Restless Revision: Alternative Strategies for Neurodivergent Brains

on 25 April 2022
Blog Title

April marks the beginning of spring and the promise of lighter, sunnier days ahead — but for pupils across the UK, it also marks the final month of school before exam season begins. The associated nerves and anxiety are bound to be shared by parents and carers, too, as they wonder how best to support their children — especially if the material is unfamiliar.

We put all of the latest learning theory into our TUTOR platform, designed to offer an affordable alternative to 1-1 tuition. This three-part series for parents seeks to share some of these ideas behind learning and revision, alongside practical strategies parents and carers can use at home to help ensure their child enters the exam hall feeling as calm and prepared as possible.

Whilst the strategies explored in the other blogs in this series mostly focus on ‘neurotypical’ revision strategies, if your child is struggling with ‘typical’ revision methods, why not give these a go, whether or not they have been diagnosed with a ‘neurodivergent’ condition such as ASC, ADHD, Dyslexia, OCD, Tourette’s Syndrome, Anxiety and Depression etc.

The variety of ways our brains work is called ‘neurodiversity’. Whilst many children struggle with time management, focusing on topics that aren’t of special interest, and anxiety when out of routine, some will have (diagnosed or undiagnosed) conditions which can be described as ‘neurodivergent’, as opposed to ‘neurotypical’. For more information, this is a helpful article.

Disclaimer: this article does not present an exhaustive list for each condition that might be classed as neurodivergent, and is not an alternative to diagnosis and medical advice. It is intended to support young people, diagnosed or otherwise, with some alternative revision strategies. Since many ND individuals present with more than one condition and lots of strategies overlap, these are some strategies to try alongside the methods suggested in the first part of this series. Specific conditions have only been specified where this adds clarity.

Creative Approaches

Neurodivergent individuals are known for being creative thinkers, a trait which is starting to be recognised by employers as enriching to their organisations. This article explains this in relation to dyslexia and STEM careers.

Visuals: Drawing pictures, creating mind maps and making models are visual ways of helping to remember information. Using visual representations and physical objects to ‘manipulate’ in teaching maths is becoming much more common and supports neurodivergent and neurotypical learners. TUTOR tuition videos use this approach. For a free Times Tables resource with this approach, click here.

Recording voice/video: Recording voice notes or making videos of themselves could be a fun and effective revision technique for children, as long as they are actually using this to revise! ‘Teaching’ others helps them to review and retrieve the information or skill they will need in the exam, and making a video means they can then watch it back again. People with dyslexia and dysgraphia are particularly likely to benefit from this approach, due to difficulties with writing.

Use their Imagination: Your child might invent stories that help to remember a sequence of events or use mnemonics (eg remembering the order of rainbow colours using Richard Of York…). They might turn the revision itself into a game - answering 10 questions in 10 minutes and they then get a small ‘treat’...

Rewards: The previous blog in this series discussed rewarding your child for their effort and this is absolutely relevant here. Particularly if your child has difficulty with attention regulation, reward based on what is achievable for them, rather than what you think they should be doing. They may well be really trying to focus on their work even if it doesn’t look like they’ve done anything - asking them to rate their effort can help with understanding how your child is feeling and help them with self-awareness and being kind to themselves on difficult days.

Focussing on Tasks

People with ND conditions often get labelled as ‘lazy’, even though they might be really trying to focus. There are some things which may help to regulate attention: urgency, interest, challenge and novelty. Keeping these in mind, hopefully you’ll have found some strategies for ‘interest’ and ‘challenge’ above, and changing up revision strategies or subjects can bring ‘novelty’ in too. The next two suggestions tackle ‘urgency’:

Timers: Creating a sense of urgency with an achievable goal/deadline can really help ND-brains to focus on a task. One example of this is the pomodoro technique based on working for 25 minutes and then having a 5 minute break. However, if this is too long for your child, alter the timings — for instance, a 10 minute session with a 3 minute break.

Alternatively, try another trick similar to one suggested in our previous blog, adapted for ND brains that struggle to start tasks — set a timer for 5 minutes, and your child needs to only work this time. You may well find that when the timer is up, they have just got stuck in and want to carry on… let them (within reason)!

Body-doubling: Do you feel like your child only focuses when you are in the room? They might benefit from a technique called ‘body-doubling’. The accountability of having someone else in the room focused on a task (it doesn’t need to be the same task — you could be reading a book or cooking dinner) can help to create urgency and regulate attention. If you are not able to be physically present, this can also work virtually - depending on your child’s age and their friends, they could ‘body-double’ over video call, or with a grandparent, even if they live too far to visit. If none of these are viable options, youtube has many ‘study with me’ videos that follow the pomodoro technique and feel like you are on a call with someone.

Music: Whilst many people find listening to music relaxing, people with autism and/or anxiety may find additional benefit from music in regulating or expressing their emotions. Moreover, people with ADHD, who we described at the start of this section as needing novelty, interest, challenge and urgency, might benefit from the ‘interest’ music promotes whilst they work on a task they would not otherwise be interested in. As we will see in the next section, having a dance break may help too…

Movement

Movement helps with focus and reducing anxiety in many ND-conditions.

‘Stimming’ - repetitive movements such as flicking fingers, jiggling feet, twirling/jumping, pulling hair and stroking or rearranging objects, where not harmful to the individual, can provide relief from stressful or overstimulating environments.

Breaks: Taking frequent breaks to move can help ND brains with reducing stress and releasing dopamine which is needed for regulating attention and, in individuals with ADHD, is lacking. Why not combine this with the pomodoro technique above!

If your child is undiagnosed/not entitled to breaks or a separate room for exams, you might look for ways your child can move that supports them to focus on their exam.

Stimulation: Bouncing their leg up and down and fiddling with blu tack or a rubber band are ways your child can move whilst in an exam hall without distracting others.

Counting numbers of e.g. ceiling tiles or seats in a row can also help to reduce anxiety by distracting from the stressful environment.

For sensory stimulation, stroking a small section of fabric (look for offcuts at your local fabric shop) or a small sensory toy that fits discreetly in a pocket can reduce anxiety, particularly in people with autism.

Accommodations

If your child has a diagnosed condition, it is not unreasonable to ask for accommodations in line with their normal way of working; in fact ‘reasonable adjustments’ is a requirement by law (Equality Act, 2010). However, it is important to apply for this early as schools need time to process this - if your child is in year 5, 10 or 12 and will be sitting exams next year, you should ask about this in your next SEND support meeting with your child’s school.
Reasonable adjustments for exams can range from being allowed a fidget/sensory toy, to assistive software or a reader/scribe/prompt, to having extra time and a smaller room. Familiarising themselves with what the exams will be like can help too - knowing which room the exam will take place in, how long each exam is, whether your child will be allowed movement breaks during the exam etc. Your child may well benefit from talking and/or walking through what they can expect in the exam, including changes such as using a transparent pencil case rather than their usual one for GCSE/A-level exams.

Final thoughts

Many ND people have difficulty with time management and organisation, and changes to their usual routines. Keeping as much as possible the same within this revision period will help - this is not a good time to try out new foods if your child finds this difficult, for example. You might also find that even activities they enjoy might trigger meltdowns because of the additional exam stress.

Being flexible and allowing your child to choose not to do certain activities at this time might be just what they need to cope with a period which may be overwhelming for them, and help to develop their independence. At first, your child may need more support deciding what they should do in their revision session, although presenting them with a couple of choices still gives them agency over their revision. As they learn what helps them, they should find it easier to know what they need to do and which techniques help them to focus and achieve their goals.

Many parents of children with and without ND-conditions will be feeling frustrated by exam season - but it's important to remember that it takes time to develop these skills. You are not alone.


At present, TUTOR is only available through schools; you should contact your child’s school directly if you are interested in accessing the platform straightaway. Alternatively, click here to be added to the mailing list and notified when TUTOR for Families is released, allowing you to purchase access to TUTOR directly.

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