If there is one thing I believe in, it’s having high expectations of my students, those with Pathological Demand Disorder are no exception.
Nothing frustrates me more than going into a classroom and seeing a child not being challenged. Whether that’s because they are spending the day doing tasks that are too easy for them, or because learning has increasingly become a smaller part of their day. Usually this starts because the student is struggling in school, and someone like me advises their teachers to reduce demands.
The reality is however that the lack of training teachers receive in autism, and the almost non-existent knowledge in schools of PDA, means that most teachers don’t understand how demands can be reduced without lessening the educational value of a student’s day.
This post aims to give a variety of suggestions that will reduce the demands that are put on students whilst still having high expectations of them.
Starting The Day
The start of the day is a difficult time for many students with autism.
Many have difficulty getting to sleep at night, therefore getting up in the morning is also challenging. For students with PDA the transition between home and school is particularly challenging, as they are leaving an environment which is relatively demand free and entering one where they know multiple demands will be placed on them.
Starting the day well is therefore key.
I like to start days with preferred activities that demand minimal verbal input from the teacher. Activities I can leave on students’ desks for them to discover, which can be completed in a short amount of time are ideal. That way I’m not placing a verbal demand as soon as students enter the room.
The tasks I set tend to be special interest orientated.
So for example, for a student who loves Pokemon I may have a piece of writing written by a Pokemon for them to correct. They are in charge of the situation, because they become the teacher. For a student who loves Minecraft, I may have three post it notes with a card written next to them saying ‘Tell me about the next three things you would like to build on Minecraft’. Or for a student who loves photography I may leave an iPad on the desk and as them to take ten photographs of cuboid within the room from interesting angles.
The key is that all the tasks are learning orientated.
They are challenging. But they are also appealing to the student who finds them. Critically they are also closed ended. Activities like playing on Cool Maths Games or working on an art project aren’t things I’d recommend for this time of the day, as it can be very difficult to transition students from them.
There are two major challenges within lessons that you need to give forethought to. The first is how to get students through the door (a demand in itself) and the second is keeping them there and on task.
A smile and a hello works wonders.
Asking a quick question on the way in through the door about a student’s special interest often seals the deal. You are a human not a robot. You haven’t openened the door with teacher speak ‘Come in, sit down, coats off, bags on the floor’ (four demands before they’ve got fully in the room) instead you’ve created a welcoming environment headed up by a person who cares about the thing they like most in the world.
For most of my students the delivery of my lesson is the least challenging part.
The demands are on me rather than them. As long as I put on a good show, ensure my content is interesting and delivered with a smile I have a good chance of them being successful learners. Just be aware that asking for volunteers to answer questions, is much more likely to elicit a response to a question from any student with autism (but especially a student with PDA) than putting them on the spot. Be aware that directing a question to a student could be seen as a deman, which therefore may well be avoided.
The written element of any lesson will always be challenging.
At this point you are placing an obvious demand and it’s the most likely point for a student to shut down and begin to disengage.
It’s worth considering alternative ways to record information that will tap into something that the student wants to do.
I’ve seen both class blogs and class YouTube channels be tremendously successful in engaging students. The student feels they are producing content for the benefit of their ‘audience’ – even if that is just their class – rather than being directed to right something they see as pointless by a teacher.
Voice recording software, that takes away the demand off a student needing to write can also help.
As can being allowed to type extended written pieces. The pressure of making a mistake disappears, as the student knows they can easily rectify it. The often self imposed demand of having to produce work which is perfect, can be as difficult for students to battle as any teacher led demand.
Giving choices about how the work is presented that tie into a student’s special interest is a good way to encourage engagement.
But limit those choices to two so they are not overwhelmed. For a student who loves Manga cartoons, but who is in a history lesson about the Second World War, give them the option of either creating a Manga Style Book demonstrating what they have learnt (pre drawn pages, with blocks and speech bubbles will aid in making the task seem less overwhelming). Or of finding a way to teach their favourite Manga character what they have learnt in either written or video format.
It’s likely that most students with PDA will fund either of your suggestions acceptable, and at that point you need to be prepared to negotiate.
They need to feel in control of the situation, to be able to give you their best work.
If your learning objective is that students understand what led to the start of the Second World War, you can afford to be flexible with how that is demonstrated. So if a student replies, ‘But that’s stupid because X character doesn’t speak Japanese. If I’m going to teach them it needs to be in Japenese’, you can suggest using the computer to produce the work because then it can be translated google translate.
The key is to remember to keep your learning objective in your head and long as that is met, you have succeeded in your aim.
Crucially you are managing to still challenge your students, but you have vastly reduced the demands.
Even better you have taught the same lesson tothe whole class. Your planning time hasn’t increased.
Differentiation so often is about forethought, care and flexibility.
It doesn’t have to be about adding hours onto your day.
My honest advice is that if you can avoid setting homework for a child with PDA then you should.
The school day has enough demands already, adding more is far more likely to result in resentment and school refusal because of the anxiety of not having completed the task.
The homework is extremely unlikely to be completed and by setting it you are putting yourself in an impossible position, of having to create a consequence (demand) when it doesn’t get done, which will almost certainly result in further disengagement.
Add to that they stress (and sometimes physical violence) that parents will face at home when asking students to complete the work.
If you must set work, giving it with the proviso of ‘here’s something to look at at home, if you get the chance’ is more likely to result in completion and in return to school the following day.
First of all my apologies for what turned out to be a much longer post than I intended. If you would like to read about more of my PDA strategies please check out my brand new book.
Or download our free PDA strategy guide to give to your child’s teacher.
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