In her latest book, bestselling author Sally Rippin has launched a passionate inquiry into how the system is letting down students with complex learning needs.
When Sally Rippin’s youngest son showed signs that he was struggling to learn how to read, she began a complex learning journey of her own. Having found school easy herself, and with two older sons who had “sailed through”, Sally says she was complacent about how much reading matters.
“I thought my son would eventually find his own thing without necessarily becoming a reader, but I hadn’t factored in how much being able to read affects everything – not to mention how unaware I was of how difficult the classroom environment can be for people with ADHD or dyslexia or other neurodivergent traits.”
She describes her third son as a sweet and sunny boy. “I thought he’d cruise through, but high school can be a nightmare for kids who are struggling. They can feel stupid even when they know that they’re not.” As time went on, Sally came to understand the impact of learning difficulties on a person’s self-esteem.
“It breaks my heart to hear these stories again and again.”
“I heard stories from so many adults who had had similar experiences to my son and how much this has affected them throughout their lives, just because their brains work differently. It breaks my heart to hear these stories again and again.”
She decided to write the book she wished was available when her son first started school. The result, Wild Things: How we learn to read and what can happen if we don’t, was a “four-year labour of love,” says Sally, “combining research, interviews and lived experience, looking for answers to all the questions I had about neurodivergency, and how it is that so many kids are still struggling to fit into an education system that can’t meet their needs. There are so many things I learned the hard way that I wish I’d known earlier.”
She hopes that Wild Things will offer insights into learning difficulties for those who work with our young people and also help those experiencing similar problems feel less alone. “There are very dense books out there on dyslexia and the neuroscience of reading, but when you’re a panicking, floundering parent there’s no way you can make your way through those kinds of books. So, I really worked hard to make it as accessible as possible.”
Sally is particularly concerned about the pressure to feel that Year 11 and 12 is “the be all and end all,” she says. “School can be restrictive for some students, and there are so many different ways to find your thing outside of school.”
Making a difference
As part of her research, Sally spoke to several teachers about what would help them meet the needs of their neurodiverse students. Almost all said “more aides in the classroom” would make all the difference when it comes to supporting those needing extra support, and not only the children with additional funding.
Francine, Head of Wellbeing at a primary school with students from 70 different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, believes “relationships are everything”, not only between the teacher and student, but also with their families.
“Like everyone, neurodivergent kids have strengths and challenges, and it’s important to focus on their strengths.”
Special education teacher Erin agrees. “Parents need to be on board, and we need a pool of volunteers in the classroom.” Her “dream classroom” would have one teacher for every ten students, and revised academic expectations for all primary students: “social skills, emotional skills, identity, science, art and play-based learning would be the priority, and academic subjects – such as formal reading, writing and maths – offered to those who are ready.”
Erin also emphasises the need for qualified psychologists, counsellors and wellbeing staff to address mental health issues and learning difficulties among students, saying it is not fair for teachers to also be expected to also play this role.
Sally agrees. “Schools are so under-resourced. Teachers are unfairly expected to be everything for their students – psychologist, mentor, even a parent sometimes. I do think parents forget that teachers are doing their best, and don’t take into account that they have at least 25 other students in their class with their own individual needs and challenges.”
Creating a support team
For teachers who suspect a child might have learning challenges, Sally recommends finding a way to connect with their parents or carers to “create a support team” for that student – though she acknowledges that these conversations can be tricky. While some parents may welcome the support, others may become defensive when faced with perceived criticism of their child, she notes.
Wild Things features an extensive list of resources as well as advice from experts on various aspects of supporting neurodivergent students. According to neurodivergent educator and advocate Dr Siobhan Lamb, as a first step, parents must feel that their child’s behaviour is not merely seen as ‘bad’ or ‘a problem’. However, Lamb also stresses that while teachers play a vital role in identifying potential issues, it is not their responsibility to diagnose a child’s neurological difference. “Their role is simply to explain how this might play out in the classroom, using the most positive language possible. Like everyone, neurodivergent kids have strengths and challenges, and it’s important to focus on their strengths.”
“One of the loveliest things [to come out of my research was] connecting with so many passionate teachers … who are committed to supporting their students in a system that is complex, outdated and flawed.”
Almost all of the teachers, parents and professionals Sally interviewed saw the department’s Student Support Services as hopelessly under-resourced. Professional assessments can be costly and drawn-out, putting the most disadvantaged students at risk of being left behind.
That said, Sally notes that “one of the loveliest things” to come out of her research was “connecting with so many passionate teachers … who are committed to supporting their students in a system that is complex, outdated and flawed.” She also identifies some schools finding success with innovative approaches to supporting their neurodivergent students.
In part, Wild Things is Sally’s way of trying to make sure other parents don’t do what she did. “Get support as quickly as you can, because you can change the trajectory of your kid’s life!”
But she is quick to add that this cannot be down to each individual family. “We need to create a society where we understand neurodiversity much more, so that by the time kids get to high school they have already effectively been taught the literacy skills they will need for further study, or have access to affordable support in and outside of school to be able to thrive.”
Sally’s recommended TED talks
- The True Gifts of a Dyslexic Mind, Dean Bragonier
- Your Elusive Creative Genius, Elizabeth Gilbert
- Failing at Normal: An ADHD Success Story, Jessica McCabe
- Every Kid Needs a Champion, Rita Pierson
- Do Schools Kill Creativity? and Bring on the Learning Revolution, Sir Ken Robinson
- What is Dyslexia?, Kelli Sandman Hurley
- Why School Should Start Later for Teens, Wendy Troxel
- How Every Child Can Thrive by Five, Molly Wright