Neurodiverse students bring a wide range of perspectives and abilities to the classroom that should be supported and embraced by classroom teachers. The challenge for educators is trying to find the best solutions to support these diverse learners. Creating, not only a physically inclusive, but emotionally supportive and intellectually stimulating environment for neurodiverse students can make a difference in the odds of success for these students. Here are five practical strategies to help create this inclusive learning environment.
1. Flexible Seating Options
I am on the other side of the seating chart argument recently shared on Edutopia. I believe in letting students choose their own seats and encouraging them to make choices that support their learning. Having different options available is important to support different learners sensory needs and learning styles. Having beanbag chairs, wobble chairs, carpet squares, and other seating options allow for students to choose what works best for them. Introducing the wobble chair to my classroom really changed the game for some of my fidgeting students. They can fidget without distracting others and they can also pay better attention now that their movement needs have been met.
2. Sensory-Friendly Learning Spaces
Be mindful of sensory stimuli in the classroom. Bright lights, loud noises, or cluttered spaces can be overwhelming for some neurodivergent students. I know many teachers that string their own soft lights throughout the room and rarely ever use the fluorescent lights because they are too bright. Very messy spaces can cause anxiety for neurodiverse students and it is important to try and keep a space that is tidy for those students to work if they get overwhelmed. Allowing students to use their headphones while they work is something I have come around on because it is a way for students, who need it, to block out the extra stimuli so they can focus on the work at hand. These small tweaks can be helpful keeping neurodivergent students engaged.
3. Inclusive Teaching Practices
Consider how content is being shared and assessed in class. Are instructions only verbal, could they be written on the board or posted on a class website. Finding different ways to present content creates an inclusive environment because students take in content differently. Having the directions in multiple locations will allow students who need to follow along able to do so and remove the need to ask a question if they missed something. Many neurodiverse students are afraid to ask a question based on what is discussed in class because they fear being teased or the teacher telling them to pay attention next time. It has nothing to do with attention most of the time. It is processing speed. Some students process more slowly, so they miss the next bit of information while the still process the last piece. Having information available in multiple locations allows them to process in their own time.
Exploring UDL and Project-Based Learning are other ways to assess student learning that allows for more engagement from neurodiverse students. Multiple Choice, short answer, and other traditional assessments truly speak to neurotypical students who can process the information quickly and produce an answer. More options for assessments will help create a more inclusive environment for students who need different modes to express their understanding of content in class.
Regularly check in with neurodivergent students to understand their needs and preferences, adapting teaching methods accordingly.
4. Group Work and Social Interaction
Allow for group work and the ability to be social during this time in class. I use something I call The First Five. The first five minutes of class is the time to get situated and connect with your peers. I use this as a time to connect with students, see where they are emotionally sometimes, follow up on previous conversations, and whatever else I want to talk about as long as it is not specifically school related. This time to connect and be social helps create a sense of ease before diving into the work.
When breaking up into groups, it is good to give them five minutes to connect, work through the project together, and just be social. Making those connections allows for better engagement for all students, but especially neurodivergent students. If the anxiety of group work or overall classwork can be addressed by allowing a more casual start to class, neurodiverse students will be more able to engage and be successful.
5. Open Communication and Awareness
Foster an environment of open communication where students feel comfortable sharing their needs and preferences. I do this by sharing my neurodivergent needs to students. As someone with ADHD side conversations in class can be very distracting when I am trying to give directions. I let students know that I will sometimes misspell things when writing on the board and not to laugh because I'm dyslexic and will sometimes make mistakes. Opening up about my neurodivergent issues has always helped those students who need accommodations because they are more willing to share when they need help.
Not all teachers are neurodiverse, so sharing those issues doesn't apply to everyone. However, we have all made mistakes and have needed support one time or another and sharing those stories is key in creating an environment where we do not shame those students who ask for help. I make it a point to celebrate those students who ask for support. It might be an email or a quick comment in the hall, but I make sure to let them know I am proud of them for speaking up and asking for support. The more we can normalize asking for support, learning environments will be better for all students.
By implementing these strategies, educators can create a learning environment where neurodivergent students can fully engage and not feel shame for how they approach learning. When these students feel more welcomed, they will be able to shine in the classroom and those ideas they share will make learning better for everyone.
Hugs and High Fives,