There is a process of social becoming that each of us undergo since the time we are born―from learning how to talk, to learning about the many identities we carry (gender, class, race, etc). Apart from home, schools are where we learn about ourselves and the world. However, the process of learning is different for every child.
Many educators have realized this during their teaching years. These differences in the cognitive abilities in children are what neurodiversity refers to. Its acknowledgement and enhanced understanding is essential to ensure an inclusive and healthy development of children during their schooling years.
The term ‘neurodiversity’ was coined by Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist on the autism spectrum. Singer first used the term in her sociology honors thesis. Her work gained renown in 1999 with the publication of her chapter ‘Why Can’t You be Normal for Once in Your Life?’ in the UK. In her work, Singer emphasized that some brains work different than others, that this is not a disability to be pathologized but a mere natural variation in how human brains function.
In order to facilitate a basic understanding of \neurodiversity, the terms neurodivergent (or neurodivergence) and neurotypical come to our aid. Neurodivergence refers to the divergence in brain functions from the acceptable social standards. This can be: partially or entirely genetic (e.g., autism, dyslexia, ADHD, among others), partially or entirely a result of experiences that alter the way our brain functions (e.g., trauma, prolonged use of psychedelic drugs, long-term meditation practice, etc.), or a combination of both.
On the other hand, neurotypical refers to the neurocognitive ability of one’s brain function which adheres to the accepted social standard of cognition, which is often regarded as ‘normal’. Neurodiversity can be understood as a collective of individuals with varied neurocognitive functioning. For example, a classroom is neurodiverse if both neurodiverse and neurotypical students are a part of the class.
For a long time in history, neurodivergent children were seen unfit to gain the knowledge that their neurotypical peers were allowed to. Recent studies have shown that this was merely due to a lack of understanding about neurodivergence, along with a lack of proper tools and facilitation
of learning. The world progressed from no education for neurodivergent children, to special needs schools. This provided neurodivergent children with better care and learning opportunities. However, general attitudes towards special needs schooling still stood for being ‘outside’ the mainstream education, pertaining to the social stigma, the feeling of being less than, of being incapable of performing tasks ‘normally’.
Many activists and researchers have realized the necessity of integrating neurodivergent and neurotypical children together in regular schools, facilitating the development of sensitivity and acceptance towards mental and social diversity in children from a young age. To aid this facilitation, educators require special training and guidance.
One of the most important things that educators must keep in mind is that neurodivergence also benefits children to excel in certain forms of expression and fields of learning. Here are some of the ways in which educators can ensure a healthy and positive learning experience in a neurodiverse classroom:
1. Make room for expression and movement
Neurodivergent students often have a difficult time of expressing themselves verbally. Educators must look for verbal and non-verbal cues that these students use to let their needs be understood, and encourage interaction through creative tools that the students are comfortable with it. Dyslexic children often find it easier to learn through a creative approach rather than a textual one. Encouraging them to take charge in activities that require reasoning and creativity will help with their confidence and learning abilities.
Some autistic children often have typical repetitive movements such as rocking, pacing, among others, to process things. Allowing them their movements will help them feel comfortable. Unless you notice that their movement may lead them to hurting themselves, encourage them and provide them the space to move. For students with ADHD, physical movement is likely to help them process their thoughts better. Providing opportunities to get them moving is likely to benefit such students.
Think of simple activities to keep students engaged and active, such as encouraging a walk and talk, or using an exercise ball during discussions in the class.
2. Provide opportunities to showcase strengths
The regular school system lays emphasis of tests and grades where weaknesses are often highlighted. In a neurodiverse classroom, conducting various activities which encourage students to display their strengths, and building on that, will help them develop a sense of belonging and
fight the isolation that neurodivergent students often face. Allow multiple avenues of expression and communication, may it be audio or visual. For example, a dyslexic student might find it difficult to write a 500-word essay, but allowing them to present a video or picture essay instead will help them showcase their knowledge.
3. Patience is key
Grasping various concepts often takes time. Allow students the time to process what they read and the tasks they are required to do. Neurodivergent students often require time to formulate and communicate their response, this in no way mean they are incapable of it.
4. Be gentle and respectful
Neurodivergent children are very attentive to the sounds and expressions around them, so the physical expressions aimed at them, such as a smile or the tone of our voice are crucial in developing trust and understanding in the classroom. An energetic, positive, happy and confident persona can aid in making tasks appealing and create a wholesome environment. Similarly, being respectful and receptive to the need of the students will enable them to feel heard and appreciated.
Apart from these points, educators must also build a more inclusive classroom experience by ensuring that the neurotypical students empathize and respect the differences that exist among their neurodivergent peers.
The acceptance that everyone learns at their pace and that everyone has their unique strengths which can be honed to achieve their aspirations in life, is something that is crucial in order to develop and inclusive and healthy schooling experience for both students and educators