There's A Good Reason Your Students Are Tired At The End Of The Day And It's Not What You Think
Near the end of a long day, there are plenty of times I have looked at my classroom and seen some very tired eyes. I used to assume that these students were not eating well, stayed up too late, or other choice based behaviors that were leading to their tired appearance. It took some time for me to realize it, but some of these students are actually tired because they have been "masking" all day long.
"Masking" is the word used to describe how neurodivergent people hide their neurodivergence from the world around them in order to fit in. Learning to mask is something that neurodivergent people learn to do at a very young age when they realize that their natural behavior does not match with with is considered "normal". It often shows itself in social situations and can lead to copying other social behaviors in an effort to fit in. Essentially, a neurodivergent spends most of their time in social situations pretending to be someone they are not to fit in and it is exhausting.
As a neurodivergent adult, I have found myself masking often in social situations. When I tell people that I am an introvert, people think I am joking. They wonder how an introvert can present in front of large crowds of people or engage in tons of 1:1 conversations with educators, and showcase, what appear to be, very extrovert behaviors. The short answer is I was masking. My friends would see the end result of a day's worth of masking. I'm spent. Physically and emotionally. As an adult, I have learned of different ways to cope with these feelings and how not to feel pressured by society to mask who I am. Imagine a student in your class that is still learning to understand how their neurodivergence reveals itself to other students who might not understand and/or have empathy to what they are experiencing.
Students that mask in class are very difficult to identify. The older they are, the harder it is to see behind the mask because they have gotten very good at it. There are a couple of things you can do as a teacher to help those students who are masking feel more comfortable taking off that mask in class and feeling like their true selves.
1. Explore and Discuss SEL
It is important that teachers take the time, as a school or as an individual, to understand SEL and how it can support our students. CASEL is one of the best resources out there to get a better understanding of SEL. Just knowing that their teachers are working on different ways to support students and their mental health can make a masked student start to feel more comfortable being who they are in the open. Like many things, it starts with educating ourselves to better understand who we are an who people are that surround us. If you really want to support students who struggle in your class because they are neurodivergent, start exploring SEL and see how it can change the culture of your classroom.
2. Share your Neurodivergent Story (If You Are Comfortable)
I have found that sharing my neurodivergent traits (Anxiety and dyslexia to name just two) leads to students being more open with their traits. There is at least one student in every class that will say "Me too!" when I mention I am dyslexic. It is important to normalize neurodivergence in the classroom. I spent too much time growing up feeling I was just stupid because I could not read like everyone else. If you are not a neurodivergent teacher or do not feel comfortable sharing your neurodivergence with your class, that is fine. We are all on our own journey of understanding and I do not want to pressure you into sharing your experience until you are ready.
Sharing with students that there are lots of different types of learners in class at the start of the year and that you are going to work to make sure that everyone feels supportive is a nice way to open the door for those neurodivergent students who might need an invite to share who they are and how they learn.
3. Embrace Differentiation
Yes, it will take more time and that is the most pressure resource of all educators, but a little more time to differentiate for those students who are masking to hide their neurodivergence is so important if we want them to succeed. The best way to have students take off their mask is to create an environment where they feel comfortable and are able to succeed while utilizing their strengths. Traditional assessments and class structures tend not to support neurodivergent students and that is why they mask.
I could never read all of the pages assigned in a night for most of my high school classes. I would do my best, but I could not get through it. So, I would often listen to the first 10-15 minutes of class, understand what the topic of discussion was, and just through in my two cents by just rephrasing what other students said. It appeared like I had read and that I knew what was going on in the story. That helped me get through high school in many of my classes. As long as I was never cold called (Don't do it! It's one of the worst teaching practices!), I could mask all day in class.
Offering students different ways to access the curriculum of the class and different ways to assess their understanding are great ways to make masking students feel more comfortable in class. They will not have to wear their mask if they know they are can explore who they are with the material covered in class.
Masking takes so much energy from a person. A student who has to mask all day does not want to go home and do homework. They do not want to engage with their family. The often want to zone out playing video games, watching videos they have seen over and over again, and just be left alone. They just don't have it in them to put the mask back on at home and that sometimes leads to angry outbursts and lots of resistance to being asked to do anything. They were just "forced" to were a mask all day and now they just want to be themselves. Alone.
Making small changes in the classroom to support neurodivergent students can go a long way in helping them be successful as they work through understanding their neurodivergence and how best to navigate society. I don't think we can expect to get to a point where these students will never wear a mask, but would should strive to create a space where they can take it off and breathe a little easier once in a while.
Note: Images created using Generative AI from Adobe Firefly