How Schools Can Support Neurodiverse Students
Giving kids tools to thrive academically and socially
Clinical Expert: Cynthia Martin, PsyD
What You'll Learn
- What is neurodiversity?
- What areas do neurodiverse students need help in school?
- How can I support my neurodivergent child's education?
Neurodiversity refers to the idea that a kid’s brain functions differently from those of neurotypical children. And it comes in many forms, such as learning disorders, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, or sensory processing issues. While neurodivergent students may possess unique strengths, such as exceptional memorization skills or hyper-focus abilities, they often require additional support from teachers, counselors, administrators, and support staff in the school to excel academically and socially. Three fundamental areas where neurodivergent students tend to need help are behavioral issues, social challenges, and executive functioning.
If a child has behavior issues, it’s best to validate their feelings and assist them in problem-solving those behaviors by calmly talking through alternative ways to express themselves. Implementing supports that benefit both neurodivergent and neurotypical students can help prevent behavioral problems. These supports include visual aids, relaxation exercises, designated relaxation areas, and movement breaks.
Executive functioning skills, which encompass planning, organizing, prioritizing, and initiating tasks, are commonly challenging for neurodivergent students. Teachers can incorporate executive functioning tools like checklists, dedicated binders, reward systems, timers, planners, and calendars to aid these students. Various executive functioning curricula and resources are also available.
Lastly, neurodivergent students need social support to be happy and do well in school. They often face difficulties making and maintaining friendships due to challenges reading social cues and entering play situations. Creating an accepting classroom environment and providing social scaffolding outside the classroom, such as mentoring programs, Lunch Bunches, and coaching for peer models, can help address these challenges.
Parents can support their neurodivergent children by providing teachers with an “About Me” letter highlighting their child’s strengths, areas of difficulty, stress indicators, and preferred approaches. This letter facilitates collaboration between parents and teachers and opens avenues for ongoing communication to ensure individualized attention for neurodivergent students.
Neurodiversity — the idea that a kid’s brain functions differently from those of children who are “neurotypical ”— comes in many forms. That includes learning disorders, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, and sensory processing issues. Some kids who are neurodivergent have strengths that neurotypical kids don’t have, like memorization skills or the ability to hyper-focus. But there are also common areas in which neurodiverse students frequently need extra support at school to thrive academically and socially. Ideally, that help comes from everyone within the school ecosystem: teachers, school counselors, administrators, and support staff.
Cynthia Martin, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and director of the Autism Center at the Child Mind Institute, often advises educators and schools on how they can best support their neurodivergent students. Though some specifics — like the way a classroom is set up — will vary according to age, the basic concepts can be applied across grades. With that in mind, Dr. Martin identifies three fundamental areas where neurodivergent students of all ages tend to need support. They are:
- Behavioral issues
- Social challenges
- Executive functioning
Look beyond the behavior
If there’s one thing Dr. Martin wants to impress upon teachers, educators, and school staff, it’s to ask them to look beyond a kid’s behavior. “Behavior,” she says, “is just the tip of the iceberg.” That’s especially true if a child is acting out at school. “Neurodivergent kids process information differently from their peers, which can mean language, sensory stimuli, emotions, and how they adapt to change.”
So, if a kid is acting out, it probably means they’re struggling in one or more of these fundamental areas. “The best thing a teacher can do for a neurodivergent kid,” Dr. Martin says, “is to validate their feelings and help them to problem-solve those behaviors.” Validating their feelings means giving them a chance to tell you how they feel, listening without judgment, and letting them know that you hear how strongly they feel. Problem-solving involves brainstorming other, more effective ways they could handle those strong feelings.
Validating a kid’s feelings and problem-solving with them also gives them time to calm down, Dr. Martin adds, so they can finish a task. Then you can talk about what is appropriate versus inappropriate behavior and what they can do next time they run into a similar challenge.
You can also help prevent behavioral problems by adding supports that will benefit both neurotypical and neurodivergent students. These additions include things like:
- Visual supports (for example, having the day’s schedule clearly posted where all students can see it)
- Starting the day with a breathing/relaxation exercise to ground kids
- Having a “relaxation area” in the classroom where kids can put on noise-canceling headphones when they get overwhelmed
- Having a “safe” person who the child knows they can go to (a favorite teacher, counselor, nurse, etc.) when they feel overwhelmed, angry, or upset
- Scheduling movement breaks since it can be hard for neurodivergent kids to sit still for long periods
- Preferential seating for neurodivergent kids (like having kids with learning issues sit closer to the “action” where teaching is happening, pairing them with kids who are good behavioral models and/or will be less distracting, and seating them away from the door and other distractions)
- Providing things like wiggle seats (nubbed cushions designed to help neurodivergent kids who focus better when they can move around in their seats) or fidget toys so that when kids feel the need to wiggle or move, they have something appropriate to do with that energy that doesn’t disrupt the class.
Support executive functioning skills
If a child is neurodivergent, it’s likely that they will have deficits in executive functioning. Executive functioning includes things like being able to plan, organize, prioritize, and initiate tasks. “Building in executive functioning supports into the educational curriculum can be really helpful,” says Dr. Martin.
Some specific executive functioning tools teachers might implement are:
- Checklists for everything from morning routine to what goes into kids’ backpacks every day
- Dedicated binders for each subject
- Reward systems (like a sticker or star chart) for younger kids
- Using timers so kids have a visual reference for each task they need to complete
- Planners and calendars kids can use to keep track of short- and long-term projects and to help break down assignments into bite-sized tasks
- Online planners to back up paper ones
Several executive functioning curricula have been developed for use in the classroom, and they also include books and workbooks that kids and families can use at home. For example, they can practice breaking down homework tasks into smaller, less overwhelming chunks. Dr. Martin recommends:
- The Smart but Scattered series (Dr. Peg Dawson and Dr. Richard Guare) has several books for kids and teens within the series that students can move through to bolster executive functioning skills. (https://www.smartbutscatteredkids.com/)
- Unstuck and On Target (Laura Cannon, MEd, and Dr. Lauren Kenworthy) work on several different types of executive functioning skills for children who are on the autism spectrum. https://www.unstuckandontarget.com/
Neurodivergent kids need social support as much as academic support to be happy and do well at school. “We know that kids who are neurodivergent are going to have more difficulty making friends and keeping friends,” says Dr. Martin. Sometimes they have trouble reading social cues, feel on the outside of neurotypical friend groups, and/or don’t always know the best way to enter a play situation. Those things can make neurodivergent kids more vulnerable to being taken advantage of, bullied, or simply lonely.
As a result, schools need to be proactive about creating layers of social scaffolding to support those kids. “That starts in the classroom with creating a community where we’re accepting of everybody’s differences,” says Dr. Martin. “When teachers talk about diversity, they can include neurodiversity in that discussion.”
But outside the classroom is when neurodiverse kids really need social support. Lunchtime, a chaotic part of the day, and other playtimes can be particularly tough for neurodivergent kids. Teachers and school staff can be proactive and provide social support, including:
- Mentoring program
- Lunch Bunches (where school staff organizes a small group of kids to eat with a socially vulnerable child)
- Praising kids for being inclusive
- Coaching kids who can serve as good peer models
How parents can support neurodivergent kids at school
One of Dr. Martin’s favorite ways for parents to support their neurodivergent kids is to create an “About Me” letter of introduction. Teachers can benefit from asking parents of neurodivergent kids (and all kids in their classroom) to provide such a letter ahead of the beginning of school.
Some things a parent might include would be:
- What are things their child is very good at (academically and otherwise)?
- What things are more difficult for their child?
- How does their child show stress? What behaviors should teachers look out for?
- When their child is stressed or frustrated, what’s the best way to approach them?
- Does the child use a behavioral support program at home? For example, how do they earn screen time?
An “About Me” letter is a great way for parents and teachers to start working together to help their neurodivergent students thrive. Once that bridge has been established, parents and teachers can keep a conversation going about what’s happening at school and home. That kind of ongoing communication ensures that every neurodivergent kid in a class gets the type of individualized attention they need to thrive at school.