In society the number of children and adults that identify as neurodiverse continues to rise. At time of writing it is thought that between 15 and 20% of the population is neurodiverse. It’s statistically very likely, therefore, to expect that as teachers we are likely to meet neurodiverse students in our classrooms at some point during our careers.
This article aims to provide practical tools and knowledge that you can use to best support and nurture neurodiverse students in your classroom. Every student you meet will have unique needs but when the unique needs of a neurodiverse student are not met it can disrupt learning for all and reduce the chances of success for the student.
In addition without the confidence of knowledge and tools, teachers can sometimes experience self-doubt when the classroom is disrupted and stress, burnout and attrition soon follow.
Types of Neurodiversity
The word neurodiversity refers to the diversity that is seen throughout the human population in terms of different brain development and structures.
For the purposes of this article, we will use the term neurodiverse to refer to individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Down syndrome, dyslexia, developmental coordination disorder, dyspraxia, dysgraphia, intellectual disability, Tourette’s syndrome and Williams syndrome.
For more insights on Neurodiversity generally, read our article ‘What do we mean by Neurodiversity, Neuroodivergent and Neurotypical?’
Additional support - we offer books on Autism Spectrum Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder both of which are very common forms of neurodiversity you are likely to meet in your classroom.
Instructional Strategies for Teaching Neurodiverse Students
There are a wide variety of strategies that educators can use to assist and help their neurodiverse students thrive. But, remember that each child is different, so it is normal if a strategy works for one student but not another.
This article can serve as a handy crib sheet for future use so you can experiment to see which strategies get the best results with particular students.
Often a neurodiverse child, for whatever reason, will find it more difficult to complete a number of instructions given at once. For example, you might ask a younger child to colour in the picture, write a sentence describing the picture and write their name at the top before glueing the picture to the display board along with everyone else’s pictures.
Instead, provide instructions in smaller chunks. Instruction 1, colour in the picture. If the student is overwhelmed by receiving a number of instructions at once they might disengage from the activity all together and become disruptive. By providing one instruction at a time the child is more likely to focus on that instruction and complete it to satisfaction.
If you are working with an older neurodiverse student they might be writing a research paper. Ask them first to choose a subject to research. When this is done, have them locate a specific number of resources for their research paper. Continue to provide instructions in smaller chunks until the final draft to their research papers are completed.
In the learning environment we so often introduce new skills to the mix. Neurodiverse students may well be comfortable completing tasks using existing skills but when asked to complete a task that requires a new skill it becomes more difficult to acquire that skill.
An effective way to teach a new skill is to contextualise it. This simply means putting the skill into a real-life context perhaps by telling a story that includes the skill or by sharing an example of a person we are familiar with (like a postman or a teacher) doing this skill. Video is a great way to deliver this content in a visually stimulating manner.
For example, say you are trying to teach children about letter writing and the format of addresses and how you write to people and so on. Contextualising this to a social story could involve using the example of a penpal or sending a postcard from holiday. You could tell a short story about the postman delivering letters to all the people on the street or show them a video of Postman Pat. This all serves to contextualise the task and the skill you are learning in the real world.
Linking old skills to new skills
Similar to contextualising new skills you can link a new skill to an old one the child can already do.
Learning to write the letter Q for example is not a circle with a line, it’s the letter O with a line. You already know how to write the letter O so now all you need to is add a line at the bottom.
Building bridges between skills helps neurodiverse children because they often don’t make those connections themselves and a new skill can feel like a big overwhelming problem.
The Direct Teaching Method
The Direct Teaching Method is a structure for developing new skills that is consistent. First, review what was learned previously (usually the day before or in the morning). Next, introduce the new skill (perhaps also using the context and linking described above to help do this).
Allow the student time to practise the new skill while you provide instruction and verbal prompts as they do so.
When practise is going smoothly, allow the student to practise independently without prompts.
Finally, evaluate students to make sure they have learned and mastered the new skill.
Practise Makes Perfect
Make time for practise. You might find neurodiverse children need more practise or just that they need more guided practise in which you motivate them to do so. Practise is essential to help students learn and generalise new skills.
Neurodiverse children often respond well to a written plan. A good example of this is to use a week planner (usually just a notebook).
The week’s plans can be noted down in addition to any deadlines. Projects and assignments can be marked in. This gives the student a reference they can always return to if they feel unsure or overwhelmed and they can obtain some control of the tasks in hand.
Review the plan with the student from time to time (perhaps a consistent day and time each week) and have them check off tasks and projects as they pass or are completed.
Planning helps to remove uncertainty and worry that can be a source of anxiety for any student but often neurodiverse students. This tool is better suited to slightly older children but a simplified version can be useful for younger children of reading and writing age.
If you have set your students a task that takes say 30 minutes, doing so in silence or even with ‘free chat’ would make it challenging for a neurodiverse student to complete the task alongside their peers.
Regular verbal and visual prompts will assist them stay focussed.
On the contrary, regular structured breaks can also be very helpful for neurodiverse students. Breaks are great for allowing some breathing space for the student to manage frustration with the task or anxiety felt in the learning environment.
You need to assess how often and for how long a break would be appropriate for the age of the students and the learning environment you are operating in. A break could be ‘playtime’ outdoors but it could also be a structured distraction in the classroom such as a short, fun game played together.
Breaks like this can also be used as gentle motivation for the student to reach task milestones. For example, ‘complete A and we’ll play a your favourite game for ten minutes’.
If you are planning a larger task that involves many steps it can really help neurodiverse students to provide a visual plan of the task. Especially if the task is going to take several hours to complete, the plan provides a quick visual prompt and also a roadmap so the student can relate what they are doing now to what they did earlier and what they will do next.
This can be done in conjunction to providing bitesize instructions. For example, you might use a white board to list out the 10 steps needed to complete the task today (therefore providing a visual reference of the steps involved) and provide instructions for each step as each step commences (therefore providing instructions in bitesize chunks).
This point may feel obvious but it’s worth making. Neurodiverse students may (not always) but may need additional time to complete tasks. This is particularly important in an examination setting.
Offer free time willingly and without judgement or condition. Use your personal knowledge of the student’s ability to gauge how much extra time may be needed.
If you have neurodiverse children in your class and you are completing a group activity you might increase the amount of time the group needs to complete the task to ensure everyone can manage but not necessarily make anyone aware you have done this.
Consistency is a wonderful thing. Routine and familiarity create calm and reduce anxiety. Students come to you to learn, learning new things takes energy and concentration. When we support all students with consistency in every form it creates an environment conducive to good learning.
Deliver consistency in a variety of forms. A regular time table of classes. A consistent teaching style. A familiar classroom layout (resist the urge to redecorate and move the furniture around). Named places for students can be very reassuring for neurodiverse children.
If you do need to change something like a classroom layout or a schedule try to give your students notice and plenty of it. Turning up to school one day expecting everything to be just the way you like and it and suddenly finding it’s all change can be very disorientating and disruptive to learning.
While we recognise consistency is really important it’s important to acknowledge that the world changes around us and nothing stays the same forever. Aim to manage change with advance notice given in kindness.
Talk About Well Being
Checking in with your students regularly to find out how they are feeling benefits you and them in equal measure. Hear first hand how the student is getting on and ask what adjustments are working and what adjustments might help.
This can help you tailor and hone the support you are providing for your neurodiverse students but it might also provide the student an safe space to communicate if they are struggling in a particular way outside of the learning structure, perhaps with friendships or at home.
Reacting appropriately to these influences is part of supporting any child through their education.
Getting and maintaining student’s attention is essential for memory and a lot of learning is about remembering stuff or how to do something. Strategies for maintaining attention include, but are not limited to, being realistic about how much time you ask a person to do one thing for (we all lose concentration after a while!) and communicating regularly.
A great way to do this is to ask pop questions as you go through an explanation or demonstration. Aware that a question could come their way any moment the student is more likely to maintain concentration.
You can reward correct answers as well if you want to with points or future privileges for example.
Repeat Back to Me
After you have given a set of instructions to a student, ask them to repeat the instructions back to you. It shows they have understood the instructions and it helps then to reinforce the fact that the instructions are there to be used not listened to, remembered but ignored.
Repeat the repeating a few times as appropriate. This assists with forming memory.
Effective classroom management includes accommodating the needs and learning styles of all students within the environment. In general, these accommodations are designed to capitalise on a student’s unique abilities as well as create an equitable learning environment that accounts for any challenges a student may face in the classroom. Neurodiverse students are often easily distracted by internal stimuli (e.g. thoughts, memories, feelings) and external stimuli (e.g. sound, smell, sight, touch).
Read our article on ‘Minimising Classroom Distractions for Students with ADHD’ for more ideas.
Have Fun With Friends
We are all social creatures and one of the best things about being at school is the opportunity for students to interact socially with one another. Allow this in both structured and unstructured ways inside the classroom.
Outside the classroom children will interact how they want to and may fall into habitual social groups but in the classroom you have an opportunity to create activities, maybe even games, that encourage all students to mix with others. Make it fun and make the underlying purpose to have a social interaction with a peer or peers.
Who doesn’t love positive reinforcement? When things go well, let your neurodiverse student know. Celebrate their strengths.
These are all very positive and empowering tools you can use every day in the classroom to support and nurture your neurodiverse student population.
However, behaviours of concern may still be present from time to time and these still need to be managed (for the benefit of the learning environment and all those in it). Read our article on ‘12 Ways to Help Students Overcome Challenging Behaviour’ for more help on this topic.
We hope that you find these tools and strategies useful in your classroom now and in the future but it’s really important to remember that every child is unique and in particular every neurodivergent child is unique.
Take the time to get to know your students. What are their strengths and weaknesses? What are their interests and preferences?
Choosing the right blend of strategies to meet an individual’s needs might take time but when it’s right your students will thrive and achieve their very best in your supportive learning environment.