I’m thinking a lot about behaviour today. I don’t often re-post the articles of others, but in my search, I came across this blog: Forward: FWD (feminists with disabilities) For A Way Forward.
A study recently released in Delaware found that disabled students are more likely to be suspended for ‘behaviour problems.’ More specifically, while 20% of the students suspended1 were disabled, disabled students only make up 14% of the student body. The study questions this disparity, asking why it is that disabled students are at more risk of suspension although there is an established body of law that is designed to specifically provide protections for disabled students, and to limit the circumstances in which they can be suspended.
The article asks, not ‘why are students with disabilities more likely to be suspended,’ but ‘what makes disabled students behave badly?’ I personally think that’s the wrong question. What is ‘bad behaviour’? How is this being defined, and who is defining it? It’s good to see some mandatory accountability in the form of tracking discipline numbers and reporting them, but accountability is only one part of the equation. If districts are not taking action to address the disparities, reporting them doesn’t make that much of a difference.
And are schools adequately identifying disabled students? While there has been more of a push in recent years to identify and intervene when disabilities are observed in the classroom, there tend to be racial and class inequalities when it comes to diagnosis and treatment. Likewise, there are disparities in identification; a teacher may attribute differences in learning and communication styles to disability in a white child, and ‘bad attitude’ in a nonwhite child, for example.
The approach to this particular educational disparity seems to be focused on what ‘makes’ students ‘behave badly’ instead of asking whether teachers are being adequately trained to work with disabled students and asking what ‘bad behaviour’ is and who is defining it. It assumes that everyone should (and can) engage in specific patterns of behaviour and it suggests that ‘abnormal’ behaviour patterns should be punished.
Are students suspended for not using modes of communication familiar to teachers? For needing to stand or pace while learning? For needing a quiet environment for learning, and for becoming upset when one is not provided? For needing orderly and precise schedules? For not completing assignments they don’t understand or find impossible to finish? For attempting to create and maintain personal space? For expressing any number of needs and needing a space where they are accommodated? For tics in the classroom?
When nondisabled people are the ones defining ‘normal’ behaviour and deciding what is bad and worthy of suspension, inevitably you are going to end up with disparities in student discipline. When teachers are not provided with adequate training, when they are dealing with classrooms that have too many students in them, when they are being burdened with a lot of additional work outside the classroom, a tinderbox of circumstances is created and disabled students tend to lose.
Suspension is a serious punishment. Students missing a month or more of school is a serious problem. Until we reframe the way that we talk about classroom behaviour, we’re going to continue missing the heart of the problem.
— article by s.e. Smith
I quote this because I’ve been writing about behaviour recently, citing the issues with have with how we teach autistic people because their “behaviour” is, purportedly, the “issue” of learning, or at the heart of, we are told, “learning how to learn.”
Instead, I’ve coined recently the term “creative behaviour,” and am watching Adam learn and gravitate on his own. How do we continue to foster the creative process? How can we move away from thinking about autism as a set of behaviours, implicitly “bad.” How, is the ultimate question, do we help children like Adam, express themselves?
Let’s think about this for a bit — what we know about creativity and the work we can produce. Let’s step out of the autism box and all of the implications we press upon autistic people (for the label alone) and think about what it is we are really trying to achieve.
Creative thought is the ability to think about the world in unique and fresh ways and convey this to the world. By bringing our unique thoughts to others, we help to shape the way we do things, and the way we think about other people. Creative thought also helps solve problems. We hire people to do a lot of problem solving for us, yes?
I now turn to Twyla Tharp, author of The Creative Habit: Learn It And Use It For Life.
There’s paradox in the notion that creativity should be a habit. We think of creativity as a way of keeping everything fresh and new, while habit implies routine and repetition. That paradox intrigues me because it occupies the place where creativity and skill rub up against each other.
It takes skill to bring something you’ve imagined into the world: to use words to create believable lives, to select the colors and textures of paint to represent a haystack at sunset, to combine ingredients to make a flavourful dish. No one is born with that skill. It is developed through exercise, through repetition, through a blend of learning and reflectin that’s both painstaking and rewarding. And it takes time. Even Mozart, with all his innate gifts, his passion for music, and his father’s devoted tutelage, needed to get twenty-four youthful symphonies under his belt before he composed something enduring with number twenty-five. If art is the bridge between what you see in your mind and what the world sees, then skill is how you build that bridge.” (p. 9)
Yes, skill is really important. A way in which to convey meaning to others is vitally important. The rituals and habits we establish are the practice we need in order to produce something. Creativity sparks when we stare into space, have that second snack from the fridge, putter, and when we appear to be doing nothing at all.
Adam takes piano lessons once a week. We’ve adapted the lessons, and his fingering is getting pretty good. I started teaching Adam to learn piano in a more traditional way a couple of years ago, even though we’ve learned to accommodate the lessons. He learns from a teacher who expects him to practice everyday and who can be stern about him sitting at the piano. In this case, Adam needs a bribe. I’ll ask the teacher to make him work for the candy, and he’ll oblige and finish practicing. Okay, it’s hard to learn piano in the traditional way. Yet, like Twyla says, creativity is a habit. It requires tons of preparation. So we stick with the program.
I’m teaching myself how to play the guitar. I struggle with the chords, my fingers just beginning to become numb at the tips; hurray, I’m building my first callous on my left index finger — a good sign. I pick it up every morning while Adam waits for his ride to school. He comes over and strums a good rhythm. He smiles and then gets really into it and forgets I’m there. A couple of days later, as I’m making a second cup of coffee, Adam goes to get the guitar leaning against my bookcase. He takes it to the couch and begins strumming on his own. He’s focused. This time, he doesn’t want me to help him.
Two great examples, I think, between the art of repetition and practice, and the space to explore. Rather than seeing Adam as behavioural, because he may avoid that which is difficult in formal practice (I was the same, by the way, when I was a kid), I explore the value of both methods of teaching and learning.
Art and music have been part of my entire life. I’ve taken music lessons with the strictest of teachers. When I thought I could fart away in art class, Sister Collette (don’t you just love that name that belonged to a Franciscan nun?), scolded me every week if I submitted a project late, and then loaded me with more work and deadlines because of it. While I was artistic, I didn’t think an art teacher would be so strict. “Art,” she said, “will teach you the greatest discipline more than anything else in your life.” I probably worked the hardest when I was in her class, where I stayed for my entire five years of high school. Art was an elective course, an option. Art wasn’t a “prerequisite” like math and science. We think of art in trite ways — all we have to do is be gifted, talented, and the muse will bless us.
Na uh. Art, like life and very much like in teaching autistic children, is the ultimate example. There is something intrinsic in all of us that we can express, and need to express. We find the tools to help us express it, and usually the ones that we most gravitate towards, but that doesn’t mean learning how to use them is easy! We work daily becasue the manifestation of our inspired thought is more difficult to express to others.
What I’m trying to say is that teaching autism is an art and has to be viewed in similar ways. We find the tools (aka “accommodation”) and we teach the child how to use them everyday. We repeat, but we do not de-value the unique process of taking in the world (aka: like when they are appearing to “not be in the room” or “in their own world”). And as the living art forms that all humans are, we must also as teachers and parents, forget looking at autistic kids as a Diagnostic Manual of symptoms and behaviours. For the human body and mind, in it’s infinite wisdom, finds the tools with which to also express iteslf. Let’s learn how to use them.