Neurodiversity in the classroom: a teacher's guide

Paul Main

Neurodiversity in the classroom: a teacher's guide for making the curriculum accessible to every child.

What is Neurodiversity?

The term Neurodiversity indicates the viewpoint that brain differences are normal and acceptable, rather than deficits. In other words, the natural neurological difference between how a person's brain functions and processes information represents neurodiversity.

Neurodiverse people interpret, interact with, and experience the world in unique ways. The concept of neurodiversity helps to reduce stigma around how different people learn and think differently from others.

The majority of humans are neurotypical, and typically human brains interpret the world how society might expect. They express the typical cognitive, intellectual and developmental abilities expected for an individual of their age.

Acas reported that nearly 15% population of the UK is neurodivergent. This indicates that their brain functions differently from the majority of people. People with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Dyspraxia, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and Dyslexia are typically categorised as neurodivergent people. There are several different types of neurodiversity, in fact, any person suffering from a medical condition that affects their thinking skills can be identified as neurodivergent.

The Autism Spectrum and the concept of neurodiversity

Most individuals experience neurodivergence with a "spectrum" of traits. And these characteristics are different for each person. Psychological theories suggest that all neurodivergent conditions overlap with one another. For example, a person with dyspraxia may also be dyslexic. Or people with autism may possess the creative skills frequently associated with dyslexia. Within autism, using the terminology 'spectrum' helps us talk about a child's needs with a greater degree of accuracy. Outside the wider autism community, this condition is often misunderstood. From a teaching perspective, educators need to explore different ways of scaffolding the learning process. Making the curriculum accessible is a key challenge in every school. Instructional practice might need to include alternative approaches that embrace the neurodiversity paradigm.

autism-spectrum-conditions
autism-spectrum-conditions

Therefore, one must not stereotype and judge neurodiverse people based on their neurocognitive deficit and outward characteristics. But, according to the neurodiversity paradigm, it is still beneficial to be familiar with the common characteristics of neurodivergence. Most commonly:

ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) influences a person's ability to focus. People with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder may also be impulsive and hyperactive. They might start a task but never finish, change from one project to another, or delay starting up something that doesn't particularly interest them. But, most of them tend to be great at problem-solving.

Autism Spectrum Disorders are most likely to be associated with individuals' poorly developed social skills. Most of the people with the autistic spectrum find it difficult to express themselves and engage in receptive communication. Autistic people may exhibit repetitive and restrictive behaviours. But, members of the autistic community are mostly good at learning and memorising information quickly.

Dyspraxia (also termed as Developmental Co-ordination Disorder) affects people's movement and coordination and the ability to collect thoughts. They are more likely to move clumsily. But they tend to be more empathetic and creative.

Signs of autistic spectrum condition
Signs of autistic spectrum condition

How can we make classroom learning more accessible to neurodivergent children?

There are many people with diverse thinking patterns. We can make learning accessible to each child by applying different learning methods in the classroom, including:

  1. Creating a psychologically safe environment in the classroom: It is a kind of a classroom environment where students are not worried about looking unreasonable if they ask questions for clarification or if they did not understand something. The idea of neurodiversity indicates that learners in psychologically protected classroom environments have better well-being and self-confidence. It must be the topmost priority for teachers, as it means eliminating barriers to learning and participation for neurodivergent learners. By creating positive relationships with other students, they’ll be more motivated to speak up. An effective way of promoting a psychologically safe environment is 'active listening' - this is when educators use their body language and repeat/ explain the speaker’s thoughts to show that they were attentive and listening. For neurodivergent students, it can be difficult to verbally convey their opinions and thoughts effectively or at all. Therefore, teachers must be patient and allow neurodivergent students to plan, think and process their response and protect them from feeling overwhelmed rather than pushing them to participate or to answer. It is also suggested to give options of communication to these students and give them support to communicate how they feel the most comfortable.

Safe environments in the classroom using playful learning approaches
Safe environments in the classroom using playful learning approaches

  1. Diversifying the teaching style: Children whose brains function differently may find certain approaches or subjects more difficult. Hence, while teaching in neurodiverse conditions, teachers must think about how their lesson plan might impact each student. Teachers must spend some time to see how each student is getting on with learning. For example, some children find it easier to learn maths online as compared to face to face teaching. Wider theories of Neurodivergence suggests monitoring students' progress and adapting to their preferred approaches for future lessons accordingly.
  2. Recognising children’s strengths: Many neurodivergent people have certain significant strengths. So, teachers should praise them for the things in which they thrive. For instance, some people with autistic traits can show great attention to detail. Also, people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder can sometimes see links and patterns in a better way than neurotypical persons. Due to this, they can problem-solve in a totally different, but equally effective, way.
  3. Parental engagement: Parents and carers help support children in the classroom. According to the Science Of Neurodiversity, families can provide a lot of information about how their children respond to specific learning styles. Feedback to parents about their children's mental health conditions and performance is a great way to reduce the gap between children's school and home. It is beneficial for the parents of neurodivergent children to get knowledge about their children's progress in return.

Neurodiversity for teachers
Neurodiversity for teachers

Meeting the needs of different types of neurodiversity

The following section is designed to give you some practical ideas about making the curriculum more accessible to every child. We think that cognitive science holds some of the answers, understanding a few simple principles can be transformational. Some things to try:

1) Utilise the block building kits to enable children to break down big ideas. This playful approach to learning provides freedom not usually allowed in an exercise book. For some children, they need to have a physical experience of the concept to fully understand it. We use the term 'thinking with their hands' or in the world of cognitive research, embodied cognition.

using colour and space to support neurodivergent learners
using colour and space to organise ideas

2) Provide clear guidance to help children navigate their way through complex tasks. The universal thinking framework has been used to guide learners through challenging tasks.

3) Use visual strategies such as graphic organisers. These tools enable children to organise their ideas and elaborate on their thoughts.

4) Embrace imagery to help make the curriculum accessible by reducing the amount of decoding a child has to do.

5) Try to make classrooms inclusive and not move children out into the corridor away from their peers.

graphic organisers enable neurodivergent children to organise their ideas
graphic organisers enable neurodivergent children to organise their ideas

What is the impact of neurodiversity at the workplace?

According to the Neurodiversity proponents, people with neurocognitive disabilities possess skills, talents and perspectives that can improve the workplace environment in many ways.

  1. To Close Skills Gaps: 80% of neurodivergent people are currently facing unemployment. According to the Department of Human Services, Europe is currently facing a serious shortage of IT workers and many IT organisations are now looking to hire adults with autism and other neurological conditions due to their unique thinking skills. For example, SAP, a German multinational software corporation, has greatly enhanced its innovation capabilities, quality, productivity, and employee engagement by hiring Neurodiverse Employees under SAP's Autism at Work program. Neurodivergent employees don't just outshine in software testing, their neurodiverse talent enables them to do a great job in areas like HR, product management, and customer support.
  2. To Attract Highly Skilled Workforce: Neurodiversity advocates claim that having neurodivergent adults in employment, attracts prospective applicants to apply for jobs. According to research, 64% of Millennials looks at the social commitment of a company before applying for a job. Nearly two-thirds of the employees only want to work for a company with a strong social corporate responsibility policy.
  3. Minimal Financial Impact: It was observed that most of the adjustments to business environments, due to the neurodivergent employees, do not cost much. Extra cost for providing employment opportunities, access to speech-to-text apps, dimmer lighting, noise-cancelling headphones, or placing a desk by a window is relatively lesser, particularly when weighed against the advantages of human diversity to a company's success.
  4. Employee Morale and Organisational Culture: Many companies reveal that having a neurodiverse workforce brings competitive advantages and positively affects organisational culture and improves overall employee morale. Mostly, neurotypical workers appreciate being informed about neurological diversity and when neurodiverse employees are assigned to the job responsibilities that align with their abilities and skills, like most neurotypical workers— they often report greater self-esteem and confidence.

Neurodiverse persons see and process knowledge differently. Some may find it difficult to understand other people's feelings, while others may find it hard to stay organised. Neurodiverse people frequently show greater comfort with interpersonal interactions when neurotypical people consider environmental factors and make suitable accommodations for their needs. By providing an accomodating environment, supporting them through their weaknesses and playing with their strengths, we can help both neurodivergent students and employees to thrive and make valuable contributions to society.