In Rotterdam there is the cafe, The Heilige Boontjes. As part of their mission they help youth to re-integrate in a sustainable way, seeing them as full of potential instead of lost causes.
The Do Good Only, a tech company that I collaborate with to teach power skills, has their offices above the cafe. Long story short, the employees from the Boontjes started joining our power skills programs.
One group was particularly different and amazing. They were all neurodiverse with a mix of at least two of the following: autism, adhd, dyslexia, anxiety, depression.
They were in an age range of 16 to 22, and had fallen out of the school system at some point. Listening to them it was clear that they had been basically considered unteachable/not fit for school by many of those around them.
I learned so much from these beautiful people that I can’t possibly fit it all into one blog post, so I’m choosing one aspect to share with you. And this aspect is the key to high performance, and to a happier life.
The training days were a mastery in chaotic creation. Not a single day went according to plan, and yet outcomes were always achieved.
Full transparency: my training days always have wiggle room because the learning objectives always win out over the plan.
I had to let go of so many conscious and unconscious ideas about how training days were supposed to go.
Because these are some of the behaviours they had:
- putting their headphones in while I was giving instructions
- zoning out, being distracted
Stimming is common to people with autism. It’s “a repetitive performance of certain physical movements or vocalisations”.
All these kids used stimming to stay focused. This one teen was such a quick learner, super intelligent that they understood concepts much faster than the rest. To keep themselves awake, they would make popping noises and flick their cheek.
One teen would put headphones in and play music, right in the middle of instructions for an exercise.
Why did they do this? They could hear everything at the same level. So the tram outside would be as loud as my voice. The music would help drown out the noises from outside so they could pay attention to me better.
Zoning out. This other teen also heard everything at the same level. They were taking in a ton of information every minute. Their brain would overload. They put so much energy into paying attention that they would also overheat. I could see it in their face. So they’d switch off for a bit and just stop listening.
Everyone of these behaviours had contributed to them leaving school. They were considered disruptive.
Yet these teens were the most attentive, keen learners I have ever trained.
All of this wasn’t disruptive behaviour, it was a huge effort to stay focused.
And we were all ok with it. These different behaviours were accepted as part of the experience.
Those kids made each other feel like they belonged, just as they are.
Every single one worked hard to understand the concepts, and most importantly, tried them out.
They’d go home and teach their family about it. They’d practice what they learned with the important people in their lives.
For example, instead of getting into arguments, the family could respectfully share opposing views, understand each other, and come to a mutually beneficial agreement (conflict management).
One thing I learned from all of this is that the problem is what you make it.
All their lives people around them made them the problem: they were disruptive.
In our class, we made noise (from outside, from everywhere) the problem.
So then the solution was to
- create regular breaks so they could recover.
- Do more physical based learning so you don’t need to be listening all the time.
- Be ok with momentary distraction. Because seriously, who pays attention 100% of the time in class? My mind wanders all the time: “I need to pee. Hope the traffic isn’t too bad on the way home. Crikey, it’s raining cats and dogs out there, fuck I don’t have my umbrella”. 100% attention is not necessary, nor possible.
When you treat people like they are capable, they will live up to that belief.
And when you take the time to figure out the actual problem, you can be both inclusive and get the results.
This is part of my Thought Piece Series, where I explore topics related to leadership and provide both answers and questions. My intention is to start meaningful conversations that help us move forward. Want to connect? Click here.