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Finding the Balance: Nurturing Joy at School for Neurodiverse Students


I was anxious and concerned when I heard that my sons were diagnosed with dyslexia. Working with neurodiverse students for nearly twenty years and having trained teachers to support neurodiverse students, this might be surprising to some. However, my anxiety and concern were not due to the diagnosis. I know full-well that techniques, strategies, and technologies exist that can help my sons access the knowledge contained in literature. Instead, what made me anxious and concerned was the knowledge that, for some students, a diagnosis and special education comes with separation from peers, misunderstanding and prejudice from teachers and classmates, and additional focus on the things in school that I know my sons dislike the most – intensive reading support and intervention. At the core of my anxiety and concern was that I was scared my sons would learn to dislike learning, because I have seen it happen time and again.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think improving areas that challenge people so that they can meet societal demands (i.e., remediation) is of value – even if I don’t always agree with the societal demands. If I can support my sons in developing skills in reading that allow them to more easily access the written world around them, I am all for it. Helping my sons to advance from a second grade reading level to a fourth or fifth grade reading level is something that I want for them. However, I don’t want remediation if it makes them less interested in school and learning. Education unlocks doors. Whether it is formal education like K-12 education or higher education or informal education like going to museums, watching documentaries, or listening to the news; I want them to enjoy learning, exploration, and inquiry. I want them to receive a reasonable balance of remediation to support the things in life that challenge them (most specifically reading) and enrichment to help them build upon their strengths and interests. School should never be a punishment for neurodiverse children. When students learn to dislike learning it can often be a life sentence.

Remediating Remediation!

Again, remediation has a place in education, but it does not have to be a miserable experience. We need to remediate remediation! Remediation should use research-based educational strategies that “work,” but that doesn’t mean their use has to be boring and uncomfortable for the student. Let’s use my son as an example. Gavin was diagnosed with dyslexia which makes reading and writing difficult for him. He also has advanced skills in math, is excited about video games, loves to play basketball, and is a really good artist. As you can see by that list, he has more strengths and skills than he has difficulties! Let’s leverage them to support Gavin!

We can connect reading material to expressed interests! Instead of standard worksheets about topics that are of little interest to Gavin, let’s capture his interest and motivate him to practice his reading by using stories about basketball and video games. He is more likely to see this activity as interesting than if he was reading about a topic that he has no connection to. 

We can gamify the task! Gamification is simply turning the activity into some sort of game. It can be complex, or it can be a simple game of “can you beat your personal record.” For example, Gavin does not love to write because it is challenging for him. To motivate him to practice his writing we can time how long it takes for him to write 20 words of an essay. He can then see if he can beat this time with the next 20 words he writes. It’s not a complex game, but the chore of writing becomes a little more tolerable and fun. It is connected to one of his many interests.

We can use preferred ways of learning! Gavin enjoys art and physical activity, and he often prefers to “learn through doing.” By connecting remediation activities to his preference for physical activity, remediation opportunities may last longer, be retained better, and be enjoyable. One of Gavin’s least favorite school activities is spelling. He struggles to learn his spelling words when practicing off a piece of paper. However, when he practices them by throwing ping pong balls into cups with letters written on them to spell each word, he is far more willing to rehearse the activity because it requires movement.  Interestingly, this is also an example of gamifying a learning activity! Let’s meet the learning needs of students like Gavin by offering opportunities for them to learn the way that they want to.

Rich Enrichment

As important as remediation is, it is important to find opportunities for students to build on their areas of strength, skill, and interest. Finding time in a busy day for enrichment can be hard. Teachers are expected to ensure that students meet a variety of learning goals and checkpoints. Unfortunately, teachers sometimes resort to a method colloquially referred to as “drill and kill” where, through seemingly unending practice, children are expected to better retain information. While repetition can be helpful for getting information to stick, if it goes too long or if a student disengages, it is of minimal benefit. Instead of asking Gavin to practice his spelling for 60 minutes in order to get the spellings to stick, it might be more effective (and enjoyable) for Gavin to practice his spelling words for 20 minutes, focus on an enriching activity like drawing for 20 minutes, and then return to studying his spelling words for another 20 minutes. In Gavin’s case, this has proven to be more effective at helping him learn his spelling words, and it allows him to hone skills that he wants to develop.

Beyond using enrichment as a tool to improve remediation, enrichment has value in and of itself.  Essentially, enrichment serves to help students see that they belong as a learner, recognize that they have interests that are valued, and that they can grow and improve in areas that they enjoy, too. More schools are beginning to use independent exploration to build excitement for learning like working on self-directed projects such as researching and exploring a topic of interest (e.g., how planes fly), creating something (e.g., a sculpture), or creatively addressing a real-world problem (e.g., how to fix student boredom in the classroom). Such independent projects engage student interests, encourage higher-level thinking skills, and better connect students to the school learning community.  

Our students have so much to offer and have such great skills to offer our society. These skills can be used to help them address some challenges in their lives, and they can be used to foster their love of learning if we only take a moment to see the entirety of the student, areas of challenge and strengths alike!


thumbnail_Lalor Head ShotAdam Lalor, Ph.D. is Vice President of Neurodiversity Research and Innovation and Co-Director of the Center for Neurodiversity at Landmark College. With more than 15 years of experience in higher education administration, his research focuses on college success for disabled students, the preparation of postsecondary personnel to serve disabled students, and neurodiversity. Recent publications have appeared in the Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, LD: A multidisciplinary Journal, and the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. He teaches in Landmark College’s online Learning Differences and Neurodiversity certificate program and is co-author of From Disability to Diversity: College Success for Students with Learning Disabilities, ADHD, and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Dr. Lalor received his doctoral degree in Educational Psychology from the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education.

Topics: Neurodiversity, Adam Lalor

Date Published: 03/14/23

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