Is it because he cannot do it or because he does not want to?

Understanding the behaviour of students with a Learning disability

By Angela. E. Rudderham

It has been my experience, and the experience of educators and parents who share their stories with me, that one of the biggest challenges in working with students who have a Learning Disability is trying to figure why they do what they do.  Educators and parents want to help these students reach their full potential and to not use their disability as an excuse for unacceptable behaviour. Although it surprises some to hear that intelligence is not affected by a Learning Disability and that in order to acquire a diagnosis of having a Learning Disability one must have an average or above average IQ, people who know someone with a learning disability know how intelligent these students are. This adds to the puzzlement of adults working with these students. For example, I remember this one student who had an enriched vocabulary to say the least. This young man was eleven and used vocabulary that would have his teachers scrambling through the dictionary. He also could recall anything that was said to him in any of his classes from any point in the year. The impression he left on those he met was that he had a superior intelligence and was very capable.  The problem?  The student could never get to English class on time. When he would enter his teacher would ask him, “Do you know what time it is?” The student would shrug and reply, “I don’t care”. This would obviously annoy the teacher terribly and the student would be sent to the office and disciplined for being disrespectful. The very next day this student would be late again with no explanation. His teacher thought him unmotivated and disrespectful and his parents took away privileges along with numerous other consequences. Nothing worked.  As it turned out the English class was directly after lunch. When the student had to locate his locker from the outside and find the class that was in a section of the building he was not familiar with he was unable to perform this task. This student had a non-verbal learning disability. Although he could easily learn big words he didn’t always fully understand their meaning. This disability can also affect ones sense of direction and their ability to find their way around.  It was not that he didn’t want to be on time, he didn’t know how to be on time. And when someone doesn’t know how to do something no reward or punishment will magically teach them.  We call this a skill deficit rather than a performance deficit.

A performance deficit is when the student knows what is expected and has learned how to perform the expected behaviour but chooses not to. There are at least two possible explanations for this. One may be the student is experiencing a lack of motivation or payoff for performing the desired behaviour. All that may be required to correct the behaviour is to teach the benefits to the student for performing the behaviour and positively reinforcing the behaviour.  The reinforcement can be as simple as noticing when the student does what is expected. Another reason for performance deficits may be the student may not be able to tell when to use the skill that they know how to perform.  One example I can think of is when a grade 4 student I worked with had difficulty “using an indoor voice”.  We discussed that when she was outside it was appropriate to be loud however; if she was inside she had to use a quiet voice. She worked very hard on this goal until her volume in class was no longer an issue. Later that year I found out her basketball coach had benched her because she had stopped communicating to her team mates on the floor. No one could hear her. Her games were inside. It was not that the student could not adjust her voice properly she had trouble understanding when and where to perform the appropriate skill.

A skill deficit is when someone has not learned how to perform a task. It is not that they do not want to please their parents, teachers and peers, it’s simply that they do not know how to perform what they are being asked and sometimes expected to do. We know that learning disabilities come with all kinds of deficits and can make the simplest tasks such telling the time, keeping track of belongings or even refraining from interrupting seem impossible even to super intelligent students. It is very confusing to parents that their son/daughter could win first place in the science fair yet not understand that it is rude to grab an object out of someone’s hands. When the majority of the student population experience a skill deficit it is due to not being exposed to seeing the skill be performed or not having an opportunity to learn the skill. For a student with a Learning Disability a behavioural or social deficit is not acquired even after correct modeling and opportunities to learn direct instructing is needed. No amount of scolding or punishing will miraculously give the student the knowledge they need to understand the skill. Walker, Colvin, and Ramsey (1995) recommended a nine step direct instructional procedure, the ACCEPTS instructional sequence. The steps include:

  1. Definition of the skill with guided discussion of examples,
  2. Modeling or video presentation of the skill being correctly applied,
  3. Modeling or video presentation of incorrect application (non example),
  4. Review,
  5. Modeling or video presentation of a second example with debriefing,
  6. Modeling a range of examples, coupled with hypothetical practice situations,
  7. Modeling or video presentation of another positive example if needed,
  8. Role playing, and
  9. Informal commitment from student to try the skill in a natural setting.

So next time your child or student is not performing the expected behaviour stop and do some detective work before reacting.  Ask yourself three questions:

  1. Have you even seen the student perform the skill in this setting before?
  2. Do you know enough about how the student’s learning disability affects this particular skill?
  3. Does the child perform the skill only after being offered a big reward?

If you answer no to these questions then stop scolding and start teaching.

Jan 04, 2017