As educators, one of our fundamental needs is the opportunity to engage in professional development, to expand our teaching toolkit, to discuss trends in learning behaviors, and explore emerging topics. It's critical that educators never stop learning.

At the beginning of this school year, my colleagues and I discussed neurodiversity at our professional development meeting, a relatively new educational model that employs a positive “diversity” perspective of each student’s strengths in the classroom. The idea of neurodiversity is a paradigm shift from looking at student deficits to, instead, embracing the differences in how students think and learn in the same way that we value ecological and cultural diversity. While the origin of the neurodiversity movement is in special education practices, the term is relevant to all students as educators acknowledge the complexity of human potential.

The implications for neurodiversity in education are numerous. As researchers continue to study the brain, we have learned it functions more like an ecosystem than a computer. We are each a unique “brainforest,” with growth, decay, competition, diversity, and selection (Edelman, 1998). The brain responds to genetic or traumatic interruptions by redirecting growth through alternative pathways. Although neurological differences such as ADHD, learning disorders, and autism spectrum disorders may have disadvantages, there is an increasing awareness of common advantages as well. For example, students with dyslexia often have increased artistic abilities, capable of seeing the world in vivid and three-dimensional ways. Likewise, individuals with ADHD are frequently creative problem-solvers and those on the autism spectrum can bring a unique perspective and systemic processes to a situation.   

If educators embrace these differences as strengths, we can differentiate instruction to best meet the needs of all of our learners. Pulling from the biodiversity model, the term Positive Niche Construction implies that teachers and students can act directly upon the environment to create the most favorable conditions for learning. The author of the book Neurodiversity in the Classroom, Thomas Armstrong, identifies seven components of Positive Niche Construction. They are:

  • Strength Awareness - identifying and emphasizing each student’s strengths, passions, and goals

  • Positive Role Models - explicitly naming successful adults with similar backgrounds

  • Assistive Technologies/Universal Design for Learning - technologies that are geared to assist students with learning differences, such as audiobooks and speech-to-text software, can inspire and support all students

  • Enhanced Human Resources - a network of individuals who support the growth and development of students

  • Strength-Based Learning Strategies - differentiated learning strategies that reflect the unique strengths of each student

  • Affirmative Career Aspirations - suggestions for future careers that suit each student’s strengths can create purpose and direction

  • Environmental Modifications - allowing alternatives to the traditional classroom environment

The concept of neurodiversity demands the cultivation of strengths in the classroom. My colleagues and I work to create a positive niche that fits the needs of individual students. Oftentimes, the same trait can be expressed in a positive or negative way depending on the environment in which the student is situated. A hyperactive, distractible, impulsive student can also be described as an energetic, divergent thinker. When we frame student attributes positively, we create a classroom where all students are given the opportunity to succeed, comfortably, and confidently.