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Fostering Inclusive Learning to Empower Neurodivergent Students

Neurodiversity recognizes the natural variations in the human brain and cognitive functioning. The neurodiversity movement strives to create learning environments where neurodivergent students feel empowered to thrive academically while being their authentic selves. Implementing inclusive learning practices is essential to achieve this goal. It goes beyond supporting neurodivergent students and aims to provide quality education to all students regardless of their learning styles, abilities, or backgrounds.


What is Inclusive Learning?

Inclusive learning is an educational approach grounded in equity, diversity, and belonging. It recognizes the dignity and humanity of each student and aims to provide quality education and opportunity for all, regardless of background or ability.


Inclusive classrooms embrace each learner's unique strengths, needs, and experiences. Lessons are adapted to play to diverse capabilities through personalized pathways and alternate modes of instruction and assessment. Students are guided to become self-aware, resilient advocates.


Inclusive learning fosters positive relationships and a welcoming climate where all students feel safe, affirmed, challenged, and motivated. Diverse voices are amplified to validate the perspectives of all.

The ultimate goal is to eliminate disparities, dismantle barriers, and tap the strengths of diversity so that every student feels recognized, valued, and empowered to reach their full academic, social, and emotional potential. In short, inclusive learning meets, affirms, and empowers the whole child.


Why Inclusive Learning Matters for Neurodivergent Students

Many neurodivergent students face barriers in mainstream academic environments that are not designed with their needs in mind. Simple changes to instruction, materials, and assessments can make a world of difference.


Inclusive learning empowers neurodivergent students by proactively incorporating supports and scaffolds that allow them to showcase their abilities.

Research shows that inclusive learning enhances outcomes for all students, not just those with disabilities. Let's explore some key ways it can empower neurodivergent students.


Differentiated Instruction

Adapting teaching strategies through differentiated instruction allows neurodivergent students to process information and demonstrate knowledge in ways aligned with their learning strengths.


Differentiated instruction involves adapting teaching strategies and classroom activities to account for different learning styles, abilities, and interests (Tomlinson, 2014). This approach is essential for neurodivergent students who may have atypical ways of processing information or demonstrating their knowledge.


An example of differentiated instruction may allow students with dyslexia more time to complete reading assignments or assessments. Students with ADHD may benefit from movement breaks or fidget toys to focus better during lessons. Providing graphic organizers as writing aids can support autistic students and others with executive functioning challenges.


Allowing neurodivergent students to present their understanding through drawings, videos, or oral presentations instead of formal essays also facilitates differentiated assessment. According to researcher Carol Ann Tomlinson, differentiated instruction is key for neurodivergent students to "gain access to important academic content" and have opportunities to be "challenged at their own individual point of readiness" (Tomlinson, 2014).


Implementing differentiated instruction requires educators to be responsive to neurodivergent learning needs. But this approach allows students to truly excel by aligning instruction with their unique strengths.


Assistive Technologies

Assistive tech like text-to-speech can support neurodivergent students who have reading or writing challenges to engage with lesson content. Assistive technologies provide essential accommodations for neurodivergent students to access academic content and demonstrate their learning.


For example, text-to-speech and read-aloud tools can support students with dyslexia, ADHD or other reading disabilities to comprehend texts and engage with written material (Schmitt et al., 2012). Audiobooks are another way students with reading challenges can independently access lesson content.


Speech-to-text technologies allow students who struggle with writing and typing to complete essays or short answers by dictating their responses. This assists students with fine motor challenges, like those caused by dysgraphia or cerebral palsy (Bouck, Flanagan, Miller, & Bassette, 2012).


Videos and visual aids also provide alternative ways for students with auditory processing disorders to access information. Closed captioning is an important assistive technology for D/deaf and hard-of-hearing students that aids comprehension and engagement. According to the International Dyslexia Association (2020), assistive tech provides “equitable access” and allows neurodivergent students to “demonstrate their knowledge and potential.”


Flexible Grouping

Collaborative learning activities that involve grouped projects, discussions, or problem-solving provide valuable opportunities to practice social communication skills. However, grouping strategies should be flexible to empower neurodivergent students.


Static "ability" grouping can further marginalize neurodivergent students. Instead, flexible grouping allows students to learn from peers with diverse perspectives and find positive role models (Mitchell, 2018). For example, grouping neurodivergent students with compassionate neurotypical peers fosters an affirming environment to develop cooperative skills.


Teachers should provide clear expectations and norms for positive interactions to ensure neurodivergent students feel psychologically safe. Social scripts or roleplay can help students practice appropriate communication before group work (Roberts & Simpson, 2016).


With the right support, collaborative learning enables neurodivergent students to recognize their strengths, experience peer connections, and develop critical life skills. As Dr. Mitchell argues, promoting "social and academic integration" of neurodivergent students through group work is key for inclusion (Mitchell, 2018).


Trauma-Informed Teaching

Many neurodivergent individuals experience bullying, discrimination, or exclusion that can be psychologically traumatic. Using trauma-informed approaches can support students feeling distressed or anxious in school.


Trauma-informed teaching involves creating a safe environment, building healthy relationships, and providing students with emotional regulation skills. Teachers receive training on how trauma impacts learning, warning signs of distress, and de-escalation techniques.


Access to school counselors or psychologists provides vital support. Counseling helps students process experiences of trauma, learn coping strategies, and develop resilience and self-advocacy skills (Gherardi et al., 2020).


With appropriate accommodations and emotional support, neurodivergent students are empowered to manage anxiety, avoid re-traumatization, and engage fully in education. As the CDC states, addressing trauma through inclusive learning is crucial so students can "succeed in school and life" (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022).


Growth Mindset Culture

Neurodiversity promotes a growth mindset that recognizes the capabilities and potential of each student. Praising efforts and progress, not just outcomes, can encourage neurodivergent students to persist.


Inclusive learning practices provide structures for neurodivergent students to feel safe, affirmed, challenged, and motivated in the classroom. By proactively planning lessons, activities, and assessments to support diverse learning needs, we can cultivate learning environments where all students are empowered to reach their full potential.


Shifting towards inclusive learning undoubtedly requires commitment, creativity, and resources from educational institutions. But the rewards for empowering each student and contributing to a diverse, equitable society make it a worthy investment. As a naturopathic doctor and neurodivergent parent, I am heartened by the growing adoption of inclusive learning principles. It is my hope all students will have the opportunity to learn in environments tailored to empower their unique strengths and talents.



References

Bouck, E. C., Flanagan, S., Miller, B., & Bassette, L. (2012). Rethinking everyday technology as assistive technology to meet students’ IEP goals. Journal of Special Education Technology, 27(4), 47-57.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Creating Safe and Respectful Environments in Schools.


Gherardi, S. A., Flinn, R. E., & Jaure, V. B. (2020). Trauma-sensitive schools and social justice: A critical analysis. The Urban Review, 52(3), 482-504.


International Dyslexia Association. (2020). Effective Reading Interventions for Students with Dyslexia. International Dyslexia Association.


Mitchell, D. (2018). Inclusive education is a multi-faceted concept. CEPS Journal, 8(1), 9-30.


Roberts, C. A., & Simpson, K. (2016). A role for interventions in enhancing social interactions and peer relationships of children with autism in inclusive settings. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 63(2), 212-236.


Schmitt, A. J., Hale, A. D., McCallum, E., & Mauck, B. (2011). Accommodating remedial readers in the general education setting: Is listening-while-reading sufficient to improve factual and inferential comprehension?. Psychology in the Schools, 48(1), 37–45.


Stevenson, K., Walker, H., & Zentall, S. S. (2022). Access, Equity, and Accommodations for Neurodivergent Learners. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 1-29.


Tomlinson, C. A. (2014). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. ASCD.

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