By Janet Baird, Bright Morning Senior Associate
What is Neurodivergence?
My journey with neurodivergence started about 15 years ago when my oldest son, J.T., was born. He is neurodiverse, which simply means his brain is wired differently. At three years old he was diagnosed with a variety of processing disabilities: auditory, sensory, visual, motor planning. He was labeled and put on an IEP. We were told to prepare ourselves for the fact that he might not be in a traditional kindergarten classroom. And I became an emotional mess. This wasn’t what I had signed up for. I had to grieve for the life I had pictured for him. The life I so desperately wanted for him.
We started some intense therapy that was geared towards rewiring his brain. And let me tell you, neuroplasticity is a beautiful thing! One of his speech therapists in those early years explained his brain best:
Our brains are like a filing cabinet. When you ask a person a question like How was your weekend? they open up their filing cabinet and have a ton of labeled folders in the cabinet. They go to the folder labeled “weekend,” and they can access any of the stories within to share. When you ask J.T., How was your weekend? he opens up his filing cabinet and there are papers everywhere. No organized network of information. No easy or quick way to access what he needs.
JT has worked hard to build neural pathways, to create some sort of organization in his brain. At the end of second grade, he tested out of Special Ed. We celebrated this, but we quickly realized that school was still a big challenge for him, and standardized tests were his biggest nightmare. In 6th grade, his class read a chapter of a book together aloud in class. At the end of the class, the teacher had students independently answer the reading comprehension questions that went along with the chapter. For homework, they needed to complete any questions that they didn’t have time for in class. J.T. came home with the questions and no answers completed. As is a regular nightly occurrence, we sat down to talk about his homework. And he shared, “Mom, it was so crazy. We finished reading the chapter and everyone just started writing answers to the questions. How did they know what the answers were?” He had no way of accessing the information he had taken in while reading. He needed to create some neural pathways for learning. He needed time to verbally process what he was learning. He needed me to make my thinking visible so he could then use the same approach to the questions himself.
But ask JT who won the World Series in 2008 or 1998 or even 1988, what the score was and who won the MVP trophy or even which receiver you should play in your fantasy football league, and his responses will be spot on. He has amazed people with his sports knowledge, and many of his friends say he is one of the smartest kids they know.
A few years ago, I was part of a cohort taking a course to become a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Implementation Coach for my district. UDL was new to me, but as I explored the main text of the course, Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice, I was immediately drawn to this work. I was excited to dive in. UDL is a framework designed to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn. This seemed like the perfect complement to the journey my district was on with culturally responsive teaching, and I connected with UDL on a personal level as well.
As part of my training to be a UDL Implementation Coach, I attended a workshop with Katie Novak, a renowned UDL expert, and she shared the concept of variability of learners as opposed to the more commonly used label of disability. YES! Variability. This is the shift in thinking that is needed. We need to start seeing all our students for the variabilities they bring to the classroom.
Labeling J.T. with a disability seemed so disempowering and placed him within a box. Educating him on the variability of his brain felt so empowering. Thinking about variability opened up space for holding more than one truth; he could struggle with reading comprehension questions AND he could have an amazingly vast knowledge of sports. As he got older, he was able to understand more about his brain. He knows that it processes information differently and this awareness has been so beneficial to his success.
Building Neurodiverse, Equitable Schools
When I think about building equitable schools, I think about how this takes some radical change in our approach to education. This takes a shift in our thinking and our actions. This also takes a systems approach to removing barriers. We need to embrace the neurodivergence and variability of our students. We need to empower our students by seeing them for who they are. We need to do whatever it takes to help all our students thrive. Here are three strategies that you can try tomorrow to create a more equitable school:
- Ask your students how their brains learn best and honor their responses. Students in this video share how their brains are varied and what they need from you their teacher. For J.T., he had an amazing biology teacher his freshman year who allowed him to retake his tests orally. He would make written corrections and then go in and talk to his teacher about the concepts. He needed to be able to express his conceptual knowledge this way. And they would keep having conversations until his teacher was confident in his understanding of the concept.
- Allow for choice in assignments or selected reading. Provide a rigorous environment and remember that there are many paths to mastery. Dispel the myth of average. As you do this, create a space for students to share their stories.
- Focus on the bright spots and the strengths of what students can do. When you see a student who has a blank paper in front of them, don’t assume that they are apathetic or don’t care about school. Build relationships with your students. Check your biases. Find out why they didn’t complete the assignment. And look with a critical eye at the assignment itself. Did you keep the variability of learners in mind when you designed it?
Each of these strategies helps to remove the barriers to learning that exist in our schools. Removing barriers is necessary to achieve equitable schools—schools where every student gets whatever they need to thrive every day.
That’s every child regardless of the zip code in which they live, the languages spoken at home, regardless of race or ethnicity, regardless of socioeconomic status, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, regardless of ability—every child gets whatever they need to thrive in school every day. Every child, every day, period. Embrace your students variabilities and watch them thrive.