As a clinical psychologist, I have seen multiple sides of the process for accommodating students’ unique needs in the classroom. I have served as the assessing clinician who makes an initial diagnosis of ADHD or a learning disorder, and I have been in the position of an instructor who needs to work with a student and disability services to ensure that the student has sufficient opportunity to succeed in my course. When I disclose that I have clinical training, I find a number of students coming forward to discuss problems with anxiety and other disorders that may impede their learning, although I have to be careful to inform them of the strict boundaries I hold in order to avoid engaging in inappropriate dual roles.
More and more instructors, even those without my specialized training, are beginning to recognize the presence of neurodiversity in their classrooms. Although this term has classically been associated with autism spectrum disorders, it has since expanded to encompass a wide variety of cognitive and emotional conditions and differences. Essentially, this is a movement to encourage the recognition of these differences as part of a continuum of human experience, on par with other disabilities or variations, and not strictly as pathologies that must be treated in order to bring someone into alignment with the norm.
I thought it was timely to discuss neurodiversity in preparation for tomorrow’s VT GrATE Brown Bag on inclusiveness in the classroom. More specifically, I’d like to share my perspective and some ideas I’ve had about how to make students at many points on the neurodiversity continuum feel more welcome in class.
Put advocacy in the hands of the student, not the institution. Although some diagnoses are easily recognized and accommodated (e.g., ADHD, learning disorders), others may not be. Tweak the language in your syllabus so that even students without an official letter from disability services have an opportunity to talk with you about their needs and see if anything can be done to improve their learning. It may not require a big change from you. For example, I recently heard about an instructor who purposefully uses large type on slides and provides captions for videos shown in class to better accommodate those with visual or hearing difficulties. As another example, many students are not served well by a traditional lecture format, and your adjustments could make a major difference in their grade.
Offer options. I have frequently had students with social anxiety come up to me after class and disclose their fears about doing group work or having to give a presentation. I don’t shy away from these learning opportunities or typically let students off the hook for doing them (exposure is the gold standard treatment for anxiety), but I do try to make it so that the entire grade isn’t based on one or two assignments, and I ensure that other assignments are less directly dependent on social interaction. You could consider extra credit, which all students will appreciate but will directly help students who lose points for not having polished speaking skills. Another idea is to allow students to divide up group work based on their strengths–maybe the shy student can write up the paper, and another student present it. Both will be expected to contribute equally, but neither feels as if he or she is forced to be uncomfortable.
Be kind when students struggle. Almost every semester, I have at least one student who faces insurmountable obstacles that keep interfering with his or her performance. In several cases, the student has disclosed to me that after many attempts to get to class and catch up, his or her mood disorder, relationship distress, or traumatic experience has caused a formal medical leave to be necessary. You don’t have to be a doormat, and I certainly encourage laying out a clear late work and absence policy in your syllabus, but know that it’s okay (and often very appreciated) to be flexible and supportive. One student I had withdrew due to depression in the fall, was back in my class in the spring, and got an A. I can’t help but think that my supportive attitude may have encouraged her to want to work with me again.
I’m really curious about what you all have to say about this topic during our brown bag. See you there!