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Student Wellness

6 Strategies to Help Neurodiverse Students Fully Engage in Class

Every classroom has neurodiverse students, and these tips from a neurodiverse teacher can guide them to feel focused and ready to learn.

September 27, 2022
Illustration of person reading next to water and reflected in the water
Illustration by Sandra Dionisi

Neurodiversity can be seen in every classroom, but not every teacher incorporates the needs of neurodiverse students into their pedagogy. Our neurodiverse students are often great at hiding how overwhelmed they are in the classroom. Often, students will present their anxiety through fidgeting, talking to themselves, or engaging in off-task behavior that soothes them, or in a variety of other ways that are specific to them.

As a neurodivergent teacher who has worked with neurodivergent students for many years, I’ve found that the following strategies help make sure these students feel less anxious and help them stay engaged in class. All of these strategies can be used and modified for K–12 students.

6 Tips to Help Neurodivergent Students Stay Engaged in Class

1. The first five minutes: I have used this strategy for a number of years, and it is always a great way to connect with students and learn about them as people. The first 5 minutes are spent walking around the classroom talking to students and asking them about anything not related to school: their day, local events, games they are playing, etc. Taking the first 5 minutes might seem tough at the start of the year, but neurodivergent students need to feel at ease in class, and being “seen” is the best way to start.

2. Relaxation: Another great way to help our neurodivergent students is to start class with some calming meditation. I move between relaxation exercises and the first-5-minutes approach throughout the week. Taking time to calm minds can really help our most anxious students. The hustle from one class to the next and possible school drama that can occur in the halls during passing time can cause any student, but especially neurodivergent ones, to have a hard time getting into the right frame of mind for class.

There are plenty of great apps and YouTube videos that can walk the class through a 5-minute breathing exercise. Spending the first 5 minutes focused only on relaxing is wonderful and works particularly well after lunch or physical education class.

3. Keep it moving: Give students the opportunity to move their bodies in class whenever possible. If you teach on a block schedule where students are in your class for over an hour, all students, and particularly neurodivergent ones, will need to move. You might see students get up and wander the room or constantly adjust their seat or dig in their bag. Tapping on the desk or rocking or leaning back in a chair is common as well.

At the beginning of the year, I have a conversation with all of my neurodivergent students, making sure they know they have a pass to get up and move as needed. If they have “the wiggles,” as I like to call it, they just need to make eye contact with me and look toward the door. I will nod and they will take a walk to the water fountain and come back. If a student can’t settle their body, they will not be able to focus in class. There are other methods to keep their body busy as well. Wobble chairs or exercise balls are great for students. Fidget toys can help as well.

4. Recognize DOOM boxes: DOOM boxes is a new term that has started to make the rounds on the internet. It is a name for something that people have been doing for decades. DOOM stands for Didn’t Organize, Only Moved. Neurodiverse people, especially those with ADHD, struggle with executive function, and that makes organization very difficult. The best example would be a student cleaning their desk by jamming everything in their backpack, or cleaning out their backpack by stuffing everything in their desk.

These messy places aren’t about students being messy but rather are about their inability to process the function of organization. Make class organizing time something for everyone. Clean out desks, lockers, and bags together so that students do not feel singled out or overwhelmed by the task at hand. Neurodiverse students want to be organized—they just don’t know how.

5. Words matter: As I’ve tried to support neurodiverse students, I’ve taken a close look at the language I use every day in class. A common phrase, “This should only take ___ minutes to complete,” can cause serious anxiety for a student if it takes them longer than the set time. Instead of giving a time frame, let the students work, and go around and check on those students who might struggle. Describing tasks as easy is another thing to avoid. If a student struggles, they will feel bad about themselves because it was supposed to be easy.

It is a common thing for teachers to want to relieve students’ stress by telling them that a task is easy or it will not take too long to complete so that they don’t feel overwhelmed. While that might work for some, it overwhelms others. Instead of “easy,” try saying, “This is something we have seen before.” During the school year, teachers will identify those students who need extra support, and it is important to communicate with them on the procedures that you have in place for them. Changing language takes time, but it can make a huge difference with students.

6. Rule of three: Everything I want students to do in class follows the “rule of three.” I make sure to tell the students what I want to happen, I write down on the board what I want to happen, and then I make sure to go to my students and talk with them about what needs to happen. This way, there have been three touch points on the class activity. The one-on-one touch point is always the most effective for my neurodiverse students, but the first two are great for the students who do not need to have the one-on-one talk. Over time, all of the students learn the routine of where the information can be found to do the work in class.

These are just a few of the ways that I have found to help the neurodiverse students in my classroom. I am always looking for ways to make sure these students do not get lost in the shuffle of the start of the new year. Establishing these patterns early can really help them be successful in class. As a neurodivergent teacher, these approaches also help me with my focus. I would love to hear any other approaches you use in your classroom to support your students—feel free to send me a tweet @TheNerdyTeacher.

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