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.”
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.
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“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:
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:
“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.”