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School Resources

Removing barriers to success for neurodivergent students

In a webinar with The Education Hub, Dr Chiara Horlin from The University of Glasgow explored some of the challenges that neurodivergent students face in schools and as they move on to tertiary education. She offered practical ways that teachers and schools can help to ameliorate these challenges and support neurodivergent students to celebrate and use their strengths in the classroom.

The key insights from the webinar include:

The term ‘neurodiversity’ describes all neurotypes, and encompasses neurotypicality as well as neurodivergence (which is sometimes called neuroatypicality). A group is neurodiverse while an individual is neurodivergent. The term arose from the work of sociologist Judy Singer in the 1990s, and is underpinned by the social model of disability. It stands in contrast to the medical model of disability which characterises difference as disorder and deficit, and uses pathologising language and framing. Using the term ‘neurodiversity’ does not deny the challenges that many individuals experiences in certain contexts and situations, but rather considers that the source of those challenges may lie with the environment or the task, and not with the individual.

All neurodivergent students will require an individualised response, and, while there is often a tendency to categorise common challenges by type, such as communication or executive function challenges, this is not always helpful and may be pathologising. It is also important to note that many of the challenges experienced by neurodivergent students are shared by neurotypical students, although with less severe consequences. To better support neurodivergent students, it is better to consider common challenges and barriers to success in relation to contexts, environments, and transitions. This might involve making adjustments to the environment, or providing explicit support during transitions. Greater flexibility in aspects of school such as engaging with content (could a student listen to a podcast rather than do a reading?) or participation (such as the option to work with a well-matched peer rather than in a group) are likely to serve all students, not just neurodivergent students.

A primary barrier for neurodivergent students is ambiguous and confusing information, which may include assumptions, undeclared expectations, and hidden or implicit information. Another key barrier is stereotypes, which often arise from historical, outdated studies that were biased, reductive, and based on small sample sizes. For example, many studies of ADHD focused on boys with particular behaviour traits, which led to the perpetuation of a narrow and stereotypical view of ADHD. A stereotypical view of autistic people is that they experience significant communication challenges, although recent research indicates that the challenges may actually derive from the difference between neurotypes, and that autistic people are highly effective at communicating with each other.

At least 40% of neurodivergent individuals also experience one or more co-occurring conditions, which might include other forms of neurodivergence, medical conditions such as chronic pain, or mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. It is also important to be aware of the extent to which many neurodivergent individuals attempt to mask or camouflage their traits in order to better adapt to their environments, which can be extremely fatiguing.

Schools can offer greater support to neurodivergent students by:

  • Seeking feedback from neurodivergent students and staff in the development of policy and curriculum
  • Providing high levels of clarity and flexibility
  • Reevaluating what success might look like and entail
  • Balancing external demands (such as those of the qualifications framework) with the needs of individual students
  • Considering how content and information may be presented in different ways

Teachers can offer greater support to neurodivergent students by:

  • Listening to the student and asking what they need
  • Providing clear, unambiguous instructions, visually mapped where possible
  • Minimising change and interruptions, and providing a reasonable lead time for unavoidable disruptions
  • Deliberately and explicitly supporting transitions, whether small or large
  • Providing examples and pro formas of tasks to ensure clarity about what is required
  • Being flexible in the delivery of material and content, offering a choice of modes where possible
  • Offering scaffolding and support during peer and group work, such as allowing neurodivergent students to choose a peer to work with
  • Enabling planning, organisation, and goal-setting by using tools like soft deadlines and visual planners
  • Harnessing the power of students’ special interests
  • Reflecting on and building your own knowledge about the more subtle profiles of neurodivergence
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