Episode 4: Lauren Whitaker – Celebrating Diversity

In this episode we look at Neurodiversity and ways to support neurodiverse children attending mainstream primary schools and nurseries. We speak with teaching assistant and special educational needs manager, Lauren Whitaker who has over 15 years of experience of working in schools. Lauren shares how she has supported neurodiverse children and their families to feel happy and nurtured in school as well as practical ways to empower children’s learning and encourage development. Listen now to find out more about Neurodiversity and the different ways you can support neurodiverse children.


00:02.17 – Alis

Welcome to the Nip in the Bud podcast.

00:06.05 – Lauren

We should be celebrating our differences and encouraging them. Everyone’s journey’s different.

00:00:13 – Alis

Nip in the Bud is a charity that works to support children’s mental health by working with mental health professionals of the highest standing, producing free, short, evidence-based films, podcasts and fact sheets to help parents, educationalists and others working with children to recognize potential mental health conditions.

00:37.31 – Alis

In today’s episode, we’ll be looking at celebrating neurodiversity and strategies to support neurodiverse children attending mainstream primary schools and nurseries. I’m talking with Lauren Whitaker. Lauren has been a teaching assistant, a higher level teaching assistant, and a special educational needs manager working in schools for over 15 years. Lauren has worked with neurodiverse children and their families, supporting them by seeing and meeting their unique needs, helping them to feel nurtured in school, and guiding them and those who care for them to empower learning and encourage development. Lauren’s worked across the primary-age range. She’s championed many different strategies and approaches in schools to help children to understand this theme and to provide practitioners with tools to help plan for specific needs. For example, she talks about using emotion coaching and how to trigger the vagus nerve in children in order to help move a child from a stressed and upregulated state, to be more calm, rational and relaxed. Be sure to listen right to the end so that you can hear all the different strategies that Lauren has used successfully to help children reach their full potential. Lauren begins by sharing her own experience of being a child in school and how she feels this has helped her to be able to help others in their journey through school and beyond.

02:10.82- Lauren

I felt schools or school could have helped me by the teachers almost humanizing themselves by making mistakes, because I felt the teachers got everything correct, they knew everything, never made a mistake, never got into trouble or any of those things you do as a child. So I felt like they could have humanized themselves by making a mistake on the board, by getting things wrong and almost talking it through with the class, allowing us in a little bit.

02:43.19 – Alis

So you decided as a result of your own experience, you wanted to help children. What do you hope to achieve working with neurodiverse children and their families?

02:53.19- Lauren

I think to make them feel not alone and that actually school isn’t everything. It’s obviously a very important part of your child’s life, and education is, well, we’re incredibly lucky to have it, but it doesn’t define you as a person, if you don’t get 10 out of 10, if you don’t get 100%, you can use creativity, confidence, all of those other things can get you where you want to be in life and personality and character. And the world would be pretty boring if we were all the same, so it’s just about celebrating.

03:30.75 – Alis

What gives you the energy to see all those unique things in children, to see them as different?

03:37.19 – Lauren

I think it’s because I’m passionate about it and I do believe in those children and I do believe there is more to life than just academic achievements, and we should be celebrating our differences and encouraging them, and everyone’s journey is different and, yeah, it’s important.

04:03.07 – Alis

Thank you. And let’s think about that. Celebrating neurodiversity. What do you feel is meant by neurodiversity, first of all, how would you define that in your own words?

04:15.17 – Lauren

I’d define it as difference. It’s a difference in thinking, difference in behaviours, difference in achievements, actions, learning abilities, and there’s no right way of thinking and there’s no wrong way of thinking. It’s, I suppose, a colourful way of thinking.

04:32.95 – Alis

What sorts of things have you done in schools to celebrate differences?

04:36.71 – Lauren

So I’ve done a Neurodiversity Week in schools and I’ve gone around into different classes, giving PowerPoints and sharing our stories as teachers and practitioners and then the children, allowing them time to talk about their differences and we look at them as superpowers and how they make us special and individual and celebrating them. But I think it’s been really important allowing the children time to talk about what they find easy, what they find difficult, in a safe space with each other, with us, to help us understand them better and for them to understand us better, saying what we struggle with and with their peers as well, because it’s okay us spending a lot of time with these children, but actually it’s their peers that they spend the most time with and being able to celebrate differences and opening their mindsets.

05:41.94 – Alis

Yeah, I really like what you said there. It sort of goes back to what you’re saying about teachers being able to make mistakes and what you’re saying is that you give the children the opportunity to see your own differences and your own foibles and things that you might not necessarily be good at. What do you think has been the impact of that? What have you noticed as a result of these celebration weeks?

06:04.25 – Lauren

I’ve noticed empowerment to some children. They feel like actually they’ve reflected and thought, actually that’s a good thing that I can do that, even though I struggle with this, I can achieve this. I think it’s been empowering for their peer-on-peer relationships, because as much as children struggle at times with relationships, they do love to be someone’s cheerleader and empower them and help them achieve their goal, and it’s also allowed them to notice things. So what I’ve witnessed is some children saying, “Oh, so and so has actually got 8 out of 10 on their times tables today.” And historically they wouldn’t have thought anything of that. But they know now, because that child struggles with timetables, yes, it’s not 10 out of 10, but they’ve achieved 8, and them celebrating between themselves, which has been lovely to see.

06:58.55 – Alis

Is it always sort of academic things that you celebrate with neurodiversity?

07:03.49 – Lauren

No, it can be anything. Drawing, creativity, sports, anything that the children are interested in and feel like that’s their niche, it’s their thing. Then I believe anything can be celebrated. It’s not about the academic, it’s a balance, isn’t it, for them?

07:26.43 – Alis

Have you managed to get parents and carers involved in your celebration weeks?

07:30.93 – Lauren

Yes, we have. We’ve had parents come in and also share their experiences of school and what jobs they’ve achieved. And we’ve actually had parents come up and say, oh, can you mention this? Or could you put that into a PowerPoint? Because they know that their child struggles with some things and they want it to be highlighted so the child feels like, “oh, actually, I’m not the only one”.

07:56.87 – Alis

That’s really brave, isn’t it, actually, to highlight things that you otherwise might think ‘this should be hidden and a secret, and I don’t want people to know that I’m not good at this, but actually, this is something that I’m working on. This can be seen as something that is unique to myself.’ What advice would you give to others to help them celebrate differences? Whether you’re giving advice to teachers or other TAs, or whether you were giving advice to parents at home.

08:30.52 – Lauren

I believe it doesn’t matter how big or small, it should all be celebrated, it should all be encouraged and nurtured, and it doesn’t mean that everybody is the same. It goes back to that Equity or Equality. So obviously, Equality, treating everyone the same, we’re all given the same thing. Well, actually, sometimes people need a little bit more, so that’s more Equity, meeting the needs instead of just treating everyone across the blanket as the same.

09:02.59 – Alis

So can you give us an example of where you’ve really focused on treating the needs of a child and not getting the whole class to do one thing, but actually thinking, no, this is what this child needs.

09:16.05 – Lauren

So one of our children, he needed almost like a fidget break, needed time to sort of get up and move around, and he also needed something weighted to hold, to sort of make him feel grounded. So he was the book monitor. He gave out the books every day, and all the children wanted to give out the books, but they didn’t actually need it. What we needed to do was allow him to walk around the classroom in a controlled way, in a controlled manner, by holding the books that was weighting him to the ground, which he then gave out. He thought he was doing a job, which was great because he didn’t feel like he had any special treatment or that he was any different to anybody else. But what we’d actually done is allowed him the time to walk around the classroom handing out the books – so that was a positive thing. That was great for us and that was great for him, whereas the other children didn’t need that at that moment in time. So they weren’t the book monitors.

10:14.85 – Alis

And how do you manage that in a class situation? Because I know that, especially with primary school children, there’s this sort of feeling of, it’s not fair if it’s not equal. Everybody gets to do the same. How do you teach those children that they don’t get to do that book monitor job?

10:30.97 – Lauren

By having a discussion, by being open and honest with them and using yourselves as an example. We (I and the teacher) stood up in front of the class. I was a lot taller than the class teacher, and I said, “Right, we’re going to change the light bulb, so we’re both going to be given the same chair. I’m going to change the light bulb”, which I could obviously reach because I was a lot taller. And we gave the class teacher the same chair and she still couldn’t reach. And I was like, “Well, that’s fair. She’s got the same as me.” And the children could quickly see, and very quickly, I might add, that it wasn’t fair because she still couldn’t reach. And it’s about being obvious with them saying, “Well, but that’s the same”. And they were like, “Yeah, but it’s not because she needs a step ladder, because she can’t reach.” In which we then got the step ladder out and the teacher went up the ladder, and then she was able to change the light bulb. And they were like, “Well, that’s fair.” And I argued and I was like, “But she’s now got more than what I have.” And they were like, “But you’re now both able to reach the light bulb.” And then we spoke about reaching our full potential, how some people need that little bit more. They need a step ladder when some people just need a chair or a stool. So I’d think just being obvious with the children, allowing them to see it from you and doing a bit of role play with them.

11:54.42 – Alis

As a result of that role play, were they then able to see different situations where, for example, that boy that needed to hand out books, they could see that was his step ladder for that day.

12:05.50 – Lauren

Yeah. And again, just reminding them if they did find it difficult, because they’re children, and obviously they do at times find it difficult and just say, “Oh, do you remember the step ladder and the stool?” And you can see them then thinking and going, ‘Oh, yeah. Ok.”

12:21.15 – Alis

So my next question, Lauren, is about some of the Strategies that you’ve used successfully with supporting children with neurodiversity. Are there any in particular that you could share with us today and maybe give some examples of how you’ve put them into action? I know, for example, you’ve talked in the past about Zones of Regulation. How would you implement it and what is it?

12:46.81 – Lauren

So a lot of Emotion Coaching feeds into Zones of Regulation. So it’s about triggering that Vagus Nerve. First of all, you need to know what the children are interested in. You need to have a relationship. So I think no matter what strategy you use with a child, if you don’t have the relationship first, it’s then very difficult to implement anything. So getting to know the child, I think, is most important over everything. So with the Vagus Nerve, it’s about finding something that they’re interested in. So, for example, one of my little boys, he was fascinated with the Avengers, loved the Avengers. And he had taken pencil pots off of another table and was refusing to give them back, would not give them back. So I thought, right, okay, how am I going to manage this without causing his anxiety to rise and put him into Crisis? And how am I going to please these other children by giving the pencil pot back? So I spoke to the young man and I had a card of the Avengers with me, and I was like, “Who’s that?” And he was like, “Oh, Captain America.” I was like, “Oh, okay, who’s that?” And he was like, “Thor.” And I said, “Oh, I noticed Thor has a hammer.” And he was like, “Yeah.” And I said, “What about if Captain America took Thor’s hammer?” And he was mortified because he was like, “No, Thor needs the hammer. Captain America’s got his shield.” And I was like, “Oh” I said, “but Captain America really wants Thor’s hammer, and he’s going to keep it.” And he was like, “Well, he can’t because it belongs to Thor.” So I looked at the pencil pots, and I said, “Oh” I said, “so these pencil pots belong to this table?” I said, “like, Thor’s hammer belongs to Thor.” And he was like, “I’ll give the pencil pots back.” And he then gave the pencil pots back to the other table and carried on the rest of his day, absolutely fine, because it was something he could relate to and something that he understood, because clearly Thor has his hammer and Captain America has his shield, and he knew that that’s where they needed to be. He was able then to translate that onto the pencil pots.

15:05.53 – Alis

Fantastic. I love that story. So that’s emotion coaching, and I can see how that really works. And I think the key point you were saying there is getting to really know the child and know what triggers their Vagus Nerve, what makes them tick, if you like, and what calms them down. Can you tell us a little bit about Zones of Regulation? Tell us what it is and how you’ve implemented it in school.

15:29.13 – Lauren

So, Zones of Regulation is looking at emotions in clear categories. So you have a Blue zone, a Green zone, a Yellow zone, and a Red zone. In the Blue zone, typical feelings are like sick, sadness, tired, boredom, moving slowly. Green, you have happy, calm, good to go, focused and ready to learn. Yellow, you might have feelings like frustrated, worried, wiggling and being a bit silly, anxious and excited. And Red, you would have, like, angry, mean, yelling and hitting out of control, and I need time and space. So a time in which I would use this would be maybe that a child is highly escalated, and that could be through excitement, or it could be through feeling angry or upset. And I would use a card that has these clear zones on it and say, “How are you feeling right now?” Because at that moment in time, to articulate it is too much for that child. So I would put this out, it’s laminated, so it can’t be torn, because also, if they’re in high crisis, it might be something that they want to rip up, so I would laminate it first, and they might point to that they’re green, and I can then unpick and think, oh, “Because you’re happy?” Because they might see their behaviours as being happy and that they’re having a lovely time. Well, actually, what you can see is they’re overexcited and they’re actually in the yellow and they’re being silly and they’re wiggling around and they’re getting up. And what they actually need at that moment in time is a movement break. So then what I would do, if they’ve pointed to the green, I say, “Oh, actually what I can see is maybe you’re feeling a bit overexcited. And what we do when we feel overexcited is we go for a movement break.” And that child would then think, oh, actually maybe I do need a movement break. And then we’d leave the classroom quietly, go and have 5 minutes outside of a movement break, however that may look. Maybe that’s ten star jumps, maybe that’s just running up and down on the spot. Maybe it’s just going for a run around the playground, allowing them that time to get rid of that pent-up energy, but also it being controlled by yourself, so you feel in control of the situation. And then when they come back to you, check in again, “How are you now feeling?” And then they say, “Actually now I’m green and I’m good to go and I’m focused, ready to go back into class.” And then you can take them back in and then they can sit down and continue with the rest of their day.

18:04.81 – Alis

And do you use them with all children or do you tend to just stick to neurodiverse children when you’re using Zones of Regulation?

18:11.54 – Lauren

I would use them with all children because I think it’s good for neurodiverse children to see that it can be used for everybody and allows everyone to see, “Oh, actually this is just practice, this isn’t something special for me, this isn’t making me different, this is just practice.”

18:32.79 – Alis

So can we talk about what you know as Protective Behaviours and how you use this in school?

00:18:39.16 – Lauren

So protective behaviours to me, is about the children having the right to feel safe all the time and that they know they can talk to someone about anything, even if it feels awful or small. So a lot of work in protective behaviours is about co-regulating with the children. So building up a positive relationship and helping them spot things like the early warning signs, which is where a child might notice. “Oh, actually I’ve got this feeling in my fingers where I’m wiggling them. And that means that actually I’m getting quite frustrated because that wiggling then turns into a fist and then that fist ends up hitting somebody.” So it’s about noticing within themselves that that is what they do before they get to crisis. And you are co-regulating with them to help them notice that about themselves. And then what that then leads on to, is the child then being able to self-regulate and notice that within themselves, without you being there and they can actually think to themselves, “Oh, I’m wriggling my fingers. That must mean I’m frustrated. What can I do at that point to then make myself feel less stressed?” And that then might be to use the zones of regulation.

20:01.31 – Alis

So I see how one can lead on to another.

20:04.37 – Lauren

Obviously, it’s really important that you have these relationships with your children because you need to know them to then be able to help them unpick their behaviour and their early warning signs. Something that’s really lovely about the Protective Behaviours is having a network hand. And it’s something really simple that allows the children to see who they feel they can trust and have a safe relationship with who they can go and talk to. So it’s just them drawing around their hand and writing potentially 5 people on each finger both adults or children. We do encourage that there are adults on there, because obviously adults are the ones that can put things into practice to prevent things and to help, if there’s anything worrying them, troubling them, or anything they’d just like to share, no matter how big or small. And it’s quite nice if you cut the hand out. If, say, they’ve got 5 people on there, they might only have 3 and it’s important to tell them that they don’t have to fill their hand, because once again, we don’t want them to feel like they’re failing because they haven’t got 5 people and they’ve only got 3. It’s better to have 3 quality people than just fill it up with 5 people that they’d never speak to. But once you’ve cut it out, if, for example, they were coming to see myself and they put my finger down because I wasn’t in school that day, they can physically bend my finger down and see that they’ve got another two people that they can talk to. “Actually, I’d really like to go and talk to this adult, but she’s off sick today.” Put my finger down. “Oh, I’ve actually got one more adult that I can go and talk to.” Because what we don’t want to happen is they think, “Oh, Lauren’s not in today. I’m just not going to bother telling anybody”. When it could be something quite serious or it could just be a worry that we don’t want to turn into a bigger worry. So just them being physically able to push those fingers down to see that there are other people in school or around that they could go and talk to if they wanted to.

22:14.81 – Alis

And what about those children who might not be able to write an adult or a child’s name down on a hand? Maybe they’re too young or maybe their behaviours prevent them from doing that. Do you create the hand for them just through talking? And does it work as effectively?

22:32.52 – Lauren

We would try to create a hand with them. However, I think we’d have to take a step back and think about who would we like on that child’s hand. Is it best that it’s the class teacher and is it best it’s the class TA? And how do we then foster a relationship, a positive, trusting relationship with them for the child then to recognize, “Oh, actually, they can go on my hand.” So I think again, and I know time can be an issue at times because obviously, schools are very busy places, but it’s allowing those 5-10 minutes, “Oh, this young man likes Lego.” 5 minutes at the end of every day, the teacher plays Lego with him. And then over the course of maybe a couple of weeks, he might say, “oh, actually, Mrs. So and so can actually go on my hand. And if they’re little, helping them get to that, “Oh, I saw you were playing with Mrs. Thingy today. Do you think she could go on your hand?” And almost prompting them, that that is a safe, trusting adult that they can talk to.

23:37.43 – Alis

And again, how could parents use this at home? So I’m just mindful that people listening could be those working in schools like yourself, but also parents and carers. Is this something that you would suggest parents use at home?

23:48.78 – Lauren

Yeah I think it’s a lovely thing that you can use at home. And it also shows that bridge between school and home. If we can get a lot of the practices that we’re using in school, into home, it shows the child that there’s consistency and the schools are talking with parents. And then if parents have any strategies or things that are at home that are working, I think it’s really important they share it with the school as well. But I think with the hand to have it indoors, once again, when a child is highly escalated and they’re not able to talk and they don’t want to talk to mum because mum’s the one that’s annoyed them, you can get out the hand and say, “Well, go and talk to somebody else on here? Do you want to phone Auntie Sue or do you want to phone Granddad” or give them an outlet? But once again, you’re in control and keeping them safe.

24:37.45 – Alis

So, Lauren, what key thing would you want a listener to take away from today’s conversation?

24:43.15 – Lauren

That everyone’s different and the world’s a colourful place and everyone should be supported and given the opportunity to shine.

24:52.43 – Alis

That’s brilliant. Thank you so much Lauren. Thank you for your time and for sharing so many of your ideas with us today.

25:00.37 – Alis

I hope you enjoyed today’s conversation and are able to take something interesting and positive away from it. Our podcasts are sensitively produced and give evidence-based information, whether from academic research and experts in their fields or from lived experiences. They are created to help others spot early signs of distress and may require further monitoring and information on how to follow up and get help. Learning about child mental health and understanding how to recognize potential disorders is an important first step for everyone caring for children and young people. Please visit our website nipinthebud.org and go to our where to get help page for organizations which can provide both support and further information to help you and those you care for. Any specific links that we’ve spoken about today can be found in the show notes. Finally, you can find Nip in the Bud on all the socials and get more information and further support. Don’t forget to subscribe, like and share with someone who you think may benefit from all that Nip in the Bud has to offer. See you next time.


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