Why your child struggles to "just ignore" classroom distractions, and what you can do about it.
I'm writing this blog post in a coffee shop; it's pretty busy and noisy. There's a loud conversation happening at the next table, there's music playing, and the barista is running a coffee grinder. But I'm able to focus on my thoughts, and organize them in writing this blog, because I'm what society would consider “neurotypical.” My brain works as those around me expect it to, and this means I can filter out noise around me to focus on what’s in front of me.
It's something many of us are able to do — tune out several competing things, or push them into the background, so we can focus on the task at hand. And most of us do this without thinking.
Our brain does this for us automatically.
I mention this particular skill because recently I was working with a parent whose neurodiverse child was being encouraged throughout the school day to ignore the behavior of their classmate who was also struggling in his own way (to keep his voice and talking to a minimum). The constant chatter from this peer was agitating my client’s daughter to the point that she would become overwhelmed and frustrated, which showed itself through challenging behaviors.
The daughter would frequently yell at this peer to “shut up!” or “stop talking!” When the tension had built up all day, she would become defiant and refuse to do her work. She began feeling anxious in the morning, telling her parents that she did not want to go to school, because she’d have to endure this peer’s excessive talking, without any relief.
All the while, the teachers in this setting were encouraging this parent’s child to “just ignore him and focus on your work,” or they giving her behavioral pep-talks, like: “Sometimes you just need to be the bigger person and not let him get to you. I know you can do it!” My client’s daughter is capable in many other areas, which makes her brain-based difference and associated lagging skills even more invisible to those around her. This puts her at higher risk for being misunderstood and being seen as a student who has the skills to ignore the chatter, and simply “be the bigger person.”
Just ignore him — it's what most neurotypical people would be able to do.
But as my client was well aware, her child was not considered neurotypical — her child’s brain works differently — and one key way it works differently is that she can't simply ignore things, no matter how much she’s “motivated” to do so. Her sensory processing doesn't allow her to differentiate between various sensory inputs, at least not very well. Which means she can't easily filter sounds, or "push" one or more sounds into the background. They all occupy the same level of importance in the part of her brain that processes sound.
And when there are several, or many, they overlap and crash into each other.
Her frustration will only increase if she's asked to do something she physically can't.
This internal chaos can be confusing and cause dysregulation. This dysregulation is evident through behavioral symptoms (anxiety, defiance, agitation) that increase in intensity and frequency throughout the day, as she is asked over and over again to do something she cannot do. My client has seen this play out time and again in other settings with her daughter. Two examples that came immediately to mind were family gatherings, where her daughter could not follow the conversation because all the talking ran together, and a friend’s birthday party, where there were multiple, high-intensity sensory sources demanding her attention all at once. My client knew her daughter would do better if she could, and in order to feel settled in school, she would require accommodations that addressed this specific brain-based difference.
This is where my client — her parent — worked to shift the lens of the adults in that school setting. She explained to them that if her child is trying to do work or speak with the teachers, and another student is, say, repeating the child’s name over and over, or incessantly talking to himself (even quietly), or if a custodian is vacuuming out in the hallway, or a another student is tapping a pencil against their desk leg — whatever it might be — it is predictable that my client’s daughter will struggle (at best), or in some cases, be completely unable to focus.
She explained that if teachers and staff continued to tell her daughter to "simply ignore" the sound or disruption, they are actually asking her to do something her brain cannot do at the moment. She will not be able to independently ignore it though, and her frustration will only increase if she's asked to do something she physically can't.
This parent then helped the classroom teachers to brainstorm an alternative approach and accommodation, based on her child’s unique brain function. One idea was to move her daughter to a quieter setting, creating some separation from the distraction (in this case, another child who was also struggling with talking excessively). Ideally, this would happen at regular intervals throughout the day, before her daughter became overwhelmed.
If her daughter showed signs of being outside of her window of tolerance, meaning her thinking brain was offline, making learning impossible in that moment, the teachers might consider taking her for a short walk, and then coming back to the school work. They might also offer her daughter headphones, so she could focus more closely on the work at hand. These accommodations were fairly simple to implement and could be initiated immediately.
As is so often the case, the greatest hurdle the parent faced in having appropriate accommodations provided to her daughter was the fact that no one recognized her need for them in the first place, given the invisibility of her difference. But provided with the proper information, teachers can shift from the "just ignore it" approach to something more informed and effective.
Eileen Devine works in Portland, OR as a therapist and coach supporting parents of children with special needs. She is also a consultant for families impacted by FASD, PANS/PANDAS and other neurobehavioral conditions through her private practice, working with families nationally and internationally. She lives with her husband and two amazing kids, one of whom happens to live with FASD. For more information, visit eileendevine.com.