Online learning has become a prevalent part of the educational landscape. This has some significant benefits. It enables learning to continue when distancing is a necessity. It also provides greater access options to students living in rural areas or experiencing mobility challenges. However, for students living with neurodivergent traits, e-learning can be problematic.
Neurodivergence covers a range of students whose cognitive or neurological functioning operates differently from the majority. This tends to include autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Learning difficulties like dyslexia form part of this definition, too. It can also be used to describe those navigating mental health challenges.
As an educator, it is important to help students and their parents to achieve the most positive e-learning experience. We’re going to run down a few elements to consider.
One of the common challenges surrounding students with neurodivergent traits can be a lack of structure. Certainly, each child living with such challenges will have their own experiences and needs. Some students navigating autism can find it difficult to be comfortable with an unpredictable learning environment. A novel educational approach can also disrupt concentration for those with ADHD, learning difficulties, or anxiety. As remote learning can represent a looser way of learning, it’s important to implement a sense of structure.
Work with parents to create practical schedules for classes. When students are learning from home, they’re not always going to be connected to a teacher. As such, you need to arrange reliable, repeatable times at which the entire class gets together. Plan to have discussions, share ideas, and learn together.
This isn’t just about having the same times for the same activities each day. Variation is important, particularly balancing on-screen and off-screen activities. It’s more about giving students some confidence there is an underlying structure to their school day.
Beyond the schedule, it’s also important to understand how you can adapt the learning structure to support greater focus. Often this comes down to talking through solid techniques that can get everyone involved into the right mindset to learn any time of the year. This can include focusing praise on how well students respond to the process rather than leaning on personal traits. It can also involve integrating regular time for breaks and naps into the schedule, even for older students.
Planning strategies to maintain focus can create the kind of learning structure best suited to keeping neurodivergent students engaged.
Environmental factors can play a significant role in education. Neurodivergent children may find the elements most disruptive to their wellbeing revolve around the presence of external stimuli. While a school may have a certain amount of control and resources to create a suitable environment, e-learning from home doesn’t always match up. As such, it’s important to work with parents to ensure the students’ surroundings are well-designed to suit their educational needs.
In many cases, this involves allocating a specific learning environment in the home. Not everyone has an entire spare room to dedicate to this. But even a corner of the living room, dining room, or bedroom can be helpful here. This creates a space neurodivergent students can connect to as their class. It also creates a distinct mental separation between school space and home space. You can recommend decorating the area with neutral-colored paint and adding soft lighting. For students who experience disruptive stimming behavior — as with autism or ADHD — it can be wise to remove elements provoking this tendency from the room.
Alongside in-home teaching areas, many parents are keen to have their children take advantage of outdoor spaces. This can be a great break from the homeschool room, particularly if the student is feeling overwhelmed.
Remember, though, outdoor classrooms can present challenges alongside the inspiration and space the natural environment can offer. Even in a yard, there can be a variety of stimuli proving to be distractions for neurodivergent students. Wildlife can pull focus and weather can create discomfort.
Talk to parents about how to mitigate the disruption, like implementing outdoor furniture to make it feel more like a classroom space. Discuss measures to recognize when the outdoors can function as a break to release some energy. You should also review how effectively to transition back to indoor learning when necessary.
Neurodivergent students cannot have a successful online education experience if they’re suffering. A recent study found students learning from home are experiencing higher levels of stress than their in-class counterparts. This is before taking into account the challenges of neurodivergence. As such, it’s important to consider the role encouraging self-care in these learners can play. With some additional focus on this, you can successfully support their remote education.
Your priority here is to maintain communication. Teachers need to keep an open conversation with parents about students’ mental and physical wellbeing at home. Talk about the impact this has been on classroom progress.
Most importantly, the student needs to be an active part of these conversations. Some neurodivergent students may not have typical communication skills. But many have excellent insights into what they find challenging, what their emotional state is, and what they need.
It can also be wise to empower students to use the school’s learning management system (LMS) to access emotional support from counselors.
Alongside communication, socialization can be important. Neurodivergent students often face hurdles related to social anxiety and maintaining relationships. Unfortunately, remote learning can be quite an isolating experience. It also doesn’t give these students opportunities to practice coping methods and forge friendships with peers.
You must work with parents to make arrangements for students to study together. Find time and space for them to socialize occasionally, whether online or in person.
Online learning can be beneficial to give students greater access to learning. But it can be challenging for those with neurodivergent traits. Teachers need to work alongside parents to build a supportive structure. You also need to ensure an appropriate learning environment. Importantly, emphasize self-care to help students be mentally and emotionally prepared for their education. It’s never going to be easy, but all students deserve the chance for a fulfilling educational experience.
Charlie Fletcher is a writer and former preschool teacher from the lovely “city of trees”, Boise, Idaho. When not writing, she can be found exploring the great outdoors or geeking out over the latest Game of Thrones fan theories.