Neurodiversity in the classroom: Managing the challenges

(Photo Credit © Ivanastar via iStock )

We use the word “spectrum” all the time, but have you ever actually looked at a photograph of a color spectrum? The reality is that you cannot draw clear lines between colors. It is impossible to do. The transition from red to orange to yellow to green to blue to violet takes place in nearly unlimited degrees, each hue infinitesimally different from the ones on either side of it.

Neurodiversity in the classroom is the same. There are no clear lines, no easy delineations between differences between children who are at various degrees on the spectrum. Similarly, just as there is no one “normal” color on a spectrum – each degree of color is vital – there is no clear “normal” when it comes to children’s brains. And yet much of traditional teaching has been focused on trying to move students with various challenges closer and closer to the general definition of “normal.”

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In “Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life,” author and educator Thomas Armstrong acknowledges five broad categories of neurodiverse students: those who have learning disabilities, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, intellectual disabilities, and/or emotional and behavioral disorders. He believes teachers need to take advantages of the strengths of these students – modifying the school environment when needed in order to do so – to help them learn and grow into their best selves. And he acknowledges that we are behind in learning to see the advantages in how neurodiverse students are wired. Past efforts tended to try to “fix” or “remediate” a child’s disability – attempting to move that child closer to “the norm” – rather than using a child’s unique gifts as a starting point for growth.

“The implications of neurodiversity for education are enormous,” Armstrong writes. “Both regular and special education educators have an opportunity to step out of the box and embrace an entirely new trend in thinking about human diversity. Rather than putting kids into separate disability categories and using outmoded tools and language to work with them, educators can use tools and language inspired by the ecology movement to differentiate learning and help kids succeed in the classroom.

“Until now, the metaphor most-often used to describe the brain has been a computer or some other type of machine. But the human brain isn’t hardware or software; it’s wetware. The more we study the brain, the more we understand that it functions less like a computer and more like an ecosystem,” he writes.

Armstrong offers eight principles of neurodiversity:

  1.  The human brain as an ecosystem.
  2. Every cognitive ability has a spectrum or a continuum – dyslexia is on the reading spectrum, for example. A student may be expert on the math spectrum while struggling on the science spectrum.
  3. The values of a culture help define competence, which means that competence is not purely defined by science.
  4. Is it a gift or a disability? Depends on what you see.
  5. Adapting your brain to your environment helps you succeed in life.
  6. Conversely, being able to adapt your environment around your brain helps you succeed in life.
  7. Seeking the right resources and lifestyle choices is as important for the neurodiverse as it is for the neurotypical.
  8. Positive niche construction (modifying the environment to enhance chances of success) actually creates positive change in the brain.

Terrific, the already-overworked teacher thinks. It’s not enough that I have students with multiple diagnoses, now I’m supposed to practically be a psychologist and teach differently to each one of them?

Indeed, it can seem overwhelming. It takes special resources and it requires a paradigm shift, not only in the classroom but also in the administrative offices and, over time, the community. But it’s more about using the students’ gifts in the classroom, even while acknowledging their challenges. A child with autism may have incredible recall; one with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder may be exceptionally creative; a student who is OCD may be particularly good at monitoring classroom routines and noticing what needs to be done. While exploiting these gifts, a teacher can work to mitigate the social anxiety challenges some students experience in interactive situations.

“Leveraging strengths and managing the challenges are two keys to running a successful makerspace (or any classroom, really) with neurodiverse learners,” writes Patrick Waters for Edutopia. “Different brains bring different and exciting strengths into the makerspaces, and educators must utilize these gifts to build their students’ competence and confidence. By examining our classroom structure, practicing empathy, and problem solving with our colleagues and students, we can manage the impact that challenging behaviors” bring into a classroom.

So where do you start? What does a neurodiverse classroom look and feel like?

Dominican University of California in conjunction with Educational Development and Services has created a six-course series titled “Strength-Based Teaching and Learning” specifically to help teachers master these skills.

The courses, which are one credit each for a total of six, are:

  • Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Using Thomas Armstrong’s book, students will focus on neurodiversity and positive niche construction and learn how to create strength-based classrooms and schools. This class also is a foundation class for the other five (though enrollment as a prerequisite is not required).
  • The Talents of the Learning Disabled: Understand the many types of learning disabilities, assess your current teaching methods and learn how to help your learning-disabled students become more successful in their endeavors.
  • The Joys of ADHD: Do you recognize the strengths of your ADHD students, or see them primarily as easily distracted and hard to focus?
  • The Gifts of Autism: Learn to create effective learning environments for students with autism, organizing subject matter and planning your lessons for all your students.
  • The Strengths of the Intellectually Disabled: Is your curriculum based on your strengths or on those of your students? Those with intellectual disabilities may need a broader approach.
  • The Bright Side of Emotional and Behavior Disorders: Students with emotional and behavioral disorders can easily disrupt a classroom and are often seen as difficult. Using their strengths in learning can bring out their best attributes.

“Just as we celebrate diversity in nature and cultures, so too do we need to honor the diversity of students who learn, think, and behave differently,” writes the program director, Bob Wellman. “This series is designed to help teachers and schools embrace the strengths of such neurodiverse students in order to help them thrive in school and beyond.”

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