ADHD Heads: How can we utilise neurodiversity in shaping the future of schools?

Below is what I shared at the ‘Breaking the Mould 2’ in Cambridge on Saturday. I would love to hear from you with your thoughts and reflections on the themes I explore. 

I am Nadia, founder of Destino Coaching – an organisation that supports Headteachers to remain strategic while tackling the enormous amount of operational challenges in schools.

I want headteachers to increase their influence over policy.

Usually, I’m invited to speak about ways to stay on track with your big goals in headship. Over many years I have developed several planning strategies to help me stay focussed and on track. The main principles are now tools I teach the headteachers I work with.

Looking back over my career I see that I became hyper focussed on finding ways to overcome the challenges I faced associated with being neurodivergent. This is what I want to explore with you today.

Over the next 10 minutes, I want to make a case for the need for neurodivergent leaders in schools as one of the key ways we will address the multiple systemwide issues schools are now facing.

  1. My story

Like many parents of neurodivergent children, I started to look at some of my own behaviours through the lens of my developing understanding of autism and ADHD about 10 years ago, when I was a headteacher. Both of my children have autism and ADHD and my own assessment of ADHD raised a question about potential ASD too – I have yet to find the time and space to investigate this but I have ADHD and while I am just one person with ADHD, I have now worked with many neurodivergent headteachers and have thought long and hard about what we bring to schools as a group.

As a woman with ADHD I face several struggles and I also experience a freedom I believe is unique to neurodivergent women. Here are some things about me that can appear strange to others:

  • I stand up for meetings or regularly leave my seat if I am required to be seated.
  • I often put tasks off until the last minute
  • I find it difficult to follow people when they give long explanations or instructions. I can appear to be bored – and often I am!
  • I have to try very hard not to finish other people’s sentences and speak over them in an attempt to speed them up
  • I have to work extremely hard at relaxing and being calm – even though I know it is essential to my well-being
  • I need others around me to attend to details as I find detail painfully difficult and race forward
  • I break rules – especially when they don’t make sense to me
  • I do not proofread my documents

The first time I went on a road trip with my deputy Steff, we stopped at a service station and her standout memory of this day was me getting out of the car before she’d finished parking. She still laughs at this memory now. While I see the funny side I also stand by the decision to do this – she is a stickler for doing things correctly, accurately, by the book – I am not. I saw an opportunity to get our Starbucks order in while she finished her perfect bay parking exercise – therefore cutting down lost time.

Steff and I were a match made in heaven! She was accepting of my pace and challenging about my shortcomings – she gave me space to lead my way and facilitated my growth through her attention to detail. I will love her for this forever.

Now that I recognise many of my behaviours as part of my ADHD, I am learning to work with them, quieten my inner critic and communicate more effectively so that others do not take offense.

As a headteacher, I implemented change very quickly and my high energy meant I took my team with me – they told me I was full of purpose and great fun to work with. I also disregarded things I saw as unnecessary restrictions. This was sometimes significantly risky but meant we cut through challenges and achieved things more quickly.

I’ll leave it up to you to imagine the downsides of all this for my school business manager!

I have had 12 female coaching clients over the past 5 years who have a diagnosis of ADHD and all of them report frustration with the restrictions placed on them by the education system.

Neurotypical heads undoubtedly experience this too – the difference is that people with ADHD view this as intensely impossible to work around.

Coaching women with ADHD is generally focussed on how to achieve their massive, exciting, propositus goals despite external barriers such as Ofsted, the National Curriculum and prescriptive working practices. Mostly they are successful once we work out how to embrace the difference.

People with ADHD are 60% more likely to be dismissed from a job, and three times more likely to quit a job impulsively (Barkley, 2008). This is a great loss to society and I hope we can reverse this in schools so that we can secure a way forward that serves young people.

  1. Broken system – needs radical change

If you work in a school, I don’t need to tell you the system is broken:

  • A widening gap between rich and poor educational outcomes
  • Fewer resources
  • Greater mental health needs in our young people
  • Fewer services to support children and families

I believe that we need a different type of school leadership, a different kind of teacher.

Teachers and leaders are still trapped by the exam treadmill, still unable to have in-depth curriculum discussions or spend proper time collaborating.

Imagine if we flipped the story and leaders and teachers were designing the curriculum, to better match modern societal needs with an intelligent approach to assessment alongside it.

I suggest that neurodivergent thinking is a great way to flip any story.

  1. Creative thinking

Take impulsivity, one of the main symptoms of ADHD. The studies suggest it might lead people to have more original ideas. That’s because people with ADHD often lack inner inhibition. This means they have trouble holding back when they want to say or do something.

Many of my neurodivergent clients have found a new voice and new priorities, including giving attention to staff wellbeing and rethinking the micro-management that characterises so many schools. But achieving this small-scale will not have the impact we need it to have and they often do this at the cost of risking their career.

Women with ADHD, in my experience, tend not to fear the truth and make brilliant cases for what new approaches might look like when systems are broken. More importantly, they often have the drive to see it through. This can appear radical, stubborn even, but for us it’s just about doing what makes sense.

In my book, the Unhappy Headteacher, I explore ways we can still have influence and find joy in the role – because I believe we can. I also believe the system needs drastic change with an uncompromising model of implementation. To me, it is clear that neurodivergent women have a valuable part to play in this.

And gender does matter here. According to Association for Adult ADHD (AAD) men with ADHD are likely to develop aggressive and defensive behaviours in response to being misunderstood, Whereas women with ADHD are more likely to mask and experience self-doubt. This self-doubt can be a gift in headship as with support, it is the place where growth and empowerment can be found.

What all adults with ADHD do have in common, in my experience is inner steel. We find EVERYTHING hard and to find fulfilment and do the stuff that lights us up – like pursuing excellence for a school – we have to accept that we will face tremendous amounts of challenge. Mostly because others often misunderstand our intentions. We share a bounce-backability that is unique to neurodivergent leaders and has prepared us well for the current state of affairs. When everything is hard anyway, dealing with the funding crisis seems surmountable somehow – leaders with ADHD believe there is a way to do the impossible, we just need to find it and we know we can

  1. Representation

And let’s not forget the importance of representation in all of this. I have a client who has a diagnosis for autism and fears being open about this with her seniors because of her perceived risk of not being considered for promotion. This saddens me when I think about how far we still have to go in exposing our students to the talent and capability of people with ADHD. Our young people deserve to see examples of adults like them leading schools successfully yet as a culture we still shy away from celebrating the gifts of ADHD – these ‘gifts’ scare us rather than inspire us – what message does that give our young people with ADHD and what potential are we stunting?

Neurodivergent students need opportunities to learn ways to manage the challenges associated with serial rushing and extreme procrastination – what better way to do this than having high-performing leaders with ADHD modelling this around them.

My son has an EHCP and was recently interviewed by an Ofsted inspector in his college who asked him why he thought he’d been so successful at 6th Form, after performing below average at all other stop-off points. Lucas cited the single most important factor as being taught by a maths teacher who is autistic and comfortable with it. Could it be true that to become a mathematician, Lucas needed to see someone like him in the role first? And if so, what does this say about representation among our teachers and leaders in schools?

So how can we utilise neurodiversity in shaping the future of schools?

  1. Create a climate where neurodivergent school leaders feel free to be unapologetically themselves
  2. Celebrate neurodiversity in schools and society
  3. Recognise behaviours associated with ADHD and get excited about them as a sign that creative thinking is taking place
  4. Follow women with ADHD – they have survival mechanism we need right now in schools

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