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The Tendril Theory

By Mrs Edwards, Reading Lead


In school, we share articles and research about all sorts of educational theory and child related research each month. This month I came across an article which I found to be really useful, both in school and at home.

I wrote an article about The Tendril Theory for OWPS's in-school Teaching and Learning Newsletter, Illuminate. It was suggested that perhaps many of you may also be interested in it and so we have included it in this week’s newsletter.

My own children reflect the idea of the ‘Tendril Theory’ on a daily basis and I have found reading about it really helpful to me as a Mum as well as a Teacher. It hasn’t changed my children’s behaviour, but it has perhaps helped me to understand it a little more!

The Tendril Theory

I have recently found myself having the same conversation with multiple people in my life, both at work and at home. It has been a conversation about how often we have conversations with people who are apparently not listening. These incidents seem to take place with my own children, children in school as well as adults around us. I have even been known to annoy my own husband by not apparently hearing what he has just said to me because I am so engrossed in something else.

The blog about The Tendril Theory came up on my social media and I was particularly drawn to the cartoon explaining it. The thoughts below are taken from an author who was specifically focusing on interactions with toddlers and young children (two 3-year-olds in my house was enough to spark my interest!). However, I think that it is well worth considering when dealing with all of our children, especially those with specific needs.

This comic (created by Human Illustrations and Erin Human) is so relatable because it help provides a visual of the experience of shifting gears, something that can be particularly hard for certain people. It also explains why slowing down transitions is so important. Especially in the current climate of stop and start changes in expectation.

Erin Human drew this about herself: an autistic person, an introvert, who has ADHD, and she is an adult. This comic was not intended to describe only children — as it does apply to many kinds of people, of all ages, whose brains are hard-wired to work this way. I am grateful that she shared this with the world. Perhaps it speaks to how your brain works. Perhaps it helps you appreciate and give space to the people around you. I hope that this serves as a reminder and tool to give space to all people (and yourself) to honour the tendrils, however, they may look.

Children, who may not be autistic or have ADHD, but are still in their formative years may present us with scenarios like this:

You make a request. Nothing. You make it again. Still no response. You start to raise your voice. Still, crickets. Eventually, you are full-on freaking out and THEN everyone gets moving!
Ugh. Sound familiar?

In those moments, it can feel like they are flat out ignoring you when you ask them to brush their teeth, tidy their rooms, do their homework, put on their shoes, come to the table, get in the car, etc. and all this perceived heel-dragging can monumentally trigger you. It feels like they are ignoring you, acting disrespectfully and purposefully trying to drive you mad.


What if they are not actively ignoring you?
What if they are not being willful or disrespectful?
What if they are not trying to make you crazy?

What if they are attending to something that is really pertinent to their experience /interests/evolution?

What if they are fully invested and inspired by what they are doing? What if these moments give them space and safety?

What if switching gears and doing what you want them to do requires a little more time for the de-tendrilling to take place, so they can shift their focus and hear your request?

When we can hold the understanding of "tendril theory" in mind, we can work to honour the people around us as we still seek connection and cooperation. Here are some steps to experiment with when you create accepting space for the Tendril Theory:

You first

  • Before you even open your mouth to make the request...slow yourself waaaaaayyyyy down.
  • Take a deep breath (actually take at least four deep breaths).
  • Count to 10.
  • Check in and see how you are feeling (Calm? Anxious? Annoyed? Relaxed?)
  • If you are anxious, annoyed or angry, take another few breaths. Move your body. Perhaps step out of the room and wash your face.


  • Walk over to them. (This is critical. Shouting your request from the other room is rarely going to get you what you want, and going to block the feeling of safety and connection.)
  • Take a moment to notice what they are doing before saying anything. Just notice and honour that they are fully invested in what's happening for them in that moment.


  • Depending on the neurostate of your child, look them in the eye and connect before saying a word. If making eye contact is not what is best for the child, use concrete statements, "Maria, I am sitting on the floor next to you to watch you play."
  • Offer them a word of kindness or appreciation. "I can see you've worked hard on this drawing." or "You really love that game!"
  • Once you feel like you've connected, make your request.
  • Speak in a quieter voice than usual. If you really want to be heard, whisper.
  • Ask for a confirmation that the message was received.
  • Say thank you.


  • Walk away.
  • Give them at least 30 seconds (ideally, one to two minutes) to shift gears, and honour their request if they ask for more.

Whist this strategy may not work every time it is worth considering and it’s got to be worth giving it a try!

Bottom line, yes, you need things to get done and the people around you aren't always tuned into your needs/desires because they have their very own. Go gently, be patient, make a little extra space and remember no smaller human is actively trying to make the people responsible for their well-being crazy. It just feels like that some of the time!






Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash