In their webinar with The Education Hub, Bright Spots winners Trish and Fay Purdie-Nicholls from Coromandel Area School shared their insights into using digital tools and technologies to support neurodivergent learners in the classroom. Here are some of their key messages:
Don’t wait for a diagnosis but instead look to identify and remove barriers for learners. While a diagnosis is often beneficial, there are a number of ways to improve students’ experiences and engagement in the classroom that do not require a diagnosis. It is useful for a teacher aide or someone other than the classroom teacher to spend some time in classrooms, observing and noting behaviours or looking at assessment documentation and learning samples. There will often be behavioural signs such as disengagement from learning activities that indicate when a student needs additional support. For students Year 3 and above, spelling data, writing samples and reading levels are also a useful place to start.
Work with staff and students to challenge and shift beliefs about neurodivergent learners and their potential to achieve at school. Teachers may hold assumptions about why particular students are not achieving similarly to their peers, and they may also have firm beliefs about appropriate ways to assess particular learning areas – for example, they may feel that writing must be assessed using handwritten work. However, a strengths-based approach considers differences rather than deficits, and when students are allowed to work in different ways – for example, by using voice typing apps for their written work – the capability and potential of neurodivergent students become quickly apparent.
While some students may need special accommodations and assistive technology, you can achieve a lot using headphones and Chromebooks. Simple voice typing and reading apps that are readily available on Chromebooks are useful for many neurodivergent learners. It is useful for students to use headphones with attached microphones which allow them to work in class, although some students may prefer to work in a break-out room or outside the classroom. It is also important to consider that some students, particularly older primary and secondary students, may feel self-conscious about working on a device or wearing headphones, so making this an option for all students helps to remove the stigma of using these tools and promotes an inclusive environment. However, it is essential to note that digital tools need to be part of effective teaching and learning programmes – they are not a solution in and of themselves.
Training and supporting teachers and teacher aides is key. This can be done through in-class modelling and coaching as well as through tailored PLD sessions. At Coromandel Area School, these are run in-house using expertise from within the school. This builds teachers’ confidence in using various digital tools and supports them to incorporate them into wider teaching and learning programmes, so that all students are able to work independently and effectively in class. It is also very important to work directly with students to support and scaffold their use of digital tools. This may be done one-on-one or in small groups, and in the classroom or in a separate space. It is necessary to be aware of how the students feel about learning to use these digital tools, and to be prepared to work outside the classroom to remediate any embarrassment students may experience.
Offering neurodivergent students different ways to express their thinking and engage in their learning has socio-emotional as well as academic benefits. Affordances such as voice typing that allow neurodivergent students to express their thinking and ideas without the additional cognitive burden of handwriting, or reading apps that allow them to engage with content without the cognitive load of decoding, can have a marked impact on these students’ academic self-concept. They are quite quickly re-storied as capable, successful learners, which improves their self-confidence, their motivation, their engagement, and their overall wellbeing.