Empowering Students with Neurodiversity: Nurturing Learning Differences with Sensitivity and Success

Empowering Students with Neurodiversity: Nurturing Learning Differences with Sensitivity and Success

Neurodiversity – What Are Learning Differences? Part 1

In this first of three segments on learning differences, we sit down with Annette Tofaeono, an expert in the field of learning differences and neurodiversity as they apply to tertiary teaching, to discuss various aspects of learning differences.

Understanding Learning Differences

The term “learning differences” fits well for many of us, as it’s about people learning differently. We don’t all learn the same, and that learning in a different way is a difference, not a disability.

As educators, we often struggle with terminology: is it a learning difficulty, a literacy difficulty, or a learning disability? We also consider neurodiversity. Using the term “learning differences” includes everyone, whether it’s ākonga (learners) who need more support due to lack of education or those with different ways of learning that don’t necessarily imply neurodiversity.

Neurodiversity and Terminology

It’s crucial to be careful with the terminology we use. We’ve been discussing this, so it’s good to clarify some of the common learning differences that educators might encounter. These may include:

  • Dyslexia: A well-known neurodiversity, it’s not just about challenges with texts but different ways of thinking.
  • Dyscalculia: Difficulty with numbers.
  • Dysgraphia: Difficulty with reading.
  • Dyspraxia: More physical and related to coordination.
  • Other Conditions: Erlen’s syndrome, ADHD, autism.

Additionally, there might be ākonga who didn’t have much schooling or education or didn’t fit in, leading to literacy difficulties or other struggles.

The Educator’s Perspective

Our role as educators must evolve to understand and accommodate these differences. It’s not just about accommodation but ensuring inclusion in education. We must learn more about how we can adapt our teaching methods and make our ākonga feel that they fit and are included in an education system.

Understanding and addressing learning differences is not merely a challenge; it’s an opportunity to enrich our teaching practices and ensure that all ākonga can thrive. Whether dealing with dyslexia, dysgraphia, or merely adapting to individual learning styles, our responsibility is to make education accessible and inclusive.

Neurodiversity – What Are Learning Differences? Part 2

In this next segment, Annette discusses the concept of dyslexic thinking and how it manifests itself in various contexts, especially in adult learners.

Here’s a summary:

Dyslexic Thinking and Famous Personalities

Annette talks about how some people with dyslexia, such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Albert Einstein, have a unique way of thinking, often referred to as “dyslexic thinking.” This does not necessarily mean they have trouble reading, but that they approach problems and concepts in a different, sometimes innovative way.

This distinct cognitive pattern has been linked to many successful entrepreneurs, and the text emphasises focusing on the strengths and abilities of those with dyslexia rather than what they lack.

Impact on Individuals with Dyslexia

There’s an acknowledgment that hearing about highly successful people with dyslexia might be both inspiring and daunting for others who are struggling with the condition. The message here is that it’s not about becoming a billionaire, but understanding that there are role models and possibilities for success.

Leveraging Strengths

The discussion emphasises that the different ways of thinking can be leveraged into strengths to achieve success in unique ways that others might not be able to replicate. This concept ties into an education or work environment, where focusing on people’s strengths and encouraging them can lead to growth and enjoyment.

Adult Learners and Learning Differences

We also talk about how adult learners and how dyslexia or other neurodiverse conditions might present themselves. Some adults might have undiagnosed conditions and have developed avoidance strategies throughout their lives.

Annette explores clues educators might notice, such as inconsistent abilities, behavioural issues, or avoidance strategies, and emphasises the importance of not jumping to conclusions too quickly.

The Importance of Awareness and Investigation

Educators are encouraged to understand these signs and investigate further if a collection of symptoms suggests a learning difference. This isn’t about immediate labelling but about fostering awareness and understanding to better support the individual’s learning journey.

Overall, Annette emphasises a positive and strengths-based approach to understanding dyslexia and other neurodiverse conditions. This speaks to the unique ways of thinking that can be advantageous in various contexts and stresses the importance of support, understanding, and not jumping to conclusions in the educational environment, particularly with adult learners.

Neurodiversity – What Are Learning Differences? Part 3:

In this next segment, we discuss education, awareness, understanding, and identifying learning differences among students. Good practice is about emphasising the importance of building relationships, trust, and the potential benefits of recognising and addressing learning differences, particularly for certain communities.

We also discuss how educators can help students with learning differences like dyslexia without being intrusive. The conversation also delves into the significance of building relationships, understanding students’ individual needs, and specific teaching methods that can make a significant impact.

The mention of “whanau” (family) and “whakapapa” (genealogy or lineage) highlights the cultural sensitivity and awareness of the speakers in addressing these learning differences.

Here’s a breakdown of the key points:

  1. Awareness and Understanding: Educators don’t need to be experts but need to have awareness and understanding of learning differences to help students effectively.
  2. Building Trust and Relationships: Educators should strive to get to know their students to make them feel safe and included, fostering an environment where students feel comfortable sharing their struggles.
  3. Potential Benefits of Recognising Learning Differences: Benefits include student engagement, success, increased self-esteem, and confidence. The impact can be profound for both the student and their whānau.
  4. Cultural Consideration: Annette emphasises raising awareness particularly with Māori and Pacific whanau (families), acknowledging the generational aspects of learning differences.
  5. Real-Life Example: An educator’s personal experience is shared, demonstrating the dramatic change that targeted and specific assistance can bring about in a student’s life, from improving reading levels to boosting self-esteem and confidence.
  6. The Power of Small Changes: Emphasising that even the smallest actions by educators can have a huge impact, the discussion underscores the importance of empathy, relationship-building, and targeted support.

More on Neurodiversity

If you found this useful, we have more on neurodiversity and learning differences here

Author: Graeme Smith

Education, technology, design. Also making cool stuff...

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