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Fitting in is Not the Same as Belonging



Social researcher Brené Brown says, "Fitting in is the opposite of belonging." This profound statement resonates deeply, especially when we consider the experiences of Wonderfully Wired children in our schools.

In this month's podcast, my guest Victoria Bagnall shared a powerful analogy: “Equality is being invited to the party, Inclusion is being asked to dance, and Belonging is dancing like no one’s watching.” This made me realize how far we still have to go to create neurodiversity-affirming schools and homes.

The Problem with Fitting In

Too often, we ask children to fit into a box that serves no one. Unconscious bias against neurodivergent kids exacerbates this issue. Well-meaning teachers put up posters that reward ‘Brilliant Behaviors,’ causing shame for kids who want to meet these standards but can’t. The message, as Victoria puts it, becomes, “I’m deficient because I struggle.”

Ultimately, we want schools to feel designed for all children, where every child belongs.

The Gift and Cost of Neurodivergence

Neurodivergent children often develop grit from overcoming challenges, which can be a gift. But at what cost? How many are lost along the way?

A child who feels understood by their teacher is more likely to respond positively to areas needing growth. They might think, “My teacher gets me. I’m working on this skill. I need to learn, but I will if I stick to it.” Conversely, a child forced to fit in might think, “What’s wrong with me?” This can lead to masking in some and rebellion in others.

The Science Behind Belonging

Dr. Dan Siegel offers a useful model of the brain: imagine your closed fist, with the thumb tucked in representing the amygdala (responsible for fight, freeze, and flight responses) and the fingers representing the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which regulates emotions and decision-making. Victoria calls this the "whole brain state." When a child is dysregulated, the fingers lift (Siegel calls it ‘flipping your lid’), severing the connection between the amygdala and the PFC. This makes it even harder for a child with struggling executive function to meet expectations.

Repeated dysregulation conditions a child to expect failure, making it harder to use their PFC. Early teacher intervention is crucial.

Creating Belonging in Classrooms

Kids do well if they can. Here are three steps to create a sense of belonging for all children:

  1. Connection: Feeling safe and a sense of belonging is crucial for learning. Suspension, exclusion, and even time-outs isolate those without the skills. The more they feel they don’t belong, the less their PFC works.

  2. Collaboration: Dr. Liz Angoff (my Guest later in Season 3) suggests asking kids, “What’s going on for you?” This helps address issues like poor working memory, where a child might forget parts of their homework and be blamed for laziness.

  3. Support: This doesn’t mean avoiding all stress and discomfort. Good stress aids learning and develops grit. Dr. Mona Delahooke explains that 'good stress' is predictable, moderate, and controlled and leads to resilience.

Types of Stress

Stixrud and Johnson identify three kinds of stress:

  1. Positive Stress: A bit of nervous energy that improves performance.

  2. Tolerable Stress: Brief stress in the presence of supportive adults with time to recover.

  3. Toxic Stress: Frequent and prolonged stress without support.

For children struggling with executive functioning, stress can be frequent and prolonged. Without support, this leads to a dysregulated brain, masking struggles, or embracing a "bad egg" identity.

The Impact of Chronic Stress

Chronic stress wreaks havoc on young brains, much like trying to grow a plant in a too-small pot. This weakens the plant, leading to long-term consequences. Rates of stress-induced illnesses are high, and researchers are working to understand the rise in anxiety disorders, depression, and self-harm among young people.

A New Approach

Through curiosity and compassion, we can maintain high expectations and build character and values without punishment. There are schools worldwide adopting this approach, and it’s working.

Conclusion

We have Wonderfully Wired children in our classrooms who are already at a disadvantage due to executive functioning challenges. Adding the burden of fitting in rather than fostering true belonging and connection only compounds this disadvantage. When children feel safe and valued, they are most primed to learn and grow. Schools across the globe are making these changes, addressing unconscious bias, and seeing positive results!



Listen to my conversation with Victoria here and visit Connections in Mind for more



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