The Learning About Neurodiversity at School (LEANS) resource pack is a new, free tool for mainstream primary teachers teaching neurodiversity concepts to primary school pupils aged 8-11 years. 

27th March to 2nd April 2023 is World Autism Acceptance Week. As part of this preparation we are sharing teaching neurodiversity to primary school pupils from the National Autistic Society, you can read the full article here

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Alyssa Alcorn is the lead researcher on the LEANS project, based at the Salvesen Mindroom Research Centre, University of Edinburgh. Here, she introduces the Learning About Neurodiversity at School (LEANS) resource pack for mainstream primary schools.

The Learning About Neurodiversity at School (LEANS) resource pack is a new, free tool for mainstream primary teachers to introduce neurodiversity concepts to classes of pupils aged 8-11 years. 

Neurodiversity means the differences in how people’s brains process information. Neurotypical people are the majority of the group, with respect to their information processing. On the other hand, neurodivergent group members’ processing differs from the majority (and often each other), sometimes in ways that substantially affect daily life.  Autistic, dyslexic, and dyspraxic people, or those with ADHD or Tourette’s syndrome, could all be described as neurodivergent – though individuals may not identify that way.

Many neurodivergent pupils face cognitive, sensory, and social challenges in the school environment. Some challenges may be compounded – or caused – by a lack of understanding and acceptance from adults and peers. By explicitly teaching about neurodiversity and neurodivergence, LEANS seeks to increase understanding of how differences in cognition, interaction, and sensory processing affect their school experiences. The resource also aims to improve understanding of the legitimacy of neurodivergent people’s differing needs and strategies. 

LEANS resource overview

LEANS is a resource pack. This means that its items form a curriculum for introducing neurodiversity, and reflecting on how it might affect pupils in a primary school context. LEANS is designed to be delivered in full and in a certain order, consisting of 7 topic units: 

  • introducing neurodiversity
  • classroom experiences
  • communication
  • needs and wants
  • fairness
  • friendship
  • reflecting on our actions.

These units mix hands-on activities, “explainer videos”, and storytelling. LEANS’ stories are an essential tool for exposing pupils to perspectives and school experiences that might be quite different to their own – whether they are neurotypical, or neurodivergent! Fiction lets us be specific, without putting real class members on the spot to share personal information.

From the start, LEANS was designed for teachers to deliver it to their whole class. Neurodiversity includes and affects everyone! Classroom delivery takes an estimated 15-19 hours, or about 1-2 hours per week over a whole school term.

The resource pack provides everything that educators need to prepare and deliver LEANS. The LEANS Teacher Handbook is a ‘one stop shop’ for developing your understanding of neurodiversity concepts, getting guidance on teaching this topic, and the LEANS activity plans. It’s a training course, in a book! We estimate 6-8 hours of time for initial programme preparation, to work through the handbook content and its planning/ safety steps.

Finally, LEANS won’t be practical and ethical in every class, right now. The Handbook provides a self-evaluation exercise to help educators decide whether to proceed.

Developing LEANS

LEANS was developed by a neurodiverse team of researchers and experienced educators from the UK nations and Ireland. As neurodiversity isn’t part of current school curriculums, there was no obvious map for what “teaching about neurodiversity” should include, or for pupil learning objectives. LEANS also had very open funding that didn’t commit us to a specific type of output. Early decision-making included: 

  • concepts and content to cover
  • child-friendly definitions of major terms
  • the media or format of the resources that we would create (for example videos, a book, a game, arts activities…)
  • types of information we would need to provide for teachers. 

The final resources are the result of two years of design and review cycles with the design and research teams, plus additional consultation studies with community members, trainee teachers, and experienced teachers. 

The LEANS evaluation study

Four Scottish mainstream primary schools volunteered to test the LEANS resource pack between August-December 2021. Seven classes participated in total, with pupils aged 8-11 (years P5-P7, including some mixed-age classes).  

The evaluation had two main goals. 

1. To test LEANS as a neurodiversity teaching tool. Would children who participated be able to show knowledge of neurodiversity, and would their attitudes change? 
2. To test whether LEANS resources would be usable and practical in real classrooms.  

We created two bespoke quizzes to measure the specific ideas taught in LEANS, one focused on attitudes and actions, and the other on neurodiversity knowledge.  We found that after doing LEANS, children’s quiz answers changed to express more inclusive and accepting attitudes about differences, needs, and supports at school. They were also able to demonstrate good knowledge of neurodiversity terms and concepts on the neurodiversity quiz. 

We interviewed some participants post-LEANS. Children generally found LEANS fun, and saw it as a “regular” part of their school day. They also appeared to have taken key messages on board. For example, LEANS encourages equity-based approaches to fairness, leading one child to reflect that:

“if I treat everyone the same way it could be unfair”  

Alongside their resource feedback, participating teachers shared many positive comments about the impact of LEANS, such as pupils:

“[relating] aspects of the project to children in the school. They realised that having a laptop at writing time [and other supports] all allowed children to have the same access to the curriculum.”  

Another wrote that:

“I think that studying LEANS genuinely made an impact on the class… I think it helped children to have a better understanding of the way others are/feel.”

These study results suggest that LEANS is successfully introducing neurodiversity concepts to primary school classes, and setting the stage for further conversation and positive changes.

Further information

Find out more about the analyses and see the full quizzes in our study pre-registration

Visit the LEANS project website to find out more about the project team, read the details about LEANS development, and download the free resource pack. You can also join our mailing list!   

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