Reimagining Inclusion with Positive Niche Construction

Every classroom is a bustling ecosystem of voices, ideas, and inside jokes. Every member of the classroom, teachers and students, is working together to form a cohesive learning environment. Each classroom is different based on the unique members that make up its ecosystem.

The broad range of experiences and perspectives brought to school by culturally, linguistically, and ethnically diverse students offer a powerful resource for everyone to learn more—in different ways, in new environments, and with different types of people. Every single person in this enormously diverse and ever-changing system has the power to serve as an invaluable resource for all others—students, teachers, and the community as a whole. Rather than constituting a problem for students and educators, the growing diversity in U.S. classrooms necessitates and encourages the development and use of diverse teaching strategies designed to respond to each student as an individual (Saravia-Shore, 2008).

The diversity of the classroom is at the epicenter of the learning environment. Diversity, however, can come to mean a variety of things.

Recently, I have been reading about the concept of Neurodiversity. Essentially, neurodiversity is based on the idea that brain diversity is similar to cultural diversity and the diversity of ecosystems.

We don’t pathologize a calla lily by saying that it has a “petal deficit disorder.” We simply appreciate its unique beauty…Similarly, we ought not to pathologize children who have different kinds of brains and different ways of thinking and learning (Armstrong, 2012).

In his book, Neurodiversity in the Classroom, Thomas Armstrong argues that the concept of neurodiversity is a “concept whose time has come.” What he means by this is to re-imagine how special education is constructed in our education system. The idea Armstrong highlights in his book is called, “positive niche construction” (PNC). Armstrong proposes this idea as an alternative to the more classic idea of “least restrictive environment” (LRE).

Least restrictive environment was developed as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) and reads:

In general.–To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not disabled, and special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.

In essence LRE is the basis for the idea of modern inclusive education. This sounds great, but how does this work? Usually, if a student with a disability can do what the other, “neuro-typical” students can do then they are “mainstreamed,” which usually requires a great deal of effort by the student and the student’s family to keep up with the class. This can become taxing on the student and their family. If the student can’t keep up, then another “more appropriate” setting is implemented, such as self-contained classrooms. Thus the least restrictive environment model is predicated on the deficit model of educating students with disabilities, which I have discussed in this space before.

On the other hand, positive niche construction is a strengths-based approach to educating students with disabilities. Armstrong describes positive niche construction in this way:

In the field of biology, the term niche construction is used to describe an emerging phenomenon in the understanding of human evolution. Since the days of Darwin, scientists have emphasized the importance of natural selection in evolution—the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring. In natural selection, the environment represents a static entity to which a species must either adapt or fail to adapt. In niche construction, however, the species acts directly upon the environment to change it, thereby creating more favorable conditions for its survival and the passing on of its genes. Scientists now say that niche construction may be every bit as important for survival as natural selection (Lewontin, 2010; Odling-Smee, Laland, & Feldman, 2003).

We see many examples of niche construction in nature: a beaver building a dam, bees creating a hive, a spider spinning a web, a bird building a nest. All of these creatures are changing their immediate environment in order to ensure their survival. Essentially, they’re creating their own version of a “least restrictive environment.” In this book, I present seven basic components of positive niche construction to help teachers differentiate instruction for students with special needs (2012).

Armstrong goes on to identify the seven components of positive niche construction in the classroom:

  1. Assessment of students’ strengths
  2. The use of assistive technology and Universal Design for Learning
  3.  Enhanced human resources
  4. The implementation of strengths-based learning strategies
  5. Envisioning positive role models
  6. Activation of affirmative career aspirations
  7. The engineering of appropriate environmental modifications to support the development of neurodiverse students

As you can see, this is very student-centered and identity-first approach to teaching students with disabilities. Student strengths are highly valued in positive niche construction (1 & 4). Modifications to the environment (7) and instruction (2) also plays an important role in positive niche construction. PNC shares some of the same values as least restrictive environment, in that positive student role models (5) and enhanced human resources (i.e. equitable co-teaching) would represent some of the best parts of LRE.

The last piece of positive niche construction that seems overlooked in the concept of least restrictive environment is “affirmative career aspirations.” Steve Silberman, author of the book NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, explains:

One way to understand neurodiversity is to remember that just because a PC is not running Windows doesn’t mean that it’s broken. Not all the features of atypical human operating systems are bugs. We owe many of the wonders of modern life to innovators who were brilliant in non-neurotypical ways. Herman Hollerith, who helped launch the age of computing by inventing a machine to tabulate and sort punch cards, once leaped out of a school window to escape his spelling lessons because he was dyslexic. So were Carver Mead, the father of very large scale integrated circuits, and William Dreyer, who designed one of the first protein sequencers.

In summary, positive niche construction represents not only a shift from the deficit thinking popularized in the earliest conceptions of special education (here represented by least restrictive environment), but is also a more comprehensive view of students with disabilities. It also provides a framework for teachers to create a truly equitable, inclusive, and diverse learning environment for all learners.

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