Behaviour and learning are inseparably linked. Supporting young people to develop the skills to manage their behaviour in positive ways benefits everyone - learners, teachers, support staff, whānau and families. It allows a solid foundation to be built and creates optimum opportunity for learning and achievement to occur alongside the development of skills to enhance future employment options. Current literature indicates that when schools are welcoming and inclusive of diversity and difference, young people with behavioural challenges, disabilities and complex needs are able to participate and engage in a way that assists them to reach their full potential.
The Ministry of Education is committed to developing a deeper understanding of the behaviour support needed for an ever-expanding category of students with neurodiverse conditions and diagnoses. The term ‘neurodiversity’ is not the only term used to describe this group and neurodiversity is not a diagnosis in itself. Rather it is an overarching term covering a wide range of specific or perhaps undetermined diagnoses. These could include developmental disability, autism, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, specific learning disabilities, and a range of conduct and impulse control disorders. The term ‘neurodisability’ is also used broadly. A further complicating factor is that in some cases, learners’ needs are described as being ‘twice exceptional’. This means a learner has more than one disorder, such as autism and attention deficit with hyperactivity, for example.
It will come as no surprise that schools are struggling to manage the challenging behaviour often associated with neurodiverse conditions. By the very nature of these conditions, no two learners have the same set of characteristics or behavioural challenges. Hence the need for specific, individualised behaviour and learning programmes and knowledgeable, highly skilled staff.
Why does behaviour matter?
Behaviour matters because neurodiverse learners, with significant behavioural challenges, are included in the 20% of young people in our schools whom the ministry define as ‘priority learners’. These learners require significant levels of additional support if they are to reach their potential. Young people with learning support and disability needs, Māori, Pasifika and learners from low socio-economic backgrounds, are all over-represented in this statistic (MOE, 2019).
Behaviour matters also because priority learners have higher levels of non-attendance, stand-downs, suspensions and exclusions from school, than other learners. In fact, learners with disabilities and learning support needs, including those with neurodiverse disorders, are between 1.5 and 3 times more likely than their non-disabled peers to be stood down and suspended from school. They also move schools more frequently (MOE, 2020). Moreover, priority learners leave school without qualifications in greater numbers than other learners. They are also at increased risk of involvement in crime and in youth justice interventions, and more likely to become long term benefit dependent.
It is important at this point to differentiate between the behaviour of these learners from the low level, niggly behavioural issues which every classroom teacher is familiar with; these can be reasonably easily managed. Rather, we are concerned with the challenging behaviour often associated with neurodiverse diagnoses, such as autism spectrum disorder, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and conduct and impulse control disorders. Learners with neurodiverse disorders sometimes exhibit behaviour that does not easily align with the usual expectations about what is acceptable in the classroom or across the wider school. These behaviours can be unpredictable, ritualistic, sometimes violent, and may seem to occur without any obvious trigger. The behaviour may be cyclic, obsessive in nature and involve collections of unusual, high interest items. Two examples that spring to mind are, a learner with a fascination with collecting worms who also refuses to drink from anything other than a particular pink cup. These are not easily managed behaviours, whatever the setting!
There are also situations where we find ourselves having to accommodate ritualistic behaviours which can appear seemingly impossible, or even unsafe to disrupt. After all, these behaviours serve a particular purpose for the learner and may well be an effective way for them to manage stress. Most challenging of all, perhaps, are the distressing, self-injurious behaviours, such as biting and headbanging.
Specialist schools continue to play a vital role in meeting the behaviour and learning needs of young people with neurodiverse disorders and many of these schools are able to provide wonderfully inclusive programmes. This may involve supporting their learners to attend classes in local mainstream schools, welcoming local community students into the specialist school to take part in activities and to develop friendships, and ensuring their learners are taking part in local community sporting fixtures. Work experience and supported employment opportunities for their learners within the local community are also actively sought by many specialist schools.
The majority of learners with neurodiverse disorders, however, are currently attending their local community school. This presents additional challenges, not only for the learner, but for teachers and support staff as well.
Recent research identifies five key themes that can support neurodiverse learners in regular school settings:
- prioritising and valuing relationships - be respectful, warm, and empathetic towards learners
- developing agency - give learners a sense of ownership over their own learning
- supporting students to understand and manage their own behaviour - provide the opportunity for learners to select their own behaviour goals
- creating inclusive environments – adapt the classroom to meet the needs of neurodiverse learners
- embedding inclusive teaching strategies - play to learners’ strengths when planning diverse and flexible programmes.
(Mirfin-Veitch, Jalota & Schmidt, 2020).
These themes, along with the following easy-to-implement top 12 tips, offer a fantastic way to begin the development of behaviour and learning programmes, procedures, and policies, which are specifically designed to meet the needs of neurodiverse learners.
Top 12 tips
- Build positive relationships
- Actively seek input from whānau and families
- Be aware of sensory over-stimulation
- Keep instructions short, simple and clear
- Minimise attention for inappropriate behaviour
- If inappropriate behaviour continues, change your response to the behaviour
- Avoid power struggles
- Stay calm in a crisis, use a neutral tone and always be respectful
- Praise constantly to reinforce the behaviour you want to see happening
- Be consistent and predictable
- Have structures, routines, and guidelines in place
- Use high interest, favoured activities to reward, reward, reward!
Would you like to know more about working with neurodiverse learners?
Are you interested in options for PLD in neurodiverse behaviour and learning needs?
Would you like assistance developing school policies, procedures, and programmes specifically for neurodiverse learners?
If so, contact Brenda Ellis, Learning Support Specialist: email@example.com
- Ministry of Education (2019). Learning Support Action Plan. Retrieved: https://conversation.education.govt.nz/assets/DLSAP/Learning-Support-Action-Plan-2019-to-2025-English-V2.pdf
- Mirfin-Veitch, B., Jalota, N., & Schmidt, L. (2020). Responding to neurodiversity in the education context: An integrative literature review. Retrieved: https://parent2parent.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Responding-to-neurodiversity-Beasley-Institute.pdf