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Embracing Neurodiversity: Transforming Challenges into Strengths in Modern Education

Embracing Neurodiversity: Transforming Challenges into Strengths in Modern Education

Holly Keogh-Jones is Head of English, Head of Boarding and Designated Safeguarding Lead at Prestfelde Preparatory School in Shropshire. In this blog, Holly talks about her experience of neurodivergence in the classroom setting and how it is no longer seen as an indicator of poor academic outcomes or success. In her experience, it is quite the opposite.  

Beyond Boundaries: Nurturing Neurodivergent Brilliance in the Classroom 

Over the last sixteen years, my experience as a teacher and pastoral lead in the educational setting has allowed me to witness the incredible diversity that exists within the classroom. Neurodivergence, a term encompassing cognitive differences such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and more, presents itself in various ways in the learning environment. Each pupil brings a unique perspective and set of abilities, making our classroom experiences richer and more dynamic than ever before. But that hasn’t always been the perspective of educationalists. In fact, many of the challenges neurodivergent pupils have historically faced in the school environment- whether that be cognitive, sensory, or socially- may have been compounded, or even caused, by a lack of understanding, education and acceptance from teachers and parents.  

My own school experience in the nineties was a great example of this. Neurodiverse pupils were taught in ‘Room 10’, a dedicated teaching space where pupils would access an alternative curriculum. It was seen by other pupils as a place that ‘naughty’, ‘disruptive’ or ‘special needs’ children would go to learn. Such pupils would not take part in the mainstream curriculum- that wasn’t for them. They would start and finish their secondary education in that room. The staff that worked in Room 10 were highly skilled and experts in supporting their pupils, but the whole educational system was set up to exclude neurodiverse pupils from the ‘normal’ curriculum. Thank goodness we have come a long way since then. If only we knew then what we know now. Fast forward thirty years and inclusion is at the forefront of every teacher’s mind and on every school’s mission statement.   

In the diverse tapestry of neurodivergence, we find pupils who think differently, process information uniquely, and excel in areas that may not conform to traditional academic norms. Autism may bring heightened attention to detail, ADHD may infuse boundless energy and creativity, and dyslexia may encourage alternative problem-solving approaches. Understanding and appreciating these differences is the first step toward creating an inclusive and supportive learning environment, and it is the responsibility of school leaders to ensure their staff receive continuous professional development and training in understanding neurodiversity and neurodivergence.  

I am lucky that in my current school, inclusivity and diversity are everything. Our teachers and support staff actively encourage all pupils, whether neurotypical or neurodiverse, to focus on their strengths and not their weaknesses. Their success in school is not simply measured on data, but instead their personal growth, happiness, wellbeing and individual talents. Our classrooms foster an environment where neurodivergent pupils not only thrive academically but also feel seen and understood. They are spaces where differences are not simply accommodated but cherished. 

Neurodivergent pupils contribute a wealth of positive attributes to our classrooms. Their unique perspectives challenge us to broaden our teaching methods, fostering creativity and innovation. Many neurodivergent pupils possess exceptional talents, such as heightened creativity, advanced pattern recognition, and deep focus on areas of personal interest. By embracing these strengths, we not only celebrate the individuality of each pupil but also create a more dynamic and enriching educational experience for the entire class.  

My English curriculum celebrates diversity, and it is important to me and my department that the texts we read represent an array of perspectives and experiences. A few years ago, whilst reading Mark Haddon’s incredible novel ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime’, a story told from the perspective of an autistic 15-year-old called Christopher Boone, a twelve-year old boy in my class with Asperger’s Syndrome (who openly professed to hating reading novels) said: “Miss- I’ve never read a book that I can relate to so much. Reading this book feels like reading myself!” He recognised himself in Christopher; his gift for mathematics, his struggles for social acceptance and understanding, and the way he viewed the world largely in absolutes. Hearing Christopher’s voice was so important to him, as I knew it would be.  

Teaching poetry to pupils with neurodivergences can often be seen as a challenge. However, this has not been my experience. I remember many years ago teaching poetry to a pupil with autism.  Poetry, with its metaphorical nuances, posed a peculiar challenge for him. Yet, every interpretation he offered was a testament to the extraordinary way he perceived the world. His take on metaphorical meaning was not a limitation but a doorway into a realm of unique and perceptive insights. His grasp of the concrete and literal was a reminder that diversity in interpretation enhances our collective understanding and benefits every pupil in the classroom. 

I have also seen firsthand a remarkable trend among pupils with autism when studying literature. In my experience, they possess an innate empathy for characters which challenges the common misconception that autism correlates to a difficulty in understanding another person’s thoughts or feelings. Their ability to see the world through a different lens adds depth and authenticity to class discussions. It's a reminder that neurodivergent pupils bring a dynamic, fresh perspective to the emotional landscapes of the stories we explore together. 

In the realm of English language, creative writing stands out as an area where neurodivergent pupils not only demonstrate excellence but also derive genuine pleasure from the writing process, revealing an inherent inclination for imaginative expression and authentic joy in crafting their narratives. Their ability to think outside the conventional boundaries results in content that is not just unique but often revolutionary- a celebration of creativity unbridled by societal norms. What a pupil with dyslexia may lack in technical accuracy, they often make up ten-fold in fresh and innovative storylines, interesting and thoughtful discursive essays, and unique and meaningful poetry. Though the national curriculum can often be prescriptive in terms of writing forms and styles, which doesn’t always appeal to neurodiverse pupils, finding ways to enable them to write about topics they are passionate can unlock incredible perspectives. 

In other areas of the curriculum, my colleagues have seen pupils with autism, ADHD and dyslexia excel in unique and brilliant ways. Autism, often characterised by intense focus and pattern recognition, becomes a superpower when solving complex problems in maths and science, or delving into creative solutions in computer studies or design technology. The meticulous attention to detail exhibited by many autistic pupils transforms into an invaluable asset in tasks requiring precision, or when learning languages. ADHD, with its propensity for divergent thinking and boundless energy, becomes a catalyst for out-of-the-box creativity. These pupils excel in brainstorming sessions, injecting a burst of innovation into the classroom dynamic. Their ability to hyperfocus can be a huge advantage in the science lab, where pupils are able to get to the absolute detail and spot issues that other pupils may not. Dyslexia, a challenge in traditional reading and writing, metamorphoses into a superpower of spatial reasoning and holistic thinking. These pupils often excel in visual arts, design, and strategic problem-solving, showcasing their ability to see the bigger picture. Finally, dyspraxia, often associated with motor coordination difficulties, unveils a superpower in the form of heightened sensory awareness. These pupils are adept at absorbing information from their surroundings, making them keen observers who contribute unique perspectives to discussions and projects. 

Teachers play a pivotal role in unlocking the full potential of their neurodivergent pupils. Providing a range of learning materials and varied instructional approaches accommodates diverse learning styles and utilises the unique strengths of the children in their classroom. Offering clear instructions, providing visual aids, and incorporating hands-on activities can enhance understanding and engagement. Moreover, establishing a supportive and inclusive classroom culture where pupils feel accepted and valued is essential in getting the very best out of every learner.  

It is also crucial that parents shift their perspective. In the past, neurodivergence was often viewed solely through a deficit lens, focusing on challenges rather than strengths. However, the paradigm is changing. Neurodivergent individuals are not just overcoming obstacles; they are excelling in ways that enrich our society. Parents should see neurodivergence as a unique and valuable aspect of their child's identity, recognising that success comes in various forms and forgetting the limitations that their own educational experience, the days of ‘Room 10’, has taught them.  

Together, as educators, parents, and advocates, we can create an environment where every child thrives, regardless of neurodivergent traits, and where their brilliance shines as brightly as it deserves. 

A quick look list of tips for parents/teachers if this is useful?

Tips for Teachers and Parents  

Recognising Individual Strengths: 

Every neurodivergent child has the potential for unique talents and strengths. Rather than viewing their learning differences as obstacles, let's celebrate the diverse talents they possess. From heightened creativity to exceptional problem-solving skills, each neurodivergent learner contributes something extraordinary. 

Fostering Inclusive Learning Environments: 

In both school and home settings, creating an inclusive atmosphere is paramount. Encourage neurodivergent children to express themselves authentically and celebrate their interests. An environment that embraces diversity allows these learners to thrive, fostering a sense of belonging that is crucial for their academic and emotional wellbeing. 

Individualized Learning Plans: 

Recognising that one size does not fit all is crucial in catering to neurodivergent learners. Work collaboratively with parents, educators, and specialists to develop individualised learning plans that leverage the child's strengths. This personalised approach ensures that each neurodivergent pupil receives the support they need to excel. Level the playing-field through using assistive technology, computer aided instruction, visual aids and clear, visual instruction.  

Highlighting Success Stories: 

Share success stories of neurodivergent individuals who have made significant contributions to various fields. These narratives not only inspire neurodivergent children but also challenge societal misconceptions. Knowing that their differences can be strengths rather than limitations empowers neurodivergent learners to embrace their unique talents. 

Encouraging Neurodivergent Creativity: 

Neurodivergent children often possess a remarkable flair for creativity. Encourage and celebrate their imaginative expressions, whether through art, storytelling, or unconventional problem-solving. By valuing their creative endeavours, we validate their unique perspectives and instil confidence in their abilities. 

Cultivating a Growth Mindset: 

Shift the focus from fixed abilities to growth potential. Teach neurodivergent children that challenges are opportunities for growth, and perseverance is a commendable trait. Instilling a growth mindset fosters resilience and a positive approach to learning, shaping neurodivergent learners into confident individuals. 

Parent-Teacher Collaboration: 

Open communication between parents and teachers is essential. Regular discussions allow for a holistic understanding of the child's needs and strengths. By working together, parents and educators can create a supportive network that nurtures the child's growth and celebrates their achievements. 

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