The idea of behaviour management is often associated with unruly kids in school, and teaching young people how to adjust to society so that, when they become adults, they fit in properly.
Unfortunately, this approach spends a lot of time being reactive, telling kids how not to behave. Not a whole lot of work goes into showing children and young people what is appropriate behavior, especially in gray areas and nuances that happen so often in real life. This particular problem becomes exacerbated with children that have bona fide learning disabilities, making it harder for them to infer what the “norm” is expected of them.
Expectations to Conform
Social normality is not a new concept. We have been expecting children to grown up and join normal social function for centuries, with the nuances and details changing as history has gone by. 100 years ago, it was common for a boy to be working by the age of 13 and a girl to be considered marriage age by 14. Today, we define a true working age at 18 for both genders and marriage age closer to 25 years of age for both as well. In both circumstances the normality pattern still exists, just how it applies has been changed with time.
In the case of children with disabilities, however, inferred normalities that we learn from our peers and social pressure are not always picked up or understood clearly. As a result, these children end up acting different and are considered socially deficient. This is a misnomer in many cases because the behaviour management that follows is colored with the perspective of a problem that needs fixing when there may be no problem or deficiency at all. This is where it is very important for behavior changing programs to discriminate between a skill-based deficiency and a knowledge-based deficiency.
A skill-based deficiency involves a child being unable to develop a required skill to perform an expected behavior. In the case of writing, a child needs to develop the ability to translate concepts into symbols mentally and then physically write those symbols on a piece of paper. The child may be able to put the concepts into words and letters, but he may physically not have the motor skill to effectively write the symbols on paper. This is a skill-based deficiency, not a knowledge deficiency.
It’s often the case that children are excused for not being able to build knowledge skills, such as long division or geometry as quickly as a group. However, the same parents and teachers put extreme pressure on their kids for social skills “everybody seems to have no problem understanding.” To reinforce this dissatisfaction, the child is hit with negative punishment, the taking away of toys or play time until the performance improves. Yet if the child doesn’t have the skill, he or she is not going to improve. So the real test for determining an appropriate behaviour management tactic is to first determine if a given skill is actually missing instead of not being performed correctly.
Where a skill is confirmed as missing, energy then needs to be focused on teaching the needed skill altogether instead of punishing something that can’t be produced.
A knowledge deficiency involves the inability to grasp concepts mentally or to perform the cognitive functions necessary to arrive at acceptable conclusions. A child who does not understand right and wrong has not concept of limitation yet. That means an act that is considered socially wrong seems like any other action in terms of how it fits with more basic drivers such as want, need, hunger, interest, attraction and so on. Where a knowledge deficiency exists, a child needs to be tested to determine what elements are either missing or blocking the adaptive cognitive ability to see right and wrong. Children often respond with “I don’t know why” when asked why they continue to do something wrong, and the answer may very well be the core truth, they don’t know when to stop because they can’t conceptualize something is wrong. For toddlers this is common, but older children having this issue with serious actions needs to be followed up and diagnosed.
Parents also need to be able to discriminate between the above and other deficiencies that occur frequently. These can include:
- Performance-based deficiency – This is when a child has requisite knowledge capacity and skill ability, but they just don’t perform the skill well. For example, a boy understands how a football game works and how he should play a linebacker position, but he just doesn’t have the size to effectively block the bigger kids on the opposing team from pushing him out of the way.
- Motivation-based deficiency – Children are often placed in learning environments by rote and societal pattern, but they themselves don’t want to be in the classroom. The lack of motivation can then directly affect their involvement in learning because the process is simply not considered a priority to them. This issue starts to manifest in teen years.
- Teacher-discrimination – This scenario occurs when a child has difficulties or a learning disability, but the teacher doesn’t want to spend the extra time helping the student stay at pace. It’s too much trouble and a headache, or there are other resources the student can use instead of the home class teacher. Both end up punishing the child and giving him or her the impression of being less-than-important compared to other children. That in turn affects performance and willingness to learn.
Taking the Time to Identify
The actions and words of a student with a learning disability can often be interpreted the wrong way because parents and teachers don’t focus on how to correct with positive reinforcement or positive direction. It’s easier to go negative because the wrong behavior is easily identifiable. It’s harder to craft out a path of what is correct for a non-average situation. However, this is the key element that is needed in effective behaviour management with learning disability students. A proper review of what actually is causing a learning deficiency will often provide a long-term effective solution versus just another band-aid response to a visible symptom.
Young children especially often say and express what they think, but if they don’t have the same skill set as the majority they are often seen as odd or different. This needs to be differentiated from being delinquent, otherwise a negative response can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Children told they are being bad when they try to use the wrong skill to perform the right task will equate that negative behavior is the way to get attention, hoping someone will figure out the message. That in turn creates a repeat cycle of problems.
Instead, parents and teachers need to take the time to find the source of the behavior to then match the right behaviour management approach to the issue.