In every classroom, a hidden tapestry of diverse minds exists, often unnoticed. When educators thoughtfully incorporate strategies for these students, they unlock a richer, more engaging learning experience for everyone. Just about every classroom contains neurodiversity, but not all teachers plan their teaching around their neurodivergent students.
Providing the right support helps neurodiverse students get the education they deserve while they gain self-confidence and harness their unique abilities to thrive. This article aims to deepen your understanding of neurodiversity and to equip you with strategies to support neurodivergent students effectively
What is neurodivergence?
Neurodivergence describes individuals whose brain functions differ from the majority. Neurodivergent brains face varied challenges and have different strengths than neurotypical brains. Although not a medical term, neurodivergence is useful for identifying students with neurological differences, including ADHD, autism, dyslexia, and other conditions.
How do neurodivergent brains work?
Neurodivergent brains work uniquely, and people who are neurodivergent may learn or communicate in atypical ways. They may also perceive their environment differently than neurotypical people do. Some neurodivergent people have difficulty with sensory processing, while others find social interactions and group dynamics to be challenging. They may have unique strengths, such as the ability to solve math problems quickly or recall detailed facts.
In many cases, they also face challenges that neurotypical people don’t because education is largely designed around neurotypical brains.
What are neurodivergent disorders?
Every brain is unique. While a neurodivergent brain can express itself in a variety of ways, the following are among the most common neurodivergent disorders:
- ADHD: People with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often have difficulties maintaining focus and attention, managing their behaviors, and controlling their thoughts and emotions.
- Autism: The autism spectrum is wide, ranging from people who have socialization challenges to those who are completely nonverbal.
- Dyslexia: Those with this disorder have difficulty reading and writing, often due to problems processing written language. They may also face challenges when trying to follow directions.
What are some characteristics of neurodivergent children?
Identifying neurodivergent children as early as possible is key to helping them succeed in school. The characteristics to keep an eye out for include:
- Difficulty understanding social cues and jokes
- Fixations on specific subjects
- Repetitive motions or behaviors
- Poor eye contact
- Poor communication skills, including an inability or unwillingness to speak
- Overstimulation when faced with sensory inputs such as bright lights and loud sounds
- An overabundance of energy
- Risky or dangerous behaviors without consideration of consequences
- Difficulty focusing or paying attention
- Inability to sit still
- Poor memory skills
- Difficulty understanding written material
Strategies for teaching neurodivergent students
Educational strategies have historically centered on neurotypical students. As a result, many neurodivergent students have been marginalized, unable to participate fully in their own classrooms and schools. In an inclusive educational setting, neurodivergent students can more effectively demonstrate their abilities and benefit from their education.
By incorporating strategies that include a variety of classroom setups, lesson plans, and teaching methods, educators and schools can support and challenge all their students, including those with neurodivergent brains.
The classroom environment can be critical for many neurodivergent students. A supportive classroom design goes a long way to helping these students stay engaged.
Specific classroom setups that help neurodivergent children include the following:
- Sensory deprivation opportunities: Some students, especially those with autism spectrum disorder, may require sensory deprivation to focus and to avoid being overwhelmed with sensory input. Quiet sections of the classroom can provide noise-reducing headphones, pillows, and blankets (including weighted blankets). Dim lights and minimal sound can also help these students.
- Sensory input opportunities: Other students may need higher levels of sensory input to prevent self-soothing behaviors such as fidgeting. Learning stations with plenty of sensory opportunities can engage these students.
- Alternative seating: Some neurodivergent students find it difficult to sit still for long periods. Classrooms that offer alternative seating options, such as standing desks, wobble chairs, and ergonomic stools, help students with physical limitations and those with neurodivergent brains. Allowing students to walk around intermittently can also help promote engagement.
- Music: For some neurodivergent children, listening to music can enhance focus during tasks. While some teachers may be reluctant to play music for the whole classroom, giving students headphones while doing independent work can help them focus.
Planning ahead can be key to helping neurodivergent students thrive in the classroom. Here are some instructional strategies that support inclusive education:
- Varied instructional formats: Switching things up to include whole-class instruction, paired learning, small groups, student demonstrations, peer tutoring, and learning stations gives every student an access point to learning.
- Incorporation of multiple modalities, accommodations, and experiences: Plan your lessons with many modifications available. Some students learn best when working with manipulatives, images, or models. Others may need accommodations such as headphones, calculators, or large print text, while others may need assistance with the physical act of writing or may just need a little extra time.
- Active lessons: Many neurodivergent students don’t learn well when they have to sit in one place for a long time. Design kinesthetic lessons to get students moving.
Educators who design their teaching methods around the needs of their neurodivergent students can truly make a difference in these children’s lives. Take a look at some of the methods used successfully with neurodivergent learners:
- Decreased emphasis on time: Some neurodivergent students become anxious when facing deadlines and time pressure. Stay flexible regarding how long activities should take, offering extra time or modifying expectations and directions for those who need it.
- Multiple presentations of instructions: To accommodate various learning types, offer instructions in written and oral form, following up with neurodivergent students to make sure they’ve understood.
- Physical movement: Many neurodivergent students need to keep their bodies moving if their minds are to focus well. Allow movement during individual work, and encourage students to get up from their desks regularly.
- Focus on students’ strengths: Look for ways to allow neurodivergent students to shine in front of the class, honoring those students who show a creative bent.
- Relaxation: Neurotypical students can benefit from a focus on relaxation almost as much as the neurodivergent population. Lead breathing, relaxation, and meditation exercises to help students calm their minds and bodies so they’re prepared to learn.
- Focus on students’ interests: Students of all types become more engaged when they can incorporate their personal interests into their schoolwork. Pay attention to students’ favorite TV shows, books, video games, sports, and movies, and design lessons that can feature these elements.
- Incorporate support for executive function: Many neurodivergent students, particularly those with ADHD, face challenges when planning projects or dealing with time management. Provide tools such as step charts and calendars to help them develop these skills, which may come more naturally to neurotypical children.
The benefits of inclusive education for neurodivergent students
When neurodivergent students can participate in inclusive classrooms that pair them with neurotypical students, both groups benefit. Neurodivergent students are absent and indulge in disruptive behavior less often when in inclusive classrooms. They also show greater gains in learning while developing better social skills. Neurotypical students also can thrive through learning alongside people who are different from them.