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A Child's Place in Neurodivergence

Classroom Development

9/29/2021 | Tamara Joseph

Take a minute and think back to when you were a student. Have you ever had anyone tell you that you’re not trying hard enough or that you’re just being lazy? Or that you’re misbehaving because you just needed to move your body?

The topic of neurodivergence in a classroom setting is a deeply personal one for me. I have always struggled with school; from focusing in class to getting my homework done, it has always caused me so much stress and anxiety. My experiences with my teachers, administration, and peers in school taught me to believe that I wasn’t smart, I didn’t try hard enough or was lazy. Two years ago I finally started working with someone who recognized that I am neurodivergent and I struggle with executive dysfunction. Finally understanding why certain things are so extremely difficult for me has helped me gain the confidence I need, and to learn skills to help me function in a way that works for my brain. I only wish that a teacher had aided me earlier in life.

School comes with a lot of expectations for proper behavior and performance. Unfortunately, these expectations do not necessarily “work” for all of us. To put it simply, our school system is designed to fit the needs and abilities of neurotypical people. Being neurotypical means that as a person, not only do you behave and perform in a certain way that closely resembles your fellow humans, but you have also developed according to specific developmental milestones that have been recognized and researched over time. Yet, some people develop on different timelines or think and process information in unique ways. Oftentimes, especially as educators, we do not provide the proper support for this.

In our first article of this series, we discussed that each topic will be a facet of the Child’s Place curriculum. As the Child’s Place curriculum centers around honesty, we are asking that we as educators be honest about whether or not our classroom spaces are truly serving all of our students' needs. Most likely, the answer is no as our education system has trained us to cater to one type of brain. As educators, we are not qualified diagnosticians, however, it is important that our classroom supports children who exhibit neurodivergent behaviors. There are changes we can make in our classrooms and school that support both neurotypical and neurodivergent learners, which is the information we have provided today. However, if you are noticing a child in your class exhibits behaviors associated with neurodivergence, it is important to document and talk to your supervisor for further assessment! 

To open up our classrooms to better serve all of our students, we have come up with a list of easy, inclusive changes teachers and educators can make for their classrooms and schools. These changes will help to support children with both neurotypical and neurodivergent brains by recognizing that people learn in many different ways. Creating a space that acknowledges this is the first step to an inclusive learning environment.

1. Allow room for movement:

As adults, we often feel like we need things to be a certain way to establish control of a situation. We were taught that we have to sit nicely at our desks or at circle time on our tush, hands in our lap. We have also been taught that toys and materials have a certain place and need to stay at that place. This can be detrimental to a child’s growth. Sometimes we need to be flexible and listen to the needs of the children.

2. Provide fidgets for circle time

Expecting young children to sit quietly, criss-cross-apple-sauce is a lot for any young child, especially one who exhibits neurodivergence. It’s important to provide as much support as we can for those students. Having things like fidgets, weighted blankets, or a wiggle seat is great to support children who have a hard time sitting still. It also shows them that you are there to help them and want them to be a part of the group.

3. Mindfulness

I speak about mindfulness constantly. It is such an amazing tool for so many reasons (you can see our other blog “A Child’s Place in Mindfulness for more on this!), but particularly for children. Mindfulness can be used as a tactic to help children with impulse control, emotional regulation, and behavioral regulation. Implementing these techniques into everyday experiences in the classroom makes it a routine and helps the children to regulate themselves.

4. Open Conversations

As humans, we can be so afraid to talk about our differences. However, being able to talk about how everyone learns differently and has different needs is beneficial. It normalizes differences and creates a sense of acceptance amongst us. Having these discussions in your classroom will help to remove the stigma for your students.

5. Support childrens’ autonomy

As adults, we think we know best. While we are here to facilitate and guide the children through their learning experiences, no one knows what’s best for themselves except for that person. This goes for children as well,  but you must account for the challenge that children may not always be able to tell us with their words what they need. It’s important for us to listen and understand what children are telling us with their actions and behaviors. It’s ok for us to try something and recognize that it’s not working. It’s ok for us to change things to suit the needs of our students. This is something we need to do to provide the best space for growth in our classrooms. 

This is why creating an inclusive learning space in the classroom is so important. There are so many children who could benefit from having the adults in their lives support their learning differences. It creates a space in which children can learn the skills they need early on and take them with them for the rest of their lives.

Tamara grew up in Los Angeles and has been a preschool teacher for nine years. She received her B.A. in Child and Adolescent Development from CSUN and is currently working on a master’s degree in Early Childhood Education from AJU. Her work in child development is influenced by her passion for social justice learning and the impact it has on developing minds.

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