One of the toughest things for a neurodivergent learner to do is is to ask for help. There is already so much self-shame for needing help, asking for it can just be too much for some students. As teachers, what can we do to support these students in a way that makes them feel comfortable asking and receiving the support they need to be successful in class? Here are some tips that can neurodivergent students be in a better place to ask for support when they need it.
1. Environment Building - The term "safe space" has been mocked by other groups because it is seen as being too sensitive to learners who might be scared of different opinions, but that is not what this is about. Every classroom should be a safe space for many different reasons. One is that the environment needs to be such that a student feels comfortable asking for support when they need it. This is done by verbally stating it at the start of class and constantly restated throughout the year so students understand that asking for support is ok and encouraged for those students who might be struggling with the content in class. It is creating an environment where students feel comfortable expressing opposing opinions. As an HS ELA teacher, I made sure to verbalize on a regular basis that it is ok and encouraged to disagree with me in respectful ways. Neurodivergent students will often have a different way of looking at something and they need to feel comfortable sharing that distinct point of view. Culture building is not easy task, but it is important if we want all of our students to feel like they can share their thoughts and ask for help when they need it.
2. Encourage Open Communication - Neurodivergent students need to know that the door is always open. Whether that is a real door during office hours or a metaphorical door for emails, knowing it is open can help relieve some of the anxiety neurodivergent students have over communication. It is important that emails from educators/admin to students should have a clear subject line and mention specifically what will be discussed. If the email is a vague, "Stop by when you have a chance" then students are going to spiral out of control until the meeting takes place. Make it clear at the start of the year what the communication expectations are on teacher and student. Write these down in a syllabus that is shared with class. Use tools like Remind or email blasts to keep students informed of what is happening in class. Neurodivergent students need to feel like they are not being a burden when it comes to communication with anyone. Providing clear terms on how communication is best to take place will help support those students.
3. Identify Support Resources - Most neurodivergent students will need support services to be able to excel in their classes. It is important that these support services are clearly laid out to students and parents very early in the year. It should be something that is touched on at the start of the year, back to school night, and the first round of conferences. Most of the time, neurodivergent students do not remember what services are available to them or feel too embarrassed to ask for support. Using email or 1:1 meetings as way to discuss the resources and how a student might utilize them is key in getting students the best possible support. Again, there needs to be a culture built around using these services so students do not feel stigmatized when utilizing them.
4. Re-evaluate Due Dates - One of the toughest things for neurodivergent students to hit are due dates. Things will pile up and students will feel hopeless. It is important that teachers can connect whenever possible and try to spread out the due dates of major projects or assessments so they do not all fall in the same window of time. Also, most neurodivergent students would benefit from extended time on work so they can make the last minute changes to meet their standards. I have also found having those students present on the second day of presentations can help some students because they get a chance to see what others are doing and can adjust their work as needed. Others preferred to go first because the anxiety of waiting was too much for them. The correct answer is to get to know your students and have conversations when them so the best option is available for every student.
These are just a few ways you can help neurodivergent students in your classroom. Like most things, communication is key to a successful student/teacher relationship. The more that a student feel seen and heard, the more likely they are to ask for the support they need to be successful. Also, many of these changes also help neurotypical students as well. Consider making all of these changes for all of your students and see how some neurotypical students respond to the extra level of support.
Sending Hugs and High Fives!