It’s no secret that the past few years of the pandemic and interrupted learning have had a devastating impact on students with learning disabilities. But it is alarming that, collectively, schools aren’t doing enough to address it.

While many schools expanded or deepened their assistance and support—by way of technology and more one-on-one support—to help students readjust to in-class learning, assessments, and pre-pandemic learning expectations, schools did not provide adequate additional services to students who need special education. The impact of this is clear: In 2022, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that students with disabilities on average scored 32 points lower in math and 40 points lower in reading than students without disabilities. The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates found that only 18% of students with disabilities had been offered compensatory services through 2021.

These growing academic and support gaps—on top of the ever-present teacher shortage in special education—are creating chronic barriers for students with learning and thinking differences, like ADHD and dyslexia. And until schools make students with learning disabilities a priority, these students will continue to fall further and further behind.

The good news? There are simple, tactical actions principals can take to make support for neurodivergent students a priority for their schools at large.

Action 1: Think of students with learning disabilities first, not last.

While this may seem obvious, the truth is, it rarely happens. Principals, administrators, teachers, and other school staff have all been trained to think of how to support as many students as possible as much of the time as possible. This leads to the idea of “teaching to the middle,” or teaching to the students that schools think have the best chance of succeeding academically. Students with learning disabilities rarely fit into that category.

But like all other aspects of school culture, principals have the opportunity and responsibility to set the tone. If the principal is paying attention to it, staff and the broader school community will, too.

In staff meetings or professional development gatherings, principals can add agenda items and carve out time to discuss students with learning disabilities, and what supports are or aren’t working. For any after-school activities or assemblies, principals can find ways to focus conversations on disabilities and ensure that all activities are accessible and inclusive of students with learning differences. In annual budgets, principals should create explicit line items for supports for neurodivergent kids so that teachers see they have resources available and recognize that the principal is backing this effort with real funds.

Also, if central office staff, parents and parent-teacher associations, local newspapers, and beyond see support for students with learning disabilities as an explicit priority for the year, they will positively act on it. It’s worth noting that this focus doesn’t require an overhaul of the school or creating new programs altogether but a concentrated effort that over time can help influence and enhance school culture not just for neurodivergent students, but for everyone.

Action 2: Set high expectations for students with learning disabilities.

If prioritizing students with learning disabilities across the school is a critical first step, then ensuring these students know they are a priority is an important fast follow.

Many neurodivergent students are used to feeling secondary or written off in school. According to the “ Neurodiversity and Stigma Study” from April 2022, 3 in 5 parents agree that they’ve seen their child or another child with learning differences referred to as “lazy” or “not smart.” Kids begin to internalize these stigmas from a very young age, which negatively impacts their self-esteem and confidence in school.

School leaders have a chance to change this narrative in their schools, and instead set and hold high expectations for neurodivergent students. By using their positional authority, they can ensure that stigmatizing language is eliminated from school policies and that professional development activities purposefully include students with disabilities in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) conversations and projects. In meetings about academics, discipline, and other student-focused conversations, principals can firmly reject myths, like laziness and lack of intelligence, as reasons teachers fail to see strong results for students with learning disabilities.

Encouraging teachers to investigate why a student is struggling or demonstrating undesirable behavior—and providing them the time and support they need to investigate with students, families, and colleagues—is a great way to ensure that teachers do not rely on myths as reasons.

To hold students accountable to these expectations, principals can play a role in confirming they have the right supports. Making sure that teachers and staff have a bevy of accommodations and modifications to choose from—such as flexible seating arrangements, support with prioritization of assignments, and guided notes—can deliver significant strides in helping neurodivergent students feel empowered at school and believe in themselves.

Action 3: Embed Universal Design for Learning principles in your school’s culture.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) gives all students an equal opportunity to succeed by promoting the use of a variety of teaching and assessment methods to remove barriers to learning. The benefits of UDL are that students are able to both learn and demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways. (For more on UDL, see​3YowHbQ.)

Using multiple, rather than single, assessments for important concepts and skills while providing variety in assessment forms—such as speaking, writing, group effort, individual effort, long-term, and short-term activities—over time will give students the best opportunities to show their knowledge. Similarly, varying instruction by presenting information to students auditorily, visually, graphically, in text, short bursts, and expanded forms will give all students the best chance to learn.

Not all methods for assessment or instruction can be used for every lesson, so applying them at the right time is important. Principals can support the implementation of various methods by repeatedly emphasizing that the job of teachers is to discover how to get the most out of students, not to educate in ways that make the teacher most comfortable. Additionally, principals can highlight the importance of UDL by embedding this fundamental idea into teacher performance evaluations and supervision.

Embracing UDL as a core principle in your school and a necessary aspect of DEI initiatives will demonstrate how all students can grow academically and gain confidence—and, once again, underscores that you want your school to put support for neurodivergent students at the forefront of teaching and learning.

Action 4: Cultivate learning environments.

There is a common misconception that supporting neurodivergent students requires overhauling your school, paying exorbitant amounts of money for the latest technology, or needing to find additional staff to start new programs at a time when hiring has never been more difficult. Such initiatives can certainly help, but they are not the most powerful tools for a principal to create a positive impact for neurodivergent students.

We often hear that schools must become learning communities. The concept of learning together is the most powerful tool for principals to deploy. If a school’s faculty and staff members are committed to learning about each child together, then much of what it takes to support neurodivergent students will follow, regardless of the amount of resources available.

When educators, families, and leaders work together to better understand not only the what but also the why behind how students learn, feel, and behave, the relationships between those aspects of each student’s experience at school will become clear. It’ll also help guide how teachers and staff can best help that student thrive.

The truth is, school leaders have the power to enact positive change right now, in the day-to-day lives of neurodivergent students. And it’s never been more urgent for them to do so.

Bob Cunningham is the executive director of learning development at Understood. Learn more at