Our Nation’s Public Schools are Failing Neurodivergent Learners. That...

Opinion | Special Education

Our Nation’s Public Schools are Failing Neurodivergent Learners. That Needs to Change.

By Christina Cipriano     Feb 14, 2024

Our Nation’s Public  Schools are Failing Neurodivergent Learners. That Needs to Change.

Three young trees stood in a schoolyard, their branches reaching out for the sun, casting stripes of shade on the newly seeded grass below. With each passing day, two of them grew stronger, taller, thicker. Their deep roots built pathways that strengthened their foundation to grow.

Yet while two of the young trees flourished, one did not.

One young tree felt farther and farther from the sun as her peers grew stronger around her. The young seedling’s pride withered away with each day that went by. With no foundation developing below her, and little sun shining on her, she lost sight of the sky above that she had been trying to reach in the first place. As the seasons changed, the sun slowly and quietly dimmed, until one day, while no one was looking, all her light was gone.

I find comfort in metaphors. They help me find clarity when faced with challenges. As our family has been navigating the complexity of supporting our neurodivergent daughter to thrive in our local public school, I’ve found myself drawing up this metaphorical story of three young trees, which has become symbolic for me.

I can’t help but wonder how things could have been different for the young tree. What if the tree that wasn’t thriving had been provided with more support? What if instead of having to compete with peers for the sun’s attention, it had room to grow in its own way, at its own pace? And why was the seemingly boundless nourishment of the sun limited to what the tree could glean from the space it occupied between its peers?

Our daughter was one of 3.7 million children who entered kindergarten in the fall of 2020, and as a result of the timing of the COVID-19 pandemic, started her public school career remotely. For the entire school year, she moved about our dining room with her school-issued iPad, standing at the table, sitting on the floor, laying on her belly, taking movement breaks as she pleased. With art supplies and worksheets strewn about, and her headphones off most of the time because she found them “tight,” we thought nothing of it — this was remote learning as we knew it. And, like her peers nationwide, her transition to first grade in the fall of 2021 was a challenging one.

Although she was performing at grade level academically, she experienced increasing challenges with her attention, organization, peer interactions and behaviors at school. When I requested to have her evaluated for additional support at school, I was told to give her time. “It’s every kid in this grade,” her teacher said.

While the school waited, we sought outside evaluations to explore if there were supports that would be helpful to reduce the challenges she was experiencing at school. We entered a labyrinth of paperwork, referrals, waitlists and appointments that eventually, well into second grade, led to an official diagnosis. The school followed suit, developing an initial Individual Education Plan (IEP) and throughout the year, made a series of reactionary amendments to try to keep up with her evolving needs. Fast forward to this school year. Our daughter is now in third grade, and we recently attended her annual meeting to discuss progress on her IEP.

Her teacher said something to me from across the table that made me stop in my tracks: “Your daughter is taking instructional time away from the other students in my class.”

As an educator, I was embarrassed on behalf of the teacher for making such an ableist statement in an IEP meeting, and, as a parent of a neurodivergent child, I was enraged.

But the message in the silence of the room that followed her statement was profound.

How is it possible that no one thought it appropriate to say something? Anything?

During follow-up meetings, one administrator dismissed my concerns and said he saw nothing wrong with my daughter's treatment. Another administrator asked me what I wanted them to do — did I want the school to manipulate her environment? Then she said I know too much because of the work I do.

She’s not wrong. I know better because I have seen better. As the director of the Education Collaboratory at Yale, I have the privilege of working with school leaders and educators across the country who are equity-oriented and committed to finding and implementing research-based practices. My work shows me everyday what’s possible and I want that for every student. That includes my daughter, who agreed to let me share her story here so that all students like her can be seen and valued at school.

My daughter's school waited for her to fail instead of setting her up to succeed and it has been devastating for her. She has become the young tree in the schoolyard. Unfortunately, we’re not alone in this reality.

It’s Time for All Schools to Learn How to Support Neurodivergence

At the start of this school year, there were about 7.3 million students in public K-12 schools in the United States who qualified for special education services. It’s estimated that more than one in five children in the U.S. are neurodivergent, or have neurodevelopmental differences in how they know, experience, and navigate their world, such as differences in how they learn, feel, perceive and socialize.

In 2023, the federal government invested $15.5 billion in implementing evidence-based practices in schools nationwide to support special education students, including increased resources for staffing and implementing diversified instructional practices. Despite the funding, nearly all states have had trouble hiring for open special education positions to meet the needs of their students, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Importantly, although most students with disabilities spend at least 80 percent of their school day learning in general education classrooms, many general education teachers only take one class learning how to support them in their education preparation programs.

Neurodivergent students do not need to learn how to learn differently to have the chance to succeed in our nation’s public schools — our nation’s public schools need to learn how to educate differently so all students have the opportunity to succeed.

Setting neurodivergent students up to succeed begins by accepting them as they are, and not comparing them to the student we may think they should be. The picture of what “good learning” looks like in classrooms has a long legacy of upholding ableist, neuronormative patterns of behavior. Sitting in a chair, still, with both feet down on the floor, looking forward, and not fidgeting, does not equate to how much a student is learning. Neither does finishing all the problems in a designated time frame or being able to fit your thinking into a little box at the bottom of a worksheet or exam.

Our daughter doesn’t always make eye contact when she’s absorbing information. And sometimes she likes to sit in a chair, but other times she likes to move around. For her, “good learning” might look like manipulating a “Pop it!” toy while chewing on a crunchy snack, or coloring a picture while standing up and leaning on her desk with her hood up.

Like many neurodivergent learners, having specific strategies that provide sensory input isn’t distracting her — it’s centering her to optimize her learning. Our daughter has been working hard to learn to recognize her needs and use these strategies and many more to share her gifts with the world. Her multitasking superpowers, her compassion, her resourcefulness and her creative problem-solving are all traits that will serve her well in life.

But these strengths will only get her so far in elementary school if the mindsets of educators and school leaders don’t change. As evidence-based practices continue to evolve — including the application of universal design principles to foster inclusive environments where all students have the opportunity to benefit — more educators and leaders must shift their mindsets and practices to embrace all students’ strengths.

Trying to fit a neurodivergent learner into a framework of what “good learning” should look like for a neurotypical learner can backfire. Acceptance and affirmation are important, especially for neurodivergent students, who are more prone to low self-esteem and diminished self-concept. Whether intentional or unintentional, approaches to teaching and discipline rooted in an ableist mindset can contribute to the likelihood of neurodivergent students being bullied, stigmatized, victimized or ostracized — experiences which students can’t always get back up from.

If we keep providing all students with the same “this is the way we do things” approach to education, neurodivergent students will continue to experience diminished academic achievement, increased punitive disciplinary practices and exclusionary placements. One size fits some and benefits less — not all students — in education.

Teachers and school leaders must start recognizing variability in development as the norm. Increasing special education funding and evolving evidence-based practices in the absence of a culture of inclusion that embraces students to flourish as they are, rather than who we imagine they might be, is akin to planting new flowers while some trees are left to fail. Let’s evolve how we educate in the service of who we educate, so all trees in every schoolyard may be evergreen.

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