Three Ways to Support Student Engagement in the Classroom while Embracing Neurodiversity

Teacher friends, I have a story for you. 

I can remember sitting in my 9th grade social studies classroom, paying attention to my teacher who was giving a lecture at the front of the classroom, and suddenly getting called out for not "looking at him."

So being the people-pleaser I was, I poured my effort into making sure I was looking at him for the rest of the time. But my brain was going a mile a minute: Am I looking too much? Do I look bored? I should smile. No not that much. Ok, that's better. Oh, crap, what was he saying? What page are we on now? I missed it! I could ask someone, but I'm not supposed to talk while the teacher is talking. Ok, everyone else just turned a page, so I should, too. This doesn't look right. Ok- I'm officially lost.

Do you see what happened? I put so much of my effort into giving the correct "appearance" of attention that I actually stopped paying attention to what I needed to be paying attention to! Are you confused yet? Because I sure was!

And just in case you weren't aware, you probably have a little Rebekah in your classroom right now. Someone who looks like she's paying attention, but inside, that hamster wheel in her brain is coming off the track.

A white rectangle with yellow, orange, and teal arching stripes with a quote in the middle that says, "For some neurodivergent individuals, maintaining eye contact is a struggle! More effort ends up going into keeping eye contact, which can negatively impact the person’s ability to comprehend what someone is saying."

For some neurodivergent individuals, maintaining eye contact is a struggle! More effort ends up going into keeping eye contact, which can negatively impact the person's ability to comprehend what someone is saying. And as teachers, it is far more important that we make sure our students feel comfortable and are able to listen and learn in the way that makes sense for them rather than forcing them to spend their energy fulfilling a neurotypical social norm.

However, we still need to make sure our students are listening and learning. So how can we do that?

One idea is to get students talking! It sounds counter productive, but trust me- it works! Start by chunking the lecture or whatever is being read aloud into smaller pieces. Take a short break after each section to allow students time to reflect on what they heard. They can do this by paraphrasing or summarizing the section either as a whole group or with a partner. You can also have students ask one question pertaining to what they just heard. This will not only show you that they've been listening, but it will also help you gain a knowledge of what they still need more clarity about. 

A second idea is to allow students to draw graphics/cartoon notes or take written notes about the lesson being taught. Graphic organizers are TERRIFIC for this. They have specific parts that tell students what to be looking and listening for. They help students keep their notes neat and orderly and let them be able to quickly and easily refer back to them when looking for something specific. You can find some of my favorite, tried-and-true graphic organizers in my TeachersPayTeachers store here!

The third strategy is one called "Guided Watching" or "Guided Listening." In this strategy, students are given a key word at the beginning of a video or a lecture that they need to listen for throughout the lesson. When they hear this term, you can ask students to give you a "thumbs up" or some other type of small gesture that lets you know they are paying attention and noted the term being used. This is also a great way to reinforce a key vocabulary word, main character, or other main topic. 

And you want to know something else?

These strategies won't just make things better for your neurodivergent students; these strategies are wonderful tools for every student in your classroom. Building an inclusive, relationship-driven class where differences are valued is essential to ensuring all students feel safe and welcome and are able to learn to the best of their abilities. 

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