What All Schools Can Do to Support Neurodiverse Learners
With thanks to Pete Wharmby (Centre for Research in Autism and Education, CRAE Annual Lecture, 2023)
10 Things All Schools Can Do
- Make sure that all staff know the profile for all relevant learners.
- Have a mentor for each neurodiverse learner – one in which they have some agency.
- Educate all staff about autism – if they have knowledge, they can do a lot.
- Work with your community – employers need to understand neurodiversity, too.
- Open up the issue of difference – move it from insult to fascinating.
- Promote tolerance of and accommodation of difference.
- Accommodate idiosyncrasies (e.g. stimming, walking around, repetitive behaviours, sensitivity to noise, obsessive interests).
- Make the school sensitive to known or potential triggers “of stress or behaviours”. e.g.
- Changes to routine or schedule
- Group work
- Work deadlines
- Reading aloud
- Picking teams
- Prioritise positive relationships with learners and parents (e.g. regular dialogue with parents; support groups for parents) – working together is in everyone’s interests.
- Have available appropriate therapeutic strategies.
Guidance for Schools
The 10 suggestions above provide a useful checklist. They can also be used to create a workshop activity for staff that will sensitise everyone to the issue of supporting neurodiverse learners. They were stimulated by Pete Wharmby’s presentation at the 2023 CRAE Annual Lecture, and most of them were specifically referenced there. Pete is an autistic teacher, writer, speaker, advocate and author. Below are two suggestions about how “10 Things” might be used.
- The first is a simple “bright spots” activity, designed to identify the best of what is currently happening in all 10 areas. The logic of discussing bright spots is to build from the best of what currently happens. “What are the characteristics of this that could be applied more broadly?” and “What would be required to have more like this?”
- The second is an evaluative activity to identify strengths and areas for growth – what is going well (or not) and what more might be done.
- Pre-arrange groups so that there is a good mix of experiences and roles in each group. Prepare a facilitator for each group – someone who will advocate for the activity.
- In groups, discuss the “bright spots” in your school for each of the 10 items. What is the best of what you do? What are the key features of these bright spots?
- Then, come together with new ideas being suggested for each of the 10 items, where relevant, based on the principles or features of your bright spots.
- Before the activity, create sets of cards with one of the 10 suggestions on each card plus five blank cards (to add new things). One set is required for each group.
- Pre-arrange groups (as above).
- First, each group discusses whether they have additional ideas to add on the blank cards.
- They then sort out their top 10 as a group.
- Groups come together and are facilitated to create a composite or consensus top 10 across the groups (“Our school’s top 10 ideas”).
Subsidiary activity either in groups or as a whole staff:
- Arrange this top 10 into three groups – things we do well; things we need to improve on quite a lot; things we value but are not currently ready to do.
- Using post-it notes (green for positive affirmation, amber for creative improvement ideas, red for “we’re not close on this”), decorate ideas around the ten cards, starting with amber, then green, then, if time, red.
Farmington Public Schools
Our fifth graders took action in collaboration with the Farmington green Efforts Commission by participating in a local anti-idiling campaign. As civic-minded contributors, this was a wonderful opportunity to engage in stewardship in our town. Students have been studying how human activities impact the Earth’s sphere, and more specifically, how the burning of fossil fuels impacts the atmosphere.
As part of this project, fifth graders collected and analysed data about idiling in the west woods parking lot before and after school. They learned more about idiling from Ms. Caitlin Stern, an enivronment analyst in the Bureau of Air Management at the Department of Energy and Environmental protection.
Next, in a special appearance on the Wildcat News, Ms. Cate Grady-Benson of the Farmington Green Efforts Commission explained the charge of their committee and its campaign. She invited students to participate in a sign-making contest to promote anti-idling in our town.
In order to learn what makes an effective sign, students used several resources, including a presentation from the West Woods art teacher, Mrs. Lantange. She offered tips and suggestions on how to think like an artist while creating designs (colours that work well together, the right medium, and excellent craftsmanship).
Eight of the signs designed by students were selected by the Green Efforts Commission. Final image edits were done by a Farmington High School students under the guidance of the art teacher. The signs will be professionally printed by DEEP and posted at each of the Farmington schools and the Town Hall.
As a civic-minded contributor, I can take action to protect the Earth’s atmosphere. I can promote community awareness about idling by collaborating with the Farmington Green Efforts Commission & DEEP.
“I think it’s good to take action because there’s things in the world that we need to stand up for. Before this unit I didn’t know about idling. I’m pretty sure even my parents didn’t, but I told my parents and they haven’t been idling ever since.”
Lisa Mishriky, Laura Munafo, Elizabeth Smith, 7th Grade Language Arts
Alysson Olsen, Library Media Specialist
Trisha Irving, Humanities Specialist
Irving A. Robbins Middle School, Farmington, CT
During the Podcast Challenge, seventh graders research, script, record, and edit “podcasts with purpose” on a topic of interest. Students decide whether their podcast will inform, serve as a call to action, or entertain their listeners. Some of our topics this year included: the insulin shortage in the U.S., cryptozoology, e-waste, the importance of music education, cybersecurity, worker’s rights, and more! Students have the opportunity to conduct interviews with professionals in their field of study, attend feedback workshops facilitated by eighth graders who previously completed the project, and create their own music and sound effects. The project culminates with a Celebration of Learning where students pose questions to a panel of experts, listen to each other’s podcasts, and engage in reflective interviews with one another. Students are then invited to enter their original creations into two national competitions with National Public Radio or the New York Times.
“I am most proud of how much working with students on their podcasts really deepened my relationships with them. This project truly cultivated trust. I was able to focus more on guiding from the side as a coach while watching them run away with the passion for their topic and the project. It was truly a student-driven experience.”
– Lisa Mishriky
“I really liked the Podcast Challenge project. It was fun to research with a partner and learn about something we both really wanted to learn about. Creating the podcast from start to finish – research to editing – was really interesting and made me really proud. It didn’t feel like school to be honest.”
“The interview with the professionals was the highlight of my project. It was really awesome to interview someone about a topic that we were all so passionate about.”
Sharon Becker, Beth Block, Kerry Visone, 8th Grade Science Teachers
Alysson Olsen, LIbrary Media Specialist
Irving A. Robbins Middle School, Farmington, CT
When was the last time you took a moment to educate yourself on your own well-being or on factors that could affect your future health and those of people you care about? Our 8th graders educate our IAR community about the interdependent systems of the human body as related to a medical topic of their choice. Many students chose personally meaningful areas of study related to family, friends or even their own personal medical and/or mental health situations. Students had the chance to research using databases, books and reliable websites. They even had the opportunity to interview medical experts in our community where they could ask specific questions related to their research. Students presented on topics from Parkinson’s disease to diabetes, to broken bones and selective mutism. The choice of engaging newsletters, powerful MedTalks, and captivating screencasts allowed our students to shine in their own unique ways as civic-minded contributors. They educated our community about the causes, effects, treatments, and implications of their topic. Students also raised money via school-wide pajama days – money collected that project winners, voted on by their peers, could donate to charities related to their medical moment topic.
“It is incredibly rewarding to watch students go through the process from choosing a disease, disorder, or neurodiversity to becoming an expert on that topic. I continue to be in awe of how much they learn throughout the process. Medical Moment is a highlight of the school year!”
– Kerry Visone
“I am most proud of how the students become more aware and more thoughtful and understanding of how people’s daily lives are affected by the different medical conditions that are presented.”
– Beth Block
“It helped educate people on different diseases and disorders, which I think is going to be very helpful when we grow up into adults (some of us might even go into the medical field because of this project).”
“I think Medical Moment really helped me understand many different aspects of the medical field and what people do everyday to save lives. The project helped me become more aware and appreciative for everyone in the medical field.”
“This project helped me be a more positive global citizen because I am now more aware of medical conditions and am less likely to judge before I know the whole story.”
Tim Briggs, 11th Grade Humanities
For this project, students researched, wrote, and self-published a collection of choose your own adventure stories based on U.S. History. To create their story, each student researched a historical time period and created a story map of possible choices for their character based on the significant events in their era. In writing their stories, students incorporated dialogue, sensory details, and narrative techniques to create gripping second person narratives. Each narrative was then edited by a student editorial team while other students created original art and designed a layout to format our book for publication. At our final exhibition, students presented their work to teachers, students, and community members at the Grossmont Literary Arts Festival.
“This project far exceeded my expectations for the depth and complexity of the students’ narratives. What I had envisioned as a 200- 300 page book sprawled to nearly 600 pages as the students dug deeper into their historical periods and created pathways for their character to explore different events. Students were invested in the creation and publication of our book. Every narrative was reviewed and edited by a team of students for content and historical accuracy and then formatted for publication by our design team. It inspired me to see students work hard to prepare our book and take pride in completing such a large task as a team.”
– Tim Briggs
“Being a member of various groups helped me develop new skills. As a member of the editing group, I improved my understanding of grammar and writing by reviewing the work of other students. I also learned how to use Adobe Acrobat to publish our writing in a professional format. Being a part of the leadership and exhibition crew made me step out my comfort zone and practice my communication and leadership skills. Overall, the project helped me not only to become a more creative writer, but it also let me improve how I work with other students.”
This term, Gevurah’s project focused on the issue of animal cruelty and ways to combat it. They asked themselves, “How can we increase awareness about animal cruelty?” and conducted extensive research on the mistreatment of animals, including sea creatures and how they are impacted by water pollution. As a final product, they presented their findings in a symposium on animal cruelty for their classmates. The project spanned across multiple subjects including English, PSHE, DT, and Science. Throughout the term, students engaged in various activities such as creating written narratives about animals, presenting on cruelty towards sea life, designing leaflets with tips for the public to help prevent animal cruelty. Additionally, their PSHE lessons focused on community and careers, where they explored different animal-related professions and emphasised the importance of community involvement in animal welfare. In Science, students learned about ecological relationships and how they contribute to animal protection. The class even had their own aquarium to learn about proper animal care. Lastly, within DT, students learned about branding and how it can be used to raise awareness and funds for a cause. Using graphic design software called Canva, they created banners to promote a charity that they established to combat animal cruelty.
Overall, this project was a success, our students were fully captivated by the topic and excited to expand on their knowledge. High points of the project included our trip to Champions Wharf Play Beach, where our students demonstrated their social action skills by handing out leaflets informing the general public about ocean pollution and helping to clear the local area of dangerous rubbish that could harm the local wildlife. If I could think of one improvement for this project, I think it would have been even more effective to have been able to explore our local habitats in science more but with the weather so cold, all the organisms had started to hibernate or take shelter. I am so proud of what Gevurah has managed to accomplish with their analysis of Animal Farm, working hard to develop their skills and writing ‘Point evidence explanation’ paragraphs.
– Natasha Brandon
“I thought the project was very good because the big question is very important to the world” – Poppy
“My favorite part was visiting Whipsnade Zoo and seeing a baby wolverine” – Rafael
In the Autumn One term, Zayit class worked on a new project to start their school year. The project was linked to their topic of ‘All About Me’ and focused on learning related to their big question: ‘What makes me ‘me’?’
Through the course of the term, they developed their Art, PSED (Personal, Social, and Emotional Development), and Kodesh knowledge and skills as they learned more about themselves and their school friends and teachers. They linked learning to developing their Zayit class culture, friendships, and self-care skills. They also focused on learning about and celebrating the Jewish festivals they had that half term; Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.
After their project, Zayit hosted an art exhibition to share their body map artworks that they had created to share ‘All About Me’ with their fellow students at Gesher School. They also participated in a sponsored fun run, alongside Seorah class, to raise money for charity.
“Our “All About Me” project was a great start to the school year. The children were able to share their interests and their families, with a focus on establishing a positive class culture.
The Children’s Charity fun run to raise money for Norwood and the Pinner Shul was a highlight of the term. It was so inspiring to see the children train hard together in the lead-up to the big day, and it was fantastic to see the whole school and our class parents turn up to the park to be our cheer squad.
It was another successful project for Zayit class!”
– Leigh Kennedy
“I liked this project because it taught me all about my body and eating healthy food.” – Eli
“I learnt about brushing my teeth and washing my hands! The highlight of the project was the Fun Run.” – Adam
“The highlight of the project was the Fun Run and running with Rafi.” – Eli
Creating a Life Skills Space Within a School
Danielle Petar, Emily Bacon, Michal Geller
At Gesher we want our young people to enjoy school. We want them to enjoy learning with one another and supporting each other to succeed. We want them to have great experiences; to love physical and creative activities; to enjoy the unity of a shared faith; to find things in the curriculum that they can be passionate about; to be proud of their exhibitions of work and the real-world projects that make a difference in our community. And, of course, we want them to leave us with the best qualifications possible.
All that having been said, we are a school for young people, many of whom started their school career in a mainstream school which was not well equipped to support them. Parents (and young people as they mature) inevitably have concerns about how well they will cope with the mainstream life of employment and relationships and independent living. This is the world beyond Gesher.
And this is why we have developed a coherent, progressive and continuously evolving life skills curriculum. We are passionate about preparing learners to be assured and adept when they eventually progress from Gesher, as employees, friends, partners and citizens of the world.
Creating a life skills space within a school
Ask ChatGPT what you need to set up a life skills classroom and you’ll be given a list of eight steps which include finding a space, making a budget and employing a member of staff. Do some of your own research via academic articles and practical textbooks and the same three themes emerge. Sadly, what the AI and the “old-fashioned” research tool don’t take into account is that schools are not generally known for having spare rooms, giant financial budgets, or bonus staff on hand to deliver extra lessons. It can therefore be difficult to know where to start with something like life skills, which generally falls largely outside the traditional curriculum subjects like Maths, English and Science.
In Issue Two of The Bridge, we featured an article about Gesher’s life skills curriculum, so we won’t pretend that we were starting from scratch when we created our life skills classroom space. We knew what our curriculum required by way of facilities. We also won’t pretend that we weren’t lucky enough to have a small space in our school, a modest budget and a skilled member of staff to deliver our sessions. Perhaps we made our own luck!
However, the journey we have travelled puts us in a position to share some of our insights in a practical and accessible way. We are also conscious that, as a result of our own journey, there isn’t a huge amount of practical advice out there for schools wanting to implement and integrate life skills-related learning. We hope this article helps.
Ideally you will find a space, but it can be a shared space.
How we’ve done it
We moved school sites in 2021 and, as such, were in the fortunate position of being able to include in our plans a dedicated space within our building for life skills – in other words, to give it equal claim in the allocation of space, rather than stealing space back from existing use. However, even the room we are currently using is a temporary solution which is shared with our library. (Although, of course, library use is a life skill, too!) To manage this space the room is carefully timetabled to allow for classes to use the library and for classes to use the life skills space. The room is also used for lunchtime clubs and school council meetings, and can be available as an extra learning space.
Things you could try in your setting
Despite the title of this article specifically referring to a space, there is no necessity for life skills to take place in just one place. We could have called it “Creating a life skills mindset”. Areas such as the lunch hall and the staff room (when not being used by staff) are ready-made life skills areas because of the practical and real-world activities that take place in them. The lunch hall, for example, can be used to practise setting the table and preparing food while the staff room is likely to contain a dishwasher, sink, and perhaps even an oven, making it an ideal environment for students to work on kitchen-based skills.
What’s coming next
One of the end goals for the life skills space at Gesher is to have a full-size, self-contained flat which includes a kitchen, bedroom and living area for students to be able to access during their life skills sessions. To do this we are keen to have students’ input to the design and to make it relevant to their interests.
Making good use of the space
How we’ve done it
Our classroom space is set up to emulate elements of a small flat with a kitchen area, a bed and a sofa. Within the room, each item is labelled to support the learning of organisation skills as well as encouraging independence. All of our students use the room once a week for their timetabled life skills lesson. In addition, we have a group of learners (known as our Life Skills Legends) who attend daily life skills sessions in the space. This gives them more time to practise skills and the way the room is laid out also means that skills can be practised in sequence. For example, when doing bedroom-related life skills, students can take the sheets off the bed, wash them in the washing machine, dry them on an airer and then put them back onto the bed.
Things you could try in your setting
If you don’t have the luxury of having a classroom space where life skills teaching can take place, then an alternative could be to have smaller life skills-related materials stored in one place and accessible to staff. For example, items such as a kettle, a toaster and a blender could be stored relatively easily and used for food preparation skills, while items like hairdryers, straighteners and mirrors could be available for students to practise self-care skills. (We’ve included a full list of resources in the Resources for Schools section of this issue). These materials could then be used for in-school sessions. Activities which require large resources, such as a bed or washing machine, could be completed as part of homework tasks which are developed alongside parents. (It is a feature of our programme that parents are partners – deliverers and accreditors.)
What’s coming next
The next phase would be transferring some of the basic life skills activities into employment-related ones. For example, opening an on-site cafe run by the students would allow for greater independence around their food and drink preparation skills. Other examples are creating an allotment on the grounds, planning and running a school visit, or hosting an employers’ event.
Equipping the space
How we’ve done it
To furnish and equip the life skills rooms, we appealed for donations of furniture from our students’ families and friends, as well as a small amount of financial support from a community donor. Before adding anything to the room we involved parents as well as students to hear their thoughts about what should be included. The clearest piece of feedback that we received from both groups was that the room should be a place where students (as much as possible) could do things independently.
Things you could try in your setting
In the Resources for Schools section at the back of this issue, we have included a shopping list of items that might be useful for life skills sessions. Alongside each item on the list are ideas and suggestions for use. By no means do we have all the answers to these questions, so we would love to hear from you with further creative ideas. You can email us directly via [email protected].
Things that we would like to do…
Moving forward, we would like to incorporate more technology into our life skills sessions. In the first instance, this could involve using online banking and doing an online food shop. However, we would also like eventually to include working with artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT which, despite offering a rather generic answer to our opening question, will undoubtedly be a huge part of our students’ lives in the future.
Professional Prompt Questions
Is life skills education on the agenda for your students, especially the ones most likely to be challenged by the transition to life beyond school?
What ideas in this article have most resonance for you? What ideas does your school have that you could share on an email as suggested above?
If life skills is not currently a high priority in your school, who might you need to gather together to read this article (and the one in The Bridge 2) and to discuss possible ways forward?