers.

I came out of this discussion with a sense I commonly get that. What was clear was that no one size or set of measures fits any group and certainly not dyspraxic youngsters. Some students expected to do well in end-of-term exams learning in school were struggling with using unfamiliar technology and lack of structure. Assessing them against their online assignments submitted during lockdown will not give an accurate picture of how well that child would have done. For other students, being away from the distraction of the classroom and being able to focus on their own time working online-enabled them to thrive. Some of these students will struggle to go back to school and will lose the precious online resources and teaching they’ve had for a short while because schools can’t provide that level of support for an individual child.

The phrase “maverick learners" is used to describe students who often don’t do particularly well during term time and continuous assessment yet achieve better than expected results in exams. This is a familiar picture to me and other neurodiverse adults who need the pressure of a meaningful black and white deadline with real consequences to work at our best.

In the same week, I joined the campaign to end pen licences in primary schools. A primary school student “earns” a pen licence when their teachers decide their handwriting with a pencil is at a good enough level of neatness and accuracy. The child is now allowed to use a pen because they have mastered the cursive script. How many adults reading this handwrite regularly? If you do how often have you used cursive script since leaving school?

Many children with neurodiverse conditions such as dyspraxia, dyslexia or other conditions (including hypermobility) are affected with the skills needed to shape letters and use handwriting to communicate are needlessly demotivated and humiliated by this practice. Yet an adult (or post 16 students) with a similar impairment would not be expected to write by hand. They would use a keyboard and maybe make use of speech to text software (which is now provided as a matter of routine in Microsoft software amongst other

Then, in the same week, I received the summary of 2020 accessibility trends in education from Recite Me showing a huge spike in toolbar usage as lockdown kicked in and people switched to online earning. Toolbar launches enabled over 3.7 million educational web pages to be viewed.

This flexibility and accessibility will have been a huge help to the students able to access it at a time when the structure of their further and higher education was blown apart by COVID. What a contrast with the experiences of children in the primary sector.

My question now is:

When are we going to stop expecting children with diverse needs and learning styles to use outdated technology, ie a pen, and study in environments designed for the convenience of mass teaching which stress and distract them? in order to learn, reflect and be able to communicate their learning when we wouldn’t do that to an adult. When are we going to change things systemically in education so that they can learn and express their ideas in ways that are natural to them, using the fabulous technology now available and so commonly used by their older peers?

NB. I identify myself as Dyspraxic, rather someone “with dyspraxia”, so this is the language I have used here to describe myself and others. I know others will prefer to refer to themselves /their child as a person “with dyspraxia”, not dyspraxic and their preferences should be observed.