Brain-Based Learning

Creating an Inclusive Classroom for Neurodivergent Learners

Neurodivergence is underrecognized in childhood. Teachers can use these strategies for a universal approach that supports all learners.

March 23, 2023
miljko / iStock

Neurodivergent individuals—those who are autistic, have ADHD, or experience other variances in brain functioning—make up 15 to 20 percent of the population. Yet many neurodivergent people aren’t formally diagnosed; for example, one study found sex discrepancies in which boys were diagnosed with ADHD at a 3:1 ratio during childhood, even though that diagnostic ratio evens out to 1:1 in adulthood.  

Neurodivergence can lend many strengths, so students may present as high achievers in the classroom and thereby remain undiagnosed due to high performance. But when students lack formal diagnoses, they may struggle later in life, experiencing poor self-esteem, depression, anxiety, sleep issues, eating disorders, trouble maintaining a job, or other challenges that earlier interventions could mitigate. 

While it is important for teachers to collaborate with special education professionals and others trained in scaffolding the well-being and learning of all students, we may not always know who in our classroom lacks a formal diagnosis.

For that reason, and to better reach all learners, we can employ a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework that centers choice, balance, and self-esteem to establish baseline practices inclusive of neurodivergence.

Offer Alternatives and Choices

To create learning environments supportive of a breadth of neurotypes, give students alternatives and choices throughout classroom activities. Consider how you might be flexible about how students complete assignments. For example, I encourage my students to have a conversation with me if they can think of a way to complete an assignment that would work better for them; as long as the rigor and content are intact, I am happy to accommodate alternative ideas. 

As a student who was a then-undiagnosed neurodivergent, I remember a time in high school when we had an assignment to create a foldable to help us study for a math test. I made mine with flaps that would open to reveal definitions, but my teacher expected definitions to be written on the same page as the flap. I lost points. When I explained that my approach would benefit my learning, my teacher told me that I was welcome to remake the foldable her way, a “better” way, to get a 100—I was only one of two students across her three classes who had made it a different way, she said. 

Stubbornly, I told her no. This experience has stayed with me throughout my teaching career. 

My students may interpret things differently than I do, and as long as students demonstrate understanding of curricular concepts, I want to respect those differences. 

In my classroom, there is a map that my graphic design students are making for a major project. I told them to make a map of a real place, like a continent or state. A handful of students approached me to ask if they could map locations from video games or shows they enjoy. Though fictional, these places still have landmarks and creatures that students can create as icons, so I am happy to oblige. This is one example of how choice and adaptation can facilitate deeper, more inclusive learning.

Some neurodivergent students might struggle with taking the initiative to reach out and ask for accommodations, so I try to automatically offer choice in my assignments whenever possible. Students benefit from having options; however, it is also important to limit options to avoid overwhelm. I usually offer students two to four options for showing me what they know. 

In the map project, I give them an option between an artistically styled map and a fantasy-styled map. 

In my computer programming classes, students can choose from a set of exercises to earn a certain amount of points. For example, if they need three points, they may have a set of three single-point options, two two-point options, and two three-point options to choose from, with levels of complexity appropriate for the number of points the exercise is worth. 

By embedding choice within assignment structures and considering alternative approaches that students suggest, we can create classrooms in which students can both think differently and thrive. 

Help Students Avoid Burnout

Neurodivergent individuals are prone to burnout. There are many thoughts as to why, but the basic idea is that it takes extra energy to adapt to a world centered around neurotypical individuals, so sensory stress, attempts at “masking” (or working to present as neurotypical), and overcompensating for differences can cause exhaustion. 

There are protective factors that can help neurodivergent students avoid or minimize burnout—for example, encouraging students to be themselves and explore what works for them. I model this by discussing what works best for me and talking through alternative ways to approach situations. As a class, we talk about the different ways we listen best, considering what each part of our body does while listening. 

I talk about how, when I am listening and absorbing what I hear, my hands are typically busy, and my eyes are looking somewhere else. I talk with students about how some people benefit from staying still. I encourage them to self-reflect, and we have similar conversations about studying, taking notes, and completing assignments, acknowledging that everyone learns differently and there is no “right” way to approach learning.

Promote Balance

Balance is another important topic to discuss with students, especially in relation to burnout. Some neurodivergent students might overcompensate by being overinvolved, taking on large amounts of extracurricular activities or demonstrating perfectionism in their work. Others may find it difficult to focus or participate and may end up doing very little in class. 

If we encourage students to consider work-life balance from a young age, we can help them prioritize their mental health. We can ask students to consider what they do to relax or enjoy themselves outside of school. Our students may be running low on energy halfway through the day due to bright lights, excessive sounds, or other factors, and we can encourage them to replenish by turning to self-identified strategies.

Language also plays a role in promoting or preventing burnout. Neurodivergent students can struggle with executive function—cognitive skills involved in starting and sustaining tasks.  

For example, I often tell myself to “just start” a task as I sit in a state of paralysis due to executive dysfunction. 

Discussing potential can be particularly problematic in such instances, breaking down self-esteem and compounding stress. Students know when they aren’t meeting expectations. Instead, encourage them to take a break, walk around the room, or get a drink of water. If the student is out of energy for the day, approach them with empathy and help make a plan for catching up the following day.

Support Students’ Sense of Self

Self-reflection is a critical learning tool for all students. In my courses, I make a list of key skills related to metacognition, goal setting, and planning, and I invite students to visit this list multiple times a quarter to identify skills they feel confident about and others they would like to work on. 

Imposter syndrome, or the feeling that one’s successes are disproportionate to their abilities, is more prevalent in neurodivergent people. Neurodivergent students may receive negative and bigoted comments throughout their lives, messages that can impact their self-image. 

I keep this in mind when interacting with my students and remember to compliment and encourage strengths even when offering constructive feedback. Neurodivergent students may hyperfocus on their interests, and these special interests may improve their self-esteem and self-efficacy. Encouraging students to talk about their interests can help them build confidence rather than feel stigmatized for having these more intense interests, and it can position students to learn from one another’s expertise.

Not a Strategy, A Mindset

Overall, meeting the needs of neurodivergent students can require a shift in thinking. Whether or not we see it, our students may be struggling. Offering alternatives and choices for assignments, helping students avoid burnout, and working on students’ sense of self are some ways we can meet the needs of all students, including those who may be neurodivergent but lack a formal diagnosis.

These skills and experiences can help our students learn in ways that work for them while helping them better understand themselves, skills that transfer far beyond the classroom and support students’ well-being into adulthood.

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Filed Under

  • Brain-Based Learning
  • Special Education
  • Student Wellness
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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