In the quest to provide inclusive and comprehensive education, there's a saying that captures the essence perfectly: "When we design for disability, we all benefit." At the heart of this perspective is the understanding that strategies we use to support neurodivergent students can, in many cases, enhance the learning experience for everyone. Here are five essential ways educators can make their classrooms more accessible, taking inspiration from methods employed to support neurodivergent students.
One of the most common strategies for assisting neurodivergent students is creating a structured classroom environment. Predictable routines, clear organization, and labeled areas can aid in reducing anxiety for students who crave routine. This is something that can benefit all students because having clearly labeled locations for items and solid routine allows very little room for lost time. I have found that students in the middle school really benefit from the strict routine of certain class activities. Whether it is taking attendance or the procedure to use the bathroom, those approaches help all students, but especially neurodivergent students who get anxious at the uncertainty that can present itself in seemingly normal, every day tasks for others.
Example: Starting every class with a 5-minute overview of the day's lesson, displayed on the board, can help all students set clear expectations and mentally prepare for the tasks ahead.
Visual Aids and Graphic Organizers
Visual aids can be beneficial for neurodivergent students, especially those on the autism spectrum or those with attention disorders. These tools can clarify information and break down complex ideas. The use of chunking is wonderfully helpful for all students. It can be very easy to get overwhelmed with a large project or concept. Breaking it down using visuals can help make it all seem more manageable. I have found that more visuals and fewer long texts really help all of the students stay on task and are more engaged with the content.
Example: For a lesson on the water cycle, a colorful diagram with arrows and brief descriptions can make the concept more graspable.
Flexible Seating Options
Providing various seating options can cater to different sensory needs. Some students may need movement to concentrate, while others might benefit from a quiet corner. As a teacher, it is important to remember that it is not "your" classroom. It is their classroom and the space should accommodate their needs. The first time a student in my ELA class asked if they could sit on the window ledge instead of their desk, the traditional teacher in me said, "No way", but I figured I would give this fidgety student a chance and it was the most on task they had been all year. Finding different options for sitting can be difficult and costly, but it is important to explore because students learn in a different environments and we should be flexible to that.
Example: Offering a mix of traditional desks, standing desks, soft cushions, and even wobble stools can provide students the freedom to find their most productive space.
Breaks and Brain Boosters
Regular breaks can help neurodivergent students regulate their emotions and energy. But in reality, all students can benefit from intermittent pauses to refresh and refocus. If you teach in block scheduling, you must have something to break up the 70 minute blocks or the students will not make it to the end of the year as engaged as you might want. Taking time to stretch, walk around, play a quick silly game, etc. are important to keep the students engaged. Neurodiverse students will really need a way to energize themselves after long periods of sitting.
Example: Introducing 5-minute "brain boosters" every 25 minutes, like a quick stretch or a short mindfulness exercise, can help rejuvenate everyone.
Offering instructions in more than one format can make a world of difference. Whether it's auditory, visual, or kinesthetic, multi-modal teaching addresses diverse learning styles. I learned that putting everything online and on the board AND reading over it at the start and end of class is a great way to ensure that ALL of my students have a chance to understand what we are doing or remind them what we just did. I read everything at least twice to make sure everyone heard it because there are students who might be too embarrassed to raise their hand and ask for a repeat. That applies to all students.
Example: When introducing a new project, provide written instructions, explain them verbally, and perhaps demonstrate a step or two to cater to different learners.
The beauty of these strategies is that they don't just cater to a subset of students. By supporting our neurodivergent learners, we are essentially laying the foundation for a holistic, inclusive, and enriched classroom environment that uplifts everyone. Let's continue to learn, adapt, and grow for the benefit of all our students.
Hugs and High Fives,