Educating a broad cross section of students successfully is difficult without deliberately creating a sense of belonging for all. Universal Design for Learning guidelines help educators develop instruction inclusive of differing learning abilities, neurotypes, genders, and cultures. Research supports establishing a more inviting, comfortable setting for multiple learning modalities, designating the classroom as a place all students can thrive and are safe to be themselves. Below are some tips to create a place of acceptance for all kids.
Communicate clear and consistent expectations.
Providing a simple but visually bold list of expectations on Day One is essential. Work together to outline a list of minimum standards that are easy to understand and recognize when not met. Emphasize kindness and allyship among peers, define what constitutes bullying, and agree on consequences when these core values are violated. Announce and display conspicuously your classroom values, deadlines for assignments, key learning elements like vocabulary or relevant facts, and upcoming schedule items or changes to them. For many, a predictable classroom is a student’s only haven in what can otherwise be a chaotic world beyond their control. A place that feels reliable, organized, and safe to exist frees up the brain to learn.
Set up a calm and accommodating classroom.
We can’t know for sure how many kids in a classroom live their life on the spectrum, since not everyone is aware they are, or have “come out” to school personnel. Luckily, cultivating an environment that suits autistic students you are aware of inadvertently serves a whole host of others and their unique challenges. For hand-outs, stick to fonts that are easier for neurodivergent students to read, such as Comic Sans, Garamond, Helvetica, and particularly for those who also experience reading difficulty, the Dyslexie font. Help students who need focus by making accessible “busy toys,” such as stress balls and fidget spinners, or even a walking desk. Periodically throughout the day, sneak in a “wiggle break” to shake out excess energy. Have available different seating options, for instance rocking chairs, physio-balls, or a lectern for kids who prefer to stand.
For students easily rattled by transitions with no smooth segue, make visible a timer that begins and ends with each activity, so that they can monitor along the way. Alert the class when the school bell is going to ring, so as to allow the students to mentally prepare for such a jarring noise. For quiet time in the classroom, incorporate nature sounds, soft music, or brown noise, and offer noise canceling headphones for students especially sensitive to sound. While these might seem unorthodox to the style of learning most of us grew up with, studies have proven these sorts of choices increase productivity and attention, and diminish disruptions. The goal is personal enrichment and learning, and educators should be equipped to use all the tools in the belt.
Allow the students to tailor their engagement.
Every child digests information differently and communicates in a style all their own. Lecture halls can be one student’s ideal milieu, whereas others tend to zone out and retain only where their imagination took them. Teaching to a variety of attention types ensures every student has an opportunity to grow their knowledge without singling anyone out. An instruction on volcanoes that effectively reaches all kids includes a verbal description, backed with written details in the form of handouts, text books or web-based reading, as well as illustrations, video and even audio of a volcano experience. For homework and presentations, not every student will feel comfortable with an oral book report. Some may prefer a written essay, infographic on poster board, or a recorded presentation. Avoiding a standardized assessment allows for each child’s unique strengths to shine through.
When explaining subject matter, be careful with hyperbole and metaphor, since many kids see the world through a more literal lens. Educators are born entertainers, so it can be tempting to describe a volcano as having “blown Iceland to smithereens.” While that may capture a student who understands nuance, it could also terrify their neurodivergent friend. Broadening your approach and neutralizing the information, allows all neurotypes to tap in, digest material, and stay engaged throughout.
Redefine group discussions.
An interactive classroom is built on the contributions of every classmate, and having the safety to ask what they are afraid could be dumb questions. It can be difficult to achieve this without a few socially dominant personality types bulldozing the conversation. Operate as class traffic control and by guiding the discussion with boundaries. For instance, you might suggest “raise your hand if you think intelligent life exists on other planets,” then use visual cues that identify a kid who might be eager to talk but doesn’t often get a word in edgewise. Pass a beach ball around and ensure only the student holding it can add to the conversation. And be mindful of who hasn’t spoken that you sense might be willing to.
When breaking into smaller teams, make sure every member has a clearly defined task, and that the groups themselves are a good mix of students from varying cliques, neurotypes, and genders. Some students will experience such anxiety in these situations that their participation may be no more than body language and facial expressions. That’s perfectly okay. At a time when the spotlight isn’t on them, allow for one-on-one conversation with you, pairings of students instead of groups, or even a written response. Often these kids have something important to say, but limited capacity in an animated and overwhelming classroom dynamic.
Celebrate diversity of all kinds.
As we all know, inclusion is necessary beyond learning differences. Cultural, religious, sexual orientation and gender identification are some of the many variables among a student population, and demonstrating a welcoming sensitivity sends a message of belonging. Be sure kids see themselves on the bookshelf, both in the subject matter as well as the authors penning them. Including a broad range of characters within word problems and test questions representing them. Teaching about world events and traditions informs there is truly no one way to be in the world, and there are no “shoulds” when it comes to a person’s identity. Learn how to pronounce kids’ names which are unfamiliar to you, as well as those of their adult caregivers. And try not to police activities, toys, games, or groups as just for boys or girls. Diversity in interests is equally important so that students can have the confidence to pursue what drives them.
If there’s any takeaway here, the key to an inclusive classroom is to steer clear of performative gestures. Demonstrating organic inclusivity is as simple as establishing a safe place where learning is accessible to everyone.