Labels like autism and ADHD are nothing to shout about

9th October 2015 at 00:00
If a pupil acts out, address the causes of their distress instead of blaming their condition

When A pupil is labelled as having an impairment such as autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, their behaviour is usually attributed to their condition. If they suddenly rush out of the classroom without permission or refuse to comply with a request, then this is likely to be explained away by the notion that this is just the sort of thing pupils do when they are autistic or have ADHD.

This attitude, which I call the Individual Model of Behaviour, locates the problem of behaviour within the student, seeing it as part of what is “wrong” with him or her. The main difficulty with thinking this way is that it results in behavioural strategies that do nothing to address the issues the pupil is concerned about and which underlie their challenging behaviour.

For example, you might respond to a student storming out by restricting their freedom of movement. A child refusing to engage with requests might be met with sanctions such as missed playtimes until work is completed. It becomes a battle of wills, in which the teacher must vanquish what is perceived as an autistic characteristic of non-compliance.

Fear and frustration

The notion that conditions such as autism and ADHD necessarily give rise to challenging behaviour is false. Misbehaviour is rarely grounded in biology. Instead, it arises for a variety of reasons, such as fear, anxiety, lack of understanding of what is expected, failure to appreciate why something needs to be done or trying to exist within an inflexible learning environment that has not been designed to meet your specific needs.

To counteract this I have developed the Social Model of Behaviour, which offers teachers a much more effective framework. Within this model, the challenging behaviour is not viewed as the result of a pupil’s medical condition. Instead, the reasons are found within the social and physical environment the pupil is in.

For example, an explanation for a pupil storming out could be that they needed to escape a difficult situation. Perhaps they were made highly anxious by a teacher asking them to answer a question in front of the class. They may have been terrified of appearing “stupid” again in front of their peers.

Teachers who use this model will always look outside the pupil and towards the environment to identify why they felt compelled to resort to undesirable behaviour.

Creating a positive atmosphere

The Social Model of Behaviour encourages finding solutions to release the pupil from feeling that they have to act out. For example, a need to leave the room can be addressed by creating quiet spaces within busy classes, or by teachers refraining from asking a pupil to answer questions in front of their peers.

The Individual Model of Behaviour misleads teachers into thinking that challenging behaviours are an inevitable expression of particular medical conditions and so, at best, can only be contained. Only the Social Model of Behaviour, with its roots in an empathetic understanding of why pupils feel compelled to behave in certain ways, can lead to effective and empowering strategies of support.

Nick Hodge is a professor of inclusive practice in the Autism Centre at Sheffield Hallam University

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