Embracing And Empowering Neurodivergent Students

Issue 101

By Geoffrey Stanford, Headmaster of Newcastle Royal Grammar School.

As a result of having several members of my own family who are high performing dyslexics, I have been very conscious of the importance of supporting neurodiversity at an academically selective school like the RGS.

In the past, such children might get through school by developing strategies that allowed them to mask what they found difficult. Where previously there might have been stigma associated with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) increasingly employers and society as a whole are recognising the value of diverse thinking. These days there is far more in the way of screening to ensure that any needs are identified early and appropriate support is put in place so that those with SEND needs do not just “get by” but instead can really thrive and show what they are fully capable of.

To that end, a couple of years ago, we restructured the RGS Learning Support provision, with the appointment of a full time Coordinator (SENDCO) and this year added an Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) specialist support teacher too. The breadth of challenges that neurodiversity entails, mean that a wide range of reasonable adjustments, both in and out of the classroom, can be made to improve students’ experience and learning outcomes. Where in the past, someone might just have qualified for extra time and possibly a scribe or reader in exams, now there is much more focus on ensuring high quality teaching up front, by all classroom teachers. This entails explicit instruction, cognitive and metacognitive strategies, scaffolding, flexible grouping and the use of technology. In many ways this is all pedagogical good practice with beneficial impact for all children, but it can be particularly helpful for those needing SEND support.

The last of these “five a day” elements of high quality teaching is the use of technology and there are many new applications that can have particular benefit for supporting neurodiversity. This is perhaps made easier through the fact that all students at the RGS Senior School benefit from the use of their own Microsoft Surface Pro device. Some students find touch typing far easier than writing, while others prefer dictating through speech recognition software or even using text to voice software to be able to listen, rather than just read text. In parallel, there are significant organisational benefits from using apps such as OneNote to keep everything in one place with a structured filing system that can be accessed both from school and from home, and cannot get lost between the two.

As well as ensuring that neurodiversity is properly supported at the RGS, we also aim to celebrate different ways of thinking and seeing the world. To that end, each term we organise an extended Senior School assembly usually on a topic related to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) and, at the end of last term this took place during ‘Neurodiversity Celebration Week’. Our guest speaker, Alex Partridge, was someone who has certainly found strength through his diagnosis of ADHD, though this has not been without its challenges, trips and stumbles along the way. As a founder of LADBible, many of our young people will have been entertained by some of Alex’s social media content but, until he spoke, they were not aware of how LADBible became the global success that it is today with a little help of neurodivergence. What was particularly telling was how many of our young people, whether identified as having SEND needs or not, could relate to elements of his story and we ran out of time for him to answer the large number of their questions – always the sign of a successful speaker! This level of engagement provided clear evidence that neurodiversity is very much an accepted and celebrated part of everyday life at the RGS.

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