A recent discussion in my High Incidence Disabilities course revolved around the following question:
Some people believe that disciplining students with special needs in a manner that differs from non-disabled students is unfair. Do you agree or disagree? Defend your position.
Consider a child with autism and sensory issues (particularly ultra-sensitive hearing), who cannot stand loud noises. He hears a balloon pop, which results in him covering his ears, closing his eyes, and letting out a long, ear-piercing scream. The question is, why is he screaming? He is trying to be disruptive? He is screaming out of anger? Perhaps. More likely is that the loud noise hurt his ears, and/or scared him. “By looking beyond misbehavior and trying to understand why a student is a discipline problem, a teacher can gain insight into the causes of disruptive behavior” (Henley, Ramsey & Algozzine, 2009, p. 291). In this instance, the boy’s behavior was most likely a direct result of his disability.
“There is always a reason for misbehavior… Teachers who try to understand their students look for the causes of classroom disruptions. They recognize that students are complex human beings with developmental needs that can overshadow reading, writing, and calculating” (Henley, et. al, 2009, p. 290-1). Disabilities can and do, without a doubt, affect a person’s behavior. Even the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) acknowledges that behavior can be affected by disabilities, as it mandates that whenever a special needs student’s behavior and placement is in question, a manifest determination review must be held to determine whether the source of the behavior is disability-related (2004).
After establishing that a disability can indeed affect behavior, the next question is, “Is the behavior related to, or caused by, the disability?” (McNamara, 2007, p. 280). This is a question my husband and I deal with daily. As the parents of two special needs children, it is sometimes obvious, yet sometimes near impossible to figure out if the boys’ difficult behaviors are the result of their disabilities, or their conscious, unwillingness to cooperate. Through experience, we feel we have reached the point where we can usually detect the source of our six-year-old’s behavior – specifically because he can verbally communicate with us well enough to somewhat explain his thinking behind the behavior. He can also express regret and correct his behavior according to our wishes.
It is more difficult to detect the source of behavior with our two-year-old son. However, we are positive that his adverse behavior (i.e. tantrums) is largely due to his inability to verbally communicate with us. Rather than punish him for his tantrums, we try and understand them. We watch his body language (i.e. Where is he when the tantrums happen? Does he look at anything specific that he might want?) to try and determine the cause of the behavior. When we began using the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) with him, his tantrums reduced dramatically, because now he had a way to communicate many of his wants and needs with us (Pyramid Educational Consultants, 2010). Now when he tantrums, we still consider whether or not he needs or wants something (i.e. something for which he does not yet have a PECS pictorial icon), or if he is simply being a typical two-year-old.
It is completely and utterly unfair to discipline students with disabilities in the same manner as students without disabilities. Students with disabilities are at an unfair advantage with regards to their behavior, as in some cases, their behavior may be physiologically beyond their control. In the case mentioned earlier of the hearing-sensitive child who screamed when he heard the balloon pop, the loud noise may have hurt his ears so badly that he couldn’t help but scream out. Although other children may have also screamed upon hearing the balloon pop, chances are they were not screaming out of pain, but perhaps out of surprise or delight. Therefore, how could it be fair to discipline the hearing-sensitive boy in the same manner as the other, neurotypical children? A teacher who chooses to ignore children’s differences and disabilities might get angry and discipline him for his scream, but this would probably result in more harm than good. “Although punishment may temporarily stop misbehavior, it does not change behavior nor does it teach new behaviors. Punishment is most effective when used sparingly and with students who can make a logical connection between offense and consequence” (Henley, et. al, 2009, p. 309).
Just as children’s learning styles are different – requiring differentiation in the classroom, so too are children’s personalities different – thereby requiring differentiation with regards to behavior. While the need to be fair (i.e. equal treatment) is evident, the source of the behavior must be considered. Henley, et. al, (2009, p. 286) make a fantastic point about teachers who try to treat all their students the same with regards to behavior: “The teacher who says, “I treat all students the same” and then proceeds to try to get them to conform to the same set of behavioral expectations will be continually frustrated.” Clear and positive behavioral guidelines should be set for students, but be flexible enough to allow for individual differences, particularly for students with disabilities.
Henley, M., Ramsey, R., & Algozzine, R. (2009). Characteristics and Strategies for Teaching Students with Mild Disabilities, 6th ed. Pearson Education: New Jersey.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), (2004), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.
McNamara , B. (2007). Learning Disabilities: Bridging the Gap Between Research and Classroom Practice. Pearson Education: New Jersey.