Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Can't vs Won't

For the past year I've been participating in a research study out of Georgetown University and Children's National Hospital looking at the executive functioning curriculum, Unstuck and On Target. I can't say enough about this curriculum and the impact I've seen it have on students with high functioning autism and ADHD. Yet one of the greatest benefits I've gotten from the program is how it has been able to shift my thinking about these students and their behavior.

One of the concepts the curriculum has taught me and my coworkers to consider is looking at a student's behavior and asking, "Is this a can't or a won't?" We often see a student's behavior as a won't- when we ask the student to do something and they just refuse to do it. We ask them to keep their hands to themselves, get started with their work, organize their desk, go with the flow, and adapt to changes in rules and schedules on the fly. When they don't follow our directions it often looks like they made a conscious decision to ignore us. It looks like they are playing with their pencil to avoid getting started on their work, or that they are arguing with us over a change in a rule to be difficult and get attention. We think that they focus on one topic or ignore a direct instruction because they are fighting for control in their lives. And sometimes that is true, but sometimes it's not.

Putting the pieces together on student behavior
Sometimes their behavior is a can't. A student can't get started on his work because he doesn't have the executive functioning ability to organize his thoughts at that moment. So he sits there, looking like he's avoiding doing work, when in fact he wants to start but doesn't know how. A student can't disengage with one idea in his head and continues to come back to a certain topic despite the fact we've told him to move on.  In these cases the student behavior is not about getting attention, controlling the environment, or escaping from situations or given tasks (which is often what we look for when we're identifying the causes of misbehavior) but an inability to organize one's self to follow the rules and direction- even when the student really, really wants to do exactly what was asked.

This one question- is it a can't or a won't? has changed the way my school looks and responds to student behavior. Just asking it allows your mind to shift from thinking that a student is intentionally driving you crazy to wondering what behaviors you can teach to help the student regulate and organize himself.

Last year I was talking with a childhood friend who was recently diagnosed with autism. I was shocked at the diagnosis and was arguing with him about it. There was no way. The friend is now extremely successful, went to a top college and graduate program, and is now making more money than I will ever see. On the outside it looks like my friend has it all together (and he does, I don't want to imply that people with autism can't have it all together). In arguing with him I brought up all those debates he had with teachers over the years, all the assignments where he did the opposite of what the teacher asked while still following the exact directions the teacher gave, and all the moral stands he took against things in our school. His peers had always assumed he was anti-authority and just so much smarter than the teachers that he was always finding small ways to prove it. My friend turned red as he listened to me talk. "That's not how it was at all," he explained. "In every moment you just mentioned I wanted to follow the rules more than anything. I wanted to blend in and do what the teacher said. But I couldn't. There was always a reason. When I did what I did I was often doing exactly what the teacher said- it just wasn't what she wanted. Or I was trying to clarify what the teacher wanted and it came across as arguing." This struck me like a slap across the face. I couldn't stop thinking about it (I still can't). Even as his peers we'd assumed he was making a conscious decision to do these things. It became a part of how we saw him. But it wasn't a choice he was making. It was a can't.

What students are calling out to us for help through their behavior and we automatically think they are making a conscious decision to break the rules? We assume their behavior has a motivation behind it and we react to the motivation. When you change the lens you use to look at student behavior you suddenly realize areas where you can actively teach skills instead of simply modifying the environment or drawing a line in the sand.

Our job is always to teach, whether we are teaching how to read or how to behave in school. We can teach students how to have cognitive flexibility, how to respond to frustration, and how to problem solve. We just need to check the lens we are using to study the behavior and insure we are seeing it clearly.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I would add that today's schooling calls for much more executive function at a much earlier age -- often as early as first grade, children have to absorb multi-stop instructions for doing multi-step tasks -- and often the point of the task seems to be following instructions rather than any major learning goal.