Responding to neurodiversity in the education context Publications
This report presents findings of an integrative literature review designed as one response to Priority 4: Flexible supports for neurodiverse children and young people, articulated in the New Zealand Learning Support Action Plan 2019 – 2025. The review explored research and other resources to identify new or innovative strategies or approaches to neurodiversity with the potential to be implemented in primary and secondary school contexts in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Author(s): The Donald Beasley Institute
Date Published: July 2020
The New Zealand Ministry of Education is committed to developing a more comprehensive understanding of the evidence base related to the learning support required by students labelled as neurodiverse. This report presents findings of an integrative literature review designed as one response to the fourth of the strategic priorities articulated in the New Zealand Learning Support Action Plan 2019 – 2025: providing additional, more flexible support for neurodiverse children and young people. The review explored research and other resources in an attempt to identify any new or innovative strategies or approaches to neurodiversity with the potential to be implemented in primary and secondary school contexts in Aotearoa New Zealand. As highlighted in the Action Plan, there is an identified need to locate examples of practical strategies and innovative methods reported as being effective in supporting this large group of diverse students. The findings of the review directly respond to the Action Plan’s goal of building teacher confidence and capability, by providing information that can inform and enhance teaching practice with neurodiverse students.
As a starting point, it should not be assumed that there is widespread understanding of the term neurodiversity, nor that it is the only term used to describe the group of students who are the focus of this review. It is important to be clear that neurodiversity is not a diagnosis, rather it is a broad term used to encompass a wide range of specific, non-specific, hidden and/or undetermined diagnoses that include but may not be limited to: Learning (intellectual) and/or Developmental Disability (ID/DD); Communication Disorders (CD), autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); Specific Learning Disorders (SLD); Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI); and or Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorders (FASD).
The Learning Support Action Plan defines neurodiversity as:
Neurodisability is a broad term that includes (but is not limited to) dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, autism spectrum disorder, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, trauma related disorders, and auditory visual processing disorders. It is a challenging concept because it encompasses needs across a wide spectrum of degree and intensity, and can be complicated further when children and young people are ‘twice-exceptional’ (by having more than one condition), making it difficult to understand and respond to their needs (Ministry of Education, 2019, p.32).1
An integrative literature review methodology (Whittemore & Khafl, 2005) was implemented for the purposes of this project. Integrative literature reviews combine data from both theoretical and empirical literature with the goal of determining practical solutions (Torraco, 2005). Integrative literature reviews allow a diverse range of literature, including both quantitative and qualitative academic studies, and other ‘grey’ literature such as reports, policy, and opinion pieces (Ganong, 1987).
Defined search terms, inclusion and exclusion criteria for selection of research, and specific processes by which articles were assessed, interpreted and synthesised were implemented. Data generated through this process were then analysed thematically. Following the thematic analysis of academic articles, a google search was conducted for online resources to supplement the evidence-based approaches outlined in our review. The resources identified were consistent with the selection criteria used in our systematic review.
Through a systematic process of identifying educational research with the potential to inform easily implemented, low cost, flexible supports for neurodiverse students in New Zealand primary and secondary schools, five key themes were exposed: prioritising and valuing relationships; developing agency; supporting students to understand and manage their own behaviour; creating inclusive environments; and embedding inclusive teaching strategies
Prioritising and valuing relationships
The theme prioritising and valuing relationships was found to be prominent within and across all of the research relating to neurodiverse students in the education context. Most significantly, educational outcomes were recognised as being greatly enhanced by efforts to ensure that neurodiverse students are both seen and heard by their teachers, and their peers. Teachers can build relationships with neurodiverse students by being respectful, warm, empathetic, actively listening, and making an effort to get to know the student and their interests (Rentenbach, Prislovsky, & Gabriel, 2017).
Teachers must also be active agents in facilitating neurodiverse students to foster relationships with their peers. The research calls for teachers to actively facilitate the student’s efforts to make friends and to intervene promptly if bullying occurs. Peer collaboration can result in increased self-esteem of students as they learn to value and perceive each other more positively (Ncube, 2011). Finally, research also highlights the important role teachers should take in educating students about neurodiversity. When armed with increased knowledge, neurotypical students are more likely to understand and be more inclusive of their neurodiverse peers (Rentenbach et al., 2017).
Developing agency within neurodiverse students is essential in helping them to feel a sense of ownership over their learning. Independence can be nurtured within neurodiverse students by providing choice and flexibility in regards to their learning and can begin very simply with opportunities such as choosing between activities or the type of book they would like to read (Cook & Rao, 2018). Agency can also be developed by encouraging students to set their own goals and targets for learning, building insight into their own strengths and weaknesses, monitoring their own progress and effectively communicating with teachers or peers when they feel they need help (Hart & Brehm, 2013).
Supporting students to understand and manage their own behaviour
Neurodiverse students may behave in ways that do not always align with what is typically expected or accepted in classroom environments. Noticing and reinforcing the appropriate behaviour of (all) students can be very effective in encouraging them to continue to engage with their learning. To be most effective, reinforcement needs to be consistent and to specifically identify the behaviour that is being rewarded. Students should be supported to understand and manage their own behaviours by selecting their own behaviour goals, observing and recording their behaviour, and being in control of their own reinforcement. Linked to the preceding theme of agency, self-management shifts some of the responsibility for behaviour management to the student, with the intent that the child or young person will have greater opportunity to interact with their peers and be more involved in classroom activities, if so desired (Crosland & Dunlap, 2012).
Creating inclusive environments
The classroom environment needs to be a space where neurodiverse students feel accepted and valued for being who they are. When neurodiverse students feel a sense of belonging, they are more likely to actively participate and engage with their learning. Along with supporting students to build supportive relationships, creating a structured and predictable environment with clear routines and rules is essential in supporting neurodiverse students to flourish at school. Making adaptations to the environment to reduce sensory overstimulation often needs to occur before neurodiverse students can begin to engage in learning.
Embedding inclusive teaching strategies
The importance of diversity and flexibility in the teaching methods used was an overarching theme highlighted in the majority of research included this review. Neurodiverse students are more likely to learn if information is presented to them in a range of ways that play to their strengths and interests. Moreover, this review also highlighted the importance of making adaptations to teaching instructions and the general learning curriculum to enable neurodiverse students to become active participants in their learning and have greater access to the general content being taught. Technology was also suggested as an accessible and cost effective way to support, engage and motivate neurodiverse students. Technology can range from a simple reading ruler or magnifying glass to more advanced computer software, alternative keyboards, virtual reality, and speech to text technology.
The research strongly suggests that commitment to the five principles or themes outlined above may provide the foundation for a flexible range of specialist supports required to better meet the needs of neurodiverse students. The strategies determined to be responsive to neurodiverse students and their learning support needs are heavily reliant on classroom teachers approaching each student, regardless of their label, as an individual. The literature also consistently recommends strategies for neurodiverse students that require teachers to deliver evidence-based educational methods and practise every day, and during every interaction with their neurodiverse students. Embedded within, or underpinning these recommendations is the expectation that schools and teachers will have a genuine commitment to inclusion and inclusive practices, and take a relationship based approach to inclusion within the classroom, and wider school.
While the strategies identified in the literature appear simple, it is clear that they are not yet foundational, expected experiences in all schools and classrooms. That said, applying and implementing such strategies consistently, and with full understanding of their origin and intent is not a simple undertaking for busy teachers. Learning Support Coordinators can take a pivotal role in building teacher confidence and capability to ensure that they are able to.
There are a number of limitations to this review. (1) The all-encompassing and rapidly expanding conceptualisation(s) of neurodiversity makes it difficult to produce a definitive set of references that answer the question: what can the research tell us about evidencebased approaches to the learning support needs of neurodiverse students? (2) A significant challenge encountered in the work related to achieving adequate representation of the wide-ranging groups of primary and secondary students to be considered to be neurodiverse. Despite the fact that a significant number of student groups were included according to a diagnosis-based approach, there are more children and young people who we could, or perhaps should have also been included as neurodiverse, for example students who experience significant and ongoing mental distress due to trauma. (3) Despite the unique traits and characteristics of the broad and varied group of learners labelled neurodiverse, the literature showed very little variation when explored for strategies and innovations for ensuring that educational contexts are responsive to neurodiversity. This has led to a high degree of repetition within and across this report. (4) The available literature took a relatively generic approach to neurodiversity, and failed to consider multiple diagnoses in a single student, or other forms of intersectionality including ethnicity, culture, gender, sexuality, religion and/or other identities that neurodiverse students may have. It is particularly important to note that none of the reviewed literature considered neurodiversity from a Te Ao Māori perspective. (5) Linked to the preceding limitation, most of the literature assessed as being in-scope for this review originated from North America. While there was consistency and strength in the strategies identified and recommended, they were often presented using deficit-based language. In this review, we have actively sought to re-present these evidencebased strategies in more positive language aligned with contemporary understandings and expectations in Aotearoa New Zealand. (6) Finally, only a small amount of the reviewed literature was conducted by neurodiverse researchers, or was exclusively focused on the experiences and perspectives of neurodiverse students, however these experiences and perspectives were highlighted when found.
Neurodiversity should not be or be perceived to be synonymous with poor educational outcomes. However, the education sector, similarly to other sectors, is increasingly recognising that neurodiversity can (and unfortunately often does) have a negative impact on the educational experiences and achievements of neurodiverse students. Currently, neurodiversity can be a barrier to children and young people being a real part of “the world’s best education system” that New Zealand has expressed a commitment to building. Therefore, there is still much to learn and understand about how to identify neurodiversity, and subsequently, how to meet the learning needs of neurodiverse students.
This review has established that there is no ‘quick fix’ for the growing group of neurodiverse students who are recognised as not yet receiving the best possible education. A review of research literature did not unearth a ground-breaking innovation that can be universally applied, however it has strongly reinforced that the best way to be responsive to the learning needs of neurodiverse students is to prioritise and value relationships, support neurodiverse students to develop agency and to be involved in managing their own behaviours, create inclusive environments and embed inclusive teaching strategies. These are all familiar concepts. Ideas that have long been apparent in educational pedagogy theorising and research. It could also be argued that they have often been overlooked or ignored because it is assumed that everybody knows them, therefore everyone is doing them. An alternative approach might be to assume that not everybody is doing them and that true innovation will occur when these well-recognised evidence-based educational methods and strategies are practised every day, by every teacher and student, and across all classrooms and schools and the supports and infrastructures that sit behind them. A concerted and systemic effort to commit to the elements of responsive practice outlined in this report may lead, over time, to more neurodiverse specific strategies and innovations. Alternatively, they may result in neurodiverse students simply becoming embedded in their classrooms and schools in a way that significantly reduces the need for them. Both of these outcomes would be positive.
- The Ministry now has a broader and more inclusive way of understanding the term neurodiversity, in response to communities with an interest in neurodiversity. This broader understanding includes neurodiversity as part of the disability rights movement. The concept of neurodiversity builds on our understanding of all learners for their strengths and unique ways of being . Understanding and valuing the neurodiversity of tamariki, helps us to create learning environments that are welcoming, responsive, and inclusive.