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5 creative ways to best support neurodiversity in the classroom

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Educating our children is perhaps one of the most important endeavors in the modern world. Children are the future of our world, and the needs of today’s students go far beyond what a regular classroom can provide. Teachers need to take proactive steps to understand a few neuroscience basics and how they change the way things like education and mental health are approached.

A top leader in the concept of neurodiversity in education is Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., the author of Awakening Genius in the Classroom and the Executive Director of the American Institute for Learning and Human Development. In his book, he says teachers should help children with “finding their inner genius and support them in guiding it into pathways that can lead to personal fulfillment and to the benefit of those around them.” This approach embraces creativity, which Armstrong says children have in abundance due to not having been exposed to the “conventional attitudes of society.”

Here are 5 ways to support neurodiversity in the classroom in ways that allow creativity to flourish and what tools teachers can use to augment their lesson plans and make education accessible to children with many different learning styles.

1. Maintain a psychologically safe classroom

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, and other special needs process information about the world around them differently than neurotypical people. For children to feel psychologically safe in any learning environment, they need the feel the following four things:

  • Feeling included in the group

  • Feeling physically and mentally safe to learn new information

  • Feeling safe enough to take the risk of contributing their ideas to the group

  • Feeling safe and empowered enough to challenge status quos that don’t make sense

Whether the students in your classroom have an IEP in place requiring specific accommodations or not, you can help children develop successful learning strategies by creating a safe space for their physical, mental, and psychological well-being. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Provide students with multiple ways to consume the information being taught. Some children may prefer to read quietly, while others need hands-on experience and still others are audio learners and learn best when someone is speaking about a topic or reading a text to them. For example, if you have a set of books to read in your classroom, upload them to a text-to-speech program like Speechify so students who want or need to listen to them being read can access the content without having to request an accommodation, which can be embarrassing for neurodivergent students.

  • Pay attention to your body language when teaching. Your body language should convey that you are actively listening to your students and that they are included and accepted in the classroom. Make sure your students understand that they’re in an environment where asking questions and learning new things are welcome and encouraged.

  • Teach older students strategies for self-advocacy. Students who are old enough to understand their learning differences can advocate for themselves and what they need to succeed in both an accommodative classroom and a regular classroom. Students in middle school, high school, and beyond can experiment with different accommodations to learn what works best for them and then request these in their educational environments.

  • Let students know what to expect and be consistent with classroom rules. Children, especially those who are neurodivergent, thrive on structure and organization in their schedules. Routines work well for children and your students can thrive when you maintain a consistent schedule and let students know what your expectations for them in the classroom are and what consequences they may face should they not abide by class rules. Students should not fear that they will be singled out, made fun of, embarrassed, punished, or marginalized in their educational environment.

  • Ask students what might help. If you notice a student who is struggling, you can ask them for accommodation ideas that might work better for them than others. Let students know that if they have an idea for a solution that you haven’t yet offered, they have the freedom to bring ideas for new tools and resources they think may help to you for consideration.

2. Present lessons in small chunks

Although neurodivergent children are quite bright, their differences in brain structure and chemistry often do not allow them to focus well on a single topic for a meaningful period of time. Instead of pushing these students off to the side as difficult or problem children as has been done in the past, teachers can help children by just presenting lesson plans in smaller, more easily digestible bites.

You can also create dynamic activities that help students grasp different concepts in different ways, like role-playing, regular classroom debates, gamified exams and testing, and other creative ways to learn educational material.

3. Vary your teaching strategies

A great way to keep the interest of neurodivergent students in your classroom is to vary your teaching strategies. You can use different strategies to teach the same material so students with different learning styles can all absorb the same material. You can create customized lesson plans for students who are autistic, dyslexic, or who have ADHD and other learning disabilities, so each student receives core education in a format they can easily understand.

Some resources that can help teachers develop neurodiverse-friendly classrooms are listed below.

4. Know your students’ strengths & weaknesses

Understanding your students’ strengths, weaknesses, and neurological differences is a critical component of creating a safe special education environment that meets the wide variety of needs of both neurotypical students and neurodivergent students. For example, autistic people may exhibit a lack of social skills in both school and life but be extremely intelligent and good at problem-solving. Dyslexic children may have difficulty reading text but might otherwise be fast learners.

Neurodivergent children often feel that because of their natural weaknesses they aren’t good enough or skilled enough to keep up with the rest of the class. But the truth is, every child has their own strengths and weaknesses, whether they are neurotypical or not. When teachers create an environment that allows students to excel at things they are good at, children are able to obtain enough confidence to apply themselves to things they may not be as good at.

5. Have high expectations for all students

Teachers can help students best by having high expectations for each of them. Despite their learning differences, both neurotypical and neurodiverse students are capable of excelling within their own limitations. Even though children have weaknesses that you’ve recognized, you have the additional responsibility of providing students with enrichment for their strengths. Believing that your students can achieve great things regardless of what learning disabilities they may face is a critical component of helping kids actually take the leap.

Set individual goals for students that are reasonably achievable within any limitations they may have. Ideally, shoot for goals at the upper range of the student’s abilities, but be careful not to set them too high. Expectations that are unreasonable tend to cause children to become frustrated and self-defeated because no matter what they do, they can’t seem to excel.

Final thoughts about neurodiversity in the classroom

Transforming a regular classroom into a neurodiverse learning haven is an excellent way to reach all children. When children feel safe enough to explore the learning process to find what does and doesn’t work for them, they create the skills needed to continue learning throughout their lives. Students can expand their strengths and work on their weaknesses in meaningful ways that actually make a difference versus memorizing rote information and performing well on assessments or exams.

Teaching autistic people, individuals with ADHD, and other neurodiverse students can be highly rewarding when educators make the effort to help students achieve their personal bests. By taking into account the neurological differences between different students and applying the concept of neurodiversity in the classroom, teachers can create educational environments where all children have the capacity and opportunity to excel academically, emotionally, and mentally regardless of any intellectual disabilities, mental health conditions, or other special needs they may have.

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