Throughout this year, you will see the voices of many SAIS board members in this spot as the organization transitions to new leadership. Our October news comes from Nancy Foy, head of school at The New Community School in Richmond, VA.

Neurodiversity in Our Classrooms

As educators we have all taught neurodiverse students. Each of us personally knows very smart people who struggle with dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, or ADHD yet we still grapple as educators with how to teach and empower this significant sector of our student population.

When I was in graduate school for a master’s degree as a reading specialist in the early nineties, I took a course on reading disabilities and realized that my dad was dyslexic. He was born in 1934 and attended a one room schoolhouse for his first eight years of school. This was a good thing for him, as it turned out to be previewing at its finest for him, as he was an auditory learner. Growing up, I saw my dad read or look at the paper every day, but I never saw my dad read a book. When he had to look up a name in the phone book, he would hand it to me saying, “I have something in my eye, can you look this up for me?” Like many neurodiverse students, my dad had a great entrepreneurial mind. He was a gifted salesperson, winning national recognition from his company, yet he overlooked his gifts at times to claim, “I’m just stupid.” I was able to go home to Illinois the Christmas I learned about dyslexia and tell him, “You are not stupid, you have dyslexia, and let me tell you what that means.” I watched tears roll down my 50-year-old dad’s cheeks. That day had a profound impact on me and from that day my life’s work has been to support students with learning differences and their families. I find it fascinating to read student testing profiles and seek to find the instructional pedagogies and strategies that, coupled with appropriate accommodations, bring students success. Through the years, I have started specialized language programs in traditional SAIS independent schools as both chair of academic services and division head. For the past 12 years, I have had the pleasure of serving as head of school for The New Community School (TNCS) in Richmond, VA. TNCS is a college prep school for students with dyslexia and related learning differences for grades 5-12. We are one of 24 specialized schools for learning differences in the SAIS community.

What is meant by the terms neurodiversity and neurodivergent anyway? The term neurodiversity was coined in the late nineties by an Australian sociologist and disability activist, Judy Singer, as a concept. “Neurodiversity is both a philosophy and an emerging civil rights movement,” states John Elda Robinson from The College of William and Mary. Neurodiversity considers those that are both neurotypical and neurodivergent. Neurodivergent describes people whose brains develop or work differently and therefore have different strengths and struggles than neurotypical folks. Being neurodiverse is about how a person’s brain processes information and has nothing to do with intelligence.

The National Institutes of Health reports that dyslexia affects 20% of our population. The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity corroborates this statistic, stating dyslexia is the most common of all the neurocognitive disorders. Additionally, 9.4% of children ages 2-17 have an ADHD diagnosis.

So the question is not, do you have these students, but how do you support these students and leverage their strengths, so that they don’t feel the way my dad did? Many of our schools have hired learning specialists and have resource programs to help accommodate and sometimes remediate these learners. Early support and remediation are important not only for self-esteem but for long term success. For example, if a student in third grade has not received appropriate intervention, it is 75% more likely that this student will continue to struggle with reading and writing in high school. Sadly, our juvenile detention centers and jails are full of neurodiverse individuals who did not get the instruction they needed. An NIH study in Texas showed that 80% of the prison population was illiterate. Another study stated 48% of people in jail are dyslexic, costing a half a billion dollars a year. Neurodiverse folks are also overrepresented among high school dropouts, pregnant teens,  addicts, the homeless, and those who commit suicide.

I talk a lot about the two sides of the dyslexic coin. Our students may have difficulty with reading, writing, and sometimes math, but they have strengths that are amazing. The flip side of their struggles is the great potential our neurodiverse students offer both our school communities and the future workplace. 

I tell my students and parents that it is a great time to be dyslexic. It is no longer “The Scarlet D.” Dyslexic thinking is now a positive attribute on LinkedIn, the world’s largest professional network. It has been added to which states, “Dyslexic thinking is defined as an approach to problem-solving, assessing information, and learning often used by people with dyslexia that involves pattern recognition, spatial reasoning, lateral thinking, and interpersonal communication.”

Ernst and Young released a report, The Value of Dyslexia: Dyslexic Capability and Organisations of the Future in 2018. Their research indicates that as automation continues to influence jobs and tasks, traditional approaches to workplace team composition will change. The traditional approach to dyslexia in the workplace has focused on accommodation or remediation of dyslexic challenges. The report indicated that there is a changing demand of competencies happening in the workplace. Their mapping of the top 10 trending and top 10 declining competencies against a typical dyslexic capability demonstrates how competencies in the workplace that have typically challenged dyslexics (reading skills, memory abilities, time management) will be largely impacted by automation, and in their place, tasks and roles that match strengths of dyslexic thinking will emerge (social influence, creativity, initiative, originality, analytical thinking, innovation). This information is important to all of us as we prepare our students, neurotypical and neurodivergent, for their futures.

It is very fitting that I was asked to write about neurodiversity in October as it is National Dyslexia Awareness month as well as National ADHD month. These are the two most common types of neurodiverse students in our independent schools. I may have spent my past 30+ years in independent education supporting LD students and their families, but I still have regret over my first years as a classroom teacher. I know I let students down because I just didn’t know HOW to teach and support these students. We can work together to change this for current and future students in all our schools.

We need to recognize our neurodiverse students’ wiring and teach them ways to support and accommodate their learning, helping to uncover their strengths in creativity, innovation, ability to think outside the box, problem solving, observing, seeing the big picture, and being empathetic is so very important. Adopting a strengths-based learning philosophy allows these neurodiverse students to shine.

As our schools are focusing more on diversity, let’s not forget about neurodiversity. Including neurodiversity in the dialogue means fostering a culture of inclusion, where neurodivergent students are valued and respected for their unique perspectives, talents, and contributions. It means focusing on strengths in addition to challenges. Serving these students also means offering the appropriate instruction and support they need or helping them find a school that can.

I encourage leaders of our traditional independent schools to partner with one of the 24 LD schools in our association. Many of us welcome teachers to our campus to observe, lead professional development with faculty in peer schools, host seminars, trainings, and simulations to assist others thereby helping all our students launch into successful adulthood.

SAIS has also developed a wonderful Academic Support Conference which grows in attendance each year. I encourage you to send personnel to this annual opportunity to enhance their knowledge and understanding. I am proud of the work SAIS is doing in this area.

Happy October! I look forward to seeing many of you at our Annual Conference in a few weeks.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out if I can be a resource.

All the best,

Nancy Foy, M.Ed.
Head of School
The New Community School
Richmond, VA