Individuals with neurodivergent brains have different experiences. Neurodivergent brains learn differently, think differently, and exist in the world differently. These differences can challenge the neurodivergent individual when trying to learn, thrive, and live in an environment not designed for them and their unique needs. This different way of being in the world can create experiences that may lead to a dysregulated nervous system. We now better understand through brain science, the Polyvagal Theory, and the idea of mismatched neurocepton (Deb. Dana, LCSW).
A mismatched nervous system is one that is sensitized (for any number of reasons), therefore detecting danger and threat in situations where it is burnt toast and not a fire. This is due to individual biology and the experiences a person has had since entering this world at birth, especially if they experienced adverse experiences or trauma, including medical trauma, abuse, neglect, maltreatment, or not having their basic needs met through responsive caregiving.
Neurodivergent people have different neurology and require different approaches to support them. Science has shown us that our neurophysiology always works “towards balance, growth and restoration” (Dr. Stephen Porges, The Polyvagal Theory). Our neuroception acts as a surveillance system, always searching for potential threats and working to keep us safe, all under our conscious awareness.
Ever have that “feeling” something wasn’t right, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on what that was?
The sense is our neuroception, which will always err on the side of our survival and protection. It doesn’t take chances; thankfully, we have this human survival gift.
So, how do we work with individuals who have neurodivergent ways of being in this world so that all learners can access their education, have their individual needs met, grow, thrive, and, importantly, gain greater capacity to experience a balanced and joyful life? All learners deserve to be active participants in their education and their lives. Everyone benefits in the school community when the needs of the most marginalized students are met. This is why we know inclusion and belonging in education need to be the priority. Everyone benefits from these practices both in and out of the classroom.
It is through my extensive lived experience as a neurodivergent person, being the parent to three neurodivergent individuals, and my continued education (both informally and formally) that I have developed a framework called “The 6 C’s” approach to supporting the neurodivergent learner. The approach is a way for teachers, adults, and caregivers who care for, work with, or co-exist with neurodivergent people to be more informed and understand what they may see as “different” ways of being in this world.
Current statistics show that 1 in 5 learners have some form of learning or thinking difference.
That’s a lot of neurodivergent individuals within one classroom of 30 pupils and in one school of 500 students. Our current system of education was designed to produce factory workers and is focused on training and compliance, which are “neurotypical” and grounded in colonization. Our education system has stayed the same since public education was established well over 100 years ago. Think about everything else in society that has changed since the early 1900s. The current system leaves far too many behind because “this is how we have always done it.” Our education system has not kept up with what we now know about the science of learning, the science of applied educational neuroscience, the Polyvagal Theory, and what we know about trauma.
This 6 C’s strategy framework can help inform how we see, work with, and support the neurodivergent person in all sectors of society.
When we know better, we do better.Maya Angelou
It is time to do better.
Through the 6 C’s approach to supporting the neurodivergent learner, curiosity, compassion, co-regulation, connection, creativity, and cognitive capacity, the adults become more capable of staying present through grounding and resourcing of their own nervous system state. They can respond in a way that supports an individual when their nervous system detects a threat (neuroception) and perceives danger. This neuroception-mediated awareness can create an imbalance that drives the body to protect itself subconsciously.
When we think about the neurodivergent learner, we see that this population may often experience “mismatched” neuroceptive responses (Deb Dana, LCSW). One way to think about this is when toast starts to burn in the toaster, and the house smoke alarm detects the smoke and alarms to convey the message there is a fire, and everyone needs to get out of the house. But, there isn’t really a fire. It’s just burnt toast. But the smoke alarm is doing its job, signaling when smoke is detected regardless of the cause.
We have all had these experiences, especially if you cook. The body has a smoke alarm meant to warn us of danger. This is why we have neuroception, our constant threat awareness surveillance system, keeping watch for any sign of danger or threat. However, just like the burnt toast that sets off the smoke alarm, our body’s threat alarm can signal danger when there really isn’t any real danger. This mismatched neuroception happens because of a sensitized nervous system that alarms even when it’s just burnt toast. Why does this happen? Because our nervous system will always err on the side of caution, protection, and survival, just in case. This is our biological imperative.
This new understanding, informed by the Polyvagal Theory, helps explain why many neurodivergent learners feel sensory challenges in many different environments. These environments can be “ordinary” places, including the home, the park, a store, and especially in the classroom and on school campuses. The body is always working towards restoring balance, even if it “is inconvenient” or viewed as “disruptive” by others. This is not something that is within an individual’s conscious control. This is why traditional methods of punishment, consequences, or trying to reward a student “to do better” don’t work. Dr. Ross Greene always said, “Kids do well if they can.” So if a child isn’t meeting an expectation doing what the adult wants, we need to dig deeper and discover the “why and why now?” (Dr. Stuart Shanker).
Dysregulation of the nervous system always precedes a behavior.Dr. Stephen Porges
This is why traditional approaches to challenging behaviors, or behaviors we don’t understand and have judgment towards, do not work. An individual’s threat detection system in their autonomic nervous system signals they are in danger, and there are two ways the body moves to protect the individual. The “Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawning” response or a shutdown response is how we as humans have been able to exist for so long. Our survival response keeps us alive, and we don’t take chances on whether “it is really a fire or burnt toast,” we respond.
Again, different neurology requires different approaches to supporting neurodivergent people. This is different, not less. It is time to move towards meeting the needs of all learners. This first starts with relational safety, felt nervous system to nervous system. Without this basic neurophysiological felt sense, there is no learning.
The second crucial point to understand is this is not cognitive. This is what is referred to by many clinicians, including Dr. Mona Delahooke, as a body-up approach to supporting an individual versus top-down approaches (cognitive, words, demands, instructions). A body in protection mode cannot process anything cognitively. This is why these methods aren’t effective in many situations with individuals who are experiencing nervous system dysregulation. This is not willful. This is biological. This is our autonomic nervous system doing its job. Again, dysregulation always precedes behavior. Behavior is always information and adaptive, even if we don’t understand it.
How we show up for the neurodivergent learner can provide the felt sense of safety their individual nervous system needs in that environment to learn, stay in balance, and thrive, or we can continue using outdated approaches, such as behavior charts, punishments, and other inappropriate methods to “get a student to behave.”
Neuroscience has shown us it’s not about what we do to a student. It is how we are with the student that matters.
When students feel connected and safe, learning, thriving, and positive engagement can happen. The Polyvagal theory has shown us through the literature that social engagement is the most critical aspect of human survival. We don’t survive as a human species without our connections with one another. This understanding supports why many children are showing us they are more distressed than ever in 2023. We are a disconnected and stressed society that cannot find our balance to center ourselves to be available for those in our care.
The 6 C’s approach, whether utilized in the classroom or the home, starts with the adult nervous system. It begins with our own curiosity and our ability to hold back a “reaction” and notice with a pause. It can be a powerful shift to seeing the individual before us as struggling and needing our help, compared to the alternative of seeing an individual who is getting me angry and frustrated, and, therefore, I lose myself within their chaos they are presenting to me.
Curiosity is the starting point to shifting “how we see behaviors.” We can no longer use outdated ideas that view behaviors as something to punish or eliminate. The current brain science has revealed that behaviors need to be viewed as “information” that someone is trying to communicate something in the only way they can at that moment; this is called brain state regulation. Dr. Bruce Perry’s work has taught us that the brain is a state-dependent predictive organ and depends on the nervous system to determine its state based on whether safety or a threat is detected under conscious awareness.
We cannot think our way to safety.Stephen Porges
Additionally, the capability of a person in any given moment is fluid and depends upon one’s neuroception (as discussed above), interoception (one’s internal senses), and exteroception (one’s external senses). It may not make sense to us; however, if we follow the neuroscience that all behavior is adaptive, and we unconsciously pause ourselves from “reacting” to wondering what this child/individual might be experiencing that is creating this stress behavior we are witnessing, we can learn a great deal.
Words and processing information are higher brain functions. Kids often react to things because their nervous system protects itself in many situations. Their higher-order brain functions are not fully developed until their mid to late 20s. A lot of brain development still needs to happen while kids are in our care and in the classrooms.
All development is individualized and cannot be standardized based on chronological age. This goes for brain development, walking, talking, reading, and many other “skills” that come online when an individual’s development is ready. I use the phrase, “each in their own time.” This matters. I had a “late” walker, an “early” talker, an “early” reader, a “late” reader, and everything in between. My three children had their own developmental trajectories based on their own neurophysiology, biology, and experiences. There was no wrong way to develop. Supporting them through the different phases is what leads to their individual successes.
Just like understanding child development, current brain science has helped us to make sense of and understand that what we once thought of as “bad behaviors, misbehaviors, or a bad kid who needs punishment to teach them a lesson” are, in fact, “behaviors” that are always adaptive to that person at that moment. This is where the 6 C’s can support the adults who are looking to reframe what they once thought of as non-compliance and problem behaviors.
When we start with curiosity, compassion, and co-regulation, it helps us, the adults, better appreciate and be able to reframe that this person may be struggling and need our support rather than our judgment and frustration.
When we work with students who are struggling and can start with curiosity, this moves our nervous system to a place of connection and collaboration to support the learner’s brain-body balance. When a person is in balance and is supported to meet their unique needs, we see an individual learn, thrive, and move towards “health, growth and restoration” (Dr. Stephen Porges).
Curiosity is the shift needed to move towards supporting a learner, especially those who present us with “challenging behaviors” we don’t yet understand.
When we start with curiosity, it invites “I wonder” statements….I wonder what’s happening to this individual. I wonder what this person is experiencing. Wondering leads us to compassion.
Moving from curiosity to a state of compassion is how we show up for this individual. When we feel compassion towards another, we often have soft non-verbal cues, soft eyes, and soft gestures. We tilt our heads and change our tone to express concern for this individual’s well-being. This is much like when we approach a crying baby or toddler. We show up in a way that cues “safety” to their nervous system. We are cueing nervous system to the nervous system – I see you struggling, and I’m here with you. We will figure this out together. This is meeting an individual’s dysregulated state where they are at. Dr. Dan Siegel refers to this as the 4 S’s: being seen, safe, soothed, and secure. It is biological to express compassion by saying, “I’m here, and I see you.”
If we are not conscious of our own nervous system state, we may inadvertently send cues of threat to another’s nervous system, which will always escalate a situation.
This is because emotions are contagious (Dr. Bruce Perry). If I show up dysregulated, that means I am not grounded and present in my own body to be able to share my resources of presence and regulation. Regulation doesn’t mean calm; it means we are present within ourselves and can resist joining the chaos, which is precisely what the other person’s nervous system needs in those moments—someone who connects with compassion and felt safety in our presence.
Curiosity and compassion become a space holder in time that can turn down the thermostat when a nervous system is running “hot.” This pause that curiosity creates space for helps us to either “respond” to an individual or “react” to an individual. Reactions come from a place in our limbic brain where neuroception is always surveilling threats or safety for us. Reactions are messages from the body that a threat was detected by our nervous system. (think of someone who is standing behind a door and yells boo and you startle react, perhaps even scream in fear) this reaction is below our conscious control. It’s there to ensure our survival. The brain will always err on the side of surviving rather than taking chances. That’s why we have a negative bias because the brain will always work towards protecting us if there is ever any doubt.
We are wired for connection, but our body always works for protection first! So, if in a situation we react, we are inadvertently co-escalating the situation because we have just lost ourselves in this moment. We have joined another’s chaos. Alternatively, the pause can direct us to respond, giving us a pathway back from our limbic (midbrain) to our cortex, higher thinking, and decision-making brain.
This pathway opens up the ventral vagal pathway to social engagement and all of our higher brain functions that are needed to help this individual in front of us who is experiencing stress. This is the power of co-regulation. It is about sharing our safe relational presence with one another to reduce stress and restore balance.
Through co-regulation, it is then that a connection can be made. This is the 4th C. Curiosity leads the way to connection. Relational connection with one another is how our neurophysiology evolved to be in a relationship that provides a felt sense of safety nervous system to nervous system. This is the top rung of the hierarchical ladder (Polyvagal theory: Ventral vagal state is social engagement, according to Dr. Stephen Porges and Deb Dana, LCSW). This is the greatest form of the human experience.
Connections don’t just happen. Safety through co-regulation is a felt sense within our bodies. This is not cognitive and is why when others might perceive a situation as safe to them, they do not understand that safety is always in the eye (or nervous system) of the beholder.
What’s “safe” to one nervous system may not feel safe to another.
A sense of safety is as individualized to each of us as our fingerprints. We often see this on school campuses. Educators may believe that their classroom is “safe.” However, as we’ve discussed earlier, this is very dependent on an individual’s nervous system, their experiences, and the brain wiring differences. Often, classrooms can feel very overwhelming to neurodivergent learners, but a neurotypical individual may not understand why because they receive cues of safety in the environment that the neurodivergent individual receives cues of threat. This is not about a wrong way or right way to exist in the world. Both are absolutely valid, and we need to ensure we aren’t invalidating anyone’s experiences and ways of existing. However, we do have to ensure we are meeting the needs of all learners, and this may require changing environments and changing the design of the classrooms.
We must focus on ways to change the environment rather than old ideas that the individual needs to change to fit into the environment. This promotes a sense of belonging, acceptance, and connection to the space, supporting all learners to thrive and learn, regardless of neurophysiological differences.
When we have access to our creativity (the 5th C), this comes out of our higher brain regions, our cortex, where we have the ability to make decisions, problem solve, control impulses, plan, and structure time (this is all our executive functioning). Our creativity leads us to new solutions when we have a problem. It helps us create using materials, create work assignments, strategize to meet demands, and the ability to think and make suggestions.
Creativity drives our executive functioning, which many may recognize as everything that happens in school, in the classrooms, on the sports field, in the practice studio, in our homes, and what leads us to our success because it gives us greater cognitive capacity (the 6th C) to move us towards and maintain balance, growth and overall well being.
So the 6 C’s, curiosity, compassion, co-regulation, connection, creativity, and cognitive capacity, is a sequential framework that works to help us understand what we may not understand and can help guide us towards working with others in a more productive, positive and beneficial way that meets individual needs.
The 6 C’s help us to reframe outdated ideas that could be experienced as harsh and a threat, therefore causing further dysregulation (as seen throughout many of our homes and classrooms) to appreciate these differences, see the value in diversity, and recognize that supporting our neurodivergent kids, family, friends, students, co-workers in all areas where they may struggle, is paramount to their individual success, and our collective success. This paradigm shift comes from brain science research, is trauma-informed based on the ACE Study, and informs all of us to understand that success always comes through collaboration rather than anything punitive.
It’s a nervous system thing. Blame our biology!
Curiosity… it’s the pause that stands between responding and reacting. It is the catalyst for compassion. Compassion moves us to co-regulate with one another. Co-regulation drives us to connect. Connection brings us toward creativity, and this is where we find our cognitive capacity to move toward balance and growth.Jennifer Abbanat