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Coaching Neurodiverse Employees in K12 Schools Coaching Neurodiverse Employees in K12 Schools

Coaching Neurodiverse Employees in K12 Schools

Erin Werra Erin Werra Edtech Thought Leader
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The American workforce has changed at unprecedented rates. K12 district leaders are acutely aware and are taking steps to create a more welcoming employee culture. As a new, employee-centric culture emerges, the role of neurodiverse employees needs to evolve too. 

First, a definition courtesy of Neurodiversity Hub, which offers a plethora of resources for employers: “Neurodiversity is an approach to learning and disability that argues diverse neurological conditions are a result of normal variations in the human genome.” 
It's estimated that around one in five people are neurodivergent, but indeed, the person who coined the term points out that everyone is neurodiverse, since no two humans are identical. Still, for the purposes of our discussion, the umbrella terms “neurodivergent” and “neurodiverse” may encompass autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and tics, among others. Neurodiversity Hub goes on to explain the portmanteau of “neurological” and “diversity” originated in the late 1990s in objection to the idea that neurodivergence is strictly pathological and ought to be corrected.

On the contrary, neurodivergent people offer extraordinary skills and provide a fantastic impact on students as well as education teams. But because of the stigma left over from previous misconceptions that neurodivergent folks must assimilate and “become normal” to lead a successful life, people may be leery of revealing diagnoses, patterns of behavior, or challenges. 

How can we help with something we don’t know about? Great question. Taking a cue from website accessibility, consider the concept of universal right to access. Rather than troubleshooting for a diagnosis, we instead identify the pain point employees may encounter. (An example from an earlier web accessibility article: Instead of deafness, think, “Some users have problems taking in audio for various reasons. They need a solution based on visual cues: subtitles.” This consideration creates opportunities to serve multiple populations.)


Two tips for coaching neurodivergent employees

The more we understand about neurodivergent individuals, the more we see the pitfalls of existing in a space that isn’t inclusive of deviations from the neurotypical way of thinking. 

People who have little experience with neurodiversity tend to lean heavily on the outdated pathology stereotypes — the Rain Man takes, if you will. Let us take a moment to clarify that it is not a prerequisite for neurodivergent folks to be savants in order to qualify for accommodation—nor is it necessary for people to reveal diagnoses to be successful employees worthy of accommodation. Instead, simply mentally accept that a decent percentage of employees, probably reflective or close to the percentage of student population in the district with some sort of neurodivergence, could benefit from two main accommodations.

1. Be clear

Temple Grandin, author of The Autistic Brain and Different, Not Less, is a pioneer of autistic leadership. She emphasizes the importance of clarity, especially in instructions.

Less is more. Pare instructions down to the necessities and trim out excess details.  

Checklists help with working memory and focus challenges. Consider the “pilot’s checklist” approach Grandin suggests: An example of a pilot’s checklist is spare, but clear. It takes very little time to read and understand—and in fact, it’s probably quick to memorize—but providing the list creates structure and a touchpoint to return to, refocus, and continue acting upon.

Delivering maximum information in minimal characters demands tremendous effort. Add in a communication style mismatch between leaders and employees, and the demanding task feels daunting. Know your audience as well as you know yourself. Embrace the knowledge that as you challenge yourself to edit communication, your effort may be life-changing to an employee. 

2. Give space

There has never been a better time to lay off the micromanaging than this current employment crisis. Let go of prescribed, cookie-cutter ways of completing daily tasks—as long as an alternative method doesn’t disrupt the safety and focus of the district population, odds are it can slide. 

Many leaders, much like loving parents, hover out of care for their team members. Taking a couple steps back feels counterintuitive—an abandonment. As with clear communication, the solution will look different for every employee.

Some body language clues your presence has begun to pinch: the tension in the room increases, patience runs thin, smiles grow brittle, eyebrows begin to knit together. Some people may even shut down and abruptly leave conversations. It’s hard not to take this personally (after all, you’re a likeable leader usually!). A quiet retreat, a little break between interactions, and ending subsequent conversation a few sentences earlier are good space accommodations. Conversation may be easier in writing, allowing some space to think through responses and edit.

At times, the temptation to overcorrect and abandon employees is overwhelming. Remember coaching is different for every employee. Some will shrug off attempts to connect. Remain tenacious for the sake of healthy, inclusive culture. Puzzling as it may sound, sometimes being invited but not forced to attend is ideal.

Neurodivergence goes hand in hand with quirks in routines to help cope with differences. Routines are dear to all educators for many reasons: it’s how classes learn to flock together, structure their days, and create consistency. Give as much space as possible for staff to create routines that work for them. If one role isn’t working as well, consider where your employee’s skills are best suited

Finally, give space to employees to reveal as much or as little about their own personal differences as they’d like. Safe space to be themselves is wonderful, but not everyone is ready or willing to disclose personal details. 

If employees do trust you enough to open up, respond gracefully. They may not be ready for others to know and outing them will dry up trust completely. Once you and/or others are aware of any neurodivergence, ensure no retaliation nor cognitive biases cloud judgement about the individual—not even the more passive “I didn’t realize doing xyz bothered you” brand of microaggression. 

After all, all anyone really wants is space to be themselves and achieve their goals in a professional setting.


In conclusion: Seek out neurodiverse voices

To reiterate the gold standard of accessibility, the universal right to access guides our way to providing a more inclusive, more comfortable environment for neurodivergent employees to thrive. Awareness goes a very long way, and educating yourself is even better. The best possible way to learn about neurodivergent employees is to listen to actual Autistic and neurodivergent individuals. 


Follow-up resource: Be a coach first, boss

Set the foundation for a strong coaching culture.


Erin Werra Erin Werra Edtech Thought Leader
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