April 5, 2024

Universal Design Tips that Support a Neurodiverse Classroom

We all perceive information differently.  Neurodiversity can be defined as the individual differences in brain functioning regarded as normal variations with the human population and is often used as an umbrella term for conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), dyslexia, and Tourette syndrome, among others.

Neurodiverse students could have trouble navigating the social environment of a classroom. They may struggle with effective communication and information processing in addition to sensory challenges that may hinder their ability to socialize with peers.

Some common signs of neurodivergence in students include difficulty with eye contact, fidgeting, talking to themselves, engaging in off-task behavior that soothes them, challenging conversations or social interactions, fixation on certain routines and highly focused interest in a specific subject or object. Evidence indicates that when students experience sensory overload, their capacity to process information significantly decreases.

According to Judy Singer, who first introduced the concept, neurodiversity is simply “a property of the human population of Earth.” Singer believed that just as biodiversity benefits the planet, “neurodiversity is necessary for a sustainable, flourishing human society.”

Universal Design is based on the notion that a classroom should be accessible to everyone, and that a teacher’s instructional style should accommodate everyone in the classroom without the need for special adaptation. Traditional classroom setups may inadvertently exclude neurodivergent students, making it challenging for them to fully engage in the learning process. With that in mind, and our experience helping global organizations understand and implement truly inclusive spaces for all, below is a summary of strategies to help neurodiverse students more fully engage in the classroom:

1. Acoustics – Research shows us that 75% of the neurodivergent population consider sound control to be the most important design consideration. Provide a carpeted floor, acoustical ceiling, and acoustical wall panels and limit unpredictable sounds such as minimizing furniture rearranging, door-slamming, and unintended speaker noise. Provide noise-cancelling headphones for those that need to eliminate acoustical clutter.

2. Lighting – provide a Dynamic Lighting System that can change throughout the day based on natural circadian rhythms. Avoid harsh overhead lighting and provide controls so lighting levels can be reduced. Use non reflective finishes to reduce harsh reflections on tables, flooring, casework, counters, and walls. Provide adjustable window shades to control glare from outside sources.

3. Organize the space – create a predictable space that is easy for the student to understand. Reduce clutter by providing storage for items and carefully select and prioritize which materials will be displayed on the walls.

4. Multiple ways to consume information – consider a variety of media, including video, audio, written resources, visual schedules, and hands-on activities. Creating routine and structure for classroom communication and information is paramount.  Boardmaker is a program designed specifically to create classroom visuals for those who are neurodivergent by displaying visual pictures with key vocabulary.

5. Furniture choices - provide soft seating, wobble stools, rockers, and ergonomically adjustable chairs to accommodate both right and left-hand students. Height adjustable desks allow for individual preferences and comfort.

6. Retreat spaces - Provide quiet spaces, places of solitude, reading nooks, and study cubicles for the over stimulated student who needs a break.

7. Dry erase lapboards – consider tools that allow students to work individually anywhere in the room if they prefer.

8. Sensory tools – Allow students to fidget while they are learning because they may need it for coping with anxiety and calming.  Examples include a mini trampoline, weighted balls, weighted vests, and a variety of handheld fidget toys.

9. Eliminate hazards - rounded corners on all tables provide a safer experience for all by avoiding sharp edges. Eliminate protruding objects - shelving and other wall mounted objects should be recessed and not protrude more than four inches from an adjacent surface.

10. Eliminate distracting flooring and wall patterns - be mindful of using patterns that could disorient people or cause issues with depth perception.

Adopting Universal Design principles into your classroom are simple, inexpensive, and effective ways to help all students by creating the framework for a more inclusive setting.  Contact us for more information.

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