Shelley Farnham has worked as a teacher and SEN support. She’s Mum to an ADHD/Autistic son and has her own ADHD diagnosis.
Shelley is passionate about supporting families with an ADHD/ Autistic young person to be able to understand their young person better as an individual – with strengths as struggles, communicating in a way that invites collaboration and creates stronger connection. She is the founder of Complex connexions where she supports parents through her online community and workshops, providing practical strategies for understanding and connecting with their young person’s unique needs.
I think it would be really great to start from when you were teaching, you were actually teaching SEN weren’t you?
Right in the beginning I was a general class teacher and very quickly realised that that wasn’t really where my heart lay, because I think now that I know what I know about myself, I understand that that was really overwhelming to me, but working in small groups working with individual children knowing that I could make some kind of real difference for them – that was what I really loved doing. So I got out of classroom teaching quite quickly and went more into the teaching assistant role and very quickly into the SEN role and supporting those children, their parents, kind of working with them and that was definitely where I loved being in a school most of all.
And then you felt like you were really flourishing and stepping into doing something that was meaningful.
And more rewarding connection in a way you know, just establishing that real relationship with a child and knowing that you were there for them, you could make a difference for them – that for me was really rewarding.
You have ADHD which you discovered after you’d been helping people who have ADHD and other neurodiversities – so how did that come around?
It happened even after I had worked with my son through a lot of his diagnosis and doing a lot of research as far as that went, and as I said before knowing what I know now, referring to the fact that that big classroom situation fifty little people demanding my attention all at the same time, I found that very overwhelming and I now know that due to the way that my brain works I much prefer that small group environment. I was diagnosed with ADHD just last year so just at the the ripe old age of 50 at the time, just a whole lot of things made sense for me then because I could understand that I found the clash of environment too overwhelming. The reason I left the preparation for my six week teacher training practical until about two days before I actually started then literally had six weeks of three o’clock bedtime, six o’clock waking time and just felt like I was dying in the process – but I understood. I understood why my brain went to that and why that kind of procrastination and paralysis and all of that set in, so it explained a lot about a lot of things to me, also the reason why I can easily get overwhelmed with things. You know in business I think that’s when it really came to the fore when I was running my own business again because I’ve had that a couple of times in the past and given up on it because I was too overwhelmed, so it made sense now and that understanding helped me then to push through, seek support and and actually do something positive rather than just go “oh I must be rubbish at running a business let me give up on this”, so it’s it’s definitely helped me to get through that.
We’ve just jumped there from the beginning to last year – lots of things happened in the middle – so you have a son and he has ADHD and is Autistic. You discovered that before you discovered that you have ADHD and then you started Complex Connexions, but all these other things happened in the middle so do you want to go back to the time when you discovered that Dan had ADHD and how how you realised that?
Yeah that that took a while as well because I think the anxiety was the first thing to show up when he was around about six or seven and became very anxious in school, particularly but we started seeing the repercussions of that at home and he was referred to quite a few mental health professionals who didn’t really understand what was going on with the anxiety. Kind of managing at school although when you look back you can pick up that he was struggling but nobody ever mentioned ADHD and you would have thought being a teacher I had some knowledge, but I didn’t really have much knowledge so I didn’t pick up on it until we watched a BBC program one day and there was a young girl on there who was around about 11. She was being interviewed and she had ADHD and honestly and truly I can say it was a light bulb moment because my husband Wayne was there with me and we kind of looked at each other and went “oh my goodness that’s Daniel to a T” – so that went from there, we asked for a referral but we all know how long that takes, so he was only diagnosed with ADHD at age 11 and they ruled out Autism then but he then got that diagnosis when he was 15, so he’s a really good masker. I think the Autism was a lot more difficult to spot but definitely played a huge role in how he was struggling, especially at high school. That’s how that came about, just the whole kind of five day, full day week, the people, the environment, all of that was a real struggle for him. He has those diagnosis, now it’s been really positive in that we understand more of what’s going on although just having a diagnosis doesn’t give you that understanding, that’s just the the starting point, but it definitely helped us to understand more. I also remember those many years where I felt so confused and so overwhelmed because I didn’t know what was going on, I didn’t understand why he was behaving in that way, why certain things were so difficult for him, why going to certain places had such a a negative reaction from him and why he was struggling – and you know I was brought up in a traditional way, I had parented my daughter Jess who’s older than Daniel in a traditional way but realised very quickly that those behaviourist views of change the behaviour, impose consequences – all of that kind of thing was not working at all for Daniel so I knew that I needed to find a different way and it was such a re-education of everything that I knew how to do in working much more for let’s look at what’s actually going on beneath the behaviour rather than just trying to change the behaviour. Let’s figure out what the need is beneath that and that was a massive change for our family and we had become really disconnected because there were lots of meltdowns arguments, all that confusion. Wayne didn’t understand. I didn’t understand it. It just caused a lot of conflict but once we were able to – and it wasn’t an overnight switch, it’s still a learning process – but once we were able to change our perspective and see things differently, then we could focus on maintaining that connection first and foremost by understanding and doing things differently. I think parents sometimes don’t realise that tiny changes on their part set up a whole different dynamic and that’s what we saw as soon as we did things a little bit differently or just said things in a different way, it evoked a different response from Daniel and then it’s a different cycle, it’s not that spiral every time, it just meant that he could respond differently, he felt more heard and it meant that relationship began to be rebuilt and I can honestly say that we have a really great connection now. That doesn’t mean we don’t have challenges, we still have lots of challenges but we deal with him differently and we approach him differently, and sometimes I still go back to that point of not understanding and being confused but I know that if I just understand it differently and if I talk to him – that’s the biggest thing not just try and do it myself, get involved, seek support – then I’ll be able to to do things differently and that changes the whole thing. So it’s been a huge learning curve. I’m still on that journey.
I think what’s really good about this is you went away and learnt more, and tried your best to understand and discover what what was going on and how to approach Daniel in a different way and how to be the best parent you could be for him – which hopefully is something that all parents in the same situation would do, but you didn’t just stop there – you thought “this is something that I need to share with other people who are also struggling”. Because when you get the diagnosis you don’t get anything do you, you’re just abandoned and the support that is there isn’t all that brilliant, so you noticed that there was this huge gap and you realised that you could fill it instead of keeping all this to yourself – that’s absolutely wonderful – so was there a reason why you decided that you were going to do that, or just because you’re an awesome person? Because you are.
I don’t remember a specific time, but I do remember doing a course. It was an American course that I did first and having that light bulb moment for myself and then they offered facilitator training so I could be a facilitator of their course, which wasn’t in the UK at that time, so I did that in the UK and and for me it was such an opportunity to share this idea with people, because it had helped me so much. I think I’ve always been a bit of an entrepreneur at heart trying different businesses and not really succeeding but I always wanted to get back to that, so this was an opportunity to do something, to share what I had learned with other parents and it’s been brilliant. I absolutely love doing it and I think when I worked with the children in school and I saw that so many parents felt exactly the way that I had felt and sometimes when you feel that way you think it must just be you – so it was really comforting to me to know that lots of parents felt like that and there was something they could do. It’s to take away that feeling of being so powerless and not knowing what you can do for your child. I think it it puts parents back in the driving seat and gives them confidence.
Which we all need so much. Do you want to share a little bit more about your Connect programme and your Connexions community so people can hear more about what you do?
The Connect program is a series of six workshops and we meet once every week it’s always a small group so we get to know each other and feel safe in that space and we work through a course that I’ve created where we look at exactly the understanding, let’s understand more about ourselves and about our young person, let’s communicate differently and then let’s make sure that that connection is at the foundation of everything. So we work through those six workshops and then I’ve decided to create an online community – it’s not up and running yet but hopefully will be soon (since recording, this is now live!) – where parents can then do the course, they’re going to have the option to do it live or as an online course, and but then they’ll also have access to ongoing support because I think what I’ve come to realise is that six weeks is a very short time and parents are just starting in their journey and they want another place to continue that – so creating the community where we can meet up on Zoom, we can have chats, questions and answers, webinars and give that Community feel so that parents know that they are truly understood there as well – if their child needs to be heard, they need to be heard as well, so it’s a place for them to feel supported to be able to go to, and I’m hoping to have some other professionals in the community so that once they’ve done the course there’d be other things that they’d like to investigate for their child or for themselves, looking after themselves is going to be a big feature of that as well because I truly believe that parents are at the core of it and they need to fill their own cup so making sure that they they feel supported is really important to me.
Yes, I agree. As you know I’ve done your course and it is amazing – it’s not that the focus is all on the child – which obviously is the reason you’re doing the course, but you you start this with the parents don’t you and I feel that’s a good grounding to get us all set up and in the right place to learn the things we need to learn. The other thing is, when you’re talking about support, I think a lot of the time you do a course and then it’s in your head and you change things without necessarily thinking about it, but then you realise that actually you’ve changed that because you learned this when you did that in the first place and it’s like a filter down – and just to be able to go and share a bit more about that and talk about that bit later on, I think that would be very valuable. Your community might exist by the time the podcast goes out (it does!) so if so I will put it in the show notes and people can find the links.
What was the journey like to get to a point you’re at now where you have the course? How was that journey to do that – all the tech and scheduling things and workbooks, telling people about it, all the marketing – how was that? Because that’s quite brave as well, all of these different steps we have to take as business owners in order for people to know what we do in the first place.
Definitely that’s been the toughest part. I would say the learning and learning the tech, social media, putting myself out there’s been the biggest challenge for me. I’ve come a long way with that when I look back now I can see I’ve come a long way, sometimes in the moment it doesn’t feel like you’ve come very far at all but I think it’s putting myself out there and being visible is not my natural way of doing things. As much as I absolutely love being in a small workshop, putting myself on social media is not my favourite thing to do. But I think for me the branding journey which I’ve done with you has been a massive part of the willingness to be more visible because I’ve told you, delving into your values and what lies beneath it has been so so important in building up my understanding of what my brand was all about and the graphics are really important to me. I’m a very visual person so when I can see something as a picture it just clarifies everything in my head and it gives me that confidence to be able to talk to other people about it so the branding part has been amazing and that I would say that’s been at the core of everything.
I think without that that and branding without those visuals and that whole journey I think I might be in a different place or I’m not really sure where I’d be but I think that has helped me clarify everything so much more. I still have days where the tech is just overwhelming and trying to set up this platform for my online community – oh my goodness – but it’s a good reminder, because I do tutoring as well so for me to go through that struggle – and I describe it to my tutoring students as trying to walk through a very muddy puddle. You know you’re deep in that mud and it feels so uncomfortable but actually you’re learning as you’re going so it’s good for us as adults to experience it, but sometimes we forget and then when children are struggling with their learning we can’t really relate to that. So it’s nice to be able to have had that experience recently and be able to go – I know that’s really tough, it feels awful but you will come out the other side.
That made me smile because today I’m wearing canvas shoes. I haven’t worn canvas shoes since last summer, you know it’s not even summery today! When we walk to school we cut across the grass and I said to my son “I’m wearing canvas shoes, we can’t cut across the grass, it was raining last night” – I think when you’re walking through that muddy puddle your footwear is really important as well. You can be wearing Wellies, it depends how much preparation you’ve had, how much learning you’ve done before you have to walk through the puddle – are you wearing the right footwear? Then you’re going to be even more equipped and get through it quicker which is why I love that analogy, whereas if you’re wearing canvas shoes like me today and you have to walk through a muddy puddle it’s going to be a very different experience and you are far less prepared and when you get to the side it’s going to be a lot messier – I think you’re putting people’s wellies on.
Can I use that? That’s fabulous and absolutely the preparation, you have the the tools that you have available, it’s exactly like that where your preparation makes such a difference and I think that whenever I go back to that confusion I’ve got better tools now, so it might be that I’m confused for a while or overwhelmed for a while but I get back to that connection more much more simply and much more easily now which is which is fabulous. I hope that other parents feel that they gain those tools as well and that bit of understanding. It’s never an exact science is it, human relationships – it’s very messy and the path is never straight all of the time. We just have to go with what we do, but like you say when we prepared and when we understand more it makes a big difference.
Connection is obviously the key thing for you and your business is called Complex Connexions – do you want to talk to us a little bit about why you chose to call it Complex Connexions and what that word means to you?
I think connection to me is relationships and like I said before, one-to-one connection has always been really important to me, but those connections with parenting, connections with our children can be difficult. They’re complex for sure, difficult to not a very nice word but they can be complex but when you add in those layers of ADHD or Autism or some kind of additional needs and then you add in judgment from other people, it can feel additionally complex. I think as much as I try to help here and see the positivity and see the strengths in their children which are absolutely there – I never want to dismiss the difficulties because I don’t want people to feel like they’re being overly dramatic or they should be able to do things differently – it is difficult, it is complex, so we need to acknowledge that but at the same time look for the positives and find ways to get through those those things
I love that and I think connection flows through you, through everything, it isn’t just the name of your course it’s all of those things – it’s everything about you as Shelley, connection really matters all the way through everything that you do in your business and in your life. I feel like it sums you up perfectly. Do you think that that happened before you started Complex Connexions or do you think you’ve always been a connections based person?
I think I gained a lot more confidence to make those connections after I started my business. I think the growth journey for me in in becoming a small business owner has been huge and I think I’ve gained more and more confidence to make those connections. I definitely know 10 years ago I would have really struggled to go to a networking event where I didn’t know anybody or to reach out to people that I didn’t specifically know. When you have something that you want to share and you’re passionate and you’re willing to reach out and make those connections in a different way. I think connections have always been important, but I definitely feel like I’ve got a lot more confidence to do that now and the connections that you can make when you do reach out is amazing – there’s so many people doing such brilliant things but to actually get to know them and understand their story – I’m a very nosy person in a way because I love to understand everything about different people and so if I meet somebody I want to know lots of lots about them, I think it’s it very much speaks of collaboration and living in the North East the business Community is quite small so you go to one of these networking events and you meet those people, you go somewhere else you meet similar people or the same people again and it’s just fabulous, you feel part of a real Network.
I agree, I love what you said about earlier on when you were talking about your brand you said you’d gained a lot of clarity through the strategy process which is great but then you were talking about having more confidence to make connections and to be braver and for me brand bravery – which is obviously the name of this podcast – is all about clarity and connection = brand bravery – that’s my equation and I think that you’ve really shown that. I love that because it’s showing that you’ve got the clarity from your strategy and from working through everything that you’ve worked through, all of the things that you’ve done in your business and you’ve gained extra confidence from starting your business and calling it Complex Connexions and really focusing on connection and that’s given you that bravery to step out and do the things like networking and making videos which are uncomfortable
I think that’s wonderful because that’s exactly what it’s all about – getting to that point where you can get out and have that passion to tell people about what it is that you do and rise above all of the uncomfortable feelings that you might have about the things you need to do to make those things happen, so that’s really good to hear and quite inspiring and motivating really, that we can all reach that if we just get some more clarity and work on how to be more confident about sharing our business and we’ll all be able to do it, so that’s awesome. You were going to share a tip which I think we can probably vaguely guess...
Yes. I always say to parents in the toughest of times or in the best of times just focus on that connection, everything else will come. If you just focus on that relationship and and on just creating that space where your young person feels that they matter, that they belong, that they’re accepted, everything else will come along with that. Understanding helps you to get them, communication helps you, but those will be part and parcel of that, if you just focus on that connection just be with them and and connect with them, that to me is the most important point and that has got me through some difficult times, difficult parenting times where it’s just let go of the other things just be connected.
That’s the best thing to do definitely, and certainly for me I feel like the best times with my kids are when we connect.
True. I guess the stuff that they get excited about doesn’t have to be grand, it can be the tiniest little thing most often that’s what it is, it’s those tiny moments and those little simple ways of connecting. It doesn’t have to be a big grand gesture and that’s the best part about it and that’s what children remember isn’t it? That’s part of their childhood they remember, those little times that you know you did things with them it’s really important.
I am going to put all the links to the things that you need links for in the show notes so if anyone wants to know more about Shelley then that’s where you can go to find the links to connect with Shelley. This has been a really interesting conversation thank you so much. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.
Find Shelley: community.complexconnexions.co.uk/
Amy Purdie, The Brand Explorer takes you on an Adventure to discover what your brand is all about, helping you with your brand strategy, brand visuals and content ideas. You can join Amy’s Brand Success Club or join her in your very own Private Brand Adventure.
Amy has been enjoying designing logos, brand identities, illustration, print work and websites – since 2007 fuelled mainly by tea and chocolate.