There is a growing student population, or perhaps merely a recognition or identification of a previously existing population, of neurodiverse students within Canadian school systems. Students whose thinking and ontology may not align with the expectations of the system their education depends upon. Indeed, it may well not align with the thinking or approaches of the leaders their education depends upon who likely succeeded, at least to some extent, in a traditional format. This group is often marginalized in terms of their own representation in leadership roles and potentially over-represented in instances requiring student disciplinary or school safety measures.
Despite often well-meaning and empathetic educators, these students may find themselves stereotyped and misunderstood as socializing does not necessarily come easily and unspoken nuances may pose an ongoing challenge. These students will often benefit most from the establishment of supportive relationships but may struggle the most with this very type of interaction. School leaders will have a role in ensuring that these students have their needs met beyond mere classroom inclusion and accommodation, and this shall require a sincere effort to understand the benefits these individuals add to a learning community. This goes beyond legal requirements to provide appropriate educational programming and into a need to respect the inherent value in this neurodiversity. This will occur while addressing a whole host of other societal changes currently underway and of importance. Leadership built upon flexible adaptability will be key to all of these endeavors and the well-being of administration themselves.
As with many other issues of significance, this will require education and personal reflection on the part of the school leader. Both an understanding of various diagnoses and an understanding that no individual can possibly be encapsulated in their complexity by a diagnosis, will be required. This poses a challenge as no professional development or academia will possibly be sufficient without the devotion of time to individual relationships. In a position already overburdened and destressed with responsibility, the time and healthy mindset required to do this may be a challenge in larger settings and even in rural settings where leaders often play a diverse range of roles. This practical limitation may require allowing those in student services to play a guiding role, but does not limit the need for broader understanding and at least an effort to establish basic relationships or rapport.
Even this minimum will require multiple direct interactions with the student beyond a cursory understanding of the paperwork attached to their name. No program or plan can ever truly embody the individual regardless of how expertly or compassionately it is written. This will need to be in addition to an understanding of core concepts such as the significance of diversity within a spectrum or diagnosis. Only with leaderships involvement will there be the capacity for wrap-around support that brings parents into their appropriate and robust team roles. There will be a need to respect these individual’s views and self-determination. Finding and formulating the right environment for the embracement of neurodiversity is likely not a simple task in a position already overloaded with duties, but it is a significant one.
This may require school leaders to re-engage with core school elements that may have been in place for some time. Physical environments may need to be re-examined for the impact on the senses. Disciplinary measures and protocols will need to be applied with appropriate understanding with nuance and compassion. Support for pedagogical skills related to instructional practices, classroom management and assessment will also necessarily be impacted. Taken in isolation as another item of consideration for school leadership, this would likely seem overwhelming. Leaders are already tasked with embracing and supporting a whole host of important and worthy school elements that consume time and energy.
Adjusting one’s mindset to each initiative or element on an individual basis would be daunting. What is needed is a broad-based flexible mindset that embraces diversity and inclusion. That understands not just the requirement, but the value in the embracing of neurodevelopmental diversity. The ability to adapt to systemic, societal, and individual changes in a reflective way will be the key leadership quality going forward.
Andrew J. Collins is a Vice-Principal with Mountain View School Division. He is a married father of 4 children with degrees from Brandon University (MEd), Brock University (BEd), and Queens University (BA).