Supporting neurodivergent learners

By Bill, posted
15% of people in the UK are neurodivergent; they have brains that differ significantly from society’s expected norms…fascinating brains!  This implies that you are very likely to encounter one or more neurodivergent learners during your teaching career.  You may have already done so and would like to learn more and develop or refine your strategies; every single one of those 15% of people is, of course, an individual and will respond to different things.
Neurodivergent people may be experiencing a range of conditions that include: ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder); ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder); Dyspraxia, Dyslexia and Tourette Syndrome.  Not many teachers can be experts in all of these conditions, but it is useful to reflect on what we know and how we can provide a better experience for these learners.

It may well be that many learners are experiencing a range of these conditions – a spectrum.  Many theories suggest that they overlap – ASD can often go hand in hand with ADD – but not always.  Some learners will be dyslexic and also dyspraxic.

The good news is that any strategies trialed in the classroom or training room focusing on one group of learners tend to have a positive impact on many other learners also.

How can we help?

The first thing will always be getting to know the learner as an individual.  How do they like to learn?  What are they interested in?  What are their triggers that can make them become anxious and unsettled?  Where do they like to sit?  These are questions that can be asked of all the learners in a group and trying to answer them and provide support will always be positive.  This can of course be done verbally or as an ‘All about me’ type written exercise – whichever is more appropriate.  Building in time to share learners’ interests and allowing other learners to ask questions is invaluable.  Where possible, if the topic planning can be directed and shaped by the interests of the learners, this will also have an impact.

A seating plan is always useful – how we group learners can make all the difference in terms of behaviour management and maximizing learning.  Some neurodivergent learners will be much happier sitting alone, perhaps with some kind of low screen to partition them from other learners.  Some will enjoy working in a small group but could benefit from a space to move to if it becomes overwhelming – a ‘safe space’.  There may be anxiety about being too close to an exit – the only way to find out is to ask and then observe and make necessary changes.

Safety and security

All learners deserve to feel safe and for neurodivergent learners, this may need to be made more explicit.  Ground rules such as ‘there is no such thing as a stupid question’ will be useful – also working with the whole group on their responses to other people’s suggestions, focusing on body language and facial expressions in particular.  We learn by making mistakes and this will make some learners more anxious than others.  The teacher/trainer may need to model how to listen and respond in a respectful way.  A routine can also help – a visual timetable of some sort will often help learners to feel more secure about what is happening now and next.  This could be a whole group/class timetable on the board and in addition a small version for some learners at their work station.  Depending on age, ability and need, timers may also be useful here – especially if a reward system is being used.

Praise can be a tricky one – everyone is different in terms of receiving it.  Some learners enjoy it and bask in the glory of a positive comment.  Others, often neurodivergent learners, either don’t believe it; find it intimidating or just simply don’t know what to do with it.  It is always good to check ourselves as teachers to see if our praise is specific or useful and to read the learner – would they rather have an imperceptible ‘thumbs up’, a point at the work and a smile or a comment?  Perhaps they would prefer to have an extra 5 minutes break instead?

Scaffolds and support

Visual resources will often be very helpful.  This could be flashcards, pictures, diagrams, charts, props and toys.  Physical resources such as manipulatives – place value counters in Maths or sentences to re-order will be helpful also.  Often, these resources will be useful to neurotypical learners in the group also – after all, we all learn in different ways and some learners are more confident/ able than others.  If we make the use of physical resources routine and not just something that only a few learners have, then so much the better.  If resources are stored where there is easy access, then any learner will feel able to benefit from them at any time.  If the learners are expected to complete written work, a sheet of blank paper can be extremely threatening and some prompts or a writing frame may be very helpful.

None of these ideas or strategies is exclusive to any group of learners.  However, they do show willing to learn more about the individuals.  Building relationships, structure and support can never be negative but take careful planning.  If we have the strategies up our sleeves then we can react to new learner needs that we didn’t know about.  Neurodivergent or neurotypical, everyone appreciates effort and personalized learning.  Not all ideas will work for all learners – like many things in education, working with different types of learners is about taking risks and trying your best.

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