It is a common understanding that education does not stand still. Over time, research and a better understanding of the human brain are continuously informing and influencing progressive education and consequently the narrative.
“Special needs” education has advanced considerably. A term that once defined a sub-set who might be removed from mainstream and addressed quietly in the back room, has shifted to a more inclusive practice. Indeed, the language has changed over the last decade, redefining the diverse spectrum of neurological differences and how we support them.
Neurodiversity, a more inclusive term, recognises “a range of natural variations in the human brain rather than as a deficit in individuals”. (What is Neurodiversity by Julie Skelling). Instead of labelling the child “special needs” with a condition that could send them on a journey of isolation, neurodiversity can be seen as an attribute that is simply part of the person.
At Verdala International School (VIS), we pride ourselves on our diversity. For some that might be interpreted as cultural or LGBQT+ identification. However, it is also about the broad range of learners, which includes those with conditions that affect their everyday lives; students with dyslexia, autism or ADHD, hard of hearing, or gifted and talented, or even those conditions we have yet to come across. By strengthening our student support services, we have ensured we can be inclusive and provide the educational or social-emotional support required for all our students to access the education they need to succeed.
Studies show that neurodiverse children are more likely to be bullied for being different. We can tackle this by being inclusive and educating our young people. It means a change in perception; not staring but engaging; not judging but acknowledging that we are all different; we all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
We have been celebrating neurodiversity in all its shapes and sizes. Activities are taking place across our school to raise awareness about the strengths and challenges of neurodiverse individuals. Entitled ‘My Neurodiversity, my Superpower’, our key message is that we all have our strengths, and we all have our challenges.
Activities are taking place across our school to raise awareness about the strengths and challenges of neurodiverse individuals
This month-long programme has been integrated across the curriculum. Our elementary classes started by participating via Zoom in a school-wide discussion around what it means to have limitations. By using animals as the prototype, they discussed how the characters could be helped, such as Henriette the parrot, who can’t sit still and always wants to fly.
Each class pursued a student-driven project that encouraged them to think about the various conditions. One group was solution-focused and designed a sensory box for someone who might be fidgety because of ADHD. Middle School students researched famous people who achieved great success despite their challenges, and created e-books. A class with a hearing-impaired peer learnt a song in sign language, while another created a rap around the topic. In High School, students developed role plays as they considered the feelings of their peers, unpacking the power of words and how language can affect someone with neurodiversity.
Throughout this focus month we were acutely aware that our neurodiverse students might feel uneasy with the spotlight on them. However, the sense from these students has been a normalisation of the many conditions, that there is now no need to hide it.
Professional development for staff was integral to this process. We reflected together on the pedagogy, one-size-does-not-fit-all; we shared good practice around differentiation techniques and looked to our learning support educators for their guidance and ideas.
Sadly, when our neurodiverse students head off into the big wide world the support systems may be less available. Many universities or colleges provide some agency; however, as they get older this structured environment falls away. Society needs to maintain a tolerant and inclusive approach towards adults as well, especially in the workplace.
For this reason VIS participates in the Lino Spiteri Foundation programme, which finds placements for neurodiverse adults, as we aim to be inclusive not only with our students.
Neurodiversity is the new normal, we ban the average and celebrate wondrous variety, in an inclusive school where everyone can fit in.