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Learning Theory and Neurodiversity in the Education System

As published March 2, 2022 in We Have Kids: Dimensions of Diversity by Elizabeth Stonick
(see original article here: Learning Theory and Neurodiversity in the Education System – WeHaveKids )

Neurodiversity and Special Education: What Have We Learned?

Neurodiversity has become a word frequently bandied about when we talk about schooling, acceptance, psychology, and workplace integration. What is neurodiversity, and why is it so important? Before we can effectively talk about neurodiversity and what that looks like in a classroom setting, we have to take a quick trip through some child and learning development theory elements.


The first person to tackle child development was Sigmund Freud. We won’t spend a lot of time looking at Freud’s theories as they tend to be entrenched in varying degrees of sexual fixation but suffice it to say that he did have a working theory about the development of the young psyche. However, the one great failure of Freud—without picking apart the practicality of his theories—is that he developed his theories only through the first few years of young childhood.


Following in Freud’s footsteps, next Erik Erikson developed his own theory. His theory begins at birth and talks about trust stages, how crisis helps develop the individual, and how self-identity develops during the teen years. His theory is also the first to cover the entire life span from birth to death.

Skinner, Pavlov, and Watson

With the turn of the twentieth century, child development theory saw a dramatic upturn in interest. Several different types of theory have emerged over the last 100 years. B.F. Skinner, Ivan Pavlov, and John B. Watson all were of the school of thought that all behavior is learned. This theory of development and learning is known as behaviorism. Pillars of behaviorism are operant and classical conditioning, defined by learning, punishment and reward, and reinforcement as methods of encouraging and repeating or eliminating or extinguishing certain behaviors.


Jean Piaget gave us one of the first cognitive development theories. Piaget’s theory consisted of four stages, each with a different way a child looks at himself and learns from others and the world around him. Piaget happens to be one of my favorite theorists because he was the first to determine that children think (and thereby learn) differently from adults.


Like Piaget, Lev Vygotsky developed a theory that children learn through hands-on experiences and identified the zone of proximal learning—that magic space between the ability a child has to do an activity with help from another and the ability to do it successfully for themselves. Another favorite of mine.


Albert Bandura developed what is now known as social learning theory whereby children learn and develop from the environment around them and from intrinsic reinforcements such as pride and self-worth.

Is One Theory Better Than the Others?

So, what exactly is the point? More importantly, is there ONLY one correct theory and all the others are incorrect? Ultimately, the answer is no. There is not a single theory that fits every single person. Why? We were all designed uniquely and individually. Hence, neurodiversity.

So now that we have some history and theory under our belts, let’s take a brief look at neurodiversity.

What Is Neurodiversity?

According to, neurodiversity refers to the range of differences in brain function and behavioral traits among all humans. The paradigm is that atypical ways of thinking and behaving are part of the normal range of human thought and behavior.

Chew on that for just a moment. Effectively we are saying that no two people behave or think the same. Think of your friends, family members, coworkers, acquaintances. Think about how they behave, respond in situations, and think about certain things. None of them is exactly the same, are they? Of course not.

Applying Learning and Development Theory and Neurodiversity in the Classroom

Neurodiversity has become synonymous with children—and adults—who are “neurodiverse.” Didn’t see that coming, did you? Ok. I get it. I am referring to individuals who tend to display thoughts or behaviors a bit outside the “norm.” These individuals may—or may not—be diagnosed with a learning disability or mental health-related diagnosis. They may be diagnosed as being on the Autism Spectrum or having ADHD or Dyslexia. They may be the “late bloomers,” quirky, or just seem a little different. Neurodiversity casts a wide net.

How Do We Address Each Student’s Needs?

Now that we have taken a short tour of learning and development theory let’s take a deep dive into how all this, along with neurodiversity, plays out in the classroom.

It seems common knowledge that not every kid learns the same way, right? With so many different learning styles and levels of ability, how could a large organization meet the needs of each child?

  • Social learning theory suggests children learn best from each other.
  • Behavioral development theory suggests children learn best from repetition.
  • Development theory suggests they need support from others until they can do tasks for themselves.

So how do we address each of these needs? How do we know which children learn in which manner? How do we manage outliers?

For many years, it was thought that most kids learn the same way. We saw general education rooms in which most kids were placed. Children who needed extra support or alternative methods were placed in other locations or pulled from their general education rooms for said support—time to learn a thing or two about a thing or two.

How Kids Learn

Kids learn well from each other. (Thank you, Bandura.) My child, C.J., loves to help when his classmates have a hard time. He likes to show them how to do “the hard maths” or talk to them when they have meltdowns. This type of behavior is actually pretty common among youngsters.

Some kids are even more willing to learn from their peers than adults. We also see this demonstrated in the “pack mentality” of teens. They will take lessons from each other and completely ignore adults. (I specifically refer to nonacademic learning in this instance, but the point holds.)

Kids learn best with fewer interruptions. If we constantly remove a child from the classroom for support, we break concentration and expend needless energy. Some kids even have a more challenging time assimilating back into the classroom setting. Now not only have you disrupted that child’s learning but the entire classroom as well.

Kids don’t learn well with (perceived or real) humiliation. One of the big hurdles Special Needs kids face is humiliation from their peers. Kids were teased for being “slow” or going to the Specials Room. (That’s what it was called in my school when I was a kid.)

Everyone learns at their own pace. A general education classroom is going to move at a certain pace. There is not much spare time to be given to kids who need a little more repetition or additional instruction before they get what is being taught. (This is where we see Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Learning come into play.)

Kids learn when they play. It once was the school of thought that kids learned in the classroom from the teacher and when they went out to play, it was merely for exercise. Once again, thanks to Vygotsky, we now understand that kids learn just as much—perhaps even more—when they play compared to sitting in a formally structured classroom.

What Does This Look Like?

*Please Note* References to classroom structure, teaching styles or System Arrangement are all based on the NYC DOE Public School System.

Most classrooms are designed, more or less, the same way they were when I was a kid (1980s and 1990s). Kids are seated either in rows or small groups, with one teacher giving instruction. The day is broken up into short lesson periods followed by small group or individual practice. Lesson periods last about 40 minutes each.

Drawing from some of the learning models we discussed, these are some “upgrades” you would see if you walked into a classroom now:

Learning Centers. We see these mainly in the lower grades and Special Education Classrooms. Small areas in the classroom are sectioned off to be used for small group instruction, play, or individual activities. Depending on the classroom, there may be fewer students in the room.

What about kids who have trouble fitting into the “norms”?

Children with Special Needs (stated to include ANY special need, be it physical, emotional, psychological or educational) have IEPs (Individualized Education Plan), which entitles them to support or special settings.

What About Special Education Classrooms?

When I was a kid, Special Education happened outside the General Education Classroom. If a student needed extra help in a particular subject, when the teacher was teaching said subject, that student would go to a separate classroom for additional tutoring. These classes were usually significantly smaller, and all the other students knew who the “special kids” were.

Why was it decided that this model was a bad idea?

Let’s look back at our Learning and Development Theories. How best do children learn?

  • In groups. With their peers.
  • With repetition.
  • With guidance from others who already understand the subject.

So now, instead of pulling kids out for extra help, classrooms function a little bit differently.

Different Types of Classrooms

There are a few types of classrooms:

General Education With Push In or Pull Out Supports: There is a single teacher, and most of the students do not need any support services. However, a few students may have IEPs, and an additional teacher will either “push into” the classroom to provide support to the student (and the rest of the class as needed) or pull a student out if the support service needed is not conducive to being conducted in the classroom. These include but are not limited to PT, OT, Speech, Bilingual or Multilingual Language Learning

ICT: Integrated Teaching Classroom: (Inclusion Classroom): This classroom consists of one teacher and one assistant. This is still considered a General Education class in that it is the least restrictive setting for Special Education students. Up to half of the student body in these classes has an IEP and requires varying support services.

Self Contained Classroom: This is a Restrictive Support setting style classroom in that there is one teacher with several support staff, be they additional teachers or paraprofessionals. This class comprises up to 12 students, none of which are General Education and require varying degrees of support.

Basic Rules

Whether your student is in a General Education class or a Self Contained class, two things are the basic rule:

  1. Try to place the kids in the least restrictive environment.
  2. Try to keep them learning with their peers as much as possible.

Sound familiar? By now, it should!

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