April 6, 2022

Creating A Classroom Environment that Celebrates Neurodiversity

Christina Ramsay
An illustration of three students sitting at a table working while a teacher stands nearby

You’re peeking into a classroom. As your eyes scan the room, you notice that although the teacher is in front of the room and speaking to the class, not all students are looking in her direction. You scan the room again, this time focusing on what the students are doing. One student is looking down at something in her hands, another student is ripping papers. There’s also a student facing towards the windows, and someone else is laying fully stretched out on the rug. To your right, another student appears to be drawing. Your first instinct is to think that these students are off-task and not paying attention to the lesson. However, with neurodiverse students, what may seem like “off-task behaviors” are actually not indicative of a lack of attention. 

As you take a step into the classroom, you step closer into the realms of each of the students described above. You begin to realize that your initial take of these students is not the whole picture. A minute after you scan the classroom, the student facing the windows asks a question about the topic the class is discussing and then shares his thoughts. The student on the rug shares his agreement with his classmate and then passionately shares some of his thoughts about the topic. The student looking down at something in her hands says “that makes sense to me,” and comes up to the SmartBoard to point to an image and share her thoughts. Shocked by what you are witnessing, you step further in the classroom and walk over to the student that is drawing. Without knowing it, you hear yourself saying, “Wow!” as you take in the detailed illustration the student has drawn that represents the ideas and concepts discussed in the lesson. 

Welcome to the world of teaching neurodiverse individuals.

Neurodivergent individuals think and process the world around them in different ways. Thus, what might traditionally be defined as “off-task behaviors” might actually help neurodiverse students attend to lessons and process information. Neurodiverse students include students who have ADHD, autism, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia, and they all have unique ways of interpreting the world around them. For educators working to make our classrooms supportive of all students, part of this work will involve redefining and expanding our definitions of attention, focus, and “on-task behaviors.” 

Creating a Classroom Culture that Honors Neurodiversity 

As a special education teacher, I see the role of educators as supporting students in their learning journey, which involves understanding how students process and interpret the world around them. I can then use the unique ways my students process information to assist their learning. 

How then, can educators leverage students’ strengths in classroom settings? One way to leverage their learning is to incorporate their interests and natural tendencies into class activities. For instance, my student Kadeem (names have been changed to protect students’ identity) is a creative and out-of-the-box thinker. He is also an artist, and leveraging his strengths helped to include him in classroom discussions. Kadeem would sit away from the group during class discussions and would either pace or draw. I started having Kadeem share his drawings at the end of the lessons, which allowed him to synthesize the lesson takeaways in a visual format. Giving him this role validated his method of processing information and also helped his classmates. In fact, his drawings became a recap of the salient points of the lesson, helping visual learners, learners with auditory processing needs, and the class as a whole.

Giving Neurodivergent Students Their Space 

Another way to create a classroom culture that values neurodiverse learners is to include different seating and workstation choices for students. As I mentioned earlier, my student Kadeem also paced around the room when he was thinking through big ideas or processing a new concept. Providing Kadeem with a designated part of the classroom where he could pace without distracting his peers, but still be near enough to the group, gave him the space he needed to gather his thoughts. It also affirmed the expectation that he was still part of the group. When he needed to, Kadeem would go to his pacing spot and would still raise his hand to join in the class discussion. 

Another one of my students, Gregory, needed to move his body regularly (specifically, he needed to jump). Taking a movement break in the hallway or in another part of the classroom did not work for him, as he would get lost in his thoughts. Instead, I decided to create a “jumping spot” for him that was right behind his rugspot. I shared my idea with him and involved him in the process of deciding how much space he needed and we created it using painter’s tape. Gregory was so excited about having his “jumping spot,” he told his mom about it later that day. She shared with me that Gregory said, “Mom, my teacher really gets me. I feel better because I worried I would get in trouble for doing what my body needs.” 

Kadeem and Gregory teach us how important it is to honor students' needs, instead of making them feel bad for needing something different. Incorporating flexible seating and workstations in the classroom personalizes the environment for all learners in the community and increases student voice and choice.

Remote Classrooms Can Be Responsive to All Learners 

Creating a classroom environment that is supportive of all learners should not be limited to the physical classroom. During the pandemic, I strove to create a remote classroom environment that was responsive to all my students. Just like I did in my physical classroom, I worked toward leveraging students strengths and interests into learning activities. 

For instance, one of my students processes information by verbally making connections to his prior knowledge, which often meant that he was sharing his thoughts when others were speaking. During remote learning, Pear Deck was a helpful tool for him. During lessons, he could use the drawing slides to make concept webs, and write down connections he was making. Having interactive slides during lessons allowed Edward to release his thoughts by recording them on the slides, and it also helped him wait for his turn to share the connections he was making. Having interactive Pear Deck Slides also helped students who were visual learners. They had the slides in front of them to underline, circle information, and draw illustrations/diagrams on the slides.

Equity and Planning for Diverse Learners

Working towards equity in education is essential when teaching neurodiverse students. As educators, it is paramount that we consider the strengths and needs of all our learners when lesson planning. Here are some questions to think about as you prepare learning activities for diverse learners.

  • How can I incorporate my students’ interests into this activity? 
  • What connections can I make to their interests that will assist my students’ understanding of the concept? For example, one of my students loves Marvel superheroes. I incorporated a clip of Marvel’s Avengers Endgame to enhance the understanding of “show, not tell” in narrative writing, and to teach how a writer can use a combination of small actions, body language, and dialogue to emphasize an important moment.
  • How can I leverage their strengths within the lesson? For example, incorporating Kadeem’s illustrations or having the student who intuitively makes connections act as the “class connector” by sharing connections to the world or previously learned topics during the discussion.

As educators of neurodiverse learners, we need to not only respect the ways our students learn, but we also need to ensure that they have the supports and interventions they need to successfully access the curriculum. 

In addition to leveraging students strengths in learning activities, we can work toward equity in our classrooms through our teaching methods. For instance, providing clear instructions and expectations sets all learners up for success. Also, chunking instructions and steps into manageable steps supports all learners in understanding the process they will engage in, and gives them the structure that they need. 

Following a similar structure/schedule in lessons supports students because they know what to expect. Neurodiverse students benefit from predictable routines and structure, and knowing what to expect (and what is expected of them) can decrease anxiety. Teachers can also incorporate phrases that will cue students to what is coming up next in a lesson. For instance, informing students that when you say the words, “your task for today is..” means that directions for their assignment will follow. This allows students to know when they need to solely focus on you. Additionally, building in “wait time” after instructions, questions, or a salient point has been made allows all learners to process both what was said and their own thoughts.

With all this information in mind, you take a deeper look around the classroom. You begin to attend to the teacher’s movements – the gestures she uses, the visuals and words she says that connect to her students’ identities. You begin to realize that this teacher has thought about how to engage and support her neurodiverse learners. Each student is getting what they need to access the curriculum. As you take one final scan of the classroom, you reflect on the equity that is present in this classroom — each student is able to process the information in the way that works for them.