For Teachers

How to Spark Neurodivergent Minds: Everyday Teaching Solutions

How do you support and encourage the neurodivergent students in your classroom? ADDitude asked educators to share their solutions to common learning challenges, and here teachers share all the ways they accommodate and celebrate all of their students.

Student in pink sweatshirt smiles as she sits at her desk and receives help from the teacher.

Teaching one class of students means adapting, personalizing, and bringing to life lesson plans for two dozen or more distinct and dazzling brains. No two children learn in exactly the same way or at the same speed, but the chasm between neurotypical and neurodivergent students can sometimes feel impossible to bridge — even for the most experienced teacher.

Which is why ADDitude recently asked a panel of educators: What are some of the most helpful solutions you’ve found to meet your students’ learning challenges?

“I focus on a ‘child first’ mentality,” one teacher shared. “I tell students about my own ADHD often,” said another. “I’m still working on it,” said a third, “but I just implemented a structured study hall where I directly teach executive function skills.”

If you are the teacher of a student with ADHD, autism, or a learning difference, try one of these strategies to implement in the classroom. You might be surprised to find that you already use some of them.

Neurodivergent Teaching Solutions

“I try to never approach a situation as something the child is choosing to do wrong, but instead as something they are having difficulty with. For example, I might say, ‘It looks like your body needs to move right now. Why don’t you go get a drink at the water fountain and then come back? That might help your body settle down.'”

“Since I teach middle school health, I start each semester with a lesson on neuroplasticity to help normalize making mistakes and figuring out what went wrong. From there, I have students do an executive functions checklist to share with parents and guardians at home so they understand what might be getting in their way of being more successful.”

[Download: Executive Dysfunctions Checklist]

“Explain the connection between emotions and ADHD. Of course you’re procrastinating that paper; it’s causing so much anxiety, guilt, and dread that your brain sees it as a threat! Our brains can’t tell the difference between a difficult assignment and a bear about to attack us. Taking a few minutes to explore and reflect on those emotions (and a few slow breaths) can help them realize that they’re not actually in danger from the assignment.”

“I try to set systems for everything. I have the doorstop outline traced on the floor so they don’t get locked out. I have arrows on the floor showing walking paths for crowded areas like our mailboxes. I have one bin where every piece of work gets turned in and, next to it, a bin for anything that comes from parents.”

“Our school uses a points system that ties in just about anything [students] do as a way to earn points and, thereby, rewards or special privileges.”

“Include learning activities that focus on their strengths. For example, I have a child who is very artistic and has had a hard time focusing. To show her understanding of the books that we read, I have her draw pictures to summarize chapters or sections. For another extremely active boy, I give him tasks that involve movement.”

[Read: 10 Captivating Audiobooks for Middle Grade Readers]

“I institute the ‘Take Another Look’ approach for tests and quizzes. I mark only correct answers but allow students to take another look at the ones that were incorrect to improve their grade and perhaps their self-esteem… Everybody wins, though the teacher has to do a little more work.”

“Meet the student where they are. Tailor instructions to their specific strengths and show them support. With encouragement and positive praise or rewards, they tend to have less trouble with the task being asked of them.”

“I’m working on including more chances for students to work together on new skills — both as a full class and in small groups — before they are asked to demonstrate the skill on their own.”

“When a student comes to me with a problem, I don’t dismiss it as though he is just making excuses. I listen to what he’s trying to say and usually find a legitimate concern.”

“Each semester, I like to pretend to time travel when the bell rings, and that my students can help me by hiding their devices like cell phones that ‘don’t exist yet.’ If I see it, I take it. And I am diligent about it, especially in the first weeks, to set expectations. I don’t just implement these rules, but I also explain why they are beneficial to me and to the students to increase buy-in.”

“When students disclose their diagnosis, I can more easily discuss and personalize the learning approach. Typically, however, I try to adjust my teaching and recommendations so that any student — regardless of whether they have ADHD or LD — can be successful.”

“Developing metacognitive self-awareness using tally systems or other systems of tracking off-task behavior can support students in becoming more mindful.”

“A daily check-in and check-out procedure helps students with ADHD at the middle and high school levels.”

The Educator’s Guide to ADHD: Next Steps

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