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Chris Griffiths


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Neurodiversity: How to deliver a neuro-inclusive learning environment

Delivering learning with empathy, flexibility and support is key to getting the most from neurodivergent learners.

The way we learn and teach is changing fast. As we become more inclusive and open as a society, learning and development needs to grow to meet the needs of everyone. It now appears that the previous estimate that 15% of the population is neurodivergent was a gross understatement. According to some more recent estimates, it could be as high as 30-40% of the population. 

By designing learning that is neuro-inclusive, you’re not only designing learning that supports this huge portion of the population. As the curb-cut effect demonstrates, when we accommodate and support disadvantaged members of our society, everyone benefits. 

Neurodiversity is based on the social model of disability; it is society’s inability to accommodate for our neurodivergent population that is the problem, and not the ability and talent of the individual. Seeing your own courses through this lens can be a huge help in designing truly neuro-inclusive learning.

Designing education in a way that better suits neurodivergent learners can radically transform course outcomes.

Learners can generate more creative ideas in group settings, and find long-term solutions to task management that they can apply for themselves in the workplace. This is a solution focused path to delivering real change to the lives of hundreds of learners who have been historically excluded from education and workplace processes.

Below are some overall tips for creating a neuro-inclusive learning environment from the get-go.

Provide a framework for learning

Don’t give in to the idea that people need to ‘work things out for themselves’. While this may be true in specific problem-solving tasks, many neurodivergent learners struggle with task order, prioritisation, and expectation.

It’s no longer enough to have strong pedagogical methods in your face-to-face environments. These need to align with your digital environments. 

Giving clear, precise instructions and goals can help learners finish tasks more efficiently and with less stress. Additionally, being fully oriented around a new, challenging task can boost confidence, improve creativity, and allow learners to fully engage in what they are doing. 

This is especially true when it comes to digital or ‘hybrid’ learning. During the pandemic, many learners reported struggling with their task loads. Not because they were above their level, but because proper frameworking hadn’t been put in place, so they were left unclear on what to do, and not held accountable for doing it.

Give verbal reward and structural support

Remember that this learning experience won’t be their first. Time and time again, their efforts will have gone unnoticed all the way from the classroom into the world of work, their difficulties misunderstood as ‘laziness’ or lack of effort. Be different. When you are designing your learning experience, consider how you can reward learners, so they are left feeling that they have had a successful learning experience.

Assist learners in moving away from fixed mindsets towards growth mindsets.

Seeing learning as an iterative process, that is fundamentally about themselves, their needs, and accommodations, can encourage long-term personal and professional growth. This allows your learners to bring strong communication skills back into the workplace, understanding how and when to ask for what they need.

Additionally, it can be useful to create contingency processes for your learners: plans for when a learner might not be on track, and additional material that reinforces learning if they’re excelling at a task in comparison to others.

Create an inclusive space

Learning is, I believe, an act of play. To be fully achieved, play needs a psychological safe space. Create a space where individuals don’t feel unreasonable or embarrassed if they ask for clarification or support, and can voice their opinion with ease. Allow time for discussion and promote active listening techniques whenever learning is taking place.

Engage with your learners. Design flexible learning that can meet the needs of each learner, and can respond fluidly when problems arise. 

This is true whether you’re creating in-person, online, or hybrid learning. It’s important to consider accessibility needs to create a distraction-free physical environment or ensure digital readability and prevent screen fatigue. 

Create strong digital solutions

Many neurodivergent learners had spent years campaigning for flexible digital learning solutions before the pandemic came along. 

While many employers are looking to return to in-person solutions, providing real and working alternatives for learners who need to learn remotely or with digital aids is crucial to being neuro-inclusive. It’s no longer enough to have strong pedagogical methods in your face-to-face environments. These need to align with your digital environments.

For example, a single digital learning platform can take away the stress of task organisation, reduce overwhelm, and support the individual in forming independent, long lasting habits.

At times, digital learning can promote more autonomy and self-development than traditional methods. Don’t take this for granted.

Remember that every learner’s needs are unique

Critically, there is not a ‘one size fits all’ when you are designing neuro-inclusive learning. Create an iterative process, where you get feedback from your learners. Nothing you create for neurodivergent individuals should be without their voice and opinion, so allow flexibility in your design to account for this.

You cannot generalise across all neurological conditions. What works for someone with autism might not be appropriate for a person with ADHD. Similarly, what’s great for one dyslexic individual might be the worst possible solution for another. Engage with your learners. Design flexible learning that can meet the needs of each learner, and can respond fluidly when problems arise. 

Designing learning to better suit neurodivergent learners takes practice, but the results speak for themselves.

By leading with empathy, flexibility, and support, you’re creating a space that your learners will remember long after they have left your space. 

If you enjoyed this, read: Supporting neurodiverse trainees and employees in the workplace.

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