“Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine.”Attributed to Alan Turing, as depicted in the film The Imitation Game (2014)
When I first became a teacher of record at a university for entry-level writing composition courses in 2018, the teaching environment looked entirely different from the world we see now. Before the days of obsessive hand washing, mask-wearing, and social distancing, my students would come to class excited to critically analyze the works they had read. Often their enthusiastic eyes would light up as we discussed complex essays, articles, and creative works. My students fed off each other’s responses as I created a space for academic discussion, debate, and exploration. The conversations we would have before class, the in-class discussions, and other various nuances of in-person teaching developed a sense of camaraderie. Many in academia, myself included, believe communication and personalization are as essential as the textbooks themselves.
Before COVID, my students came into class and met me directly. This created a personalized expectation by establishing early on a positive student-teacher relationship. Having this student-teacher relationship has been associated with higher levels of achievement and success among students. For students with neurodivergencies such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), dyslexia, autism, etc., this need for personalization and non-verbal communication is especially critical. Neurodivergent students often rely on their teachers, peers, and in-class deadlines to motivate them to finish their work. Positive reinforcement, in-class discussions, and a good student-teacher relationship can factor heavily into their success in the course. I speak on this, being neurodivergent myself, and having seen it in my past students.
In March 2020, everything changed when necessary COVID restrictions forced universities to switch to online learning and required social distancing—a necessary decision that came at a cost. As a result of the in-person disconnect, I began to see a dramatic decline in neurodivergent students’ success. These students started missing almost every deadline. They became unresponsive to emails and had trouble participating in class. They became increasingly distracted, frustrated, and exhibited more signs of emotional dysregulation than usual. Overall, my neurodivergent students seemed to say the same thing—they felt lost and like they were being held hostage by executive dysfunction problems. Why? When other neurotypical students accepted that they wouldn’t be able to physically go to class, which was a pain but manageable, neurodivergent students lost access to strategies they had built up throughout their lives. For instance, neurodivergent students realized they had lost their in-person body double, an essential strategy for tasks such as homework completion. Abruptly, asking questions became harder, relying on classmates over the computer was nearly impossible, and everyday strategies they had fostered and relied on their entire lives had become inaccessible.
Suddenly the traditional strategies many neurodivergent people (including myself) relied on are complicated to the point of no longer working. Even online synchronous learning complicates the dynamic for neurodivergent students as most remote classroom tools like Zoom and Blackboard Collaborate have limitations.
One such example is allowing only one person to talk at a time. To elaborate, take the following example: a neurodivergent student is in an online class with their peers and is asked a question. They begin excitedly speaking quickly and enthusiastically, unaware that other people are talking or trying to interject. This unidirectional technical limitation prevents anyone else’s audio from getting through. Only one video box at a time can speak. So the student dominates the conversation until the teacher finally has to interject forcibly. These students who accidentally dominate the microphone often feel embarrassed and sometimes ostracized by their peers. This situation can lead to less participation and less success in the course.
Another significant issue for neurodivergent students (and faculty) is meeting deadlines in their new at-home environment. Neurodivergent students are now faced with the difficult realization that they will be in charge of their own self-regulation, motivation, and time management while being denied the dopamine bonus many of them once relied on—positive verbal reinforcement from their instructor and even the concept that they will have to come to class the next day. Before COVID, I discretely created this positive reinforcement among my students by talking with them before class and providing encouraging statements throughout the class discussion. This strategy humanized me and promoted a stronger student-teacher relationship. Once the paradigm shifted to teaching asynchronously, we unintentionally lost the one-on-one conversations before class, and no longer allowed my students those humanizing conversations. As a result, I noticed my neurodivergent students began to find it difficult to stick to deadlines or build up the motivation to attend my virtual office hours. The ones who didn’t keep up communication and did not attend office hours missed deadlines and even failed the class.
Neurodivergent students with invisible/non-apparent disabilities sometimes need accommodations (often enforced through the school’s disability services) to assist with potential gaps in ability. To receive help, these students must first alert their instructor to their need for academic adjustments. Typically, most neurodivergent students have unique preferences for approaching their instructor about their academic adjustments. However, many neurodivergent students do not wish to share their disabilities with their peers for a variety of personal reasons. Before COVID, students with neurodiversities could retain some anonymity by waiting for their peers to leave class and approaching their instructor in a manner the student felt was sufficiently private. In a virtual environment, the student is forced to alert the professor of their need to talk during the class. Frequently professors will end the video call abruptly; therefore, the student will have to interject before then in front of everyone. Or alternatively, the professor will ask if anyone has “any more questions,” meaning they still would have to disclose they needed to speak with their instructor in front of everyone. Furthermore, since this unofficial session is open to everyone, other students may stay. This open session puts the student in a precarious position where they are forced to self-disclose their disability to multiple people or request another opportunity to speak. Inevitably when asking for another speaking time, the professor will ask what the need is, which, again, can often lead to the student self-disclosing. Additionally, those who do self-disclose are often met with well-meaning but problematic sentiments like: “Oh, I get it, everyone seems to be a bit ADHD right now!” These well-meaning but problematic phrases invalidate and actively ignore neurodivergent students’ real struggles. I have heard these phrases said firsthand, and have heard similar remarks from my students and ADHD international support groups. Nevertheless, a combination of all these struggles and countless others end with many students asking, “What is the point in trying if no one understands?”
And finally, there are a variety of unplanned consequences of the virtual environment, including incidental distractions. For students with neurodiversity challenges, processing the professor’s lecture, monitoring the chat window, note-taking, all while the dog eats your favorite pillow, can be overwhelming. This multitude of extras stimulus leaves many neurodivergent students feeling drained, frustrated, and disheartened.
So what can we do to help? I believe that many issues faced by neurodivergent students diminish with proper neurodiversity training. As such, I wish to provide my readers with a few of the following approaches that I have used in the past to help our students with some of these challenges:
Approach One: Assume Privacy
Teachers, stay after class to allow students to talk to you and meet with them in a separate chat or breakout room. Many students with disabilities accidentally self-disclose their disorders because they wanted to speak with you after class and other students were present. Instead of asking them what they want to talk about in front of the other student, branch off into separate meet-up rooms.
Approach Two: Disable the Chat-Box
Teachers, do not allow students to use the chat-box for in-class discussion. It effectively excludes students with visual impairments and makes it difficult for those with cognitive and learning disorders to participate fully. Only use the chat when you are typing out notes for those who need them. For example, how to spell an author’s name, a name of a text, a criticism, etc.
Approach Three: Disable the Hand Raising Feature
Do not force your students to use the raise hand feature on Zoom and BlackBoard. Students with ADHD often only have a certain amount of working memory slots and will forget what they intended to say between raising their hand and being called on.8 If the student struggles with interrupting, I recommend that a discussion take place on how you both can subtly signal to each other in your synchronous class if they need to pull back. This can be as simple as them sending you a direct message or visa versa.
Approach Four: Academic Adjustment Flexibility
It is essential to understand that COVID and the move to a virtual environment have exacerbated your neurodivergent student’s unique challenges. For example, prolonged computer usage can trigger migraines which are common among ADHDers. Other examples may include, but are not limited to: cognitive dysregulation like time management, memory, motivation (and most likely an increase in dopamine deficit), along with other substantial overlapping comorbidities like dyslexia, GAD, depression, and so on. In my experience as a neurodivergent person and instructor, these symptoms have all been exacerbated by COVID. Working with your neurodivergent student to find out what works best with their brain will do wonders for your neurodivergent students who thrive on communication and positive reinforcement. I specify positive reinforcement because most ADHDers often respond better to positive reinforcement. One effective strategy that can help with accountability, time-blindness, and this positive reinforcement is weekly check-ins for these students who are willing to chat during virtual office hours. This technique is especially important for those in asynchronous classes who do not interact with others through video or in-person.
Approach Five: Show Understanding
Understand that a student’s way of masking and coping with the neurotypical world has most likely been dismantled. Many of these students are going to be perceived differently. Some students may be louder, talk faster, make noises/facial expressions/etc. in class when excited, which is a common symptom for ADHD called stimming. Some students won’t pick up on social cues, like adjusting to others’ moods, recognizing what is appropriate to say and when, and realizing when they have offended someone, to name a few examples. It is hard for neurodivergent students to make friends among their peers, which is an integral part of the college classroom experience. It is up to you as the teacher to provide an environment in which these students can thrive. Your neurotypical students are looking to you to see how to treat someone with a cognitive difference. I cannot stress enough that how you respond to these students and their clear divergencies will set up the classroom tone and impact how your class will treat not only your neurodivergent student but neurodivergent people in the future.
Neurodiverse students need our help more now than ever before. Virtual environments have stripped away a lifetime of hard-earned strategies and have introduced new sets of challenges that students struggle to overcome. As with so many topics related to disabilities, empathy and patience is key to creating an environment in which students can not just survive but thrive.
Victoria Kuykendall is a GTA and teacher of record at USC, where she is currently attending school for her Ph.D. in British Literature.