3 Simple Ways to Make Classrooms More Welcoming for Neurodivergent Students

Paintbrushes and paper on a classroom table. Photograph courtesy of Charisse Kenion on Unsplash.
Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

This article contains tips teachers can use to better support neurodivergent students in their classrooms. Neurodivergent and neurodiverse are an umbrella terms that include autistic* people, those with ADHD, Tourette’s, dyslexia, and other brain differences. Neurodiverse people exist in classrooms as students, teachers and other instructional staff, as well as in the principal’s and district offices.

*I am aware of the identity-first vs people-first language debate. Some people on the autism spectrum refer to themselves as autistic, while others use person with autism. Best practice is to mirror the language of the person who is talking about their experiences and identities; since the majority of my students who identify as neurodiverse or neurodivergent have used identity-first language, my choices here reflect my practice of following my students’ leads.

I am not a brain researcher, psychologist, or other expert in neurodiversity. I am a working teacher with a strong interest in brain research and learning theory. My tips here are the result of my own trial and error in elementary and middle school classrooms and told from the perspective of an experienced teacher and former weird kid who always found solace in learning.

The three techniques described here are free to implement, don’t take much time, and provide support to all of my students, regardless of brain differences or neurotypicality.

Tip 1: Reduce Visual Noise

Colorful elementary classroom. Photo courtesy of Monica Sedra on Unsplash.
Photo by Monica Sedra on Unsplash

Early in my career, I bought into the idea that my classroom’s appearance was a direct reflection of my ability to teach well. I invested a lot of time, money, and energy making my room a beautiful, colorful place. I filled my shelves with books I hoped would invite my students to fall in love with reading and invested in manipulatives and classroom supplies that I stored in open bins so my students would have easy access to everything they needed to be effective learners.

For some of my students, that colorful, well-resourced environment — particularly when coupled with my tendency to file-by-piling — was the visual equivalent of spending the day in a room with a continual, high-pitched noise. My environmental decisions meant I was actively making learning harder for some of my students.

My free fixes? I removed the butcher paper and border from the bulletin boards, took down all of the posters except the two my district required me to leave up, used magnets on my classroom whiteboard to hold the one or two posters relevant to the day’s lesson, and moved the open storage to a less-visible part of the room.

If you have more time and a classroom supply budget, you can also: buy simple bulletin board border (a solid color works well, but other options are available: I currently use the Eric Carle blue watercolor border), move supplies to labeled storage boxes in a cabinet and put students in charge of retrieving and storing materials, and use binder rings and magnetic or Command hooks to create student-accessible flip-charts of your posters and anchor charts.

Tip 2: Post Your Schedule

I’ve always used some form of daily agenda in my classroom, but just wrote the date, any special classes, and any special events happening that day.

Then I was assigned the schedule where I was expected to teach math at 9 am one day and 1:15 the next and my third graders were regularly late to everything because I couldn’t easily keep track of where I was in the two-week rotating schedule. So I started posting a detailed agenda that showed the whole day’s plan each day.

Written daily schedule for March 32, 2016. Times and events are written backwards; for example, the event snack is written as kcans.
They said they looked forward to Kcans that day.

The result was immediate; I was better able to keep track of when we were supposed to be where and the students who had sometimes struggled with transitioning quickly from one activity or space to another had built-in warnings of expected changes.

Making the switch to a detailed daily scheduled didn’t mean I had to give up my sense of fun or miss out on opportunities to surprise my students. I’d argue that having created the consistent routine of a posted, detailed schedule allowed all of my students to feel in on the joke when I used April Fool’s Day as an excuse to write everything backwards; if I hadn’t built that consistency and trust, I think it could have felt like a joke on one of them, rather than an opportunity to giggle at the teacher’s silly antics.

Tip 3: Provide Information in Multiple Ways

I try to give instructions and information in at least three ways; at the elementary level, this meant writing instructions on the whiteboard after I said them aloud, then having students read the same information on the assignment or activity summary.

At the middle school level, I have a whiteboard that I think of as my classroom command center. I post a written, one-sentence summary of the day’s focus, relevant textbook pages for classwork and independent graded work, the date current graded work is due, and reminders of the next two classroom or school events.

This information is repeated on a Google Slides presentation embedded in my Canvas LMS course homepage, on individual assignments within Canvas, and at the beginning and end of the Google Slides I teach from. I also encourage my eighth graders to write the information in their planners (then we practice checking our planners once a week, since no one is born knowing how to use a planner or calendar).

A person writes on a sticky note. A weekly planner, USB cord, highlighter, and MacBook are visible. Photo courtesy of Marten Bjork on Unsplash.
Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash

While it takes a bit of time to adjust to providing information in multiple ways, it’s become one of my favorite tools because it removes a point of friction from my classroom by allowing my students to help each other. An added benefit is that my students are allowed to be human and aren’t penalized for feeling unwell, thinking about something someone said in the hallway, or otherwise temporarily shifting attention away from my classroom.

This built-in support also means I am able to focus my energy and attention on helping students who need more explanation or a quick brainstorming conversation to get unstuck while increasing my credibility — these brain-friendly tips have allowed me to create a classroom environment where, if I say I will do something, it happens (barring fire drills and other emergencies beyond my control.)

Let’s Connect!

I love connecting with other technologists, learners, and teachers on Twitter! Add me on LinkedIn here or join me on Twitter here. I’m currently learning JavaScript on Twitter, and I’m having a blast!

Bonus points if you share your best Rad Joke with me (Dad Jokes: Not just for dads!)

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I nicknamed my cat “Potato,” address my students as Fellow Humans, and usually have a ridiculous number of tabs saved in OneTab.

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Cindy Black

Cindy Black

I nicknamed my cat “Potato,” address my students as Fellow Humans, and usually have a ridiculous number of tabs saved in OneTab.

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