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Learning differently: How neurodivergent students can thrive in class

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As society learns more about the diverse ways people learn, a growing number of educators is advocating for more inclusive, creative approaches to teaching.

One of those educators is Mary Klovance. She's a school counsellor and the owner and clinical director of the Neurodiversity Family Centre in Victoria, B.C. She also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD.)

In order to better support neurodivergent students, Klovance said it's important that educators understand some of the language around neurodivergence.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, “neurodiversity” is a word used to explain the unique ways all people's brains work, since no two brains function identically.

"Neurodiversity is actually a blanket term," Klovance told CTV's Your Morning on Thursday. "It is everybody. Everybody's got neurodiversity, so any human with a brain is neurodiverse."

Being neurodivergent means having a brain that works differently from the average or “neurotypical” person. For example, people who learn and perceive in atypical ways – such as those with ADHD or autism spectrum disorder – are considered neurodivergent.

Klovance said there are teaching approaches educators can take to help neurodivergent students flourish in school.

THE FLIPPED CLASSROOM

One approach, known as the "flipped classroom," reverses the traditional classroom experience, so students take lessons at home and complete their work in the classroom. Klovance said it's based on the idea that people don't learn by simply absorbing information, but by working through and engaging with that information.

In a flipped classroom, a teacher might post a video lecture online for students to view outside of the classroom, in their own time. This way, students can control how they receive and absorb the information in the lecture by speeding the video up, slowing it down, breaking it into chunks or pausing it to take notes.

"So you can really take your time to absorb the information," Klovance said. "And then the actual learning is really done in the classroom, when you get to discuss the concepts (and) when you get to ask the questions to the teacher. It's the engagement piece."

Klovance said this approach helps address the problem of students becoming stuck on homework assignments when they have questions about the learning material that won't be answered until the next time they attend class.

"Often… you'll go to class, get a lecture and then they're like, 'OK, go home and do the homework,'" she said. "If you don't have a teacher to ask questions, you get stuck, and how much are you actually absorbing at that time?"

PROJECT-BASED LEARNING

Another approach Klovance said can be helpful for neurodivergent students is project-based learning, also known as "inquiry-based learning." In this approach, students pitch project topics that interest them and learning is done solely through these projects.

"It's really about finding out what a student's interest area is, let's say in an English class, and basically half of the semester is just them focusing on that interest," she said.

Klovance said this method can be especially helpful for students with ADHD and autism, since one trait both conditions share is the tendency to hyperfocus on a task or subject.

"So if I can pick something I really like, I can write some articles about it, I can do a research paper, I can do all this stuff about something I actually care about," Klovance said, "which is going to make me engaged, interested (and) hand things in on time."

By leveraging students' ability to hyperfocus, Klovance said project-based learning can help minimize some of the negative traits associated with ADHD, like difficulties with time management.

ADAPTING THE ENVIRONMENT

Rather than expecting neurodivergent students to conform to usual classroom expectations, Klovance said most teachers can do a better job of embracing neurodiversity.

Neurodivergent students don't always benefit from typical approaches to learning, but she said most neurotypical students should respond well to strategies like flipped classrooms and project-based learning. So by adapting lessons to help meet the needs of neurodivergent students, teachers can hopefully support everyone.

"I think what happens is (people) think neurodivergent folk are the 'other,'" she said. "But…whatever is going to work for us is going to work for everybody, so I really like to focus on changing the environment." 

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