As the number of neurodivergent students continues to rise nationwide, the student population filling our classrooms reflects this increase. As college professors we often find ourselves unprepared for the challenges of teaching these students. We might even confuse a student’s disruptive or uncooperative behavior for disrespect or lack of motivation rather than recognize it as a symptom of their disability.
While our graduate studies were saturated with courses within our disciplines, they rarely included classes about teaching methodology or educational psychology, let alone teaching students with physical, emotional, or cognitive differences. But postsecondary educators have resources and do not need to face these challenges alone and unprepared. There are tools at our fingertips that can aid us in better understanding disabilities in general and in adapting our teaching to the needs of neurodivergent students in particular.
When we were overwhelmed by the accommodations needed by our neurodivergent students, we reached out to our campus Office of Disability Services. Their well-trained staff is authorized to give faculty general information about the nature of a particular student’s disability as long as it pertains to our teaching. We requested practical tools and classroom strategies that helped enhance our ability to adapt our instruction and classroom materials to our students’ needs. Another important step was doing our own research about the variety of disabilities that can affect learning. Websites such as CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), Autism Speaks, the Tourette Association of America, Vanderbilt University’s IRIS Center, Neurodiversity Hub, the National Association of Special Education Teachers, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness were invaluable resources where we found information on a variety of cognitive, social cognitive, mental, and emotional challenges that can manifest in the college classroom. At the recommendation of the Office of Disability Services, we also familiarized ourselves with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Becoming familiar with the different types of disabilities and their symptoms is only a part of the process. Strategies for success include flexibility and patience even in the face of frustration. We use a three-step process that significantly decreases confusion on the part of the student and reduces our frustration as well. Step one is to clearly state course expectations and accommodation policies in our course syllabus. We distribute this document in class in paper form, as well as digitally, where it is posted to the course learning management system. Step two is to carefully review these policies with our classes at the beginning of the semester and invite students to meet with us during office hours to discuss any individual concerns or needs. We remind students that they are their own best advocates, and that no one knows their needs better than they do. Step three is to revisit these policies by means of oral review with the entire class at midsemester, whether in class or during individual meetings. This enhances our ability to monitor and adjust our teaching while motivating students to be proactive, self-advocate, and communicate any issues or concerns with us.
Having a positive, willing, and open attitude about teaching students with varied challenges is essential to having a successful and productive relationship with them and to contributing to their postsecondary educational success. Many instructors are uneasy and uncomfortable when dealing with students who struggle with a disability, especially one that is visible or disruptive. In our experience, empathy, understanding, and willingness to work with students who have special needs influence how classmates react to the student, how the student feels about the class, and ultimately how the student performs in the course. Additionally, developing an internal, cross-campus support network of faculty and staff involved in the student’s life—such as coaches, deans, academic advisors, and academic support—is indispensable. Ongoing dialogue with others who are working with the student can increase everyone’s success and reduces their feelings of frustration and isolation. Reaching out to more experienced faculty is another invaluable resource. My colleague and coauthor, who has been teaching for 40 years in postsecondary education, introduced me to the Universal Design for Instruction framework, which revolutionized my course planning. It led me to consider how my teaching practices affect students with differences in abilities and spurred me to plan my instruction in a way that levels the playing field for all learners. Along with the strategies already mentioned, resourcefulness and inventiveness are important because viable solutions will vary according to the disability and the student.
Despite the stress and difficulty of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, the adaptations that we have had to make have presented us with the opportunity to reflect on our instructional strategies and attitudes. There is no better time to reevaluate our teaching practices, educate ourselves, reach out to different constituencies of support on campus, and ensure that all learners have equitable access to learning and to a positive postsecondary experience. Ultimately, if our students succeed in our classrooms, then we succeed in our mission to educate.
Mirna Trauger, PhD, is an assistant professor of Spanish in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Muhlenberg College.
Camille Qualtere, PhD/ABD, is a lecturer of Spanish in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Muhlenberg College.