In the world of education, we encounter students from all walks of life. No one student, or brain, is exactly the same.
Neurodiversity is the idea that all brains are different and these differences are beneficial. A neurodiversity advocate believes that the brain differences found in “neurodivergent” people—for example, those with neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD or learning disabilities like dyslexia—are natural and should be accepted in the wide range of human experience.
How can you, as an educator, ensure you help all the brains in your K-12 classroom succeed? Let’s talk about what it means to be neurodivergent, how to avoid the common pitfalls, and the specifics on supporting neurodiversity.
What is neurodivergence?
People with the following conditions can be described as “neurodivergent” (as opposed to “neurotypical”) due to differences in the way their brain functions:
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Executive function deficits
- Social disorders
- Non-verbal learning disabilities
Neurodivergent people have different challenges and strengths. For example, some may struggle with reading or writing, motor skills or social skills. On the other hand, some report positives like feeling creative or empathetic in different ways than neurotypical people.
How do neurodiverse students see the world?
For neurodiverse students, the education system sometimes feels too “one-size-fits-all.” With educators scrambling to fill learning gaps, curricula that reflect the need to “teach to the test,” and increasingly controversial standardized testing, these students may not get what they need to succeed.
Historically, many neurodivergent students report being made to feel “broken” and “less-than.” In a Buzzfeed article that shared perspectives from autistic people, one autistic Reddit user wrote, “I wish more people understood how terrified I am [...] that [autism] will bar me from jobs, opportunities, and relationships — a normal life — because other people see us as lesser, as difficult, as not worth managing, or as broken. I feel like things are often harder just because people view me that way; it perpetuates itself.”
Another explained the difficulties they encountered in school: “Something I wish my teachers knew when I was growing up: Me avoiding eye contact doesn't mean I did whatever they accused me of, nor does it mean I don't feel sorry, and it's certainly not meant to be disrespectful. It's just that I don't do well with eye contact.”
Neurodiversity doesn’t need to be “fixed,” as the learning model of the previous century has told us. Students with neurodivergence simply come to the table with different needs and ways of thinking, and education is slowly shifting to meet them where they’re at.
Addressing neurodiversity and avoiding common pitfalls
The neurodiversity approach to education is based on the idea that all educators will encounter neurodiversity in K-12 schools and that these natural variations in learning can be likened to a human form of biodiversity.
Addressing neurodiversity is part of recognizing, acknowledging, and valuing naturally occurring difference, and is a key part of inclusion.
It’s also important to acknowledge the differences within that difference. Recognize that, for example, neurodivergent students of color face different issues—conditions like ADHD are underdiagnosed and likely to be conflated with behavioral issues that overshadow unique learning needs.
Neurodivergence often co-occurs with other mental health diagnoses like anxiety and depression, which can worsen when children get frustrated with their difference or the way they are treated because of it.
Often, overwhelmed educators are unable to properly support neurodiversity in their classrooms. Research from the UK has found that training teachers on neurodiversity and providing them with a toolkit of classroom support strategies can help empower them to meet students’ needs. So far, only 32% of teachers have taken part in “professional development that focused on teaching students with special needs,” according to a report from the intergovernmental OECD.
How to support neurodiverse students in the classroom
Here are a few tips for educators who want to lean deeper into neurodiversity:
- Educate yourself on how to talk about neurodiversity, the differences between person-first and identity-first language, and what autistic people, for example, prefer. When in doubt, you can always ask.
- Listen with empathy. Nowadays, many of us have a friend or family member who is neurodivergent. Consider asking the person (or their parent, for young students) if they’re willing to share their experience in K-12 education.
- Be explicit about directions and expectations. Many neurodivergent children need structure, routine, and straightforward communication to thrive. It’s important to set expectations based on classroom rules and be consistent. Explain challenges and setbacks clearly, instead of talking around the issue.
- Break up lessons. Neurodivergent children may not be able to concentrate well for long periods of time or get discouraged by a large amount of information at once. Take note of students who are struggling or falling behind; they may already be feeling guilt and shame, so do what you can to build rapport and trust.
- Vary your teaching methods. Provide variety to account for different learning styles. Consider interactive methods like role-playing, debate, or other games. Whenever possible, encourage students to play to their strengths, without forcing them to do something they are not comfortable with.
- Ask students what they need. In this article, three researchers with autism, ADHD, and dyslexia, respectively, talk about their experiences. When something isn’t working for your student, they might be the best one to ask about reasonable accommodations.
- Provide alternative means of assessment. Allow students who struggle with reading or writing to present orally, and use whatever visual aids are necessary—as long as they can get their point across in a way that helps them feel at ease and do their best.
- Have high expectations of all students. In the not-so-distant past, it was common for neurodivergent students to be separated from neurotypical students for their learning differences. Today, we know that when supported, neurodiversity benefits everyone. There is no reason we cannot meet neurodivergent students on their level, encourage their unique strengths, and help build their confidence for success.