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A group of 11-14-year-old neurodivergent youth meet Wednesday afternoons at LDS to play chess. If you were to wander by and catch a glimpse of the group, it might look like a simple meet-up to learn and improve chess skills, but it is so much more.
Many neurodivergent students spend a lot of energy at school and in extracurricular activities trying to behave like their neuro-typical peers. They don’t always have opportunities to experience social groups where it is safe to be themselves. Chess Club is a place where difference is respected, and students have fun while practicing their emotional regulation and social skills.
When students arrive at Chess Club, they warm up with chess puzzles. In one of these puzzles, students sit at a preset chess board with a game already in progress. They must work together to determine the best way to finish the game. Students are then strategically paired up with peers to play chess. They apply the learning from their warmup chess puzzles to each game. After they finish their game, they choose another partner or play a different game.
An experienced LDS instructor leads Chess Club with a young person he mentors. This young adult is thrilled with the learning and connection he sees among the students. He shared, “This is one of the things that I look forward to the most during the week.”
One of the goals of Chess Club is to use a strategy game to teach students social and interpersonal skills. Chess is an adversarial game where there is a clear winner and loser. One of the first lessons in Chess Club is frustration tolerance, learning how to lose. Some players find this challenging as they still need to build these skills at school or home.
Students are also building their cognitive empathy skills. To play chess, you must ask, what is my opponent thinking? Why did they do that? A chess player must understand their opponent and try not to be surprised. Instructors encourage students to slow down and take at least five seconds before each move to consider their opponent and what they might do next. Sitting across from another player over a chess game is a wonderful opportunity to practice these skills. Unlike the dynamic social rules that shape a school classroom, chess rules are clear, and the game provides a more predictable environment for students to practice perspective-taking with peers.
Lee joined the club because of an LDS instructor that leads the group. This instructor is known for creating neuro-affirming spaces where students feel safe to be themselves and build confidence and connections with others. Lee didn’t know how the pieces moved when he first joined Chess Club. Although he had come a long way and was the most improved player, Lee had still not won a match. After months of perseverance, Lee finally prevailed and won his first match. He was incredibly excited.
Jessie is another student who has had a different success at Chess Club. The instructor introduced a chess variant called “anti-chess.” The group learned it was a lot harder than they imagined trying to lose on purpose. To the group’s surprise, Jessie was great at anti-chess. They won their first match! It was a momentous success in confidence building for Jesse. Their unique outlook, skills and way of playing made them the group’s anti-chess champion. They have even taught another LDS instructor how to play anti-chess and continue to enjoy playing the game differently.
David and Hong are two students who joined the club in September. They started hanging out at McDonald’s after club without parent involvement or encouragement from their instructor. This social connection is beyond the program’s goals, and the LDS team celebrates this emerging friendship.
Chess Club began in September, and there has been very little attrition. Students continue to come because of the connections they are making, and they are free to be themselves. These youth, with diagnosed and undiagnosed ADHD, Autism, or both, don’t feel pressured to be neurotypical and feel valued for who they are and their unique way of learning and interacting with others.
Chess Club is a social program LDS offers for 11–14-year-old students. If you are interested in learning more or know of a student who might join us in September 2023, please contact us.
– Sara Jane R. Walker, Senior Manager, Communications
LDS is a community of dedicated professionals that write collaboratively. We recognize the contribution of unnamed team members for their wisdom and input.