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Neurodivergent Student Panel: Part 2 Helpful Supports

REEL recently hosted a learning differences simulation at a local independent school. After experiencing firsthand the struggles of students with learning differences and disabilities during REEL’s simulation, the staff engaged in an engrossing Q&A with a panel of the school’s students. Here are some of the insights their neurodivergent and disabled students shared about how schools can best support them. Part 1 explores challenges and Part 2 explores helpful supports.

Describe a teacher(s) who really understood you and helped you learn the best. What were some of the ways the teacher supported you?

One of the most helpful teacher supports, mentioned by several students, is working proactively with the student to find solutions. One student discussed her most helpful teacher, “Junior year I got accommodations. A teacher reached out to discuss the information with me so the teacher could better understand what I needed. Then anytime the teacher noticed I might need extra help, the teacher would reach out and suggest it. Like, ‘Do you want to go to a quiet room, or put on headphones in this moment?’ She was with me 105% and she saw what I needed.” 

Another student shared a similar story, “In 6th grade, math was taking me hours. One day I went up to my teacher for help, and he helped me identify which were the critical problems to do, and which ones I could skip. In this way, I could take the same amount of time as my peers and still get the core concepts. Also the teacher was willing to put in the extra time to wait for me after school to finish tests. He worked with me, instead of us working against each other to get accommodations. It was really powerful.”

Students find it helpful when teachers anticipate stressful situations and preempt the stress, or notice it happening live and actively support. One student shared, “Tests are really stressful so prior to a test, teachers helped me out. Teachers would help me during tests when they saw me crying at my desk. Teachers would take me outside quietly. One teacher agreed to let me take tests afterwards in the library.”

Students also really appreciate it when they aren’t singled out for their accommodations. A student shared one example, “My English teacher supported me well. She asked everyone to indicate on a sticky note whether certain types of music would be okay to play. She made it about everyone rather than one person, in a safe way.”

What are some other ways teachers can support students who are neurodivergent or disabled?

Neurodivergent students, like anyone else, don’t want to be judged for their differences. They want to be seen as a whole person with strengths and receive positive reinforcement. One student shared, “When I got my neuropsych report, they told me that when I’m good at something I’m really good at it! And when I’m weak, I’m really weak. So I use my strengths to cover my weaknesses, and sometimes my weaknesses cover my strengths. I think it is important to see the whole person, and not those pieces that are covering each other. Also - I am hard on myself. I know what I did wrong, I know how I should have done it, and it wasn’t on purpose. Positive reinforcement is way more effective than negative. I already know how to beat myself up about stuff - you don’t have to do that. Don’t point out my accommodation needs. Talk privately to me after class, email me privately, don't single me out.”

Students also discussed the importance of being given time limits on homework, consistent deadlines, and letting requirements go in order to focus on the big picture. One student suggested, “Homework that is creative and open-ended, I can hyperfocus on that, and I can’t stop. If I have those creative assignments I’ll just keep on going and going. On the other hand worksheets, with clear starting and ending points, those are less overwhelming. So if we have creative open-ended assignments, give a timing budget. Make it clear I should only spend a certain amount of time. That would help me know how much time I have and when I have to stop.” Another shared, “It’s always a struggle, teachers want to give extensions. But if you say, ‘Whenever you can’, for me that means it’s never going to happen. A big part of school for students is learning how to manage themselves and figure out how to do things, but when a student is still learning this, provide us scaffolding.” Some students need extensions, for others it creates stress as work piles up, it’s best to check with each student to see what works best for them.

Because every neurodivergent student has different needs, the students emphasized the importance of working with each student and the importance of flexibility. At the end of the session, one student summed it up, “How can you support neurodivergent students? It’s so different for each student, and even different at different times, different minutes even. Sometimes I can do something today that I couldn’t do yesterday. It’s going to change all the time.” Ultimately, it is important that teachers, “understand that it’s not one size fits all. Neurodivergent students have different needs,” and “The best thing you can do for students is to be flexible.”

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