Finding Strengths in Classroom Neurodiversity
In all classrooms, teachers encounter diverse students with individual strengths and challenges. Typically, teachers celebrate student successes and feel frustration with students who find learning to be challenging or exhibit disruptive behaviors. This reaction is, in part, a relic of the behaviorist approach to education of the 20th century and further supported by an education system that praises teachers who minimize behavioral disruptions and produce high test scores in their classrooms (Mary Brownell et al., “Special Education Teacher Quality and Preparation”). In some states, teacher pay raises are even dependent on such standardized measures, placing additional pressures on teachers. While Jewish day schools are not beholden to these means of assessment, their teachers still operate in a society in which they feel judged by the performance of their students and consequently seek ways to isolate and “fix” problematic behavior.
This tendency toward frustration, judgment and an insistence on “bringing students in line” is aligned with a medical model of addressing special needs that emphasizes the identification of deficiencies and pathologizes difference. This approach of regarding academic diversity as deficit rather than difference continues to be the primary manner in which it is taught in professional preparatory programs and is enshrined in the current practice of defining eligibility for special education services based on fixed categories (Sarah Triano, “Categorical Eligibility for Special Education”). In contrast with this medical model, more recent research in the fields of education and brain science have introduced an alternate approach for understanding and working with students who have special needs, one that is centered upon the concept of neurodiversity.
At its core, neurodiversity is an approach to understanding the diversity within our learners in the context of an ecological model that celebrates the value of biodiversity and recognizes that all organisms optimally thrive in an environment that highlights their strengths and supports their weaknesses. Neurodiversity recognizes that all brains exist along a continuum of competence, and that one’s ability is often defined by the context in which one lives. With regard to education, Thomas Armstrong describes the idea of neurodiversity as a “paradigm shift” in terms of how we address learners who have special needs. It is our assertion that the field of Jewish education is fertile ground for such a shift in how it works with students often described as “low,” “troublemakers” or “challenged,” because this approach improves outcomes for students and families while aligning with ethical norms and building community.
In Jewish schools, we teach students about the value of betzelem Elohim and introduce texts such as Sanhedrin 4:5 that speak to the uniqueness of each individual and recognize that each person represents an entire world. At the same time, many Jewish day schools fail to provide neurodiverse learners with an educational environment in which they can thrive. Without the legal mandate required of public schools to support IEPs, some Jewish day schools counsel students with special needs out of their schools. Nationally, there are organizations such as Matan and Gateways that are working to provide wraparound services to day schools to meet the needs of neurodiverse students. While this is a great starting point for promoting inclusion, we believe that educating teachers in the principles of neurodiversity has the potential to bring about a fuller implementation of inclusion, both programmatic and attitudinal, in our community’s Jewish schools. By training teachers in a strengths-based approach toward differentiation that is grounded in the concept of neurodiversity, Jewish educational institutions can help teachers effect a paradigm shift in how they regard and work with learners who have special needs.
If, as a community, we are committed to supporting an educational approach that promotes inclusion and positively regards student competence along a continuum, then we must be ready to make an investment in training educators to implement strengths-based teaching strategies that are grounded in the principles of neurodiversity. During the process of redesigning the Hebrew College Jewish Special Education Program through this lens, we uncovered four core educational elements: the importance of guided student reflection upon their own attitudes toward disabilities; the value of both wrestling with and embracing Jewish texts as part of the learning process; taking a holistic approach to understanding disabilities and exceptionalities and how they describe observed traits as well as influence identities; and providing concrete skills that will enable teachers to construct positive learning environments.
As noted earlier, it is common for teachers to use negative adjectives to describe students that may not fit academically or behaviorally in the current structure of their classroom. We have found that teachers may not be aware of the biases reflected in such vocabulary and how the way they speak about their students is part of a broader societal trend to pathologize difference, even to the extent of regarding brain differences as “kidnapping” children who would have otherwise been happy and productive (Joseph F. Kras, “The ‘Ransom Notes’ Affair”). Providing teachers with guided opportunities to reflect upon their attitudes and the experiences that have impacted their understanding of disability renders them better prepared to adopt the principles of neurodiversity. Teachers are also more open to recognizing how their classroom structure or pedagogic practices may be unintentionally exacerbating students’ challenges by focusing solely on remediating deficits rather than also drawing upon students’ strengths.
We have further found that Jewish texts can be a useful tool in supporting the process of self-reflection and exploration of personal and communal biases. When teachers wrestle with a text from Vayikra 21 that discusses the exclusion from priestly service of anyone who has a perceived mum, defect, they must recognize the entrenchment of bias regarding disability, even reaching back to biblical times. In contrast, when they explore a talmudic passage from Horayot 3:5 at the beginning of a unit focused on learning disabilities and read about a tradition that Moshe was on Sinai for 40 days because he repeatedly learned and then forgot the Torah but was finally given Torah as a gift, there is an opportunity to recognize the value Judaism places upon making learning accessible for everyone.
While providing teachers with general knowledge regarding a wide range of neurodiverse profiles in order to help them understand IEPs, evaluation reports and their students, we also make certain that our teachers understand that each student is unique and an entire world unto him- or herself. In order to help teachers more holistically understand their students, we encourage building lines of communication with families and recognizing that the Jewish community must also support the family members of neurodiverse individuals. We include coursework that addresses the social and emotional needs of neurodiverse learners. Exposure to SEL (social and emotional learning) principles and PBIS (positive behavior interventions and supports) frameworks, and a recognition that behavior is a key to understanding the minds of our students, are crucial concepts we believe should be included in teacher training.
The processes of reflecting, wrestling and expanding core knowledge prepares teachers to engage in positive niche construction, one of the core principles of neurodiversity. Thomas Armstrong (Neurodiversity in the Classroom) defines positive niche construction as “the establishment of a favorable environment within which a student with special needs can flourish in school.” Armstrong’s model of positive niche construction encompasses seven key components: strengths awareness, positive role models, assistive technologies/universal design for the learning (UDL), strength-based learning strategies, human resources, positive career aspirations and environmental modifications. This approach builds upon an ecological model of understanding the world in which the learning environment is regarded as a complex system that needs to be addressed holistically in order to support all learners.
In school settings there is often a rush to make minor environmental modifications, such as providing a student with a fidget spinner, and then feeling that the student’s needs have been appropriately met. Armstrong’s comprehensive approach to positive niche construction challenges teachers to start off by recognizing their students’ strengths. As he notes, “If our only knowledge about students with special needs is limited to the negatives in their lives—low test scores, low grades, negative behavior reports and deficit-oriented diagnostic labels—then our ability to differentiate learning effectively is significantly restricted.” When Jewish schools try to decide whether a student with special needs is a good fit for their school, they may be skipping this crucial first step of strengths awareness.
Next, appropriate adjustments can be made to pedagogic practices that build upon students’ strengths and enable them to grow academically and build confidence. Exposing students to positive role models of successful individuals, including athletes, actors, entrepreneurs and Jewish leaders, both in the Tanakh and today, who found ways to optimize their strengths and learn from the challenges of their disabilities is another way to build students’ self-esteem. Such exposure can also help them develop a mindset that is open to learning and motivate them to work toward potential positive career aspirations. Once teachers recognize the uniqueness of each neurodiverse learner, they are ready to implement strengths-based learning strategies and provide the appropriate human resources and assistive technologies to optimally support each student. When all of these pieces are in place, then environmental modifications can successfully be implemented in a manner that respects students and creates an environment in which they can optimally learn in a way that meets sensory, academic and emotional needs.
Even if schools do not have funds to significantly change staffing ratios or redesign classrooms, the attitudinal changes and the shift toward strengths-based learning can be implemented by teachers without significant financial investment beyond professional development. Teachers we have worked with at Hebrew College and parents of students in their classrooms have reported that even minor changes resulting from exposure to the idea of neurodiversity can significantly improve student classroom experiences. Investing in teachers’ understanding of neurodiversity has anecdotally been demonstrated to be an effective way to promote inclusion in Jewish learning settings. Professional development that promotes neurodiversity, engages teachers in meaningful reflection, and grounds the practice of meeting individual learners’ needs in Jewish values has the potential to transform schools, families and communities.
To Learn More
Thomas Armstrong, Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Brain Differences
Thomas Armstrong, Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life