Verdala International School celebrates the neurodiversity of its students

It is commonly accepted that education does not stand still. Over time, research and a better understanding of the human brain continually informs and influences progressive education and, therefore, storytelling.

“Special needs” education has made considerable progress. A term that once defined a subset that could be taken out of the mainstream and quietly tackled in the back room, has shifted to a more inclusive practice. Indeed, language has changed over the past decade, redefining the diverse spectrum of neurological differences and how we support them.

Neurodiversity, a more inclusive term, recognizes “a range of natural variation in the human brain rather than a deficit in individuals”. (What is Neurodiversity by Julie Skelling). Instead of labeling the child “special needs” with a condition that could send them on a journey of isolation, neurodiversity can be viewed as an attribute that is simply part of the person.

At Verdala International School (VIS), we pride ourselves on our diversity. For some, this could be interpreted as cultural identification or LGBQT+. However, it is also about the wide range of learners, which includes those whose conditions affect their daily lives; students with dyslexia, autism or ADHD, hard of hearing, or gifted and talented, or even those conditions we haven’t encountered yet. By strengthening our student support services, we have ensured that we are inclusive and provide the educational or socio-emotional support necessary for all of our students to access the education they need to succeed.

Studies show that neurodiverse children are more likely to be bullied because they are different. We can remedy this by being inclusive and by educating our young people. It means a shift in perception; do not look but engage; not judging but recognizing that we are all different; we all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

We celebrated neurodiversity in all its shapes and sizes. Activities take place throughout our school to raise awareness of the strengths and challenges of neurodiverse individuals. Entitled “My neurodiversity, my superpower”, our key message is that we all have our strengths and we all have our challenges.

Activities take place across our school to raise awareness of the strengths and challenges of neurodiverse individuals

This one-month program has been integrated into the whole program. Our elementary classes started by participating via Zoom in a school-wide discussion about what it means to have boundaries. Using animals as a prototype, they discussed how to help characters, like Henrietta the parrot, who can’t stay still and always wants to fly.

Each class pursued a student-driven project that encouraged them to think about the different conditions. One group was solution-oriented and designed a sensory box for someone who might be restless due to ADHD. Middle school students researched famous people who achieved great success despite their challenges and created e-books. One class with a hearing-impaired classmate learned a song in sign language, while another created a rap around the subject. In high school, students developed role plays considering the feelings of their peers, revealing the power of words and how language can affect someone with neurodiversity.

Throughout this month of discussion, we were acutely aware that our neurodiverse students might feel uncomfortable with the spotlight shining on them. However, the feeling of these students has been a normalization of many conditions, that it is no longer necessary to hide it.

Staff professional development was an integral part of this process. We thought together about pedagogy, one size does not fit all; we shared best practices around differentiation techniques and looked to our learning support educators for their advice and ideas.

Unfortunately, when our neurodiverse students head out into the wider world, support systems may be less available. Many universities or colleges provide some agency; however, as they age, this structured environment disappears. Society must also maintain a tolerant and inclusive approach towards adults, especially in the workplace.

For this reason, VIS participates in the Lino Spiteri Foundation program, which finds internships for neurodiverse adults, as we aim to be inclusive not only with our students.

Neurodiversity is the new normal, we ban average and celebrate wonderful variety, in an inclusive school where everyone can fit in.

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