How to Support Neurodiversity in the Classroom

By Adrian Johansen

Society is more neurodiverse than the education system may think. In fact, it's estimated that 30-40% of the population is neurodivergent, as characterized by a medical condition (like autism spectrum disorder or ADHD) that causes their brains to function differently than neurotypical brains.

Neurodivergence isn't a disadvantage—but it is something that educators must consider when building curriculum and helping students succeed. To give neurodiverse students an equitable opportunity to learn and grow, teachers can use these strategies for supporting neurodiversity in the classroom throughout the school year.

Neurodivergent children at school

Adapt to Different Learning Styles

Supporting neurodiverse students in their educational journey is all about understanding the unique ways in which they learn. For instance, while students with dyslexia may struggle with reading textbooks or understanding presentations, they may understand gestures and images. Implementing visual cues within the classroom and while teaching can help teachers help more students learn.

If teachers are unsure how to best support their most challenging students, they should consider asking the parents or students themselves. Rather than choosing teaching strategies exclusively from their own research, learn directly from children and parents what works best. Having these conversations may open their eyes to the fact that a child needs a fidget toy to stay focused, or that a student needs to use a voice-to-text on their laptop to fully process lessons.

Discussing learning methods also helps educators avoid incorrect assumptions that students are misbehaving out of disrespect. It challenges them to practice empathy and recognize how some students may need additional support to succeed through different activities and tests.

Adapting to different styles of learning

Encourage Teamwork

One of the biggest hurdles that neurodivergent students face in the classroom is feeling different from their peers. As children grow up, they start recognizing societal norms and forming bonds with students who think like them. This can cause neurodiverse students to feel left out or even get bullied.
Creating opportunities for students to work in pairs or teams can help teachers build a more harmonious learning environment. As children practice teamwork, they'll learn leadership skills like communication and patience that lead to promotion of inclusion. Students will learn that not everybody's brain works the same way—and that neurodiversity can actually help their teams succeed—while also realizing that everyone has something in common, even if their minds work differently.

Offer Accommodations for Medical Needs

Many neurodivergent students may have medical needs. When they're not accommodated, their success in the classroom may be affected. For instance, while it was once the norm for teachers to limit bathroom breaks during lessons, educators must recognize that some students have medical conditions that may be embarrassing to discuss in front of their peers and that may require them to go to the restroom—or remove themselves from the classroom at the very least.

Neurodivergent students may also have other disabilities that should be taken into account, both inside and outside of the classroom. For example, if a neurodivergent and visually impaired student is studying abroad or going on a field trip, considerations which should be addressed before travel could include laws regarding canine or personal assistants, technological accommodations, and general accessibility.

Adapting to neurodivergent needs
Just as educators may allow diabetic students to eat in class, understand that neurodiverse students may need to take breaks to regain their focus or head to the nurse or school psychologist more often than others. Additionally, neurodivergent students may need to take prescription drugs while at school.

Of course, it is important to protect neurotypical students even when accommodating neurodivergent students. Common prescriptions for neurodiverse people, like benzodiazepines and stimulants, can be highly addictive and lead to substance abuse in the wrong hands. Make sure to develop a clear policy against sharing prescriptions in classrooms.

Build an Equitable Classroom

When educators implement practices that help neurodiverse students achieve the same levels of success as their peers, classroom performance can greatly improve. Start by getting to know students' learning styles, then adjust curriculum to support them well. To create a well-rounded and inclusive classroom environment, encourage teamwork and allow accommodations where needed.

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