Is Your School Ready to Support Neurodiversity?

Students with learning or social challenges have been questioned as to whether they are a “good fit” in many independent schools, which often pride themselves on accepting high-achieving academic students who will be shoe-ins for top universities or secondary schools. However, with a current estimation of one in five children having a learning disorder, as well as market shifts in school choice, there is a compelling reason to create space in independent schools for those with alternate learning styles.
With neuroscience making its way into education, there is ever increasing focus on brains and learning. During distance learning, parents began paying particular attention to how their children were learning, watching them succeed (or miserably fail) and questioning what was going on with schools and with their kids. Parents now want more say in educational decisions and more accountability from schools, as well as more individual attention for their children—especially those who are not successful in the mainstream environment.
Students who don’t succeed in a typical school setting are “neurodivergent”; they differ in some way neurologically from what is considered to be normal. The term is often associated with students on the autistic spectrum or with special needs, though the term encompasses differences in attention and language processing, among other things. Different brains tend to learn in a variety of ways; thus, the term “learning style” refers to varying ways of processing and retaining information. All schools have students who are neurodiverse—every single brain in the entire world is neurodiverse, and no one brain is typical in all areas. But are schools ready to intentionally address and support neurodiverse students from a cultural, admission, and program position? And if so, are systems in place to ensure student success?

Understanding Neurodiversity

Kindergarten and lower elementary teachers, often before parents, can be the first to notice challenges with reading, writing, fine motor skills, attention, and social interactions. While children in lower grades learn on a developmental spectrum, if a student does not progress in reading and numerical sense, this raises a red flag. Consistent professional development about how to identify, understand, and teach a variety of students is critical so that faculty and staff can put strategies in place. For example, rather than “seeing how it goes” until second or third grade, teachers who know how to identify learning styles in kindergarten and first grade can impact student success by differentiating instruction, using intensive reading programs, and requesting further assessment.
To do this, teachers could view students through a “learning-style lens,” which allows educators to more clearly see who needs support. A learning-style lens helps educators know the general types of learning disorders and move away from generalizing or using a blanket definition to label students. At times, teachers may think that a student “just doesn’t pay attention,” “avoids doing any work,” or “is messy and always losing things.” However, when the lens is adjusted to look beneath the surface, a teacher might see things differently. The student who isn’t paying attention may not be processing the information or understanding what is being asked. The student who avoids doing any work may be wondering why they can’t read what all the other students are reading. The student who is messy and loses things may have attention challenges.
As part of this work, some independent schools hire a learning specialist or a student support specialist and develop a system for identifying and tracking students through the years. Hiring for this position, however, requires schools to understand the purpose of the role and find the candidate with the proper experience. This role varies depending on the school, but generally encompasses overseeing individual support plans and accommodations as well as supporting students academically who may struggle for one reason or another.

Assessing Support Opportunities

Most independent schools would agree that neurodiversity exists in its student population. Embracing the reality that many students are neurodivergent means every student’s learning style is respected. It also means that the board and senior leadership have made a strategic, mission-oriented commitment to provide resources to meet these needs. They must then determine what level of academic and behavior support is appropriate for different types of students as well as budget considerations of these supports (for example, adding teaching specialists, materials, new curricular programs, etc.).
If a school has widened its level of support to accommodate students with a variety of learning styles, however, it might be time to conduct an audit. Over the past several years, more and more students have been identified as neurodivergent, mostly through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or a neuropsychological evaluation. Revisit the IEPs or neuropsychological reports. Who has read them and who knows they are there? These reports offer extensive knowledge about a student, and faculty and staff who teach, coach, or supervise should know they exist and what is in them (always making sure parents have authorized a release of information).
If your school truly wants to be diverse, now is the time to look at the type of support your school can and wants to offer. Is the school willing to make accommodations for students that go beyond the usual list (i.e.: sitting closer to the teacher, having time and a half on tests, using a multiplication chart, etc.)? Is the school able to make schedule changes for frequent breaks, have alternate seating and room to move around flexibly?
Support can be structured to be budget-conscious, and systems that benefit one student benefit all students. For example, scheduling changes so teachers have time to meet and collaborate means increased communication and planning among teachers for all students as well as the program. A strong referral system and resource list of outside professionals (clinical psychologists, educational therapists, speech and language pathologists, and occupational therapists) also is valuable. These types of support require time, but do not impact the budget the way adding additional faculty does.

Sending the Right Message

Moving forward, through marketing messages and admission, the school must be very clear about what level of support the school is willing to give. This clarifies the admission process for parents, the school, and the outside professional community. Within each learning style and with each student, the level of need varies tremendously. In the same class, two students with the same diagnosis could fare completely differently.
If a school does not thoughtfully handle its language and messaging around learning styles, opinions and biases will fill in the gaps. Why is a school admitting students who need learning specialists? Why is the school hiring reading teachers over basketball coaches? Students who are a little “different” also tend to be bullied more and misunderstood by other students. The school needs to convey an honest message of celebrating varying learning styles, not attaching a stigma to them or pretending they don’t exist.
Every school isn’t for every child. A school’s core values and mission have been developed for specific reasons. A school may be able to support certain types of learning challenges but not others. The priority is to plan conscientiously and strategically.
Questions for Reflection
Consider this list of questions to get your school started in marketing to, and meeting the needs of, the neurodivergent student population.
Mission and marketing:
  • What is the profile of a successful student at your school?
  • Is there a place for other student profiles?
  • Are there biases within the school toward students, say, who have autism or ADHD?
  • What kind of conversations have taken place about neurodiversity? Why?
  • Are there words of inclusivity used in the mission statement?
  • How willing is the community to embrace students who aren’t mainstream?
  • Is there someone who recognizes learning differences during an interview?
  • Who can read a neuropsychological report?
  • Who understands IEPs? 
  • Who can talk to parents without bias about a learning disability?
  • Is there clarity around admission based on level of support?
  • Is there any professional development around various learning styles? Teaching methods and methodologies?
  • Are there identified students in classes?
  • Do faculty get support?
  • Accommodations—are they enough?
  • Which students have what needs?
  • How are they identified? What happens next?
  • How do we communicate/track/goal set for these students?
  • How often do we communicate with parents? With the outside team?
  • Do we work with the outside team?
  • Where is documentation housed? Who sees it and are all legalities in place?
  • Does the school walk the walk in terms of differentiation?
  • Are there alternative assessment methods besides tests to demonstrate knowledge?
  • Is there flexibility in regards to learning spaces? Scheduling? Breaks?
  • What do the terms individualization and differentiation mean at your school?
Outside professionals (educational therapists, psychologists, occupational therapists, etc.):
  • Is there a referral list for teachers and parents?
  • Are professionals on marketing lists?
  • Do professionals have an accurate picture of who they might refer to the school?
  • Is the school open to input from professionals?
  • What is the perception of the school from outside professionals?
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Jacqueline Olivier

Jacqueline Olivier is strategic outreach and brand consultant at Rolling Hills Prep, Renaissance, and REACH Schools in San Pedro, California. She is a former head of school, the founder of Blue Marble Learning and Consulting, and has an extensive background in senior leadership in independent schools, differentiated instruction, startup school planning and implementation, curriculum design, individualized instruction, strategic outreach and branding, executive search, and educational therapy.