Our classrooms aren’t just diverse; they’re neurodiverse, too. About one in five children in the U.S. are affected by learning and attention issues – or neurodivergences – that can make learning difficult. 

Just 32 percent of teachers say they’ve received training on teaching neurodivergent students. But it wasn’t all that effective, teachers report. Just 25 percent said it had a large or moderate impact. Seven percent said it had no impact at all.

Understanding neurodiversity is as important as understanding other forms of diversity in the classroom. It’s about creating an environment of understanding and belonging, where all students are primed to learn. 

What do neurodivergent and neurodiversity mean?

First, a bit of terminology.

Neurodivergences are differences in the way people think, feel and learn. According to the National Centre of Learning Disabilities, neurodivergent students may struggle in areas like reading, writing, math, organization, focus, listening comprehension skills, social skills and motor skills. 

Neurodivergence describes many brain-based learning disabilities and challenges, including:

  • Autism
  • ADHD
  • Dyslexia
  • Dyscalculia
  • Dysgraphia
  • Dyspraxia
  • Executive function deficits
  • Social disorders
  • Non-verbal learning disabilities

The term neurodivergent has gained traction over the past decade largely because it doesn’t imply that learning disabilities need to be cured or that people living with them are “less than.” Rather, it emphasizes that neurological abilities are naturally different across the entire population, and they deserve acceptance and accommodation.

A neurodiverse classroom includes neurodivergent students along with neurotypical students. And to be effective, it needs to consider a range of special needs.

The case for considering neurodiversity 

Teachers are tasked with creating a safe and supportive learning environment across many facets of diversity, including race, gender, religion, physical abilities and socioeconomic status. Neurological abilities and disabilities are part of that equation, too.

Creating a classroom that supports neurodiversity…

  • Helps neurodivergent students achieve: Some students learn better with repetition. Some click only with the help of visual examples. Some understand better when demonstrations involve everyday objects. Others crave formats where groups can puzzle out answers together. Understanding and incorporating individual students’ needs and welcoming a variety of teaching methods into the classroom can help overcome learning difficulties in the classroom.
  • Promotes inclusivity in school: Recognizing that everyone has different learning abilities reinforces that all students have strengths and weaknesses. Shining a spotlight on those strengths can help students (neurodivergent students in particular) better understand, and even celebrate, their friends and peers.
  • Creates individual belonging: A psychologically safe classroom is a judgment-free classroom in which students feel free to learn at their own pace, in the way that works best for them. It removes learning barriers so students can more effectively absorb information. It combats feelings of stress, loneliness and isolation.

Common mistakes and assumptions

Teacher training in neurodiversity isn’t always up to snuff. To complicate matters, neurodivergences are often invisible, meaning it can be difficult for teachers and students to address students’ special needs.

That can lead students and teachers alike to make some common mistakes:

  • Assuming neurodivergence is tied to IQ. A neurodivergent student may have a high IQ but still achieve below their potential if they’re not learning in a way that allows their strengths to shine.
  • Assuming neurodivergence is tied to laziness. Achievement isn’t always a matter of effort. It’s often a matter of support, understanding and accommodations that help students work around weaknesses.
  • Setting lower expectations for neurodivergent students compared to neurotypical students. Research shows students tend to achieve more when teachers perceive them as high-potential. Similarly, they achieve less when teachers perceive them as low-potential.
  • Thinking a student will “grow out of” or “get over” it. Neurodivergence is about differences in brain structure or function. Age doesn’t make the underlying issues disappear. That said, the right support can help address and alleviate symptoms!

3 ways to engage with neurodivergent students

So how do you create a classroom that’s welcoming and accommodating of neurological differences? We have three tips to share:

1. Focus on abilities, not disabilities

“If we only focus on the dis in disability our children will notice more barriers, more challenges, and more frustration — and so will we,” writes Dr. Emily King, a Ph.D. in school psychology. Instead, pay attention to student abilities, strengths and smarts when creating a learning strategy. “What I want children to know and trust: You won’t be good at everything, but you can be really good at your thing.”

2. Encourage conversation

Talk openly and honestly with students who are neurodivergent (and their parents, too!) to better understand what special needs they have and what strategies will help them learn. Start the conversation in your classroom as well. Introduce students to the concept of neurodiversity and the range of strengths and abilities in your classroom. As Dr. King suggests, “Once children understand themselves, they realize everyone else has their own constellation of abilities as well.”

3. Promote self-advocacy

Let neurodivergent students reflect on and articulate what individual accommodations they need. By actively listening to your students, you foster a classroom culture of trust and belonging. By delivering on their requests, you show all students that they belong. And by getting students involved in determining how learning unfolds in your classroom, you empower them to take ownership of their learning journey. 

Some of the world’s most well-known people are (and likely were) neurodivergent, including Steven Spielberg, Cher and Michael Phelps. When you consider neurodiversity in your classroom environment, the way you deliver instruction, the in-class activities your students engage in and the assessments you use to measure learning, you empower every student to achieve great things, too! 

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