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Diverse Minds, Inclusive Future: Kent School's Neurodiversity Initiative in Action


Comprising of members from various departments, including Admissions, DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), Wellness, and academic disciplines, Kent School's Neurodiversity Committee stands as a collective force with a shared mission: to redefine the educational experience for neurodivergent individuals at Kent. Rooted in personal connections to neurodiversity and a wealth of experience within educational environments, the committee is actively working to weave neurodiversity into the overall culture of Kent.

The term “neurodivergent” refers to individuals whose brain functioning is influenced by differences, resulting in unique strengths and challenges compared to those without such variations, according to Harvard Health Publishing. These differences may encompass medical disorders, learning disabilities, and other conditions. Potential strengths associated with neurodivergence include enhanced memory, ease in mentally visualizing three-dimensional objects, and proficiency in solving complex mathematical calculations mentally. Neurodivergent is not a medical designation; rather, it serves as a descriptive term, avoiding the use of normal and abnormal. 

The goal of Kent’s Neurodiversity Committee is to provide space for interdepartmental perspectives to consider the many ways students can demonstrate knowledge, understanding, and skills. It aims to deepen the shared understanding of neurodiversity through common vocabulary and examination of the cognitive processes contributing to student success. Additionally, the committee strives to identify and build on student strengths, aligning them with curricular goals. The ongoing negotiation of the tension between equality and equity, particularly concerning Kent's student population and their diverse cognitive strengths and needs, is a critical aspect of the committee's mission. Ultimately, the objective is to share these understandings with the wider Kent community.

Accommodations Coordinator for the Academic Resource Center (ARC) April Pendergast stresses the necessity for a collaborative space for teachers. "What we need is a space for teachers to come together to troubleshoot, to triage, to celebrate," she asserts. This space acknowledges the evolving nature of the initiative, with different voices contributing to its formation.

Acknowledging this sentiment, Modern Languages faculty member Gonzalo Del Real expresses the importance of educators sharing their learning journeys. "We often teach what we love and what we do well, so to kids, it may seem like learning comes easily to us," he explains. "The reality is that we have learning struggles, and it is good for us to share them so that students and colleagues can connect with us as learners."  Del Real further addresses the ongoing process of shaping the committee based on teachers' needs. To create an environment where teachers are not only aware of neurodiversity but equipped to tailor their teaching methods to accommodate diverse learning styles.

Touching on the importance of translating accommodations plans into practical, day-to-day lesson planning, Pendergast says, "We want to make sure that teachers are able to see an accommodations plan and know how to build, not just their course, but more so the day-to-day lesson planning appropriately for those kids."

This approach, as highlighted by Del Real, ensures that neurodivergent students don't feel like they're consistently struggling or failing in the learning process. "Trust your instincts and be honest with yourself and others about how you learn best.” he advises neurodivergent students, "You have amazing and caring classroom and ARC teachers here that can help you reach your learning goals; being open with them about how you learn will help them to help you."

The committee's aim is to help teachers recognize and make the most of students' capabilities. "We're providing a platform for exchanging ideas and determining how to capitalize on those strengths," Del Real explains. This approach shifts the focus from potential obstacles to celebrating and effectively using the abilities of neurodivergent students.

Del Real and Dance Program Director and Voice Instructor Heather Holohan-Guarnieri shared their personal stories of how neurodiversity has impacted their lives during a recent Chapel Talk.

Del Real offered a glimpse into the intricacies of his cognitive processes. He revealed, "I have something of a photographic memory. If I stare at something long enough, I remember most of what I see, and where it is." Del Real's unconventional approach to learning, relying on visual memory rather than traditional study methods, powered him through high school and college. However, he candidly acknowledged the challenges this unique cognitive style presents in everyday tasks, recounting his tendency to over-purchase when sent to the store. Despite such challenges, Del Real's journey has shaped his teaching philosophy, based on the belief that diverse learning styles should be celebrated. "The brain is wired for language. The thing is, how do we tap into your strengths and the unique way that you learn, so that we can help you to be successful?" he questions, emphasizing the committee's goal of understanding and leveraging individual strengths.

Heather Holohan-Guarnieri shared her struggles with numbers and math-related concepts. She recalled her efforts to memorize multiplication tables and complete math problems, eventually leading to her placement in "remedial math." Despite her high expectations, Holohan-Guarnieri found herself in an internal battle with the subject. This struggle persisted into high school, where she experienced imposter syndrome when placed in an advanced math course. Her journey took a turn in college when cast as the "Mathemagician" in a play, leading her to adopt creative strategies for memorization. It wasn't until years later that she discovered dyscalculia, a learning challenge impacting one's ability to understand number-based information and math. Reflecting on this revelation, Holohan-Guarnieri shared, "It was as if a weight was lifted from me; oh my gosh, I’m not just terrible at math! My brain is just different." 

Through these personal narratives, the Neurodiversity Committee's initiatives gain a human dimension. These stories show the importance of acknowledging and celebrating neurodiversity, ensuring that every student's unique learning journey is not just recognized but embraced. By supporting a welcoming atmosphere of inclusion, the committee strives to create an educational environment that celebrates diversity and values the strengths of each individual.


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