Niche Construction

Positive Niche Construction–practice of differentiating instruction for the neurodiverse brain

Neurodiversity in the Classroom

Positive niche construction is a strengths-based approach to educating students with disabilities.

 Reimagining Inclusion with Positive Niche Construction

Niche Construction

In Nature: Helping to ensure the thriving of an organism by directly modifying the environment in such a way that it enhances that organism’s chances for survival.

In Culture: Helping to ensure the thriving of a child by directly modifying the environment in such a way that it enhances that child’s chances for success.

Neurodiversity in the Classroom

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).

 Reimagining Inclusion with Positive Niche Construction

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).

Reimagining Inclusion with Positive Niche Construction
spider web
Photo by Pixabay on
a beaver in the wild
Photo by Scott Younkin on

Armstrong identifies the seven components of positive niche construction in the classroom as:

  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

Source: Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life

In a classroom focused on lectures, textbooks, and worksheets, there would be far fewer opportunities for Mr. Farmington’s neurodiverse students to shine. When we embrace a strength-based paradigm grounded in differentiated instruction and positive niche construction, however, we embark upon a path that uses the widest range of student-centered interventions and builds upon each student’s core capacity of strengths.

Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life (p. 159)

once culture gets off the ground, it enables adaptation to new niches, situations, climates, and ecologies in a vastly more efficient way than can be achieved by ordinary natural selection. Societies with culture, and thus the individuals constituting them, can adapt quickly to changed circumstances of any kind, taking advantage of new opportunities and avoiding threats to their way of life, without waiting for the cumbersome process of natural selection to do its work.

Mixed Messages: Cultural and Genetic Inheritance in the Constitution of Human Society
  • Organisms are not passive.
  • The environment is a product of organisms.
  • Interactions are reciprocal.
  • Ecology, development, & evolution are interdependent.

Source: Niche Construction

Niche Construction

🎧 Listen: How niche construction affects inheritance systems in human evolution