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“How Educators’ Implicit Bias Stifles Neurodivergent Learners”

November 21, 2023

During a recent training session I led on inclusion and learning differences in the classroom, I posed the following question – a tough one – to the teachers in the audience: “Raise your hand if, upon discovering that you have a neurodivergent student in your class, your immediate, unfiltered thought is a negative one?”

I clarified: “Do you assume, for example, that the student’s learning difference may add to your workload or disrupt the class in some way?”

A few teachers reluctantly raised their hands.

Then I asked, “And how many of you, upon finding out that you will be teaching a neurodivergent student, readily think, ‘This is great! I’m going to be able to really take advantage of some of the strengths of their brain.’” Cue lots of bowing heads and sheepish looks.

As a teacher of 24 years, I know that less-than-favorable unconscious (and sometimes conscious) attitudes absolutely exist within the education system toward students with learning differences. To be clear, I also know that the majority of teachers have benevolent intentions and want the best for their students.

Still, the longstanding approach in education systems has been that there is a core group of students that educators teach, and then there are “others” who require differentiated learning materials to accommodate their separate needs. This bolt-on-not-built-in approach (a term coined by Margaret Mulholland, an education inclusion specialist) can only ever lead to one way of thinking: Most kids learn in a similar, typical way, and anyone who doesn’t demands extra work – an inconvenience.

[Read: The Simulation Exercises That Expand Educators’ Understanding of Neurodivergent Students]

What Drives Negative Attitudes Toward Individuals with Learning Differences?

Years of attention-grabbing headlines – particularly those written about ADHD – have fueled myths and negative conceptions about neurodiversity and learning differences that have seeped into our subconscious and created a bias that was never of our making. The idea of ADHD not existing and instead being an excuse for a lack of discipline and poor parenting, for example, is still rampant.

It’s also generational. When I was in school in the ’80s, the term “specific learning difference” didn’t exist, let alone the more positive term, “neurodivergence.” Children who displayed traits that we now recognize as learning differences were regarded as unintelligent and troublesome, their traits only inspiring irritation or sympathy from teachers. (Even the latter can be damaging to self-esteem if a child senses that an authority figure is taking pity on them.)

The Consequences of Negative Teacher Bias

Such negative, often implicit biases against these students means potentially disastrous outcomes for self-esteem and future educational success. A UK report found that institutions of higher learning have been slow to provide inclusive educational environments in large part because of negative attitudes from staff toward students with learning differences.1 This included teachers not believing that a student had a disability or difference, and even questioning if a neurodivergent student was capable of studying at their current level.

Crucially, we must consider intersectionality here and how the overlap of race and gender with learning differences may create further discrimination or disadvantage, as evidenced, for example, by a teacher holding lower expectations of a child who has a certain skin color and a learning difference, or enacting harsher consequences. According to the Bellwether Report, Black students with disabilities account for just over 2% of the total U.S. student population, yet they make up nearly 9% of all students suspended.2

[Read: Why We Must Achieve Equitable ADHD Care for African American and Latinx Children]

We Need to Revolutionize Teacher Training

One in every five of us is said to be neurodivergent3, so it is the rule and not the exception that teachers will educate students with learning differences for the entirety of their careers. Still, educator training to support students with learning differences using inclusive practices, including increasing awareness of implicit biases, remains inadequate or largely unavailable, despite increasing calls for these components to become a core part of teacher training.

A strengths-based, inclusion-focused pedagogy whereby teachers fundamentally believe that all students, regardless of ability, can thrive when their needs are met can dramatically change learning outcomes for the better. One study showed that, compared to teachers with negative inclusive educational beliefs, teachers who believed that inclusive education is an effective way to teach provided greater positive feedback to students, felt less frustrated, and held lower expectations for future failure.4

In my role as a learning support specialist, I have collected many anecdotes from neurodivergent students about times when a teacher delivered instruction in a more inclusive manner, surely with learning differences exclusively in mind, that ended up making the lesson much more accessible to the entire class, to the delight of all students. Known as the curb-cut effect, it demonstrates that inclusive teaching can benefit not just a target group, but all students.

Apart from teacher training on inclusive practices, we also need more neurodivergent teachers who, by virtue of living with a condition or learning difference, will understand the experiences of students with learning differences and approach instruction in a more empathetic manner.

It’s possible that there are more neurodivergent educators out there than we know. They remain in the shadows because of fears related to disclosing a learning differences and being judged negatively. The unfortunate consequence of stigma is that it leaves a distinct lack of neurodivergent role models for students. If educational institutions start to actively recruit, support, and learn from neurodivergent teachers, then schools as a whole will be more inclined to look positively upon their neurodivergent students.

I feel instinctively that the tide is turning. It may be slow, but I’m heartened by how much societal awareness of neurodiversity has grown. I’ve observed that teachers and students are becoming more open about their differently wired brains. In my lifetime, I hope that all teachers will walk into a classroom and immediately feel nothing but delight and excitement – never dread – at the prospect of teaching students with wonderfully neurodivergent brains.

Implicit Bias in Education: Next Steps


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Sources

1 Inclusive Teaching and Learning in Higher Education – The Department for Education (2017)

2 Hinds, H., Newby, L., Korman, H. (2022) Ignored, Punished, and Underserved: Understanding and Addressing Disparities in Education Experiences and Outcomes for Black Children with Disabilities. Bellwether & Easterseals.

3 Doyle N. (2020). Neurodiversity at work: a biopsychosocial model and the impact on working adults. British medical bulletin, 135(1), 108–125. https://doi.org/10.1093/bmb/ldaa021

4 Woodcock S. (2021). Teachers’ beliefs in inclusive education and the attributional responses toward students with and without specific learning difficulties. Dyslexia (Chichester, England), 27(1), 110–125. https://doi.org/10.1002/dys.1651

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