How to Create a Safe Classroom for Neurodiverse Students

Kids can be mean. They can exclude others for seemingly no reason and can say hurtful things to neurodiverse students. As a teacher, you do your best to prevent bullying, but it isn’t always easy.

If you are worried that some of your neurodivergent students are getting left out (or worse, bullied), create a classroom environment that is meant to break down differences. You can incorporate activities and play styles that make everyone feel included and help neurotypical students better understand their classmates. Use this guide to consider how you structure your class and how you can help neurodiverse kids better connect with their classmates.

Start With Your Classroom Environment

Social acceptance starts with you. The classroom environment you create can welcome neurodivergent students or leave them feeling overwhelmed or ostracized. Talk with your school counselors and any teachers who specialize in helping neurodiverse students to improve your classroom experience.

“Creating a psychologically safe environment…is a kind of a classroom environment where students are not worried about looking unreasonable if they ask questions for clarification or if they did not understand something,” writes Paul Main, founder of Structural Learning. “It must be the topmost priority for teachers, as it means eliminating barriers to learning and participation for neurodivergent learners.”

When students feel safe in class, they are more likely to speak up, participate in activities and let their personalities show. This is the first step toward making friends.

There are some things to be cautious about when improving your classroom policies to accommodate neurodiverse learners. Avoid blanket changes based on what you think most students on the spectrum need. These modifications could be ineffective and even insulting to your neurodiverse students.

“The biggest trap for teachers is to generalise their understanding of Autism, instead of understanding the individual,” support education consultant Jenni Heffernan tells teacher Chantelle Jacobs. “You can’t just plonk Autistic kids into an artificial classroom and expect them to be motivated. The more you know the individual the more you can support them.”

Additionally, you may need to check your own biases when working with neurodiverse learners. You don’t want to be too quick to judge a situation or a student’s reaction as your neurodiverse students try to make friends.

“Children with special needs are suspended at twice the rate as their neurotypical peers,” according to the team at Elemy, which provides childhood behavioral and mental healthcare. “This is because children with special needs, like those with [autism spectrum disorder], often exhibit behavioral issues because they struggle to understand social interactions and situations.”

When a student has difficulty reading body language, tone, gestures, facial expressions and other nonverbal cues, it’s easy for misunderstandings to occur.

Woman working on a craft with child; neurodiverse students concept

Encourage Students to Branch Out to Other Friend Groups

It doesn’t hurt to introduce basic etiquette and social awareness to all of your students. Young kids (and some adults) occasionally need reminders to include others. Spend some time talking about how it feels to be excluded and give your students tools to make others feel welcome.

Most kids have felt left out at some point in their lives. Remind them that small actions can have a big impact on someone who is struggling to make friends. Asking a peer to sit with them at lunch or inviting someone to play at recess can make the day of a child who is lonely.

Those invitations and actions can create a snowball effect in your classroom. Your neurotypical students might realize how cool their neurodivergent classmates really are.

“The mere inclusion of children with special needs into classrooms allows for their typical peers to foster a greater understanding as well as positive attitudes towards their diverse counterparts,” writes behavioral therapist Junice Khng. “This is because the school environment provides a platform for repeated and impromptu engagements among students in a natural manner.”

This process also creates new experiences for your students. They get to see the world through another person’s eyes and learn from this perspective.

“If you are non-autistic and haven’t yet had the opportunity to learn about Autistic ways of experiencing the world, some aspects of the process of developing a friendship with an Autistic person might seem a little foreign or confronting,” write Abby Sesterka and Erin Bulluss, an autism researcher and clinical psychologist, respectively. “But rest assured…It is well worth persisting past any initial awkwardness to see if there might be solid friendship material hiding underneath.”

Happy child on swing; neurodiverse students concept

Help Students Understand the Neurodivergent Experience

As your students make friends with their neurodivergent peers, they will start to understand them better. However, you can still use class time to highlight the various ways that neurodivergent learners experience the world.

“We often feel our senses too much (or not enough), leading us to avoid or seek out different sensory experiences,” says Laine Shields, a special education curriculum author at Transition Abilities. “Unfortunately, sensory dysregulation can be very distracting, which creates a barrier to learning essential skills. If we are experiencing sensory overload, we need to re-regulate before we can learn.”

Respectful discussions teach students to ask questions and talk about differences in a polite manner. This creates a healthy channel for your class to get to know their peers and other neurodiverse individuals.

“When talking about sensory needs and stimming [self-stimulatory behavior], it’s easier to explain to others as if you were the student,” says speech-language pathologist Monica, in an article at SLP Now. “Think about the itchiest bug bite you’ve ever had and how much you felt like you needed to scratch it. You can’t think about anything else because it’s so itchy. Sometimes that’s what having a sensory need feels like, and itching it would be stimming.”

This is a great metaphor to help students better understand their peers and what it’s like to live in their world.

Too often, adults try to ignore disabilities because they think it is rude to draw attention to them. However, this just teaches students that the disability is something that is bad or wrong and should be shunned. It is better to highlight these differences in the same way that teachers talk about different hair color or food preferences in the classroom.

“When we view neurocognitive differences in terms of diversity versus something that needs to be ‘cured’, we create a more inclusive environment,” writes the team at Everyday Speech, a provider of social skills materials. “The term [neurodiversity] can be used to help fight stigma and to promote a society where neurodivergent people feel seen, supported, and valued.”

Your students are less likely to treat their peers like there is something wrong with them if they better understand their brains and feel comfortable asking questions about their life experiences.

Set Up Activities Effectively

Along with creating an inclusive classroom with open discussions, you can also develop lesson plans that are better for students on the spectrum. Even adjusting a few classroom practices can have a big impact.

“For group play activities, let them know in advance that they will be part of a group activity,” advises Jennifer McKee at Autism Connect. “Keep the group small. For bigger groups of children, split the big group into smaller ones using a random group generator.”

Letting students know what to expect prepares them for a social environment, and smaller groups can be less overwhelming to join. Additionally, by using random groups, your students can all work together at different times. This breaks down barriers and cliques that are common in classrooms.

Next, evaluate how you introduce your lesson plans and what activities you expect students to do. Here is another opportunity for small changes with big impacts.

“Kids with autism can easily become overwhelmed with too many directives at once,” explains the team at Circle Care Services. “To avoid triggering any frustration it is always best to deliver instructions in short and direct statements. Modeling the desired steps or actions is also helpful while verbally explaining them.”

These actions will help all of your students regardless of how their brains process information. Almost every teacher has delivered clear instructions (or so they thought) just to receive blank stares from students.

Manjiri Kochrekar at Mom Junction shares several activities you can use to encourage students to play together. These include indoor activities for rainy days (like creating paper flower bouquets or paint chip storytelling) and outdoor activities like setting up obstacle courses or leading a game of Hide n’ Seek. You can also use these for guided play periods, like recess, to increase the chances that your students will play together.

Children using augmented reality headsets; neurodiverse students concept

Create Opportunities for Parallel Play

If you still find that your neurodivergent students aren’t clicking with their peers, consider letting them use parallel play to become more comfortable in the current classroom environment.

“In the autism spectrum, children seem to exhibit more parallel than cooperative play in peer situations,” writes neuropsychologist Theresa Regan. “While a group of children may be playing cars, the ASD child may be playing next to the group (perhaps with a car or perhaps with a different toy).”

Just because neurodiverse students play by themselves does not necessarily mean they are lonely or excluded. If they are enjoying a free period during class, this opportunity for parallel play may be an opportunity to de-stress while still spending time with peers.

Parallel play is only one form of activity that kids participate in. There are actually six stages of play that children engage in, explains Melissa Kennedy at Montessori-Minded Mom. In addition to parallel play, these include:

  • Unoccupied play.
  • Independent play.
  • Onlooker play.
  • Associative play.
  • Cooperative play.

Kids tap into different forms of play at different times. For example, a child playing alone with a basketball is engaging in independent play. When a friend challenges them to a game of HORSE, they are engaging in cooperative play.

You may notice that your students enjoy parallel play at first, but then take some steps to move into other play styles.

“Two children playing in proximity with minimal interaction among them is what a parallel play looks like,” says Rohit Garoo, editor at MomJunction. “Imitation is an advanced sign of parallel play that implies progression towards the next stage of a child’s development, namely the interactive play stage.”

Interactive and cooperative play are pretty much the same. As a neurodivergent student grows more confident by imitating their peers, they can eventually take the next step to engage with them.

The best way to encourage all your students to embrace their peers is to create stress-free environments for the kids to play together. Young students especially might not notice or care about any personality traits that set one learner apart from the rest. Stress-free play, along with open conversations and dialogue, can help neurodiverse students and their classmates form close friendships throughout the year and into the next grade they enter.

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