Think back to any of the significant transitions in your life and you can probably recall feeling unsettled, nervous, and apprehensive. Transitions can be difficult for anyone, at any age and any stage. But for neurodivergent people, there may be additional concerns and anxieties that need to be addressed, not least at the transition from school into further education.
Many schools and colleges are already aware of the additional care that may be needed when neurodivergent young people take the step from school into FE colleges and other settings, and are already employing helpful strategies for young people. We can always improve, however, and reviewing your current practices just might help to smooth the way for young neurodivergent people in your setting.
Teresa Carroll, the Education and Training Foundation’s National Head for Inclusion, has seen how important it is to address the needs of neurodivergent young people as they move from school to further education settings. She explained, “Change is good, but it can be daunting. Transitioning from school to the FE sector is an exciting time for all young people and needs to be planned for to try to ensure the best possible outcomes. This is the case for all learners, and particularly for learners who are neurodiverse.
“From year 9 onwards, we should be talking with learners about their aspirations; providing specialist information, advice, and guidance, and working with them to build on their strengths. Conversations between learners; their families (if the learner wishes); schools and prospective FE providers should commence in year 11, followed up with activities which are personalised to the learner, so they can make the right choice for them.”
At the Education and Training Foundation’s Centre for Excellence in SEND at Weston College, for example, this support includes a virtual tour of the college and informal onsite sessions so learners can get a sense of the environment before starting.
This approach is echoed by Laura Watkins, Chief Executive of The Donaldson Trust, a charity in Scotland for neurodiversity. The Donaldson Trust explains on its website that neurodiversity is an umbrella term which includes, “a broad range of more widely used terminology for example: autism, ADHD (Attention Hyperactivity Disorder), dyslexia, dyspraxia and Tourette’s.”
Watkins believes that one of the most important things we can do for young neurodivergent learners in their transition from school to FE is to manage expectations. “When college placements don’t work out,” Watkins explained, “it is usually because expectations are not made clear enough. FE is different from school in many ways and for some that is good and for others that is not so good. The more we can prepare neurodivergent learners for the changes, the better.”
As well as managing expectations for young learners, Watkins inspired the following ideas that may help to ease the transition to FE for neurodivergent people:
- Reduce the surprise element – video walk-throughs that highlight what learners need to know in advance in order to be comfortable in their new setting. For example, where the toilets are, where reception is, which classrooms they need to go to and so on. Include the way that classrooms are set up, and the key people that learners need to meet. For example, relevant tutors, lecturers, pastoral leads, receptionists and so on.
- Help with planning – make sure learners know where the FE setting is in relation to their home. Plan how long it will take to travel there, and work out the best way to get there.
- Focus on lunchtime – a new canteen may be daunting, with its smells, noises, and busyness. Make sure neurodivergent young people know where they can eat in peace and quiet if they wish to, and offer retreat spaces away from the sounds and smells of the canteen in the event of overwhelm.
- Share the need for reasonable adjustments as early as possible – pen portraits can be useful here so that all relevant staff know how to support access to learning and to be aware of triggers that might block learning. Aim to accommodate the reasonable adjustments that have supported the learner in the past where possible. This helps to ensure continuity and can help learners to feel comfortable in their new environment.
- Prepare for new ways of working – young neurodivergent learners may need to adjust to the way things are done in FE. For example, using first names rather than Mr, Dr, Mrs etc may feel uncomfortable, and not wearing a uniform is a change to get used to, albeit often a very positive one. The shift in structure and routine may be unsettling too, with the added flexibility that tends to come with learning in FE.
- Make support networks clear – knowing what to do and where to go in the event of needing support is key. Who are these people, what do they look like? Where can they be found? How can they be contacted?
- Peer support – case studies of other neurodivergent learners who have already made the transition from school to FE can help, especially if they focus on the issues they experienced and what worked best to ease their path.
One of the most powerful questions we can ask anyone in an education setting is: “what can I do to help you?” In order to be inclusive, we must understand the needs of neurodivergent learners not least at these times of transition. And if we are to avoid the trap of tick box exercises, we really must make inclusion our speciality.
Find out more…
- The Donaldson Trust Home - The Donaldson Trust (donaldsons.org.uk)
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world. Elizabeth has also taught on education courses in HE and presented at national and international conferences.