How do I support neurodivergent students?
Education is a universally recognized right of all children, and in doing so, every nation is determined to ensure that its citizens have access to quality education and can develop their intellectual capacities. Language learning, however, can be even more difficult and time-consuming for some students, especially the neurodivergent ones. When we think about the importance of English, it is even more important that these children learn this language. Since language learning is often considered necessary to improve future jobs, these children should not be disadvantaged and left behind by their peers.
What is Neurodivergence?
Before we dive in, let's clarify what this new term, neurodivergence, means. Australian autism activist Judy Singer coined the term neurodiversity in a thesis published at the University of Technology Sydney in 1998. In her paper, Singer clearly defined the term as differences in the brain, and disorders such as dyslexia are individual deviations from the norm rather than anomalies (Singer, 1998).
Teaching neurodivergent students in the EFL classroom presents many challenges. To meet these challenges, teachers must first be aware of their students' needs and then adjust instruction and assessment accordingly. The first step to addressing these challenges is to understand what neurodivergence means in the student's brain and how it affects learning.
Characteristics of Neurodivergent Students
Neurodivergent people can have many different characteristics and experiences depending on their individual condition and other factors. However, here are some common characteristics that may be associated with neurodivergent conditions:
- Differences in social communication and interaction: Neurodivergent people may have difficulties with social communication and interaction, such as understanding non-verbal cues or maintaining eye contact.
- Challenges in executive functioning: Neurodivergent individuals may suffer in executive functioning, which includes skills such as planning, organisation and time management. They may also have difficulty starting or finishing work. Learning styles of neurodivergent individuals may differ from traditional classroom instruction. Multi-sensory teaching methods, visual aids such as Mind Mapping, assistive technology tools and other adaptations can be useful for them. (Friend, 2019)
- It is important to emphasise that these characteristics are not universal or definitive, and that individual experiences within neurodivergent groups can vary widely. It is important to approach each student as an individual and work with them to create a friendly and inclusive learning environment.
Strengths of Neurodivergent Students:
Neurodivergent students have strengths as well as challenges, and it should be our primary goal to focus on these traits as educators who will lead them to better build their futures.
Excellent thinking skills: conceptualization, reasoning, imagination, abstraction
Learning best achieved through meaning rather than memorization
Inclination to think outside of the box and see the big picture
High level of understanding of what is read to them
The ability to read and understand advanced words in a specific area of interest; For example, if they like to cook, they might read food magazines and cookbooks
Development when the interest becomes more specialised and focused
Surprisingly complex listening vocabulary
Excellent in areas that do not rely on reading, such as, computers and visual arts, or in more conceptual subjects, including philosophy, biology, social studies, neuroscience and creative writing.
Exceptional empathy and warmth
Great imagination (Shaywitz, 2005)
Supporting Neurodivergent Students in the Classroom
In recent years, concepts and practices of inclusive education have emerged. Inclusive education aims to eliminate discrimination resulting from people's negative attitudes and reactions to differences in ethnicity, cultural class, language status, nationality, gender identity, religion, disability or educational differences.
As a teacher, it is important to provide additional support for students who are neurodivergent. This may include:
- Create a positive classroom culture: Create a safe and supportive learning environment where all students feel comfortable and valued. The first step in creating an inclusive classroom is to create a safe space for students. This can be done by being clear about what is expected of them and how they can best support each other, and by developing positive behaviours themselves. This can be achieved by creating classroom rules, using positive language and providing opportunities for collaboration and collaborative learning. When introducing new material, ask your students what they think and if you have any questions or concerns that need clarification before proceeding with the lesson plan. If you notice signs of stress or discomfort in your students' body language or facial expressions (such as furrowed brows), take time outside of class to address their needs individually so they feel comfortable asking questions without fear of peer judgement. to understand what is still happening in their world of thought.
- Provide clear instructions: Neurodivergent students may have difficulty understanding verbal instructions, so it is important to provide clear and concise written instructions for all tasks and activities. You can also use visual aids such as pictures or diagrams to reinforce instructions. Using a whiteboard or visual aids such as Mind Mapping to provide step-by-step instructions for tasks and activities, using simple and concise language to explain tasks and activities, and checking for understanding by asking students to repeat or summarise the instructions might help you while giving specific guidelines (Buzan, 2006).
- Using Multisensory Teaching Methods: Incorporating multisensory teaching methods can benefit all students, especially neurodivergent students. For example, you can use hands-on activities, visual aids, music and movement to make learning more engaging and memorable. You can use songs, videos or games to introduce new vocabulary or grammar, add movement or gestures to language exercises, provide visual aids (such as pictures or diagrams), reinforce grammar or vocabulary.
- Allow breaks and movement: Many neurodivergent students have difficulty sitting still for long periods of time. Therefore, it is very important to ensure the possibility of movement breaks and allow students to stretch or move around the class if necessary. It can help them release energy, improve focus and reduce anxiety. Teachers should encourage students to take stress breaks during longer activities. Using brain breaks, such as a brisk dance or breathing exercise, can help students release energy and focus.
- Adapting Assessments and Assignments: Neurodivergent students may need adaptations or modifications to assessments and assignments to demonstrate their learning effectively. This may include allowing extra time to complete assignments or assessments, offering alternative formats such as oral exams or visual presentations, or breaking assignments into smaller, more manageable chunks to reduce overload.
- Parent and Caregiver Involvement: Another way to help teachers support neurodivergent students in the classroom is through parent/caregiver involvement. Meetings with parents or guardians to discuss the child's progress and potential concerns can help you understand the student's individual needs and adjust your teaching strategies accordingly. You can help arrange accommodation. Work with parents or guardians to develop accommodations that will help the child succeed in the EFL classroom. This may include allowing extra time for assessment, using visual aids, or incorporating movement breaks into the lesson plan. Encourage parents or guardians to communicate with you regularly about their child's progress and any concerns they may have. This will help you stay on top of things and adjust your teaching strategies as needed. By working together, you can create a more stimulating and inclusive learning environment for all students.
- Practising patience and empathy: Finally, it is important to approach neurodivergent students with patience and empathy. Remember that every student is unique and has different strengths and challenges. Take the time to understand their needs and work with them to create a personalised learning experience. Actively listening to students, taking an interest in their perspectives, and providing opportunities for students to share their experiences and challenges are important factors in supporting them in the classroom.
Supporting neurodivergent students in the EFL classroom can be a challenge that requires careful planning and consideration. Teachers should be able to recognize when they might need direct help. The best way to do this is to create an open environment where students feel comfortable talking about their problems with you or another trusted adult, such as a counsellor or school psychologist.
Remember, these are just a few examples, and the tactics you use will depend on the needs and abilities of your students. It is important to take the time to get to know each student and work with them to provide personalised learning.
Buzan, T. (2006). Mind mapping. Pearson Education.
Dyslexia Basics – International Dyslexia Association. (Retrieved: May, 2020). International Dyslexia Association; dyslexiaida.org. https://dyslexiaida.org/dyslexia-basics/
Frendo, A. (2019, March 28). Mind Mapping for Children with Dyslexia. Dyslexic Logic. Retrieved May 2022, from https://www.dyslexiclogic.com/blog/2015/10/30/teaching-mind-mapping-to-children-with-dyslexia
Johnston, V. (2019). Dyslexia: What Reading Teachers Need to Know. The Reading Teacher, 73(3).https://doi.org/10.1002/trtr.1830
Licha, Z. D. (2020). Alternative TEFL Teaching Methods for Dyslexic Students.
Singer, J. (1998) Odd People In: The Birth of Community Amongst People on the Autism Spectrum: A personal exploration of a New Social Movement based on Neurological Diversity. An Honours Thesis presented to the Faculty of Humanities and Social Science, the University of Technology, Sydney, 1998. Accessed February 18, 2015.
Shaywitz, S. (2005). Overcoming dyslexia. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. (pp. 123-125)
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) provides an overview of neurodivergent conditions and their associated characteristics: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Neurodiversity-Conditions
The Autism Society provides a description of common characteristics of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder: https://www.autism-society.org/what-is/characteristics/
The Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA) provides a list of common characteristics of individuals with ADHD: https://add.org/adhd-facts/adhd-symptoms-checklist/
Webinar: Why mind mapping is helpful for dyslexic learners – An introduction to mind mapping. (2018, July 30). [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Lm63Z6EfBc
Ozgu Ozturk began her career as a EFL teacher in Turkiye. Since then, she spent more than eighteen years teaching English with focus on different levels of learners such as primary, secondary and high. She has an MA degree on ELT and Dyslexia Trainer Certificate. She also writes magazine articles for the British Council’s TeachingEnglish webpage and for several international ELT magazines. She is an action researcher and has academic publications on integrating STEAM approach into EFL and Supporting Neurodivergent Students in the EFL classroom. She coordinates international school partnership projects like Erasmus, eTwinning and Scientix. She is a lover of Science and likes travelling around Europe.
Tuba Kızılkan is an ELT Professional teaching English to all levels for about 21 years. She graduated from Ege University, English Language and Literature Department in 2000. She also has another Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and a Master’s degree in English Language teaching. She is also a Mind Mapping, Speed Reading and Memory techniques and also an NLP practitioner. She is focused on Linguistics, Neuroscience and Languages and has been conducting academic research on Linguistics, ELT, Mind Mapping and Education.