Supporting neurodiverse learners in New Zealand prisons

Michael Stewart
Manager Carer Training, Oranga Tamariki

Author biography:
Prior to his current role, Michael worked in the Education Programmes team at the Department of Corrections and developed the neurodiversity project. Michael has over 20 years experience in education. He has an interest in learning needs and has worked with both children and adults.

The term “neurodiverse” acknowledges everyone’s brain works differently and views learning differences through a strengths-based lens. These differences make us unique and bestow gifts and capabilities, as well as challenges. A project led by the national office Education Programmes team is exploring the extent of dyslexia in our prisons and is formulating strategies to be deployed by education tutors and instructors to better support our learners.

For this project, “neurodiverse” is limited to learners who exhibit dyslexia[1], dyspraxia[2], dyscalculia[3] and/or dysgraphia[4] traits. Since 2007, the Ministry of Education (the Ministry) has recognised that learners in New Zealand with dyslexia require extra learning support. In 2018, the Ministry announced the provision of school-based services to identify individual learning needs. Similarly, the Department of Corrections (the Department) is developing a programme, drawing on both national and international expertise, to support tutors and instructors working in our prisons to support neurodiverse learners.

The aims of the Neurodiversity Project

The project uses a multi-pronged approach to identify and support learners on their learning journey. Specifically, the aims are to:

  1. Provide education tutors (tutors) and industry instructors (instructors) with a simple screening tool to identify neurodiverse traits.
  2. Provide advice to learners about their learning strengths and weaknesses, enabling them to understand how they learn best and allowing ownership of their learning.
  3. Supply a means for recording an individual’s neurodiverse traits on learner records which can be shared across the estate.
  4. Provide professional knowledge for tutors and instructors about neurodiversity.
  5. Develop a “toolbox” of resources for tutors and instructors to enable them to assist all learners.

Dyslexia in the community and prison

Dyslexia is genetically based and worldwide affects approximately 10% of the population irrespective of language, culture and ethnicity. It is a common type of neurodiversity that makes reading and writing a challenge. Dyslexia is not an indicator of intellectual disability; individuals with dyslexia have brains which process auditory (phonological) and/or visual information differently from those with neurotypical brains.

Dyslexia is linked to poor educational achievement, low self-esteem, poor behaviour and feelings of frustration. International research suggests that:

  • Dyslexic people are five times more likely to be unemployed than those without dyslexia (International Labour Organisation, 2011), and
  • 35% of dyslexic people leave school early (Al-Lamki, 2012).

The formal diagnosis of neurodiversity can be expensive. As a consequence, many affected learners are left undiagnosed and with little support. Dyslexia does not necessarily lead to poor employment outcomes; many dyslexics are able to compensate for their learning needs and enter creative, and design industries. Many high functioning dyslexics are highly skilled and have learned effective strategies to accommodate their dyslexia.

Dyslexia cannot be cured, nor should we want it to be. Identifying affected learners earlier gives them the opportunity to be taught different strategies, and educators and employers need to provide dyslexics with extra support.

While there is limited evidence within a New Zealand prison setting, international evidence suggests that there are large numbers of neurodiverse learners. Based on a UK study, the Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand suggests this number could be as high as 30 to 50% of the New Zealand prison population (Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand, 2018).

Screening programme and results from the Lower North Region

To determine the potential numbers of neurodiverse learners within the estate, the Department engaged Mike Styles, a literacy expert with Primary Industry Training Organisation who specialises in screening young trainees for dyslexia. In August/September 2018, he screened 120 learners from four prisons in the Lower North Region using a paper-based screening tool along with a short interview to identify dyslexic traits.

Figure 1: Incidence of significant dyslexia





Total number screened




Numbers with significant dyslexia




Percentage with significant dyslexia




The screening and interviews revealed:

  • Nearly half (49%) showed evidence of significant dyslexia
  • 82% had only two years or less of secondary school education with many reporting they had been excluded from school during their first year at secondary school.
  • 94% had left school without any qualifications (some gained NCEA while in prison).
  • That a number excluded or stood down from school were not picked up by another part of the education system.

All learners were provided with information about their learning abilities and advice about the learning style which best suited them. This information was also made available to prison-based educators to support these people.

A focus on learners, tutors and instructors

The Department employs both tutors and instructors. Learners have regular interaction with tutors to discuss their educational experiences and to develop a learning pathway which is linked to their education and employment goals. The Department has engaged neurodiversity education specialist Sarah Sharpe to work with the tutors and instructors who support neurodiverse learners to help them create learning environments that will enable learning. Sarah is Speld NZ qualified and has worked at Kapiti College as a specialist neurodiversity tutor. She’s experienced in designing, delivering, monitoring and evaluating tailored professional development for educators, which meets the needs of neurodiverse learners.

While formal testing for neurodiversity can be difficult and costly, a cost-effective screening tool has been developed by the contracted neurodiversity expert to be used by tutors and instructors. This tool helps to identify the learner’s strengths, preferred learning style and any support needs. Some overseas jurisdictions use computerised screening tools for dyslexia and the Department is investigating the use of such a tool across the estate. The computerised screening tool would consist of a series of questions and short readings which the learner would complete during the Learning Pathway meeting.

A passport to learning

The project will provide the opportunity to record information about an individual’s neurodiversity to alert future tutors or instructors of the necessity to provide extra support for these learners. The learner’s instructors/tutors will be provided with a toolkit of resources including expert information about the impact of neurodiversity on learners, and guidance on how best to communicate and help those learners.

The Department is developing a “passport” for the learner to use when moving through education and training programmes. This passport will be a record of where the learner excels, how they like to learn and receive information, and where they need additional support. The learner could continue to use this “passport” on their release to help future educators and employers better understand their strengths and learning needs. The screening tool and supporting resources are expected to be released in July 2019.

By supporting our tutors and instructors, we can create a more learner-centric environment. The research shows that good teaching for neurodiverse learners is good teaching for all learners (Skues, Pfeifer, Oliva, & Wise, 2019).

For further information about the Neurodiversity Project, please contact Marylou Sloane, Practice Manager Education and Training (Lower North)

[1] Dyslexia: Affects reading and related language-based processing skills.  It will be different in every person and can limit their reading fluency, reading comprehension, memory and recall, and spelling.

[2] Dyspraxia: This usually is general clumsiness and will be different with different people.  It can include being disorganised, losing or misplacing things, being easily distracted and unable to recall events.  Additionally this can be difficultly with reading, drawing and writing.

[3] Dyscalculia: This affects understanding of numbers and learning maths facts.  This may cause individuals to struggle with the understanding of maths symbols, remembering numbers and sequences, remembering maths concepts and “rules” and telling time.

[4] Dysgraphia: The affects individual’s fine motor skills including handwriting.  This can be seen with poor handwriting, spacing, poor spelling and problems with “getting ideas down on paper” – thinking and writing at the same time.

Information retrieved from:


Al-Lamki, L. (2012). Dyslexia: Its impact on the Individual, Parents and Society. Sultan Qaboos University Medical Journal. 2012 Aug;12(3):269-72. Epub 2012 Jul 15. Retrieved from

Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand (2018). New prison literacy statistics show negative impacts of childhood learning issues (media release). Retrieved from

International Labour Organisation (2011). Achieving Equal Employment Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities through Legislation (Online guide). Retrieved from

Skues, J., Pfeifer, J., Oliva, A., & Wise, L. (2019). Responding to the Needs of Prisoners with Learning Difficulties in Australia. International Journal of Bias, Identity and Diversities in Education (IJBIDE), 4(1), 113-121. doi:10.4018/IJBIDE.2019010108