The Learning About Neurodiversity at School, or LEANS project began on March 1, 2020 and will continue for 20 months. Its full title is Learning about learning difficulties for primary school pupils and their teachers: co-designing and evaluating an evidence-based open access resource in a neurodiversity framework.
Working together with educators, community members, and schools, the LEANS project is developing a free classroom activity pack for mainstream primary students and their teachers to learn about neurodiversity, or brain-based differences in how we learn, think, and experience the world. We will evaluate this pack in schools in 2021, to see how well it works at teaching neurodiversity concepts in real classrooms. The final pack will be available for free, forever, for everyone.
Below, you can find some information on the project aims and phases, and current opportunities to get involved.
Children learn about societal issues, like climate change or religious diversity, at primary school. Organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund and Oxfam provide downloadable resources, ideas for classroom activities, model school assemblies, and information videos to help teachers educate children about key topics for society. At the moment, there is no such resource for talking about how every child approaches learning differently due to differences in their neurology, and how these differences can lead to challenges in their learning and experiences in the school environment. This lack of relevant materials on neurodiversity and its relationship to learning contributes to a lack of understanding and consequent challenges in classroom inclusion.
We propose to create materials for teachers to educate primary school pupils about neurodiversity and neurodivergence. Neurodiversity provides a positive framework for talking about conditions and types of difficulties that impact learning, and celebrating differences while also recognising needs.
This work is closely allied to several of the “Top 10 research priorities for learning difficulties”, identified in joint work between the Salvesen Mindroom Centre, University of Edinburgh, and James Lind Alliance, particularly those priorities related to training for educational professionals, quality educational environments, and preventing stigma and bullying.
Co-designing the activity pack: Phase 1
In this phase, the LEANS research team recruited a participatory design team of eight experienced, neurodiverse education professionals. Over a series of seven design cycles between July and October 2020, researchers and the design team worked together to iteratively co-design classroom resources and guidance for teachers.
The resource pack includes hands-on activities to explore how neurodiversity can affect different aspects of the school experience—from how we concentrate in class, to navigating friendships. These activities are closely integrated with stories about a fictional, neurodiverse classroom of students as they encounter key ideas in the LEANS resource pack. The characters represent a range of experiences and different diagnostic statuses (neurodivergent, differences but no diagnosis, and neurotypical). Through fiction, we can illustrate neurodiversity and neurodivergence in a concrete and specific way, but at one remove from pupils’ real classrooms. This helps avoid people feeling singled out or judged where the LEANS materials appear to overlap with real events or issues in their class. Throughout, the activities and stories discuss both challenges and strengths, differences and similarities between people.
The resources are presented within the context of a Teacher Handbook, which introduces the concept of neurodiversity and gives guidance from the educators on our design team for teaching this topic safely and accessibly. The teacher handbook and activities are intended to be useful for teachers at all levels of experience, and all levels of familiarity with neurodiversity. At the end of Phase 1, we anticipate that the final “resource pack” will be the teacher handbook, supported by a package of downloadable files (handouts, printable resources, story illustrations). We also plan to create printable classroom posters as supports for key concepts.
As of November 2020, we are finalising the draft resources and teacher guidance developed during phase 1, ready for wider consultation.
Feedback from the community: Phase 2
In this phase we will seek feedback on the draft resources from a range of LEANS stakeholders. Working with different stakeholder groups has different goals. For example, we will run feedback sessions with neurodivergent and typically developing pupils to assess the resources’ accessibility and acceptability. We’ll also be speaking to teachers who have limited prior knowledge of neurodiversity, to see how they find the resources—are we giving them the guidance and materials they need to deliver LEANS with confidence, and navigate conversations with pupils and parents? The largest feedback study will be an online survey open to the public, focusing on the perceived acceptability and usefulness of the draft resource pack and the content it covers. Following on from the survey will be a series of focused diversity consultations, seeking input on how we can most respectfully represent different types of diversity (and avoid stereotypes) in our visuals and the written resource content. We will work with the community feedback and diversity consultations to develop a revised version of the resource pack.
In Phase 2, we also welcome our professional artists and designers on board, to turn our draft resources into a visually appealing and easy-to-navigate resource! At the end of this phase, we will have produced the resource pack version that will be used for the evaluation in schools.
Evaluating in schools: Phase 3
In phase three we will evaluate the finalised materials’ use in practice in a small number of primary schools, to see if they are effective at changing pupils’ and teachers’ knowledge of, and attitudes toward, neurodiversity and neurodivergence. We hope to include a range of schools that may face different challenges or be in different locations (e.g. city centre vs. rural schools), recruiting a total of approximately 80 children across the schools. We will also be collecting information from pupils and teachers about the quality and feasibility of our resource pack (acceptability, accessibility, usefulness and relevance) and its perceived impact in the classroom.
At the end of phase three, we will make a final round of edits to act on key feedback from the evaluation. The main result of this project will be a free-to-use resource pack to educate primary school pupils and their teachers about neurodiversity. This resource pack will be available online, along with links to further references, information for parents, and more! We will also be disseminating interim results from the different project phases in research- and practice-focused venues throughout the project.
Fergus Murray of AMASE (Autistic Mutual Aid Society Edinburgh) is a consultant on the project team and also contributed to developing the grant proposal.
When forming the adult participatory design team, we actively recruited neurodivergent education professionals, and they comprised at least half of the team members. In the project consultation phase (phase 2), we are seeking contributions from a neurodiverse group of community members and families.
Many thanks to neurodiversity advocate and author Siena Castellon, founder of Neurodiversity Celebration Week, for her contributions to the grant proposal and the early stages of the LEANS project.
This research is fully funded by a Salvesen Mindroom Research Centre Scientific Advisory Board Research Grant.
You can access a copy of the original grant proposal here.
In the context of the LEANS project, the term barriers to learning refers to difficulties that children and young people experience in learning contexts because their brains are taking in and processing information in a different way to the majority of the population. These differences may result in challenges with reading and spelling skills, executive functioning, interpreting social signals, coping with busy sensory environments, and more. We often talk about some of these barriers to learning in terms of individual condition labels such as ADD/ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, or developmental language disorder (DLD), but many people may have experiences that cross the boundaries of these conditions, or have needs that haven’t been recognised by an official diagnosis.
There are of course many, many other important factors that can form barriers to children’s learning, but they fall outside the remit of this project and the experience of our team. The LEANS project specifically focuses on barriers related to neurodiversity (see FAQs).
Neurodiversity is the fact that there are many varieties of human brains in the world, just as biodiversity describes the many varieties of animals and plants in the world. Different kinds of brains take in and process information in different ways, resulting in different kinds of human behaviour. These differences mean that people may thrive (or face challenges) in different conditions or environments. No one kind of brain is better than any other – they are all just a part of the richness of human life. We need to understand and embrace these differences in brains if we want to provide the conditions everyone needs to thrive, in education or across our wider society.
If you have any further questions about the project, please contact us at LEANS@ed.ac.uk