Beyond Accommodation: Building a Classroom Community that Honors Neurodiversity

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As an educator, I have seen firsthand how well-structured and calm classroom communities can benefit all students, including those who are neurodiverse. I’m known for my organization, tidiness, calm demeanor and routines. I’m also known as the one with the really good smelling room (mild essential oils)! Over the years, I had students commenting on how much they appreciated having a place that was welcoming, inviting and would you believe it…organized. I also received feedback from parents about how much they appreciated my approach, as the atmosphere lent itself to focus, calm feelings, security in the school setting, and openness amongst the students. It's important for parents to understand that many classroom procedures designed for neurodiverse students are actually beneficial for all students. By creating an inclusive and supportive classroom environment, all students can thrive and reach their full potential. My goal is to explain to parents of all students what neurodiversity is and why a classroom environment honoring it is just right for any child lucky enough to be in it.


Neurodiversity


Neurodiversity is a concept that recognizes that each individual's brain is unique. It acknowledges that differences in brain function and development are a natural and normal part of human diversity. The term "neurodiversity" is often used to describe conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other neurodevelopmental differences. Rather than viewing these differences as disabilities, the neurodiversity movement seeks to celebrate them as valuable and important aspects of human diversity. By embracing neurodiversity in the classroom, we can create a more inclusive environment that supports the unique strengths and perspectives of all students.

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It's important to acknowledge that while neurodiverse students may have different learning needs, we do not want to label them in a way that can be harmful or stigmatizing. Kids see kids for kids! That is, up until a point when they really start listening to how the adults around them are speaking about and treating those around them, and they start forming judgements of their own. It's our job to create a classroom where everyone is valued for who they are, has a voice, and is a part of the community. However, it's also important to recognize that these students do have learning differences that need to be acknowledged and accommodated in order to support their academic and social success.

Building a Supportive Classroom Community

One of the most important things to understand is clear communication. I know this might sound like an obvious one, but it’s surprisingly harder than you might think. Communication isn’t actually all that easy for everyone, including teachers. We can get caught up in the day, rush over things or speak too quickly, but that’s not all. Communication also includes providing notice of any changes to the schedule or routine, this is crucial for so many students! Even adults appreciate this! I always had the daily schedule on the board, as most do, but as soon as there was a change, I made sure to let everyone know as a whole, rather than casually blurting it out to only those who might have been listening.


Communicating expectations and providing regular feedback is also a form of communication. All students need to hear what is expected of them, and even better, with visual support and examples. Clear communication helps to reduce anxiety and uncertainty, which can be especially important for neurodiverse students. However, all students benefit from knowing what to expect and having clear expectations set for them.


Another important aspect of a well-structured classroom community is the concept of scaffolding. Scaffolding is the process of breaking down a complex task into smaller, more manageable steps. This technique is often used for neurodiverse students, but it can benefit all students by helping them to better understand and master new concepts. In the classroom, we often use graphic organizers as one way to scaffold, or provide vocabulary upfront, or use checklists of outcomes so that students can understand and see what they will learn. Scaffolding can be used in a variety of other ways, from providing additional resources and materials to offering extra time to complete assignments.

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In addition, all students benefit from having a supportive and inclusive classroom environment. This means fostering a sense of community and belonging, and promoting positive relationships between students and with the teacher. As my most recent experience has been in a PYP school, I draw from that framework the most. I feel the PYP is all about being open-minded, respectful and using skills of empathy and collaboration. We build our classroom environments with intention from day one, making sure to use the Learner Profile and ATLs as a benchmark. By creating a safe and supportive environment, all students feel valued and supported, which leads to better academic and social outcomes. I LOVE sharing stories from my classes over the years, especially when it has to do with the calm and supportive community we formed. There’s something about a truly cohesive classroom that just melts your heart, and you know you’ve done them well for this one year of their lives.


Finally, it's important to recognize that every student is unique and has their own strengths and challenges. By recognizing and embracing neurodiversity, we can create a classroom environment that celebrates and supports all students. Yes, it’s still  important to acknowledge that neurodiverse students may require accommodations and support in order to reach their full potential, which can include things like extra time on assignments, the use of assistive technology, or modifications to the classroom environment, but by providing the above environment, we can create a level playing field that allows all students to thrive and succeed. There’s something about the look on a child’s face when they have a moment of feeling successful and they can’t help but grin from ear to ear. It’s contagious, and everyone around them is happy too. You celebrate together, cheer each other on, and realize you’re all benefiting from being in each other’s lives. 


Classroom Strategies for ALL


Provide visual aids: Visual aids, such as diagrams, charts, and pictures, can help students better understand new concepts and retain information. EVERY child (even adult) benefits from having a visual.  I mean, look at IKEA instructions! While we could figure out how to put most of their furniture together without the book, it’s just so much better with it! Move that into the classroom and think about writing. Sure, we can write about things, but it's so much better when we have an outline, scaffold, or graphic organizer to help us see the SWBST (somebody wanted but so then) element of the story writing process. This can be especially helpful for neurodiverse students who may struggle with auditory processing.


Break down complex tasks: As previously mentioned, breaking down complex tasks into smaller, more manageable steps can benefit all students. This technique can help students feel less overwhelmed and more confident in their abilities. I, as an adult, am always breaking things down into smaller, more manageable tasks. Planning a semester vs planning a week are very different things! So, put yourself in your kiddo’s shoes. When they are given a project, has the teacher broken it down into manageable tasks, or into timeline associated benchmarks? We use that in project management in the real world, so why not do that for them now?


Use multi-sensory activities: Multi-sensory activities, such as using manipulatives, can help students better understand abstract concepts. These activities can also engage students who may have difficulty focusing in traditional classroom settings. I’ll tell you now, ALL kids get excited about the use of manipulatives coming out of the tub. There’s something about the hands-on approach that just keeps kids awake, engaged and having fun (even if they build a house out of them…they’re engaged). 


Provide extra time for assignments: Giving students extra time to complete assignments can reduce anxiety and allow them to work at their own pace. This can be especially helpful for neurodiverse students who may need more time to process information. Extra time is something most teachers say they don’t have. It’s true, I get it. But maybe we can break down the assignment into parts that fit into different days of the lesson, instead of handing it all out at once and expecting it done in one go.


Incorporate movement breaks: Movement breaks, such as stretching or short walks, can help students release energy and improve focus. This can benefit all students, including those who may struggle with attention. Parents, how many of you are familiar with sitting at your desk during a long day of work. You’re getting drowsy, uncomfortable, wiggling in your chair to stretch or stay awake. It’s the same for kids. They are not meant to be sitting for long periods of time in a seat. It’s ok to move!


Encourage peer collaboration: Encouraging students to work together on assignments or projects can promote teamwork and build social skills. This can benefit all students, including neurodiverse students who may struggle with social interactions. I love seeing the bonding happening during collaborative work. How some naturally become me, the teacher, helping others in their group! Or how they use words of encouragement and help someone persevere. You’ll see the best come out of kids during collaborative time…just make sure you get to listen to the commentary happening, as it’s really quite amazing what they are capable of doing together.

Incorporating these strategies into the classroom can create an environment that supports all students, including those who are neurodiverse. By recognizing and addressing the unique needs of each student, we can create a classroom community that promotes academic and social success for all.

Hearing from Parents

I find it's really important hearing directly from parents when I write about topics such as this. I was fortunate enough to talk to Nicole Joye and Jennifer Mazur, both moms who have a lot of experience and information to share.

Nicole Joye, parent of a teenager with ADHD (inattentive type) has the following to say to other parents, and teachers too:

"ADHD is not caused by bad parenting. Children with ADHD need someone in their corner. As a parent, it is your job to be that someone, always. ADHD is not something you outgrow, as you get older you learn which coping strategies work for you."

Nicole highly recommends two books by Dr. Russell Barkley, one for teachers and one for parents. There is also a YouTube video with Dr. Barkley.


Jennifer Mazur, a Neurodivergent mom of a neurodivergent teen,  supports others in helping them with stress and feeling overwhelmed.


"Being a teenager has always been difficult. Being a neurodiverse teen makes it even harder. Especially in this day and age when social media plays an enormous roll in our lives. There are simple tools that you can use each and every day. Either in the classroom, or at home, which will add a bit of peace and balance into otherwise busy minds. Using creativity, meditation and mindfulness for just 10 minutes a day helps to create dopamine. It reduces cortisol. It also releases endorphins. There are tons of resources available online."


Jennifer has some amazing resources to share with you and your neurodivergent teen


In conclusion, I have seen how well-structured classroom communities can benefit all students, including neurodiverse students. By emphasizing the importance of scaffolding, clear communication, inclusivity, and recognizing neurodiversity, we can create an environment where all students can thrive and reach their full potential. By working together as a community, we can create a brighter future for all students. 


Heather


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