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5 ways educators can support neurodiverse students

5 ways educators can support neurodiverse students

6 min read
  • The science of learning

If you haven’t read part one in this series, where we explored what being neurodiverse actually is and its implications, you can do so here.

Although research shows that 15% of the UK population can be classed as neurodivergent, many of the complexities surrounding their conditions and thought processes are widely misunderstood or misinterpreted by the public. However, with more and more students being diagnosed with neurological conditions, how can we ensure they’re getting the support they need?

Teachers have an important part to play in ensuring these students feel included, understood, appreciated and confident in their ability to do well in school and in life. By encouraging and appreciating that students process information differently from one another, a better understanding of what it means to be a neurodivergent student can be developed.

At InnerDrive, we’ve come up with 5 ways that teachers can effectively support neurodiversity in the classroom…

1. Develop a psychologically safe classroom

A psychologically safe classroom is an environment in which students don’t worry about looking stupid if something doesn’t make sense to them or have to ask questions for clarification. Research shows that students in psychologically safe classroom environments reported greater self-confidence and well-being. This should be the number one priority for educators, as it means removing barriers to participation and learning for neurodivergent students. By fostering positive relationships with each student, they’ll be more likely to speak up.

One way teachers can promote a psychologically safe classroom is through active listening – this is when teachers utilise their body language and summarise the speaker’s main points to demonstrate that they were listening. Sometimes, neurodivergent students struggle to verbally communicate their thoughts and opinions effectively or at all.

As a result, teachers should be patient and allow these students to think, process and plan their response to stop them from feeling overwhelmed rather than push them to answer or to participate. It’s also important to note that communication doesn’t have to be verbal and neurodivergent students should be given the option to communicate in the way they feel most comfortable with.

2. Present information in small chunks

Rosenshine’s second Principle of Instruction highlights the importance of presenting information in small, sequential steps so students can master a concept without feeling overwhelmed. Although this takes time, it has many benefits:

  • It allows students to make connections in their learning
  • It allows students to make steady progress
  • It allows students to understand why each step is important
  • It allows teachers to assess student progress more quickly
  • It makes the task more manageable

Often, students with neurological conditions take longer to process information than neurotypical students. Sometimes, this is because many have a smaller working memory capacity compared to the 7 +/- 2 items that neurotypical students are believed to have, which can make it difficult for them to meet the memory demands that many typical learning activities require.

Other times, it’s simply because they may approach and process information in a non-conventional method. For example, an autistic student may make a mental note of what chapter they need to read and choose to read it at home rather than be confined to a 10-minute reading period as this allows them to contemplate the meaning of the chapter at their own pace rather than feel overwhelmed. Nonetheless, presenting information in small chunks can be beneficial for all students as it reduces the likelihood of them experiencing a cognitive overload.

3. Diversify your teaching strategies

To make lessons more accessible to neurodivergent students, teachers need to consider utilising different teaching and learning methods in the classroom. This is because different students will respond to different strategies, depending on how they think and process information.

Therefore, when creating lesson plans and presenting new information, teachers should consider how each of their students may respond to the lesson and be ready to adapt or modify their teaching style depending on student’s responses. Teachers should also ensure that they’re dedicating enough time to guiding student practice and spending time checking in with neurodivergent students in particular.

Trying different strategies is also great for exam preparation and developing a growth mindset in students rather than a deficit mindset. As Carol Dweck, who originated the growth mindset theory, stated in an interview, “telling students to try harder isn’t enough to promote a growth mindset” nor does it recognise the challenges that neurodiverse students may be facing.

One potential strategy that can help students who are struggling is to ask them to engage in elaborative interrogation. This is when they have to think about the ‘why’ behind something. Questions like “why might this be the case?” and “why do we use this method” may help ground abstract concepts and make them easier to understand for students who prefer interpreting information from a logical standpoint.

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4. Familiarise yourself with their strengths ad weaknesses

Every student has their strengths and weaknesses, and this is the same for neurodivergent students. Research shows that neurodivergent students typically thrive in more creative subjects, but struggle with assessments on the core subjects of Science, English and Mathematics. On the other hand, students with autism are great with detail and patterns and link things in a way that neurotypical people do not. Therefore, although they’re solving a problem in an unconventional way, that’s not to say their method is any less effective.

Essentially, teachers need to understand the needs of every single one of their students and what learning methods are most effective. The Education Endowment Foundation proposes a four-step strategy that teachers can utilise:

  • Assess: Gather information from several sources such as parents, carers, specialist professionals and the student themselves to create a holistic picture of your student’s needs.
  • Plan: Based on this information, consider what research-based teaching strategies may best support these students. These plans should be structured and well-thought-out rather than something that is occasionally implemented.
  • Do: Put that plan into action.
  • Review: Gain feedback from students or how confident they are with their responses to determine how successful the strategy was and whether it needs to be scrapped or adapted.

It’s important to note that the needs of neurodiverse students will change over time and different strategies will be more effective and necessary for students with ADHD compared to autism and vice versa. For example, for ADHD students, this could be allowing more flexibility for movement in classrooms as these students think best when their body is moving. On the other hand, a sense of routine and predictability may be more important for autistic students. Recognise neurodiverse students’ strengths so they can use them to combat their weaknesses.

5. Have high expectations

Just because some neurodiverse students may display odd behaviour and poor verbal communication skills, doesn’t mean they’re not capable of performing well academically. It’s important, like any other student, that we don’t limit our expectations because “this student is neurodiverse”. Although teachers should be flexible and understanding, they also need to set high, but realistic expectations.

This is because research shows that having low expectations, which is known as the Golem Effect, results in teachers reacting more negatively to students and students performing worse academically. Students can recognise when a teacher doesn’t believe they are capable of doing well, especially since 70-93% of communication is non-verbal and many neurodiverse students are good at picking up on non-verbal cues.

It’s also important that teachers make their expectations for the lesson as clear as possible as this consistency and clarity will help those students that struggle with change, paying attention or need a sense of routine. This can be done by:

  • Having a short review of the previous lesson to recap and show how they help inform understanding.
  • Breaking down assignments and regularly checking in with students to see how they’re doing.
  • Providing students with tools like calendars with deadlines, folders and checklists so they can organise their learning and have all the things they need at hand to participate in the lesson.

Final thoughts

Teachers need to ensure they’re taking the appropriate steps to make learning more accessible to neurodiverse students. Although not targeted specifically at neurodivergent students, Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction in particular may be useful in ensuring these students are being given good opportunities and can thrive in the classroom environment.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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