Part 3: Creating inclusive classrooms – environment, resources and instruction

Neurodiversity can be supported by adapting, adjusting and enhancing teaching strategies and the classroom environment.

Inclusive education involves creating a learning environment that is meaningful, relevant and accessible to all students including those with: physical disabilities; intellectual and learning disabilities; and behavioural and neurological differences. 

This article is the third part of a series that focuses on the role and importance of teachers in the outcomes of neurodivergent children. We outline strategies, drawn on concepts from the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, to create an inclusive environment for a neurodiverse group of students in mainstream classrooms. Neurodiverse is a term for a mix of individuals who are neurodivergent, an umbrella term for ADHD, Autistic, Dyslexic, etc, and neurotypical. 

The aim of this article is to inform but also empower educators with practical strategies that benefit all students. 

Practical strategies with class-wide benefits

Due to brain wiring differences, neurodivergent students may have a combination of learning differences, movement and emotional regulation needs, executive functioning skills, communication styles and sensory processing variations. This diversity of experiences can be supported by adapting, adjusting and enhancing teaching strategies and the classroom environment.

Classroom environment

Sensory processing differences are hidden and yet have an incredible influence on the wellbeing of a child and their ability to learn. Neurodivergent kids can have a range of sensory needs across all 8 key senses. You might not know this, but sensory input comes from 8 different sensory systems:

  1. Visual – responsible for what we see 
  2. Auditory – responsible for what we hear 
  3. Olfactory – responsible for what we smell 
  4. Gustatory – responsible for what we taste 
  5. Tactile – responsible for touch sensation including pressure, temperature, and pain
  6. Vestibular – responsible for our sense of balance by monitoring the position of our head in relation to our body and its movement
  7. Proprioceptive – responsible for the sensation of joint and muscle movements and postural control
  8. Interoception – responsible for detecting internal messages like a full bladder, hunger and thirst

Sensory defensive children have high sensitivity to certain stimuli and may experience pain or be reactive to things like fluorescent light, touch from others, smells from art supplies, noisy environments, and even a visually crowded room with lots of paintings and posters. This means they may avoid certain activities or become easily overwhelmed or distracted by particular stimuli.

Sensory seeking children seek out additional stimulation because they don’t register or process all the incoming sensory information. They may have a tendency to bump into furniture or rock in their chair, they might like to make noise by banging things together or use their voice to make sounds, they may have a constant need to touch things or they may enjoy playing with textures like paint. These children need to move their bodies and often become disruptive to peers in the classroom as they naturally seek to regulate through additional sensory input. 

Some children can be both sensory seeking and defensive with fluctuating needs on different days. And although many sensory processing differences are not always obvious in a child, it is the frequent exposure to one or many of these, without the ability to reset the nervous system, that can result in sensory overwhelm, meltdowns, lashing out, absconding, disruptive and oppositional behaviour, and avoidance.

There are some practical considerations and adjustments to the classroom environment that can reduce issues associated with sensory issues. This includes things like:

  • Opting for natural sunlight and turning off fluorescent lights
  • Offering opportunities for movement to students who need extra sensory input
  • Arranging seating to give sensory seeking students space to move and tactile reactive students a safe space
  • Rearranging strong smelling paints, glues, and bins so that they are away from students with sensitive smell
  • Allowing ear defenders for students who have difficulty with noise
  • Setting up a sensory area that allows students to regulate away from the gaze of peers
  • Creating a sensory basket with sensory tools
  • Embedding regular short breaks throughout the school day
  • Laying out student work and resources in the classroom in a way that doesn’t become visually distracting

Learning activities, resources and tools

The images and stories around us influence our thoughts and beliefs, so it’s no surprise that choosing a range of activities and resources is an important part of creating an inclusive classroom. 

This can include things like:

  • Ordering books and resources that positively represent all abilities to build a culture of acceptance and knowledge. E.g. readers about kids who think differently, look different and behave differently.

  • Selecting activities with options that encourage all students to participate regardless of their learning and communication styles. E.g., giving students the choice to present ideas verbally, by creating a poster or writing a text.

  • Supplying tools that support executive functioning skills like planning and organising E.g., graphic organiser handouts and story prompts.

  • Agreeing to the use of assistive technology to support low working memory, dysgraphia and dyslexic students. E.g., iPads with voice-to-text apps or apps to write text.

  • Support time management by externalising time sense. E.g., display a visible clock, use warning bells to alert students of task checkpoints.

Instruction and assessment

The education curriculum is predetermined and very structured, but creative teachers can adapt the delivery and assessment of some learning outcomes to get the best out of all the students. Some practical ideas to consider include:

  • Give choices that cater for all students’ abilities/achievement and encourage responsibility for their own learning. E.g., present options with different levels of difficulty and use innocuous terms to represent easy, hard and advanced, like sweet, salty and spicy.

  • Reinforce the delivery of content or instructions in multiple ways to reduce dependency on working memory and the need to multitask by listening and writing. E.g., supplement verbal instructions with a visual representation or text handout
  • Focus on what outcomes are being assessed and where possible leverage interests and strengths to motivate students. E.g., give students a choice of topics for writing tasks. How important is it that a student writes about a giraffe instead of their preferred animal?

  • Reduce cognitive load on assignments and tasks to support executive functions. E.g., organise instructions as numbered steps, where possible break down questions into smaller parts, eliminate irrelevant information that is not required to complete a task, give an example of what “done” looks like.

  • Build intrinsic motivation and self-efficacy in students. E.g., make learning goals clear for every task and help students connect to outcomes by setting personal goals, giving frequent and positive feedback and encouraging them to reflect on their learning.

We’d like to acknowledge that even in schools with plenty of resources, making inclusive education work requires a lot of people power and structural changes. As it is now, most of the pressure is on educators to consider and address individual academic, sensory and emotional needs, on top of their teacher duties. Teachers need training, time to plan, appropriate tools and resources, assistance in the classroom, and the ability to collaborate with other professionals. Without the support of the education department and school principals, educators cannot build fully inclusive classrooms.

References

  1. The justification for inclusive education in Australia | PROSPECTS
  2. The UDL Guidelines
  3. Distraction, distress and diversity: Exploring the impact of sensory processing differences on learning and school life for pupils with autism spectrum disorders – ScienceDirect
  4. Implications of Sensory Processing and Attentional Differences Associated With Autism in Academic Settings: An Integrative Review
  5. School distress and the school attendance crisis: a story dominated by neurodivergence and unmet need
  6. Measuring the use of inclusive practices among pre-service educators: A multi-national study
  7. Inclusive Education Strategies: A Textbook
  8. Full article: A scoping review of perceived support needs of teachers for implementing inclusive education
  9. Challenges to preparing teachers to instruct all students in inclusive classrooms – ScienceDirect

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