Strategies for Neurodiverse Students’ Engagement

Kate Malone
Kate Malone
Middle school principal; Ed.S. in School Leadership
Pupils listen to their teacher talking by the chalkboard at the front of the classroom.

Modern education vernacular is awash with buzzwords, acronyms, and inclusive terms that change with the tide. As such, replacing a word in our vocabulary can be easy without actually adjusting our mindsets and actions to reflect the updated philosophy behind the term. The term “neurodiverse” has been adopted to acknowledge that students with learning differences are not “less than” or lacking in some way; that differences in neurological development or condition are the result of normal variations in the human genome and experience.

By embracing the concept of neurodiversity, educators can acknowledge that every individual is unique by celebrating and supporting the strengths and needs of all students. We can also lean into the most rewarding and exciting part of our profession: helping each student find their way to growth. When discussing teaching strategies to help neurodiverse students engage, it’s important to remember what we are really talking about are strategies to help all students engage.

You may be reading this hoping to find something to help one particular student, but in my experience when one better supports one student, one better supports all students. As such, for the rest of this article when we make reference to “teaching neurodiverse students,” please know we mean neurodiverse students because all students are neurodiverse.

Creating a Personal Connection

Cultivating a personal connection with students ensures that they feel “seen” in a classroom. Building a rapport with students also allows for the development of a learning partnership in which students feel safe and empowered to ask questions, seek out assistance, and express how they are feeling or what they are thinking. Teachers can create personal connections with students in a variety of ways. Still, the key component is to make sure that the connection is established with each individual in the classroom.

Perhaps the simplest way to establish a connection is to stand at the door and greet each student by name and say something encouraging or positive to them as they enter the classroom. This may or may not be accompanied by a handshake, a high-five, or a hug, and the diverse experiences and comfort levels of students should determine whether physical touch is something that helps them feel connected or something that disrupts their emotional state.

As with all the ideas discussed here, this is about what the student needs, not what the teacher wants. Once inside the classroom, some teachers spend the first five minutes or so of class walking around as students work on a warm-up activity just checking in with each student. They just talk to their students and get to know them as people. Students are far more likely to engage in a classroom in which they feel they are valued as a person.

Providing Sensory Opportunities

Providing opportunities for sensory input or deprivation can also help keep students engaged. Students who seek sensory input can often be seen fidgeting, tapping their pencils, or engaging in negative behaviors that soothe them. While others who require sensory deprivation might be seen putting their fingers in their ears or yelling to cancel out the input that is overwhelming them. In some classrooms, teachers establish a sensory corner lined with a crashmat or pillows and blankets, a body sock or weighted blanket, and even noise-reducing earmuffs.

Here, students can take a break and calm themselves as they block out the sensory input that is overwhelming them or causing them anxiety. For those who seek stimulation, sensory bins are an easy way to provide a variety of sensory experiences for students. Simple sensory bins include putting plastic eggs with small items inside and burying them in plastic grass, mixing rice or bird seed with small items for students to either scoop out with a tool or find with their hands. By allowing students to meet their sensory needs, teachers can increase the likelihood of students staying engaged in class.

Focusing on Executive Functioning

Executive functioning skills such as organization and time management can be difficult for students. Providing explicit, non-judgmental instruction in these areas along with time for children to organize and clean as a class is a necessary part of teaching children how to organize their thinking and learning. Clean out desks, bookbags, cubbies, and lockers periodically as a class and help students who struggle with organization to establish good habits and systems for keeping themselves organized.

When establishing expectations for the class, teachers can help reduce anxiety and keep students engaged by avoiding setting hard and fast time expectations for activities. Instead, allow the class to get started and check in frequently with students who struggle to see how much time they need to complete a task. Consider modifying the directions so that if a student is taking longer than needed on a section, but has already demonstrated mastery of the concept, they can move on to the next section without penalty.

Also, think about the way learning activities are introduced, instead of saying, “This should only take 5 minutes,” or “This is easy” consider saying, “We’ve seen this before” or “If you get stuck on one part, it’s OK to go to the next part and then if there’s time, we can come back to the other one.”

Presenting Instructions as Content

When giving instructions to students, presenting the information in various formats (just as we would with content instruction) can be extremely effective in ensuring students remain engaged in the learning task. Tell students the instructions, write them on the board, and follow up with individuals to ensure comprehension of the instructions. Never assume; verify comprehension!

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