Valuing differences: Neurodiversity in the classroom

Neurodiversity is a term used to describe neurological differences in the human brain. Many campaigners, including teachers, believe adopting a neurodiversity model in mainstream schools benefits everyone. Hannah Fowler talks to campaigners and school leaders to find out if, and how, mainstream schools are creating truly inclusive classrooms for neurodivergent students.

By Hannah Fowler

In Victoria Honeybourne’s book ‘The Neurodiverse classroom’, she starts by writing about flowers. “Daffodils, roses, lilies, daisies, orchids – all different and all beautiful,” she says.

“We do not consider any one type of flower superior to any other. We do not try to make the rose more daffodil like because we consider daffodils the best sort of flower. Flowers are not expected to be the same; this natural variation is accepted and celebrated as part of biodiversity.”

Neurodiversity can be defined as “the diversity of human minds, the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species” (Dr Nick Walker). Neurodevelopmental conditions include ADHD, autism, Tourette’s syndrome, dyslexia and dyspraxia, but anyone experiencing a condition that impacts certain thinking skills can identify as neurodivergent.

There are hundreds of thousands of different flower species and we recognise they all need different environments to thrive. Yet when it comes to education, it’s long been the assumption that all young people will benefit under the same environment and teaching styles. This is particularly relevant in mainstream schools which traditionally followed a “one size fits all” model.

For Siena Castellon, author and founder of Neurodiversity Celebration Week, she knows all too well the impact of a “one size fits all” approach to education. “I’m autistic. I also have dyslexia, dyspraxia, and ADHD,” explains Siena.

“Throughout primary and secondary school, I found that most teachers and school staff had very little knowledge and training on identifying, understanding, and supporting their neurodivergent students.”

According to the Department of Education (DoE), 15.5% of pupils in England have special educational needs, with 3.3% of these pupils having an Education, Health and Care plan. Siena believes this statistic is “overly conservative” and started Neurodiversity Celebration Week to give teachers and other organisations access to free resources to help them better support and teach neurodivergent students.

“I created Neurodiversity Celebration Week to change the stigma, stereotypes, and misconceptions about students with special educational needs. I believe it’s important to create an inclusive school environment in which all students are encouraged and supported to become the best version of themselves,” explains Siena.

“Although about 20% of all students are neurodivergent, classroom teachers do not receive any training on how to identify, support, and teach these students. How can we live in a society that is willing to write off 1 in 5 children? We can’t continue to fail generations of children. It’s time to step up and give neurodivergent students the support and resources they need to achieve their potential.”

Holy Family Catholic Primary School in Liverpool has taken part in Neurodiversity Celebration Week for the past two years. “In my experience as a teacher, there has been a massive shift in the past decade with regards to teaching,” says Jacquie Clein, Get Set for Life Teacher and person-centred counsellor at the Liverpool primary.

“We have moved away from the didactic approach to teaching which didn’t cater for the individual needs of the child and now embrace the whole child, being facilitators to their learning and encouraging them to become independent learners.”

“Although we have a week dedicated to celebrating neurodiversity, this is not addressed as a tick box exercise to indicate we have covered it,” explains Jacquie.

“Acknowledging and understanding diversity in all its forms is something we are proud of at Holy Family. Neurodiversity Week gives the opportunity for our pupils to learn about neurodiversity, to remove the stigma and confusion around the name and to help them to understand that there is more to the person than just a condition.”

This is seen first-hand through pupil testimonials from the week. Kerys in year 6 said: “[It has] taught me that it’s ok to be different. It was interesting learning about how people’s brains all work differently. I didn’t realise famous people like Billie Eilish and Jim Carrey are neurodiverse and it has taught me that it’s ok to be different. We don’t want to be the same; different is good!”

So how do schools ‘step up’ and create a truly inclusive school environment? After spending 10 years in the largest special school in Liverpool, Ant McVerry was firmly in the belief that only special schools could cater for the needs of neurodiverse students.

Now the director of inclusion and SENDCo at Notre Dame Catholic College in Liverpool, Ant has seen the benefits of truly inclusive practice and support in mainstream schools. “When I arrived, it did seem like a lot of the focus was the same for all pupils and a lot of the interventions were bought in off the shelf or from a professional and it was all much alike,” he explains. “Now, we have developed a belief in Notre Dame that each pupil is individual and will require bespoke and specialised support to enable them to engage in education.”

“Schools must look beyond our perceived The secondary school has three specialist teaching groups that are taught through a primary school model of education; all students at Notre Dame remain with the same teacher for the majority of their time and then move around for specialist subjects such as Design Technology or PE. It also has an intervention space called The Base and a new sensory room which Ant says will enhance the provision for pupils.

“All of our SEND information is also on one system called Provision Maps,” explains Ant. “This allows all teachers to see which provisions a pupil currently has, this could include break cards or time in The Base cards, and means that no questions need to be asked when a pupil needs something to selfregulate and get ready for learning.”

While identifying neurodiverse students is an important step, so is ensuring they can reach their full potential alongside their peers in learning and assessments. A recent report by the Office for National Statistics (2020) found that people with disabilities are less likely to be employed than non-disabled people (52.1% vs 81.3%) and also highlighted that this inequality starts in education – people with disabilities were more likely to have no qualifications (15.1% vs 5.4%).

Arguably, the use of technology in the classroom has made bespoke learning more possible for neurodivergent students. At Notre Dame, they are using the Evidence for Learning app which allows you to quickly and easily gather photos, videos and witness statements to support learning and development.

Ant says this allows students to showcase their real knowledge and understanding and will be rolled out across the whole school next academic year. “Take for example a science lesson about cells,” he explains. “The pupil’s assessment was for them to make a cell using craft and a paper plate. This was then put together and a photograph taken, this meant that the pupils were assessed on what they knew rather that the ambiguous language that is intertwined in questions.”

Holy Family takes a similar approach. “We recognise that neurodivergent students have many strengths and talents, but their school day can be a negative experience, where they often have to work harder to overcome the many challenges and obstacles caused by their learning differences,” explains Jacquie. “Our aim is to remove these barriers to learning so that all our pupils can achieve their potential.”

Jacquie explains that ways of assessing are continuously adapted to meet the needs of students and ongoing training, such as the Cognitive Model and Metacognition are used effectively alongside formal methods of assessment.

“Differentiated activities are essential to meet the individual needs of our pupils. Through our inclusive curriculum, we are constantly reflecting on diversity and how to implement new and innovative ideas to encourage the best from our pupils. For example, Talk for Writing and Active Maths have been an incredibly successful and engaging teaching framework combining wellbeing, physical activity and learning.”

At Whitefield Primary School, rather than planning and delivering lots of out-of-class tailored support for neurodivergent students, it delivers high quality teaching to those students alongside their peers. “Our starting point is to ensure that our core teaching breaks down barriers for all our students so that they can access learning,” says Marie Beale, inclusion manager and deputy head at Whitefield Primary School.

“This means that we plan our school environment to support neurodiverse learners, with working walls and learning support consistent class to class. We use visual timetables for all, plan our seating carefully and build in active sensory breaks and extended play sessions.”

One core change the Liverpool primary school has implemented is a focus on emotional regulation to manage behaviour. This has been particularly supportive for their neurodiverse pupils, explains Marie. “We teach the children to understand and identify their emotions using the Zones of Regulation from nursery right through school, and over time to develop their ability to self-regulate when they need to,” she says.

“So a child will tell you that they feel in the red zone because something has made them angry, and staff can then discuss and support them to feel calm and ready to learn.”

Recently awarded the ADHD Friendly Schools Award, Whitefield is proud to be the first ADHD friendly school in Liverpool. “We worked closely with the ADHD Foundation who have provided really excellent training for staff and supported us to review our practice and make sure it developed all our children,” explains Marie. While proud of their success, Marie says it’s a journey which is never finished and recognizes that inclusion is about setting a culture and leading by example.

“Meeting the needs of learners is the responsibility of all staff, just like safeguarding, but must be led by school leaders setting a culture of inclusive practice in all areas of school life, supported by training and resourcing to understand what the needs are of each child in their school and how to support them.”

Ant echoes Marie’s sentiments and says Notre Dame is moving things forward quickly with the support of the leadership team. “I think that with the focus on inclusive practice, people want to know more and the generation of teachers coming through will embrace this and we will get to a point when inclusive practice is the norm and seamless,” he adds.

I ask Siena whether she has seen a shift in attitudes and stereotypes since launching Neurodiversity Celebration Week. “I’ve noticed that the narrative is gradually changing. Instead of only focusing on the challenges of being neurodivergent, the conversation is expanding to recognise that there are also lots of benefits and advantages to having a differently wired brain,” says Siena.

“This year, over 1,400 schools and 865,000 students took part in Neurodiversity Celebration Week worldwide.”

“Always being viewed as falling short and as never being good enough is devastating for your confidence and self-esteem. Schools must look beyond our perceived limitations and see our potential, because many of us have traits and skills that will be the key to having successful careers as adults,” she adds.

While Siena, and many others like her, may have had a negative experience at school, her success since is testament that differences, whether neurodivergent or otherwise, can be used as powerful assets when given the right opportunities. While acknowledging there is more to be done, the school leaders I’ve spoken to are all passionate about the job at hand and continue to ensure students are given every opportunity to become the best version of themselves.

Mary Temple Grandin, an American scientist and neurodiversity champion said it best in 5 simple words: “I am different, not less.”

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