Supporting neurodiversity in early education settings

Published on Tuesday, 02 March 2021
Last updated on Monday, 01 March 2021

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There is a lot of variety in human brains, just like there is in human bodies. Neurodiversity refers to the reason for these differences, and includes Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADD, ADHD, Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Aphasia and other things that can affect a child’s learning style.

The early education setting provides a crucial step in a neurodiverse child’s educational and social journey. By understanding more about neurodiversity and adapting your teaching style or centre set-up to embrace differences, you can help build a child’s self-esteem and resilience, and set them on a positive learning path for life.

Autistic writer, speaker and resource developer Michelle Swan wrote an article on her blog about how to adapt the classroom to support children with ASD, which can be a practical tool for the early learning setting too:

How to create a sensory-friendly classroom

  • Reduce visual distractions
  • Reduce unnecessary noise
  • Minimise temperature changes
  • Minimise strong smells
  • Ensure good ventilation
  • Provide space for relaxing and sensory deprivation
  • Provide sensory aids like ear defenders, sunglasses, fidget toys
  • Provide a variety of options for seating
  • Make space for and encourage movement
  • Offer a variety of activities and opportunities for learning both inside and outside the classroom at every age and stage

Sue Larkey, an educator who specialises in ASD, provides further helpful advice on her blog for setting up the classroom to support children with ASD. Again, these tips are aimed at the early school years, but can be useful for educators in early childhood too.

  1. Give the child a set position for seating or mat time that takes into account:
  • Who they are next to
  • Where they are in the room or group
  • How close they are to the teacher
  • Whether they are too close to favourite activities such as books or Lego etc
  • Sensory distractions (noises, smells, lighting, objects hanging too close)
  1. Create a quiet area
  • Ensure there is an area where the child can retreat to if they are feeling overwhelmed. This can be a quiet table or a reading corner.

To improve your one-on-one teaching strategies for children with ASD, consider these tips from registered psychologist Katherine McFarlane, which appeared in an article on the Learning Links website:

  • Break down tasks into easy steps

Children with autism can find it difficult to plan, organise and complete tasks. To help children plan tasks, break the steps down and be mindful not to give too much information at once. Having the child repeat back the instructions can help you know they have heard and understood the steps.

  • Explain expectations and have clear boundaries

There is a big difference between saying “stop being messy” versus giving a clear boundary such as “we don’t throw rubbish, put it in the bin”. The second gives the child a clear understanding of what is expected from them. This is particularly helpful for children with autism who may not be able to intuitively understand the social rules.

  • Help identify their emotions and behaviours

Emotion regulation is a skill that some children learn naturally whereas others need more support developing. The first step to learning how to manage strong emotions is to recognise them. Strong emotions like being angry, frustrated or even over excited can feel scary if the child doesn’t understand what is happening to their body. Another positive strategy is to model your own emotion regulation skills.

  • Use minimal words and an even-toned voice to help them “hear” your words

If a child’s emotions or behaviour are escalating, they can find it difficult to listen logically to what you are saying. Further, a child who struggles managing their own emotions is going to find it even harder if they are witnessing your strong emotions when trying to discipline them.

  • Use visuals

Some parents and teachers are wary of using visuals due to a misconception that visuals impede verbal development. However, research shows the opposite – that visuals actually improve communication and verbal skills. For example, toilet training visuals can be used to remind children of each step. Visuals in a classroom not only help those with special needs but everyone. 

  • Give any new behaviour intervention time to work

For every strategy we introduce, there is a period of resistance and possible behaviour escalation, learning the new boundaries and then, if it is a successful strategy, we see positive change. Because of this, expect several weeks before judging a strategy as being successful. 

Dyslexia and dyspraxia are not normally diagnosed until a child starts primary school. However, you may be able recognise some early indicators in children at your centre. In an article by David Witty on the Play ‘n’ Learn website, he writes of the importance of reading up on the subject using resources such as SPELD or the Dyslexia Foundation. Witty points out that it can be difficult to assess children at a young age so care should be taken.

According to SPELD, early signs of dyslexia can include:

  • Struggling to be understood when they speak
  • Struggling to learn rhyming songs and sequences such as days of the week
  • Co-ordination difficulties
  • A strong creative side and being good at problem-solving in other ways

You can assist children by:

  • Developing strong links with parents and caregivers to ensure that any diagnosis made outside of the education system is noted and dealt with in an appropriate way.
  • Providing ways for auditory learners to play with speech and talk to staff and each other.
  • Giving visual learners plenty of things to look at and equipment to help them match letter and number sounds with their visual equivalent. This kind of equipment can also work for tactile learners.
  • Recognising and meeting children's learning needs in your centre is key for their early development and will make a huge impact in their following stages in life. Take the initiative and evaluate the progress and behaviour of your tamariki regularly.
  • Communicating any concerns to parents and get extra support and services if required.

All children – typical and atypical – learn differently. By listening and watching closely to how they play, communicate and interact with their peers and teachers, we can tailor our teaching styles and set-ups to tap into their strengths and give them the best possible chance for future learning success.

You’ll find more information on supporting children with ASD on the Ministry of Education website.

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