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Instead of Control...

There are many ways we attempt to control each other, often without realizing it. For youth with special needs, especially those who cannot easily communicate, it is critical that educators, parents and caregivers become aware of this tendency to control verses empower them to be in control of themselves.

It was one of the clear lessons after spending my first year as a teaching assistant in a school serving students with autism, ages 3-21: my role is to educate students, not change or control them. For students who present with challenging behavior, there is a common belief that we must establish compliancy before teaching productive skills. While it is true, as it is for all of us, that a certain level of attention is essential for learning, as educators we must check are we promoting attention or control?

Behavior and Learning are closely linked, like two sides of the same coin; it is impossible to separate one from the other. And it is not a linear relationship – both are happening simultaneously. The feedback from one leads to the response of the other. When students, as with most of us, are cognitively engaged, there is less resistance or problematic behavior. Have you heard the expression, “Remain busy – it will keep you out of trouble”? It is the same, only perhaps more critical, for our students.

However, too often in special education we aim to separate these two, behavior and learning, and create an ‘If – Then’ relationship. If Johnny complies (which means he was successfully controlled), then we will present the activity/ lesson to him. But what if Johnny’s willingness to attend is dependent on his cognitive engagement? In other words, he needs to see and feel the reason for attending, through the content presented. Then the opportunity for learning is missed, and the pursuance of control continues. I have witnessed it countless times.

What if instead of aiming to control students, we focused on empowering them to control themselves? To find their interests and ways to communicate with others that keeps them naturally engaged... To want to be a part of learning... How much more would we all learn then?

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