A report published by the National Center for Learning Disabilities in 2017 revealed that 1 in 5 students is neurodiverse. Simmi Goomer, chief learning and impact officer at Eye to Eye, which creates student and educator programming that promotes inclusive education, shared how district leaders can address this fact and address the needs of these students.
Neurodiversity, as described in a Harvard Health blog post, is “the idea that people experience and interact with the world in different ways; there is no one ‘right’ way of thinking, learning and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.” It is often used in relation to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and similar developmental/neurological conditions.
Goomer says that district leaders can help to boost academic achievement for neurodiverse students through a variety of methods, such as near-peer mentoring. “We have really learned, and we have the studies to show, that our near-peer mentoring model really does boost self-esteem and provides protective factors around confidence levels for those who learn differently,” she notes. “I think right now, given the deep turbulence and trauma across the country and across the globe, we’re really seeing the stress and trauma amplified in our school environments.”
Eye to Eye’s near-peer mentoring model brings together students in grades 5 through 8 who learn differently with local high school and college students who also learn differently. They have the opportunity to work together in a supervised school-based environment and engage in weekly projects to develop the critical skills they need to succeed not only in school but also in life.
Schools should also take steps to deepen family and staff connections as well as better connect with their students. “It’s really vital, and we know this to be true,” says Goomer. “When students feel a sense of belonging, they’re going to learn more and they’re going to retain more information. They’re going to be willing to take more risks in their learning, and they’re hopefully going to have a sense of dignity as they move through that learning.”
To best support the needs of neurodiverse students, she suggests that leaders shift their focus from the learning activities to the learning goals. “I think that’s where we lose our ability to really best support those students who learn differently,” said Goomer. “We’re focused on the product more than ‘what is the learning that’s happening here?'”
Letting students have a say in deciding the “how” is critical, she says, especially for those who learn differently because the tools and resources that they need may look different. When schools support the needs of their neurodiverse students in the classroom, the learning experience will be uplifted for every student.
Eye to Eye also hosts events, such as the Young Leaders Organizing Institute, that are designed to motivate and inspire young people who learn differently to become leaders in their community and guide them toward self-advocacy.
“We really focus on what it means to support our young people and have their feelings be heard and valued and feeling connected in their community,” says Goomer. “It’s a really powerful thing where you have people coming together to really listen to our young people and hear deeply about their experiences, how they think about their identities, their sense of awareness, advocacy and pride that they have around disability and what Eye to Eye can do to support them and drive their leadership in their local communities.”
She adds that those at Eye to Eye believe it is equally important to partner with educators and district leaders so they know how to best support the young people who show up in their classrooms.
“As we’re supporting and providing powerful mentorship from peers to our students directly, we’re also engaging our educators in critical conversations of ‘what does it mean to really foster a sense of belonging?” Goomer says. “We can focus on those who learn differently and really interrogate our thoughts and beliefs around ability, disabilities and ableism as it shows up in our classrooms.”