Choosing which school your child will attend can be as simple as sending him to the neighborhood school you’re zoned for, or as challenging as investigating the myriad of options available. When the choices are as diverse as our children, what’s the best way to begin?
In this edition ofJRA Educational Consulting’s ‘School Choice’ blog series, we’ll explore another option that can help you choose the best-fit school for your child. And today, diverse – or should we say ‘neurodiverse’ – is the keyword.
Educational Consultant and school choice expertBarb Leventhal believes that some students who struggle in a typical school setting may benefit from a neurodiverse school, or a traditional school that supports neurodiversity. Even more crucial, though, is an early diagnosis.
“In neurodiverse students, the receptors for processing information work differently than in neurotypical students,” she said. “It’s important for a parent to recognize, ‘my child learns differently – and I need help.’ If a neurodiverse child gets an early diagnosis and is fully immersed in a program that can address learning differences, that child will have a more rewarding educational experience.”
The term neurodiversity – a blending of the words ‘neurological’ and ‘diversity’ – was coined in the late 90s bysociologist Judy Singer. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines neurodiversity as:
“individual differences in brain functioning… the concept that differences in brain functioning within the human population are normal… the inclusion in a group, organization, etc. of people with different types of brain function.” Conversely, the term ‘neurotypical’ is defined as not displaying neurologically different patterns of thought or behavior.
Although neurodiversity refers to the neurological diversity inherent in all people, the term ‘neurodiverse’ is often used to describe individuals withAutism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, dyspraxia (problems with motor coordination), dyslexia, and other learning differences. While being neurodiverse often comes with challenges, many believe thatneurodiversity and thinking differently can foster specific strengths. Studies estimate that 15 to 20 percent of the population is neurodiverse, including successful icons likeAlbert Einstein, Walt Disney, Orlando Bloom, Tom Cruise, and Steven Spielberg. In addition, several companies arerecruiting employees with autism, ADHD, and other neurodiverse challenges to channel their strengths and abilities – a far cry from labeling neurodiversity as a ‘disability.’
Attending a specialized school can give neurodiverse students a head start in a supportive environment where their differences are embraced and their individuality is celebrated.
Understanding Neurodiverse Education
While all schools have neurodiverse students, neurodiverse-specific schools recognize and welcome neurological differences among students and strive for inclusion and acceptance.
According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, one in five students in the U.S. has learning and attention issues, but only a small percentage receive specialized instruction or accommodations. Schools that support neurodiversity, likeArbor School of Central Florida, are striving to change that statistic.
Executive Director Wendy Cox Blair said the school embraces neurodiversity, supporting all students with a custom-tailored learning experience.
“Every student deserves an education tailored to his or her learning style and abilities,” she said. ”At Arbor School, we meet those needs with small classes, hands-on learning, and the flexibility to teach at each student’s learning pace.”
The Arc of Palm Beach County operates two neurodiverse charter schools and offers a variety of programs for neurodiverse individuals and their families. Senior Director of Education and Therapeutic Services Bairbre Flood says that although it’s important to properly connect with neurodiverse students, it’s also crucial to educate all students – and society in general – about neurodiversity.
“A big part of our responsibility as educators is to encourage neurotypical students and their families to create within them the awareness, tolerance, empathy, and social and emotional skills that allow them to be open to and accepting of all people – even if they seem different,” she said. “We are surrounded by neurodiversity, and creating an awareness and acceptance of it is vital to society.”
The Arc of Palm Beach County achieves this goal in a variety of ways including mentoring programs, community activities, partnering with local traditional schools, and inviting neurotypical students into the classroom to engage with neurodiverse students in activities like reading or arts and crafts.
“When neurotypical elementary school students arrive for the first time, they’re generally nervous and often feel intimidated when they see kids in wheelchairs…kids who seem different than themselves…it’s a totally new environment for them,” she said. “But by the time they’re leaving, the students are all high-fiving, exchanging phone numbers, and setting up play dates. They realize, ‘They’re just kids like me!’ It’s a very rewarding experience. It’s a win-win all around.”
Features of A Neurodiverse Classroom
Neurodiverse schools, as well as traditional schools that support neurodiversity, strive tomake learning more accessible to neurodivergent students. For example, because some students with learning differences have sensory issues, neurodiverse schools often have dimmer switches to adjust classroom lighting. If some students are averse to loud noises, an instructor might provide advance notice of planned fire drills or offer a ‘quiet space’ – complete with noise-canceling headphones – where students can de-stress and escape intense stimuli. Other examples might include:
- Creating routine and structure within the classroom so students know what to expect, as neurodiverse students tend to thrive on structure, consistency, and repetition.
- Incorporating diversified teaching methods, taking into consideration each student’s learning style, strengths, and weaknesses, and customizing lesson plans to accommodate those different styles.
- Creating an inclusive, supportive, nurturing, and accepting environment where students are celebrated for being themselves and encouraged to participate, ask questions, and communicate in their own way without the fear of being judged.
- Celebrating differences and making students feel special and unique, rather than singled out and ‘weird.’ Students in a neurodiverse classroom are encouraged to explore their interests and to feel accepted for who they are.
- Listening to verbal – and nonverbal – communication by paying close attention to what students say, as well as their body language. Instructors must also be cognizant of their own words and body language, ensuring that students feel understood and accepted.
- Offering the opportunity for movement at regular intervals.
Neurodiverse School Versus Traditional School
While a majority of traditional schools offer specific classes or ESE programs for neurodiverse students, many remove students from their regular classrooms for specialized instruction. For example, adyslexic student might be pulled for a specialized reading group once or twice per week, and certain neurodiverse students might be pulled from their regular class to attend an ESE group or occupational therapy session on certain days.
Leventhal believes there’s often a stigma associated with being pulled from the classroom for specialized instruction because students may feel singled out and ‘different’ – or, even worse – like they’re not as intelligent as their classmates.
“Schools that specialize in the neurodiverse population can help break that stigma because everyone in the classroom is treated equally,” she said. “Rather than being sporadically pulled from class for a small amount of time each week, neurodiverse schools fully immerse students – on a full-time basis – in a learning environment that’s best suited to their specific learning needs, and the curriculum is delivered in a way that will allow them to thrive.”
Flood agrees, adding that – if a student doesn’t need to be pulled from the classroom due to specific circumstances – specialized instruction or therapy within the classroom benefits all students and provides continuity of service.
“Neurodiverse schools are often better able to provide individualized attention, and instructors are aware of each student’s strengths, weaknesses, and individual needs,” she said. “Students are challenged and pushed to the best of their abilities in order to promote success.”
Choosing The Best-Fit School
If your child has been diagnosed as neurodivergent, what’s next? Start by learning more about your child’s diagnosis and asking his or her medical professional for recommendations. Speak to your child’s current teachers and guidance counselor about school programs and recommendations for moving forward.
If your child is truly struggling at his or her current school, a neurodiverse school may be a good option.Finding one, however, may prove difficult (you won’t find a list of “Neurodiverse Schools Near Me’ in a Google search). So where do you turn for advice?
Whether your child faces learning challenges, isn’t thriving in a traditional school, or simply wants more options, Leventhal suggests consulting with aneducational consultant for professional assistance.
“Choosing the best-fit school is a challenge because there are so many options – in many cases, options parents may not even know about on their own,” Leventhal said. We will help you recognize what your child needs, and how to best determine which school is right to address his or her specific learning differences – a school where your child will thrive.”
Need help finding the best-fit school for your child? Whether traditional school, private school, boarding school, therapeutic programs, or other specialized programs and academies, JRA Educational Consulting connects students with the schools that best match their specific needs. Connect with us for a consultation today.
Topics: Neurological DiversityRead More