Neurodiversity and Differentiation

Spring 2017

By Erica Herro and Molly Bozzo

Why do learning disabilities continue to be called learning disabilities instead of learning differences? Why are they not simply considered part of the landscape of neurodiversity? Thomas Armstrong, executive director of the American Institute for Learning and Human Development, writes:
The number of categories of illnesses listed by the American Psychiatric Association has tripled in the past fifty years. With so many people affected by our growing “culture of disabilities,” it no longer makes sense to hold on to the deficit-ridden idea of neuropsychological illness.1
The labels are maintained in large part because many laws, regulations, policies, and practices lag behind current research, and disability diagnoses are still required to support basic student rights. For example, a “disability” is required for students to access accommodations on standardized testing, produced by largely privately owned organizations (College Board,2 ACT). The term “disability” comes from federal legislation that allows for rights, under the law, to help even out the playing field for those with diagnosed disabilities, including learning disabilities. Additionally, funding for medical and educational resources has muddied the waters of terminology. Diagnoses are required for insurance to cover medical costs, and labels are needed to support funding for educational resources. While the clinical and federal references for diagnoses have unique functions, the ICD-10, DSM-V, IDEA, Section 504 of the ADA,3 and the education code standardize the terminology to some extent and limit the semantics required of those advocating for students. 
As educators, we find it challenging to switch perspectives, and simultaneously adopt a new vocabulary, to reinforce the setting in which the student needs support: classroom, tutorial, doctor’s office, standardized test board. The task can translate into navigating a series of hoops that can seem arbitrary and entirely separate from a deeper understanding of the learner. While the philosophical shift in terminology from “disability” to “difference” or “style” is more informed and politically correct, it is the political system that holds one to the term “disability” in order to access legal rights for those who need individualized support and accommodations.
The tipping point will come when a substantial cohort of educators and parents understands differences, deficits, and diversity. A wider perspective allows people to address learning differences in an accepting and proactive manner. Acceptance and early intervention ensure that learning variations never reach the level of deficit that creates the discrepancy model on which disability determination has historically been based. While a growing number of people will become more understanding and accepting of the neurodiversity of students, society’s medical and educational institutions will still be significantly influenced by financial and legislative terminology. Semantics is getting in the way of a more humane approach to learning.

Differentiation … Because It’s Just Good Teaching

Differentiated instruction that meets individual student needs should be the norm in teaching, yet this requires additional training, materials, and coaching to support teachers’ ability to understand, prepare for, and accommodate all learners. Teachers are asked to differentiate for each learner for each subject and at various times of the day, with a host of variables that will impact each individual’s experience. Differentiation is essential in the way a teacher designs and implements instruction on a daily basis with their students. If, therefore, differentiation is simply “good teaching,” why are we subjecting learners (and ourselves) to a host of tests, labels, and logistics to determine how a learner functions outside the norm? A differentiated approach considers all learners as outside the norm.
For teaching to adapt to the modern framework of a growth mindset, there must be a collective rejection of the semantics of educational labels. Instead, educators must gather accurate data at regular intervals in a student’s educational experience and then use this formative data to adjust instructional approaches and materials. School communities must work together to support the needs of all learners. Teachers must assess in the true meaning of the word assess — to sit beside — rather than continue to test mastery of static content through measurement tools that necessitate accommodations for at least 20 percent of the population. Schools must focus on a Universal Design for Learning4 to meet the unique needs of all students, knowing that every student benefits from an individualized approach to instruction. The term “accommodations” would no longer be necessary if accessibility features, such as audio books, voice dictation, calculators, and untimed tests, were available to support a more mindful approach to education.
And yet, accessibility features alone are not enough. Clinically researched screening tools, such as the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (CTOPP), can be used to modify curriculum and instruction to meet students’ needs at the early elementary level; and multisensory teaching methods and materials, many of which were originally designed for students with diagnosed learning disabilities, can be used to benefit all students, regardless of age or skill set. Reading, for example is a not a natural skill developmentally. Reading is learned through explicit instruction and sufficient practice. Deficits in phonological awareness are viewed as the hallmark of reading disabilities. Phonological awareness is, however, the most responsive to intervention of the phonological processing areas.5 When teachers have the support to better understand how to guide this skill, fewer students struggle.

Implementing a Paradigm Shift

Once we have acknowledged that students process information in a variety of ways, it is critical to present new learning in different formats to ensure educational equity. When writing lesson plans, teachers who are adept at differentiating research and employing multiple resources and multiple perspectives on the same topic,6 have a whole host of teaching techniques to use, such as videos, pictures, interactive websites, music, poetry, art, guided visualization, concrete manipulatives, small-motor and large-motor activities, maker’s projects, read-alouds, self-reflective writing, independent reading, analytic writing, small-group and large-group discussion prompts, oral presentations, and lectures. This resource of tools gives teachers quick access to many forms of instructional input and the flexibility to adjust to students’ interests, experience, background knowledge, and learning needs. Most important, when teachers present a variety of teaching strategies, they are also modeling the fact that there are many forms of acceptable output.
At Stevenson School in Carmel, California, we operate from the position that all learners deserve a seat at the table and also deserve to be fed according to their individual dietary needs. Instead of thinking of the developmental learning spectrum from high to low, we think of it as propensities in different modes of learning. Equity is about getting what you need, not getting the same as everyone else. This is as true for the student-genius with debilitating social-emotional glitches as it is for the dyslexic/ADHD child with academic learning challenges. Within this operating philosophy, we look at equity from a different point of view and provide a broad range of options.
For example, in grade 6, we are learning about the early 1800s, and the textbook is dense and somewhat dry. We have provided these students with key vocabulary, videos, and photographs of the same material in advance so that when they encounter the textbook, they have a context for the big picture. We then guide the students through the process of reading dense nonfiction text by projecting the text on a large screen and having the teacher model annotation skills with a think-aloud strategy. The group is then ready to reflect in their independent writing journals on the topic covered. At this point, we have exposed the students to the material visually, verbally, and, now, intrapersonally. The time allows for synthesis of complex ideas and multiple input modalities to provide access to all learners. Discussion follows, which draws in the interpersonal learners and gives students practice with concise, articulate oral presentation. In this class, the sixth-grade students are asked to write their own graphic novels. They choose a topic relevant to the early 1800s and will either draw the panels themselves or use Google Slides or Storyboard That to create the final draft.
At present, differentiation often pushes teachers to action outside their comfort zone in classroom preparation, classroom instruction, and assessment of knowledge. If we simplify the notion of learning and teaching to the common-sense fundamentals of communication (listening, speaking, reading, and writing), teachers often make natural and intuitive connections in how and why to differentiate. With an additional understanding of the limitations of attention and memory, we can strive to expand our teaching and assessing of student knowledge.
Listening and speaking are not just in the realm of the speech therapist or the foreign language teacher; reading and writing are not just the domain of the English teacher. Educators across all content areas benefit from an understanding of the language continuum so that instruction, especially of new material, is couched in a context that will afford learners time for input, then processing, then output. Learning requires attention and engagement, and for students with biologically based ADHD, there is nothing teachers can do to replace the neurotransmitters necessary for attention.7 They can, however, respect the limitations of attention, increase movement and hands-on learning, break information into manageable units, and provide embedded strategy training.
The bold shift to comprehensively develop faculty who are competent in differentiated instruction, classroom management, and assessment has a more significant impact on positive academic and emotional outcomes for students than any other curricular initiative.8 The essential factors supporting the implementation of this paradigm shift are a shared intention of prioritization, inspiration, frequent observation, targeted professional development, planning time, access to materials, ongoing support, consultation, and coaching.
Creative allocation of resources, organization, and conscientious follow-through allow schools to accomplish their desired goals. Frequent observation of instruction and regular feedback are tangible measures that afford educational leaders a proactive role in helping teachers reach their students. At high-performing schools, “Leaders typically observe each teacher eight times a year — three more times than leaders at other schools” and provide verbal or written feedback after almost every observation.9 Faculty benefit from the same individualized accountability as their students. When administrators and colleagues observe day-to-day instruction, everyone is better informed to discuss, critique, and examine the ways in which teaching practices can be improved. Review of classroom videos adds an additional level of self-reflection and allows educators to play an integral role in their own professional growth. As the poet Rabindranath Tagore said, “A teacher can never truly teach unless he is still learning himself.”
It is essential that the shared vision is clear — that everyone is on board and feels safe to explore new ideas. Targeted professional development reflects a commitment to strengthen instruction at the individual teacher level. An awareness of what each teacher needs to be more effective in his or her practice unfolds through observation and a collegial coaching relationship.10 A school culture of teamwork, motivation, expertise, and creative thinking engages teachers to be innovative educators.11 Planning time is essential to implement innovative ideas. Administrators must pay attention to the flow of the daily schedule, the yearly calendar, and the timing of extra demands. While flexibility is key to a dynamic team, there is never enough time for everything. Careful consideration is important in supporting collaboration, in encouraging project-based learning initiatives, and in protecting teachers from a sense of being overwhelmed. Access to materials needed to implement innovative ideas across the curriculum must be provided. While supplies do not necessarily need to be expensive, materials should be budgeted into the plan and be available, depending on the financial limitations of an institution, along with the considerable time it takes resourceful teachers to create their own materials.
Ongoing support, consultation, and coaching are necessary to strengthen the instructional culture. Regular meetings with a mentor — an administrator, specialist, or colleague — are vital to fully exploring the potential of learning theories and instructional practices. If coaching is embedded in the culture, then, just as with observation, the formality falls away to reveal an empowering relationship that can be the springboard for passionate, purposeful teaching.
More than ever before, 21st century schools need exceptional teachers — teachers who love to teach learners; who are committed to finding ways to access their students individually and as a group; and who are educated, trained, and treated as professionals. Teaching is a dynamic profession, requiring responsiveness to an immeasurable set of real and perceived limitations and strengths. With patience, acceptance, information, and a sustainable framework of support, educators can create safe and supportive learning environments that rise above the political semantics of learning differences and reframe neurodiversity in terms of equity and empathy.


1. Thomas Armstrong, Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Brain Differences (Cambridge, MA: De Capo Press, 2010).
2. The College Board’s SAT test originates from an adaptation of the Army Alpha — the first mass-administered IQ test, which was made more difficult for use as a college admissions test. (Frontline, “A Brief History of the SAT,” PBS Online; online at
3. ICD-10 is the 10th revision of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD), a medical classification list issued by the World Health Organization (WHO); DSM-V is the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a classification and diagnostic tool published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA); IDEA is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a four-part piece of American legislation that ensures that students with a disability are provided with free appropriate public education (FAPE) that is tailored to their individual needs; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is federal legislation that guarantees certain rights to people with disabilities. It was the first U.S. federal civil rights protection for people with disabilities; it helped pave the way for the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
4. An education framework based on research in the learning sciences.
5. Richard K. Wagner, Joseph K. Torgesen, and Carol Rashotte, Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (CTOPP) (Austin, TX: PRO-ED, 1999); Richard K. Wagner, Joseph K. Torgesen, and Carol Rashotte, “Development of Reading-Related Phonological Processing Abilities: New Evidence of Bidirectional Causality From a Latent Variable Longitudinal Study,” Developmental Psychology 30, no. 1 (1994): 73-87; Richard K. Wagner and Joseph K. Torgesen, “The Nature of Phonological Processing and Its Causal Role in the Acquisition of Reading Skills. Psychological Bulletin 101, no. 2 (1987): 192-212.
6. A good example of curating is Critical Explorers (, which provides free online curricular resources.
7. JoAnn Deak, “An Evening With Dr. JoAnn Deak,” presentation to Stevenson School, August 24, 2015, Pebble Beach, CA.
8. In five years of steady growth, student test scores at Stevenson School increased from below grade level performance in reading and math to award-winning standings in the top 15 percent in the state (
9.  The New Teacher Project, 2012
10. Stephen D. Brookfield, The Skillful Teacher: On Teaching, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2015).
11. Eleanor Duckworth, “Confusion, Play and Postponing Certainty,” Harvard Gazette, February 16, 2012; online at

For Further Reading

Barquero, Laura, Nicole Davis, and Laurie E. Cutting, “Neuroimaging of Reading Intervention: A Systematic Review and Activation Likelihood Estimate Meta-Analysis.” PLoS One 9, no. 11 (2014).

Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House: 2006.
Eide, Brock I., and Fernette L. Eide. The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain. New York: Penguin, 2012.

Erica Herro

Erica Herro ([email protected]) is Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Stevenson School, Carmel Campus (California).

Molly Bozzo

Molly Bozzo ([email protected]) is Head of the elementary and middle schools at Stevenson School, Carmel Campus (California).