Developmental psychologist Kathryn Bates and early-years practitioner Jane Exell discuss how practitioners might overcome barriers to supporting children with and without neurodevelopmental disorders in the classroom.

Kathryn Bates: In this series on neurodevelopmental disorders in the classroom, I collated the evidence on three commonly occurring neurodevelopmental disorders – attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, and developmental coordination disorder (DCD) – and considered how to use this evidence to support children with diverse strengths and difficulties. But I am aware that educational practitioners may face barriers as they seek to meet the needs of individuals, such as demanding curricula, limited budgets, day-to-day time constraints, and insufficient time for professional development.

I asked an educator for insights into how education practitioners might overcome these barriers in integrating evidence-based practices into day-to-day teaching. Jane Exell is a teacher of 4- to 5-year-olds and part of the senior leadership team at her school. She has been working with young children for over 30 years. We recently collaborated on a project developing informative and accessible resources for educational practitioners; her commitment to professional development and passion for teaching have inspired me and my work. I asked Jane how educators can respond to diverse needs in the classroom. 

“Educational practitioners may face barriers as they seek to meet the needs of individuals.”

Universal provisions

KB: The first step in meeting individual needs is to truly focus on the individual – rather than solely on a child’s diagnosis, for example. Specialised provisions for children with additional needs are required in many types of learning, and this must pose a challenge for teachers.

Jane Exell: That’s right. For example, in the early-years classroom, phonics abilities (how well children can link written letters to their sounds) can vary greatly, and whole-class teaching is not always appropriate.

However, certain practices designed to support children with additional needs can be integrated into whole-class activities. A ‘now and next’ board can be a helpful addition to visual timetables posted in the classroom. The board includes just two activities: what is happening now and what the children will be doing next. This helps to manage children’s expectations, something that is particularly beneficial if they’re uncomfortable with changes to the routine. We also use visual symbols that represent words, which can help children who are pre-verbal or whose first language is not English. We encourage children to help us add activities and symbols to their ‘now and next’ boards; the more control children have over their activities and their day, the better and more secure they feel.

“When determining what extra support some children may need in the classroom, taking a step back to consider how this could be integrated into practice for the whole class can be beneficial for all students.”

When determining what extra support some children may need in the classroom, taking a step back to consider how this could be integrated into practice for the whole class can be beneficial for all students. Integrating such supports into the day-to-day routine can make them easier to manage.

Monitoring students’ wellbeing

KB: A whole host of factors affect how a student feels throughout the day, which in turn impacts their ability to learn. A consistent theme across this series is the importance of supporting student wellbeing. That includes facilitating peer relationships, nurturing the relationship between student and teacher, or simply recognising that struggling in class can sometimes manifest itself as bad behaviour. What’s the key challenge here?

JE: Large cohorts (I often teach up to 34 students in a class) can make it hard for educators to have a good sense of each child’s wellbeing throughout the day. I like to monitor students’ wellbeing using zones of regulation. Four coloured zones capture a spectrum of feelings from sadness to elation. Children can be encouraged to place a marker in the zone that best expresses how they feel, moving the marker throughout the day as their feelings change. This can help practitioners to monitor the wellbeing of the class and even identify and minimise possible triggers of bad behaviour. 

Accessible resources for practitioners

KB: Teachers need to understand the complexity of the strengths and difficulties associated with neurodevelopmental disorders so that they can account for a child’s additional needs in practice. Best-practice guidelines and recommended provisions for practitioners are constantly updated, and they can be lengthy and difficult to absorb in an already overloaded day. What help do educators need in accessing those important resources?

“Practitioners need accessible, easily digestible resources and adequate time for continued professional development.”

JE: Practitioners need accessible, easily digestible resources and adequate time for continued professional development, which senior leadership teams should provide. It is also important for educational and developmental researchers to convey their evidence-based practice recommendations in an accessible format; this might mean providing 10 key bullet points to remember on a specific topic, or a clear summary of how research findings can be applied in practice.

KB: Promisingly, it is becoming more common for researchers to make their recommendations accessible. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh, for example, recently released their free EPIC resources for parents and teachers to help them gain a better understanding of the strengths and difficulties of children with ADHD, autistic children, and children with DCD. The Early Childhood Maths Group have recently launched a free toolkit, including explainers, posters, and videos, which was developed by practitioners, early-years consultants, and researchers. The toolkit helps educators and parents encourage and support the development of spatial reasoning at home and in school.

Better translation of research findings and collaboration between researchers and educators to create accessible resources will help foster our collective understanding of children’s development and learning. Accommodating individual differences in the classroom is not easy, and not all additional provisions will work. But given sufficient time for professional development and resources for evidence-based practice, educators can use their expertise to support all students.  

Read the other articles in this series on neurodevelopmental disorders in the classroom:
How can teachers support children with ADHD?
What helps autistic children flourish at school?
How do motor impairments affect learning?

Read a piece on the spatial reasoning toolkit mentioned here:
How can we support young children’s spatial reasoning?

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