As part of my preparation for teaching, I have to take a class called Educating students with disabilities. It’s almost like an introductory course to Special Ed/Special needs. We’ve learned a lot about policy and different disabilities, but the biggest thing we’ve focused on is a two-part idea. Part 1: If you can effectively teach a student with a severe disability or behavior problem, then you can teach anyone. Part 2: All behavior has a function, or an end goal.

The principles we’ve learned to help students with severe behavior problems will help us to control the behavior of just about any student in any classroom. I like to see us all as students in the great classroom that we call “LIFE”, so the ideas apply to teaching, management, parenting, relationships, being a student, and most other parts of life that involve people at all.

A social worker, Steve Anderson, visited us and taught us that all human behavior has an end goal, and it really only boils down to two objectives: obtain or avoid, to get something or get out of something. We talk about Functional Behavior Assessments, which look at a specific misbehavior and identify the function of the behavior; what is the student trying to get or get out of. If Johnny gets sent to the hall every time he speaks out in class, and he continues to speak out in class, then maybe he likes being sent to the hall or doesn’t want to be in the classroom. If Kelly enjoys reading, and knows that you get to read if you’re in time-out, what’s she going to do during math or science time?

People are like this outside of classrooms too. Take my family for example. We grew up in a loving home where we were all given responsibilities. Dad had a motto that went a little like this: “Mom made the dinner, so she doesn’t have to clean up.” With 6 kids, there were always enough hands in the home to get the work done quickly, but as you may have experienced in your own life, nobody ever wants to do the dishes. We would enjoy our meal, talk about our days, and then gripe about having to clean the kitchen. We would gripe, that is, until someone came up with the idea of going to the bathroom as dinner was winding down. After a few days, we all noticed that somebody was missing (and incidentally not cleaning the kitchen, getting out of something they didn’t want to do). It wasn’t long before different siblings were heading to the bathroom right at the end of dinner. It grew from silently disappearing to standing and shouting, “BATHROOM!” as soon as dinner was done. This only lasted in our family until the unfortunate day that we all headed for the bathroom at the same time, Dad included, leaving Mom at the table, face in palm. Whether intentional or not, there was a reward for misbehaving. If we went to the bathroom right at the end of dinner, we got out of cleaning. Some would go ahead and clean anyways, getting their job done and out of the way, but as a general rule, everyone wanted to be in that bathroom.

If people do something positive, give them what they want. If they do something negative, take away what they wanted or give them something unpleasant. People with disabilities tend to hide themselves less; they are uninhibited, and learn more from consequences than from social “rules”. People without disabilities would benefit from this transparency that comes with positive/negative consequences.

My autistic brother-in-law got mad on Sunday because he wanted more pizza. He reacted by throwing his pizza at the wall and the pan towards my head (he missed). Does he get more pizza? NO.

When coworkers complain about the new boss and gossip in and around your office, if you join the conversation and point out what you love about working for the company, or the new policies that the boss has put in place, will they gossip around you anymore?

You know that guy at work that you’ve always wanted to punch in the face? Why does he keep saying the things that he does? It’s probably because somebody laughs every time. What would happen if he were to actually get punched in the face every time he insulted your mother?

I’m not saying that we should punch anyone in the face, special needs or otherwise. What I am saying is that if we take a moment to figure out what people are trying to get or get out of with their (mis)behavior, we could all get along better, we would all get more of what we want, and we would be able to reach more people with the great ideas we all have.

“If you can teach a severely disabled student, you can teach anyone.”
-Steve Anderson