From “Deficits” to “Neurodiversity” — The Time Is Now

Armstrong_Neurodiversity_mech.inddIn a recent commentary piece at Education Week, author, speaker and educator Dr. Thomas Armstrong argues for tipping from a deficit model to a more inclusive (and enlightened) model that values students’ strengths, regardless of their learning profiles. He writes,

I believe it’s time for a paradigm shift in the field of special education. Fortunately, a new concept has emerged on the horizon that promises to establish a more positive foundation upon which to build new strength-based assessments, programs, curricula, and environments for these kids.

The concept is neurodiversity. The term, which was coined by Australian autism-activist Judy Singer and American journalist Harvey Blume in the late 1990s, suggests that what we’ve called in the past “disabilities” ought to be described instead as “differences” or “diversities.” Proponents of neurodiversity encourage us to apply the same attitudes that we have about biodiversity and cultural diversity to an understanding of how different brains are wired.

It would be absurd to say that a calla lily has “petal-deficit disorder,” or that a person from Holland suffers from “altitude-deprivation syndrome.” The fact is, we appreciate the flower for its intrinsic beauty and value citizens of the Netherlands for their unique landscape. So, too, we should celebrate the differences in students who have been labeled “learning disabled,” “autistic,” “ADD/ADHD,” “intellectually disabled,” “emotionally and behaviorally disordered,” or who have been given other neurologically based diagnoses. We ought to appreciate these kids for who they really are and not dwell upon who they have failed to become.

We could not agree with him more. It is why we have built our organization around 5 principles:

  1. Inspire optimism in the face of learning challenges
  2. Discover and treasure learning profiles
  3. Eliminate humiliation, blaming, and labeling of students
  4. Leverage strengths and affinities
  5. Empower students to find success

To read his full and compelling article, click here. For more about our work, click here.

Image: Da Capo Press 
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Topography of Diversity

Below is a pretty cool topographical map of a brain from UNIT SEVEN. While it is not to be taken as scientifically accurate, it does serve as a fantastic metaphor for thinking about students’ minds.

We know that while the major structures of the brain are largely the same from one cranium to the next, the specific architecture of individual minds varies person to person based on experience. The splendor of minds and their (sometimes confounding) behavioral manifestations, as with ecosystems such as forests, deserts, and wetlands, lies in their variation, not their standardization.

The diverse topography of strengths, affinities and challenges evident in each student must be celebrated, embraced, and leveraged to strengthen and enrich our schools, communities, and, most importantly, their learning experiences. In honoring and demystifying their differences, we empower them to discover new vistas, hidden glades, and cascading rivers. Such metacognition helps them “draw” a map of their brain that will serve them as they navigate far beyond the walls of the classroom.

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Origami and Temporal-Sequential Ordering … An All Kinds of Minds Lesson Plan

It’s the time of year when lesson planning is, once again, on every teacher’s mind. And we at All Kinds of Minds are thinking about lesson plans, too – that is, “Learning about Learning” lesson plans!

We believe that it is critical to empower students to find success. Educators can promote and support this goal in many ways. One way is to help students understand the different components of learning, gain insight into their strengths and weaknesses, and employ targeted strategies to achieve success.

With this in mind, we wanted to share a sample “Learning about Learning” lesson for you to try in your classroom. The objective of this lesson is for students to develop an awareness of temporal-sequential ordering and the importance of following directions in the right order.

“Temporal-sequential ordering” refers to the process of organizing information by putting things in order and understanding time. It includes:

  • Understanding order of steps, events, or other sequences
  • Generating products arranged in a meaningful order
  • Organizing time and schedules

LESSON PLAN: Ordering with Origami*

*Adapted from a lesson plan submitted by several teachers at Nolan Catholic High School in Fort Worth, TX.

Grade Levels: This lesson can be taught in an elementary, middle, or high school setting, with the complexity of the origami figure based on the grade level.

Objective: Students will develop an awareness of temporal-sequential ordering and the importance of following directions in the right order.

Estimated time: 20-30 minutes, depending on complexity of origami figure and depth of debrief

Preparation:

Materials: Paper square for each student

Lesson Procedure:

  1. Tell students that they will be creating an origami figure. Do not reveal what the final product will be.
  2. Tell students that this activity is designed to help them explore an aspect of how they learn.
  3. Convey the steps in one of the following ways: (1) Distribute handouts with the steps listed (either through pictures/diagrams or words), (2) Write the steps on a white board as you proceed through the figure, or (3) Demonstrate the steps while reading them.

Debrief (use all prompts or just a few):

  1. Discuss the mode in which directions were given. Ask students whether they think another mode would have been more effective for them, which mode, and why.
  2. Ask students whether they would have preferred to know what the final product was going to be before they began. If so, how would that have helped them achieve the result?
  3. Briefly explain temporal-sequential ordering. Points you may want to cover include how sequences and memory or sequences and language work together, how time is a sequence, how getting organized with time often involves organizing sequences, etc. Discuss the importance of sequencing and what can occur if the correct order is not followed.
  4. Ask students to brainstorm areas in which sequencing is important (e.g., understanding how time works, order of events in history or in a story, cause-effect relationships in science, problem-solving in math, etc.).
  5. As a class (or in pairs or small groups), ask students to come up with a few strategies they can try if they have difficulty with sequencing. See below for some suggested strategies to get your students started!

Feel free to adapt this lesson – play with it!

Sequencing strategies:

For students:

  • Break sequences into small chunks.
  • Repeat a sequence quietly to oneself (subvocalization).

For teachers:

  • Regularly repeat, review, and summarize key points of the sequence. Students will benefit from paraphrasing directions in their own words. Have students discuss whether they agree or disagree with each other’s summaries of the directions.
  • Provide checklists for sequential procedures, temporal order, and scheduling. Encourage students to refer to them often. Students may benefit from recording how well they use each step in the process.
  • Provide concrete visual representations of sequential information that is delivered verbally. Represent multistep or complex sequences by drawing diagrams and flowcharts, and writing timelines on the board. Give handouts to refer to during class instruction and discussion.

What activities have you used to help your students understand sequencing? How might you adapt this leson? Do you have any great strategies for helping students improve their abilities in sequencing? Share your ideas with us by leaving a comment below!

For more information about temporal-sequential ordering, see:

Summer Blog Series Post #8: The Role of Social Cognition in Talking to Different Audiences

By the time children and adolescents arrive at school, chances are that they’ve already interacted socially with a number of different people: their parents/caregivers, siblings, friends, school acquaintances, and bus driver, to name a few.  And once they’re in school, they assume the role of student. As students, they also interact with teachers, administrators, and other support staff around the school. When interacting with all these different individuals, students need to consider the audience, or person with whom they are interacting, in order to communicate effectively and “fit in” socially.

Neurodevelopmental factors:

Students who are able to adjust their language in response to their current audience practice one of the most sophisticated aspects of social cognition: code switching. We don’t use the same language or speak in a similar manner with our parent(s) or caregiver(s) as we do with our friends; and we speak in a different voice when we are interacting with someone in authority (e.g., teacher, principal, or policemen). To effectively engage in code switching, students must devote attention to the understanding and use of language (i.e., code), as well as to the appropriate use of the language code of the particular audience. The ability to identify the audience and respond with the most appropriate code is a skill that we utilize throughout our lives.

Here are some possible signs that a student is succeeding with code switching:

The student …

  • modifies language for the audience, time, and place (e.g., chooses different words when speaking with her teacher than when talking with her friends at lunch about a favorite movie)
  • uses colloquialisms around friends
  • speaks respectfully to authority figures

Here are some possible signs that a student is struggling with code switching:

The student …

  • is teased for using “big words” or sounding too formal when interacting with other kids on the playground
  • gets into trouble for sounding disrespectful when speaking to others (e.g., uses slang when talking to the principal)
  • uses inappropriate language in front of adults or during class discussions

Strategies to help students struggling with code switching:

  • Guide students in identifying the conversational styles expected from different audiences (friends, teacher, parents, etc.). For example, have students complete a chart, writing down the language that they can and cannot use with different groups.
  • Students may need to improve their ability to modify both the content and the delivery of their interactions – both what they say and how they say it. Use role-play situations to help students develop these skills and structured opportunities for them to practice with school personnel. 
  • Students may benefit from examining the consequences of failing to switch conversation codes. Activities where students can play with language might include role-play activities and writing plays or short stories.
  • Students may need to develop an understanding of the language of their peer group to interact more effectively with their classmates. Setting up social skills training groups in your classroom may give students a chance to learn and field-test new skills and behaviors that contribute to social competence.  In order to maximize the likelihood that newly acquired knowledge and skills will transfer to other settings, talk with students about the need to accept others as well as how to develop adaptive coping strategies for unsuccessful attempts at social interaction.

We’d love to hear what strategies or activities you’ve used to help students who are struggling with code switching.  Leave a comment below with your ideas!

This is the last post in our blog series, Understanding Common Learning Challenges.  But not to worry — we’ve got some great ideas for the upcoming months and we’ll be continuing to post new entries regularly!

Related links:

Learn more about our summer series  

  1. More information and strategies about using the appropriate language for a given group
  2. Related research on social cognition
  3. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association article on Social Language Use

AKOM and the Solo Practitioner

There are many roles an educator can play. For years I was blessed to work at the Center School, an independent school outside of Philadelphia. During my years there, our faculty completed the Schools Attuned Generalist Course, and another teacher and I trained to become course facilitators.

The school was a perfect setting for using a neurodevelopmental lens to develop my understanding of how kids learn – a common mission, supportive colleagues, and families who were committed to finding ways to better understand how their child learned. It is not surprising that my involvement with AKOM has deepened since my initial introduction years ago.

But now I find myself in a new role – reading specialist-at-large.

As a private practitioner, I perform many duties with students in a variety of schools, including tutoring, assessment, academic coaching and advising. The tutoring relationship lends itself to demystifying students and helping them to develop and implement workable management plans. In my experience, students are hungry to better understand themselves, and appreciate the opportunity to take ownership of their learning.

But working independently also presents challenges I never faced in my years at Center School. The biggest is forging a relationship with the teachers my clients have so that they can better understand the learning needs of their (and my) students.

Over the coming weeks in this space, I will be processing out loud some of the challenges that educators face when they are providing ancillary, rather than primary support to students.

Implementing SA at WA

Since Max has taken the time to introduce you to the school, I’ll take a moment to introduce myself. My name is Chris English. I am in my ninth year as an educator, and will be starting my first year at Wasatch Academy this month. I have a MA in English, and have been working in North Carolina Public Schools until this summer.

My wife, Lori, and I were first introduced to Schools Attuned (SA) while working for Edenton-Chowan Schools. After completing our initial SA course, we were asked to attend Schools Attuned Facilitator Development Academy (SAFDA) to become facilitators for North Carolina Schools Attuned. We met Max at SAFDA, where we quickly became friends.

Since SAFDA, I have facilitated several courses in NC, and have become a member of the Schools Attuned Facilitator Advisory Board.

Here at Wasatch Academy, I will continue to teach Advanced Placement English courses, something that I truly love, but will also be working in another capacity as a Learning Strategies teacher. In this role, I will work closely with small classes of students (class limit is 6) to help them understand their own neurodevelopmental profile, the neurodevelopmental demands of their classes and assignments, their personal affinities, and the modifications and accommodations that will allow their affinities to overcome any learning difficulties.

Sounds challenging, but it is one of the many ways that Wasatch Academy in integrating Schools Attuned.

Please understand, this is not a replacement for EC services, the Learning Strategies Course is open to students who desire/need a better understanding of their own learning.

As I am preparing for this school year, I was asked to place my courses on the school’s Atlas Curriculum map. Some of you may be using this in your school. I had plenty of experience with it in Edenton-Chowan Schools. One of the interesting things that Wasatch Academy has done with the Curriculum map is adding a section on neurodevelopmental demands. This allowed me to post the neurodevelopmental demands for each unit, and even assignment types, in my course.

Is anyone else implementing SA into curriculum mapping? What do you think the advantages and disadvantages may be if you were required to include neurodevelopmental demands in the descriptions of courses, units, or assignments?

-Chris English

AKOM at Purnell School

We are pleased to be the July bloggers for AKOM. We have actively implemented the Schools Attuned program since 2004; all of our students get demystified during their first year at Purnell, all teachers are trained, and AKOM strategies and terminology are utilized in and outside of class. As a small girls boarding school, we at Purnell have the unique opportunity to implement the All Kinds Of Minds Program in many aspects of academic and residential life. As the Affinities Coordinator at Purnell School, I would love to open up a dialog or answer any questions about the implementation and/or effectiveness of the program in a boarding school situation. As we progress through the month, more of our faculty will chime in.