Good morning and welcome to today's free Education Week Teacher chat, "Understanding Neurodiversity to Build a Strengths-Based Classroom." I've just opened today's chat for questions, so please start submitting yours below.
We'll be back at 4 p.m. ET with Dr. Thomas Armstrong. Hope to see you then!
Friday February 8, 2013 10:49 Bryan Toporek
We'll be getting underway with today's chat in just under 10 minutes, folks. In the meantime, please keep submitting your questions below.
Thanks for joining us!
Friday February 8, 2013 3:52 Bryan Toporek
I'm now handing control of today's chat to the moderator, Liana Heitin, the associate editor of our Education Week Teacher channel.
Take it away, Liana!
Friday February 8, 2013 3:59 Bryan Toporek
Hi everyone and welcome to our chat today on Understanding Neurodiversity to Build a Strengths-Based Classroom. Thanks so much for being with us. Our expert today is the veteran special educator and prolific author Thomas Armstrong. Thomas, would you mind telling the audience a little bit more about yourself?
Friday February 8, 2013 3:59 Liana Heitin
Are you familiar with the concept of neurodiversity? Yes.
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Friday February 8, 2013 3:59
Hi, everybody! I’m Thomas Armstrong, executive director of the American Institute for Learning and Human Development. I’ve been an educator for 40 years, first as a special education teacher in the U.S. and Canada, then as an adjunct professor of human development at five different San Francisco Bay Area colleges and universities, and since 1986, as a consultant, lecturer, keynote speaker, and workshop leader in 43 states and 21 countries. I’m the author of 15 books, including Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom, The Best Schools, and my latest book for ASCD, Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life. I look forward to taking your questions about neurodiversity and strength-based learning strategies for students with special needs.>
Friday February 8, 2013 4:00 Thomas Armstrong
Excellent. Can you start us off by explaining exactly what you mean by neurodiversity? What’s the origin of the term and how do you define it?
Friday February 8, 2013 4:00 Liana Heitin
Neurodiversity is a relatively new concept, emerging out of the autism rights movement in the late 1990’s. Neurodiversity is basically the idea that we should celebrate diversity in brains in the same way that we celebrate biodiversity or cultural diversity. We don’t say that a calla lily has ‘’petal deficit disorder’’ – we don’t say that a person with skin color different from our own has ‘’pigmentation disability syndrome’’ – we honor and values those differences. Similarly, when it comes to kids who have been diagnosed as ADD/ADHD, learning disabled, intellectually disabled, autistic, etc. we ought to focus on ‘’diversity’’ rather than ‘’disability.’’ In my opinion, there’s been too much focus on what kids in special education can’t do, rather than what they can do – so I’m campaigning for educators to shift the paradigm in special education and concentrate on the strengths of kids with special needs.>
Friday February 8, 2013 4:01 Thomas Armstrong
Terrific. Now let's jump into our audience questions. Here's once from Brad.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:02 Liana Heitin
[Comment From Brad ShawbyeBrad Shawbye: ]
I have seen cases of both teachers and students not understanding the value of a diverse classroom. Where do you think the culture shift needs to start, with students? teachers? administrators?
Friday February 8, 2013 4:02 Brad Shawbye
I believe it needs to happen at all three levels simultaneously. Administrators can provide the context and the basic paradigm, but teachers need to provide the strategies and tools, and of course, the students are primary stakeholders as well, and need to be taught about the value of diversity of all kinds, including racial, ethnic, gender etc. and then diversity in attention, learning, sociability, and behavior.>
Friday February 8, 2013 4:03 Thomas Armstrong
And here's an honest question that I'm sure many people are asking.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:04 Liana Heitin
[Comment From AliciaAlicia: ]
Are we being realistic to talk about "neurodiversity?" It's one thing to talk about appreciating differences in the classroom, but in the real world, certain behaviors are still highly problematic...
Friday February 8, 2013 4:04 Alicia
In the real world there's nothing BUT diversity! Look at the trees, sea life, then look atall the cultures in the world - diversity is THE WAY THINGS REALLY ARE IN THE REAL WORLD. The schools try to homogenize to make things easier, but it's much easier to work in the way that the real world is organized, and that's via diversity.>
Friday February 8, 2013 4:05 Thomas Armstrong
Thanks, Thomas. Here's one from Wendy.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:06 Liana Heitin
[Comment From WendyWendy: ]
In efforts to create understanding how can teachers AND students move beyond stigmatizing special education kids?
Friday February 8, 2013 4:06 Wendy
I think that one important component of what I call "'positive niche construction'' is to teach about positive role models who have disabilities of all kinds, but who managed to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses to make something of themself in the world.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:07 Thomas Armstrong
There really ought to be units taught in the schools that focus on neurodiverse people like Helen Keller, Robert Downey Jr. (mood disorder), Michael Phelps (ADHD), Steven Spielberg (ADHD), Henry Ford (learning disabilities), Temple Grandin (autism), Chris Burke (Down syndrome). The list goes on. We need to essentially;normalize neurodiversity so that the kids with special needs will be part of the whole picture of diversity in life.>
Friday February 8, 2013 4:09 Thomas Armstrong
Here's a question from a teacher.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:09 Liana Heitin
[Comment From GuestGuest: ]
I think we can all agree that positive learning environments are really important, but I'm curious how it is possible to meet every student's individual needs in a large classroom full of diverse individuals. How do you recommend keeping track of each student at a practical level? How can we, as teachers, avoid classroom burnout?
Friday February 8, 2013 4:09 Guest
Well, of course, there's tons of differentiation strategies out there from people like Carol Tomlinson, and I think as far as keeping track, a simple strategy is to just write one or two lines about a strength you saw in a student each day - do this for maybe three or four students per day, and at the end of a year, you'll have a whole journal full of strengths.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:11 Thomas Armstrong
Do you work primarily in regular or special education settings? Regular.
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Friday February 8, 2013 4:11
That's a great practical tip, Thomas.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:12 Liana Heitin
What I guess I'm trying to say is that when you focus on strengths of students (both neurodiverse and neurotypical), then teaching actually becomes EASIER! You''re LESS likely to burnout! Because there's joy in the air, kids attitudes become lighter and they become engaged when they know someone is looking out for them and sees them in terms of their positive attributes.>
Friday February 8, 2013 4:12 Thomas Armstrong
[Comment From Mr. Wilson WhinsMr. Wilson Whins: ]
One thing I struggle with is bringing parents into the conversation. How do I convince parents of all types of students that diversity in the classroom will benefit everyone?
Friday February 8, 2013 4:13 Mr. Wilson Whins
During your next parent-teacher conference, have your parent bring in 10 pictures of their child. Usually they dont bring in pictures of when their child broke the plate glass window of a neighbor. They bring in pictures showing their kid shining. That's the message we should be communicating to our parents. That this is a class that's founded on strengths, and different people have different strengths, and together we are greater than the sum of our parts>
Friday February 8, 2013 4:14 Thomas Armstrong
Here's one about terminology.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:15 Liana Heitin
[Comment From EmilyEmily: ]
What comments or "language" would you like people to re-frame to be more neurodiverse? Can you give an example or two?
Friday February 8, 2013 4:15 Emily
Well, of course, this gets us into looking at specific kinds of neurodiversity. For example, with the child diagnosed with ADHD, we can describe this child in terms of' 'novelty seeking'' because the research suggests that's one of the things that ADHD labeled kids do really well. So you can to other teachers "'wow, this student is quite a novelty seeker!"' Another child with Down syndrome might be incredibly dramatic (research indicates strengths in the personal intelligences with intellectual disabilities). So you can emphasize that strength in your discussions with parents, administrations, and teachers.>
Friday February 8, 2013 4:16 Thomas Armstrong
Here's one about determining strengths.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:17 Liana Heitin
[Comment From SarahSarah: ]
In this new model how will you measure student aptitude in order to tailor education to their strengths?
Friday February 8, 2013 4:17 Sarah
Well, I've designed a 156-item Neurodiversity Strengths Inventory, that's contained in my new book Neurodiversity in the Classroom. This inventory tries to be exhaustiv e in the broad range of strengths that we can find in students. I'd like to see educators use this inventory, or others like Myers-Briggs, multiple intelligences checklists, the Gallup organizations strength building tools, etc.>
Friday February 8, 2013 4:19 Thomas Armstrong
Here's one about challenges.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:20 Liana Heitin
[Comment From Vinicius LemosVinicius Lemos: ]
Why so many teachers fail dealing with this diversity ? What kind of knowledge do they usually lack?
Friday February 8, 2013 4:20 Vinicius Lemos
Well, as I said earlier, the schools tend to be historically focused on homogenization, and this is especially true today with the focus on high-stakes standardized tests, value-added assessment, common core, and so on. So, there's a strong pressure to teach to the so-called normal individual. Also, we're quantitatively focused in education, whereas this approach to neurodiversity really demands a qualitative narrative assessment approach, that looks at the uniqueness of each learner, and honors them for who they are, not for what they failed to be on a standardized test.>
Friday February 8, 2013 4:22 Thomas Armstrong
A lot of people are writing in about Universal Design for Learning. Can you tell us a little bit about what it is, why it's important, and how it affects learning outcomes in a neurodiverse classroom?
Friday February 8, 2013 4:22 Liana Heitin
Yes, Universal Design for Learning is all about creating strategies and tools that allow students with special needs to do things that they otherwise might not have been able to do, and at the same time, these strategies and tools also help everybody else in the classroom.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:23 Thomas Armstrong
What grade level are you primarily responsible for? Early childhood.
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Friday February 8, 2013 4:23
So I'll give you some examples: Dragon Naturally Speaking is a great UDL tool for kids with learning disabilities, where they can speak into a computer and have it produce the text - this circumvents their writing difficulties. Proloquo2go is an alternative and augmentative communication app that allows students with communication problems (e.g. even speaking basic commands), which some autistic and intellectually disabled diagnosed kids have problems with, this allows them to punch a button and have a synthesized voice speak the command for them. This and other approaches have opened up whole universes for many kids who before were isolated from other people.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:25 Thomas Armstrong
In my book Neurodiversity in the classroom, I discuss a whole range of the UDL/assistive technology tools for different disability categories.>
Friday February 8, 2013 4:26 Thomas Armstrong
[Comment From A. BrownsA. Browns: ]
Are there studies you can point us to for evidence of this approach being mutually beneficial for all students?
Friday February 8, 2013 4:26 A. Browns
Well, you've got to realize that neurodiversity as a concept is only about 15 years old and thus far has been primarily focused within the autistic rights movement. What I'm trying to do is bring it into all disability categories that have a neurological basis, and encourage educators to begin DOING researchg that focuses on the strengths of kids with special needs. In my Commentary in Education Week that appeared on Wednesday, I was critical of the special education community for not doing more to research the strengths, talents, and abilities of kidsj with special needs.
So, if you're out there doing your master's thesis or doctoral dissertation, I'd recommend that you do work on the strengths of students with dyslexia, or ADHD, or Down syndrome, or emotional and behavioral disorders, or..... I actually did my own doctoral dissertation in 1987 on the strengths of kids labeled learning disabled - and came up with a lot of great qualitative data.>
Friday February 8, 2013 4:29 Thomas Armstrong
Vicky is asking about social skills in a neurodiverse classroom.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:30 Liana Heitin
[Comment From Vicky WishesVicky Wishes: ]
How do teachers manage the social atmosphere of a diverse classroom? Is this something to be handled organically or should a teacher be sure to play an active role in ensuring a collaborative classroom?
Friday February 8, 2013 4:30 Vicky Wishes
I think collaboration is the way to go - in order to really make this work, there's need to be a lot of collaboration between regular and special education teachers - for too long, these two groups have moved along on parallel tracks - there neeeds to be a greater integration of the two - so, co-teaching for example is one strategy - bringing in student interns from colleges, parent volunteers, specialists from the district, and using peer teaching - all very important - one of the components of positive niche construction that I talk about in Neurodiversity in the Classroom is the creation of an enriched human resource network to support kids with special needs, so we need to do all we can to make that happen in the classroom.>
Friday February 8, 2013 4:32 Thomas Armstrong
This question is about leadership.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:33 Liana Heitin
[Comment From Jason FlomJason Flom: ]
Are there resources for leaders to help build their capacity at both embracing and leveraging neurodiversity in their schools in order to increase equity? What are some challenges leaders face in promoting neurodiversity?
Friday February 8, 2013 4:33 Jason Flom
Well, there's an emerging literature in neurodiversity they should be familiar with, I've done two books on neurodiversity (my other one is entitled The Power of Neurodiversity and goes more in depth into the principles and research, whereas Neurodiversity in the Classroom has more strategies and tools). So they ought to be familiar with these and other books in the field.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:35 Thomas Armstrong
Of course, there's the elephant in the room and that's the accountabilityt movement, standardized testing, and the common core. that need to be confronted and essentially overcome. That's why I devoted several sections of Neurodiversity in the Classroom to creating strength-based strategies for Common Core standards.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:36 Thomas Armstrong
I'll give you an example. ELA.RL.4.3--Describe in depth a character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., a character's words, thoughts, or actions).[
Friday February 8, 2013 4:36 Thomas Armstrong
Okay, if you have a student with learning disabilities, you can find out which texts interest him most and use them in the learning process. If they happen to have dramatic ability, you can have them actually act out their understanding of the character, setting, etc. If they have problems reading the story, you can use a Kurkweil Reader that translates text into speech. These are just a few suggestions. There are many more in my book.>
Friday February 8, 2013 4:38 Thomas Armstrong
Thanks for getting to the Common Core--several people have asked about this.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:39 Liana Heitin
Here's one about your strengths inventory.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:39 Liana Heitin
[Comment From Nancy W.Nancy W.: ]
In the neurodiversity strengths inventory, are there categories of strengths that students would fall into to help support teacher decision making in student grouping and so teachers would be speaking the same language?
Friday February 8, 2013 4:39 Nancy W.
Well, I do actually have specific inventory items grouped by area (e.g. Social Strengths, Creative Strengths, Cultural Strengths etc.). But I don't see the inventory as a way to group kids - I was against that with my multiple intelligences inventory (in my book Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom). What I want this inventory to do is open up the floodgates, essentially, to teachers seeing the best in kids, and then using specific inventory items as a stimulus to develop the right strategy for this kid. Obviously, if other kids have the same strenbgth or set of strengths, then developing an activity that they all can do together certainly makes a lot of sense.>
Friday February 8, 2013 4:41 Thomas Armstrong
But you do write about the positive traits associated with particular disability categories. Can you tell our audience a little more about those?
Friday February 8, 2013 4:42 Liana Heitin
Yes, that's very important. It's important for educators to know that there's a strong research base supporting the strengths of kids with a range of special needs. Let me discuss them.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:43 Thomas Armstrong
For autism, there's a Cambridge University professor, Simon Baron-Cohen who suggests that people with autism are ''systemizers'' rather than empathizers, and that they are very good at picking out small details in a more complex system.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:44 Thomas Armstrong
For dyslexia, Ellen Winner (Howard Gardner's wife) and her colleagues have examined the visual-spatial strengths of research subjects - they discovered, for example, that people with dyslexia are able to more quickly and efficiently tell whether a three-dimensional object is possible or impossible to build (re: the Escher art you might be familiar with).
Friday February 8, 2013 4:45 Thomas Armstrong
For ADHD, there's been a number of papers suggesting that the reason these genes for ADHD are still in the gene pool is that there were evolutionary advantages - being able to be hyperactive, distractible, anbd impulsive, were important, for example, for hunters who had to be on the move, paying attention to the slightest stimulus, and ready to respond quickly to any sound or sight.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:46 Thomas Armstrong
For intellectual disabilities, Elizabeth Dykens at Vanderbilt has looked at their positive personality traits, warmth, nurturing qualities, dramatic abilities. In addition, for specific forms of intellectual disability, like Williams syndrome, there are musical capacities that often outstrip those of neurotypical individuals.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:47 Thomas Armstrong
For emotional and behavioral disorders, research at Stanford University revealed that kids with bipolarj disorder score better on a creativity test than more typically developing kids. That's just some of the research that's out there. And it's growing from year to year.>
Friday February 8, 2013 4:48 Thomas Armstrong
A follow-up on that strand:
Friday February 8, 2013 4:48 Liana Heitin
[Comment From Lester LLester L: ]
When you explain that there are positive traits related to different disability categories, many people tend to think “Rain Man,” or other portrayals of the genius with autism. But the truth is, many students with autism have average IQs. And many students with reading problems are far from great artists. How do focus on positive traits without perpetuating stereotypes, which can actually hurt students who are not able to live up to them?
Friday February 8, 2013 4:48 Lester L
You mention people with autism with average I.Q. scores (and many have below average as well). It turns out that if you use the right kind of I.Q. score (like the Raven's Progressive Matrices rather than the WISC for example), their scores go up 30-70 percent. It's true, we can't get too much mileage by suggesting that an ADHD kid will be the next Einstein. But we CAN say that many of the warning signs of ADHD are actually very similar to the traits of a creative person. And it may be that we're actually keeping many of these kids down in averfage or below average territory by not having high enough expectations for them;.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:51 Thomas Armstrong
Even for the so-called ''low-functioning''autistic child, there are strengths - for example, one child just sat in front of the tv watching the snow on the screen - his parents decided to put images on the screen such as instructions for brushing his teeth etc, and suddenly he started to do these things - because they took him exactly where he was, and built on what he COULD do.>
Friday February 8, 2013 4:52 Thomas Armstrong
Excellent. Keep those questions coming--less than 10 minutes to go!
Friday February 8, 2013 4:53 Liana Heitin
Here's one from a forward thinker:
Friday February 8, 2013 4:53 Liana Heitin
[Comment From CammiseCammise: ]
How does this mesh with IDEA and Section 504? This paradigm shift might open the door for all children to request modifications/accommodations. Maybe I'm jumping the gun, but how could a school manage that? As a teacher, we all know that all of our students whether labeled or not generally have some sort of "special" need.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:53 Cammise
Glad that you brought that up Cammise. IDEA actually states that a student's IEP needs to identify that students strengths. All too often, this becomes a token act - they write in ''tries hard'' or ''had a nice personality.'' But we've got to take this one seriously. There's an approach to IEP development called Appreciative Inquiry that starts with a focus on what the students' successes are, their hopes for the future, their interests, and so forth.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:55 Thomas Armstrong
I don't think that taking a strength-based approach to special ed laws is going to cause people to demand more - what it's going to do is put strategies and tools into the IEP that actually WORK, because they're based on the strengths, hopes, and interests of the student.>
Friday February 8, 2013 4:56 Thomas Armstrong
Here's a great question from Mark.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:56 Liana Heitin
[Comment From MarkMark: ]
Given the narrow focus of education on academic performance, how can we refocus on the non-academic strengths of children who have cognitive abilities far below average and thus struggle with reading, writing, and math? We seem to be allergic to the concept of vocational education, but it seems like this is a positive path for some struggling students
Friday February 8, 2013 4:56 Mark
Yes, the focus on academic achievement is a serious problem in this country, and is going to be the focus of my next book. But what I've done in Neurodiversity in the Classroom and many other of my books is give strategies that will help students improve in reading, writing, and math. But at the same time, we've got to advocate for the arts, for vocational education, for health education, for physical education - because oftentimes its in these areas that many of these kids shine - and with so narrow a focus, these can't oftentime come into school and have their whole experience focused on what they can't do well.
Friday February 8, 2013 4:58 Thomas Armstrong
Imagine that you were put into a class for several hours a day and told to do things that were in your area of greatest weakness. We couldn't stand it for even a day! But we expect kids in special education to do this all the time!>
Friday February 8, 2013 4:59 Thomas Armstrong
Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have for today. A big thanks to Thomas for lending his expertise and spending the hour with us. It’s been a great conversation. And thanks as well to all of you for participating. Any closing words Thomas?
Friday February 8, 2013 4:59 Liana Heitin
Just to thank you all for those great questions. And if you want to contact me, here is all my contact information:
Thanks, Liana for facilitating this. I hope that it's been helpful to everyone!
Friday February 8, 2013 5:00 Thomas Armstrong
Thanks, Dr. Armstrong! That's a great place to end.
Folks, thanks again for joining us for today's chat. A special thanks to our excellent guest, Dr. Armstrong, and our great moderator Liana.
A transcript of today's chat will be available on this same page in about 30 minutes. Thanks again, and have a great weekend!
Friday February 8, 2013 5:01 Bryan Toporek
Understanding Neurodiversity to Build a Strengths-Based Classroom
Friday, Feb. 8, 2013, 4 to 5 p.m. ET.
The conversation around special education students is almost exclusively a "disability discourse," says veteran special educator and author Thomas Armstrong. But instead of talking about what students can't do, why not talk about their strengths, capabilities, and interests? Instead of lamenting students' deficits and dysfunctions, why not celebrate their neurological diversity?
During this online chat, Armstrong explained a paradigm shift in which general and special educators focus on students' aptitudes, not their needs and difficulties, in order to effectively differentiate instruction. He answered your questions about universal design for learning, the components of positive learning environments, and the strengths typically associated with particular disability categories.
Guest: Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., executive director, American Institute for Learning and Human Development, and award-winning author and speaker. Armstrong has been an educator for the past 40 years and written 15 books, including Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students With Special Needs Achieve Success in School and Life. Additionally, he has delivered keynote addresses, workshop presentations, and lectures in 43 states and 20 countries during the past 26 years.
Liana Heitin, associate editor, Education Week Teacher, moderated this chat.
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