The Learning About Neurodiversity at School, or LEANS project began on March 1, 2020 and will continue for 22 months (to December 2021). 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. Neurodiversity means that we are all different in how we think, feel, and learn, because our brains process information differently. We will evaluate this pack in schools in September 2021, to see how well it works at teaching neurodiversity concepts in real classrooms and supporting inclusive attitudes. The final pack will be available as a set of downloadable files for free, forever, for everyone. Our estimated release date will be early in 2022.
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 participation 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 barriers to learning, using the concept of neurodiversity as a framework. Neurodiversity provides a positive framework for talking about conditions and types of difficulties that impact learning, and celebrating differences while 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.
This project has three different phases focused on designing, reviewing, and evaluating neurodiversity resources for mainstream primary schools in Scotland, focusing on children in P5-7 (age 8-11 years).
Co-designing the activity pack: Phase 1
In this phase, the LEANS research team recruited a participatory design team of 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 real classrooms. This helps avoid real pupils feeling singled out or judged where the LEANS materials appear overlap with real events or issues in their class. Throughout, the activities and stories discuss both challenges and strengths, differences and similarities between people. A key principle of LEANS is that neurodiversity is not something that only applies to “others”: we are all part of it and it has something meaningful to say about all of our lives and experiences.
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.
Feedback from the community: Phase 2
In this phase we have been seeking feedback on the draft resources from a range of LEANS stakeholders. Working with different stakeholder groups has different goals. For example, we’ve be spoken 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? Similarly, we’ve spoken to trainee teachers just starting out in the classroom—does LEANS provide what they need?
The largest Phase 2 feedback study was an online survey open to the public (November-December 2020) focusing on the perceived acceptability and usefulness of the draft resource pack and the content it covers. Over 100 people, most identifying as neurodivergent, completed the survey—thank you! Following on from the survey, we held a series of diversity consultations, specifically seeking feedback on how we should respectfully represent different types of diversity (and avoid stereotypes) in our visuals and the written resource content.
Later in phase 2, we plan to run remote feedback sessions with children (neurodivergent and neurotypical) to help make sure our resources are fun, understandable, and acceptable for diverse pupils. These sessions are likely to be run via individual families, rather than via schools. Please sign up to our mailing list to hear about these opportunities! (mail LEANS@ed.ac.uk)
Finally, in this phase we have also begun work with our talented illustrator Claire Hubbard! She is bringing our LEANS characters to life. Later, a professional graphic designer will help turn our draft resources into a clean and easy-to-navigate package. At the end of this phase, we will have a full version of the resource pack version that will be used for the evaluation in schools.
Evaluating in schools: Phase 3
Phase 3 is about preparing and running the school-based evaluation study. In this phase, we will work with four partner schools to evaluate the finalised materials’ use in the classroom (September 2021). The first evaluation goal is to find out if the materials are effective at changing pupils’ and teachers’ knowledge of, and attitudes toward, neurodiversity and neurodivergent people. The second goal is to find out how usable the resources are by teachers and pupils, so we can make adjustments before the materials are released. We have now recruited our evaluation schools, which represent different locations and types of communities in Scotland.
At the end of phase three, we will make a final round of edits, acting 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. Currently, our target release date is Spring 2022. 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.
LEANS would also like to thank neurodiversity advocate and author Siena Castellon for her input on the grant proposal and for the early stages of this project.