What do I need to do?
All students benefit from consistency, predictability and the ability to forward plan. Students with invisible difficulties that interfere with learning are no different; the majority of these students require only minor adjustments to support them in their tertiary studies. Importantly, good practice for students with invisible learning difficulties is good practice for all students.
Some of the key factors that can greatly assist students in both the transition to, and progress through, their higher education qualifications include:
- Building your knowledge and understanding of invisible learning difficulties
- Developing an understanding of how these disabilities may impact upon students
- Identifying strategies that support learning success for these students
- Making reasonable adjustments to support these students
Very occasionally, challenging behaviours escalate to a level that threatens to disrupt the teaching session and requires intervention and/or de-escalation.
Regardless of the challenging behaviour occurring, the most important response is to stay calm (or act like you are!) and adopt your best 'GPS' voice – removing all trace of emotional content from your voice and mannerisms. Your 'GPS voice' is factual, even-toned, concise, and calm. Keep instructions to a minimum and, just like a GPS, keep repeating (and/or redirecting) if your instruction is ignored. Try and keep your directions focused on:
- What you want the student to do.
- How you want them to do it.
- When do you want them to do it.
Recognise the triggers
Students who are predisposed to experience difficulties with learning often have common triggers for their behaviour (and these might be quite different the majority of the cohort).
- Transition from secondary to tertiary education
- The unstructured learning environment
- Group and team work
- Changes to timetables
- Change in seating arrangements
- Changes in staff
- A busy and/or noisy environment
Understand the behaviour
Behaviours that we find challenging (e.g. asking too many questions, aggressive or demanding behaviour, avoidance, not attending team meetings etc.) are often behaviours that have previously resulted in what the student saw as a positive outcome that met their needs. Constantly asking questions may result in reassurance, demanding that something is done in a particular way may reduce anxiety and possibly the fear of failure, and avoiding anxiety-provoking situations may minimise anxiety in the short term.
We should recognise that difficult behaviours are often used by students to solicit a particular outcome. By gaining an understanding as to why a student with an invisible learning difficulty may react in an unusual way, a strategy for management can be formulated.
Manage the behaviour
Our goal is to manage and shape behaviour to what we would like to see. Aiming to change someone else's behaviour could be setting ourselves up for failure.
The behaviour that we can change in the short term is our own behaviour – how we respond to a student in the moment.
- We can model expected behaviour (e.g., speaking calmly, moving in a calm manner, listening to and validating the student’s perspective and so on).
- For the student who is disruptive in a tutorial or classroom, we can outline what the expected behaviour is - perhaps making use of the Student Charter.
- For the student with team-based difficulties, we might observe their behaviour in a team, and report back to them the positives of their teamwork and mentor them so that their overall skills and confidence increases.
Isn't my student just lazy?
Sometimes what seems like a lazy or disorganised student is actually a student experiencing other, 'hidden' difficulties. For example, the student struggling to meet deadlines and pull together a large report may not be disorganised but instead might be suffering from depression. The student who shouts out in class, rudely interrupting you and their peers, may be on the Autism spectrum. And that student who has failed to work with their team, might have found the group project overwhelming.
Hear more from the experts
Dr Kate Sofronoff talks about how we can shape behaviour in others by changing our own behaviour.
Dr Tony Attwood discusses the challenges of group work faced by many people with Asperger's syndrome.
Professor Tony Attwood discusses how people on the Autism Spectrum can find it difficult to read facial cues or body language indicating when to stop, slow down, or go.