Coping with uncertainty: Supporting teens who “learn differently”*

With Clare Ward, Speech and Language Therapist/ CBT Practitioner, and James Galpin, Developmental Psychologist

*This post is in partnership with Jessica Kingsley Publishing

Uncertainty is something we have all had to learn to live with over the past year. Even the most laid-back person might be unnerved by the changes and loss brought by COVID.

But for neurodivergent young people-- those who "learn differently"-- who already suffered with anxiety, the pandemic has been particularly difficult.

Practitioners Clare Ward and James Galpin say they have discovered that beneath many medical or psychological diagnoses is difficulty managing uncertainty. They have written "The Anxiety Workbook for Supporting Teens who Learn Differently" with a host of practical activities for teachers and other adults supporting young people with learning differences, whether at home or in the classroom.

Drawing on their years of first-hand experience, and up to the minute research, the authors outline a "trans-diagnostic framework" for identifying what might be behind a student's behaviour. They show how the first crucial step all practitioners must take is to work out what could be causing a teen's feelings of anxiety or uncertainty, and how this can be addressed. 

They're here on SNJ today to tell us about their new book

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Need for a diagnosis or diagnosing need? by Clare Ward and James Galpin

The number of children and young people identified with a special educational need in the UK continues to rise. If the rate of increase over the past five years continues into the next five years, over a fifth of all pupils will be on their schools’ SEN register.

Diagnosis can bring benefits. However, a greater awareness of specific areas of difference has led to the re-emergence of the medical model. Special educational needs are considered in terms of an ever-expanding array of discrete categories: ADHD, dyslexia, autism and so on. Teaching staff are expected to have specific theoretical, and increasingly, neuropsychological knowledge about this growing set of categories in order to support their students; knowledge that tends to focus on deficits and disorders and the steps we need to take to make up for their ‘shortcomings’.

Sticky labels

Labels, a set of temporary constructs, not only serve to describe, but to define. Autistic pupils have a ‘disorder’; those with ADHD have a ‘deficit’ and a ‘disorder’, for example. The focus is on the poor fit of the child rather than the environment they find themselves in. Unique attributes can then end up reframed as inadequacies as a consequence of the unachievable goal - to teach to the non-existent ‘normal’ student.

But there is Unity in diversity. In an attempt to move away from over-pathologising ‘difference’, our book highlights the natural variations in thinking that unify us all. It explains how all of us are striving for the same thing; certainty. The book then invites readers to rethink anxiety, and the difficulties we experience, as being driven by uncertainty. What is different for each of us is simply the amount of uncertainty that we experience and our ability to tolerate it.

Book cover

Universal uncertainty

The events of the last year have brought uncertainty to the forefront of all our lives and provided a powerful reminder of how we really don’t like it. Recent theories of cognition provide a good explanation for this. The predictive processing story of how we think suggests we are predictavores; biological organisms trying to live our lives in the most energy-efficient way we can. To do this we build models of the world, which means we can predict what we might experience and then prepare to manage it; essentially we see the world by predicting the world. The better our models, the less unpredictable our world appears.

Imagine walking down the street and then tripping up. Our model of ‘walking’ is usually fairly robust. We wouldn’t expect to trip, so this could be seen as a prediction error. It makes us, even if just momentarily, feel very uneasy. This small example shows how we don’t generally like these errors; they can make us feel deeply uncomfortable and the lasting impact will depend on our capacity to manage the uncertainty they bring.

The ideas, worksheets and activities in our book offer a new way to describe and support areas of difficulty, focusing on the three areas of uncertainty we believe underpin them. Structure. Sensory. Social.

Structural uncertainty

Not knowing how the lesson will be set out and delivered. Managing a change in classroom where a lesson is taking place. Knowing whether a question requires me to put my hand up or call out. Finding it hard to work out when (or how) to join another group’s conversation. Knowing what the learning objective might be and how to achieve it. Struggling with a change in the timetable because of exams.

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Sensory uncertainty

Feeling overwhelmed or ‘needing more’ sensory input to feel ‘right.’ Needing to tip my chair up in order to listen. Feeling angry when actually hungry. Not being able to predict how I might feel in different situations so unable to answer the question - ‘Do you want to come with us?’. Recognising my emotions.

Social uncertainty

Finding it hard to predict what someone else is feeling, or feeling like others find it hard to predict what I am feeling. Not knowing how others might be expecting me to behave. What ‘face’ is my teacher making - is she annoyed or confused? Did they just ignore me? Is he laughing at me?

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“Where’s the uncertainty?”

This fundamental question is always our driving force for support, it addresses our own uncertainty around causes of difficulties as well as helping to better support others. By reconceptualising needs in this way we can recognise behaviours as being driven by an exaggerated need for control, a fraught attempt to wrestle back some certainty.

When designing appropriate support we would never start with a blank page. We will always look across all three of the S’s, StructureSensory, Social.

We then identify which area of uncertainty might be causing the greatest difficulty and how we might all work together to first reduce uncertainty and then to increase someone’s capacity to manage it. We do this by giving young people more knowledge, understanding and agency (control), because one thing is for sure, the world is full of uncertainty.

Buy the book now

You can enter the giveaway below and/or just buy the paperback from Amazon UK here and Kindle version here. (Amazon links earn SNJ a v. small commission at no cost to you - it's a great way to support us.) The book can be found on the JKP website here,

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