The central question of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) surrounds the idea of barriers to learning: Is the child “disabled”? Or, could we more accurately say that many of our school environments are disabling to children? As Kathy Howery reminded us in our Webinar last week, many of us wear glasses or contacts. While most of those who do tend not to consider ourselves “disabled”, without this adaptive technology some of us would find ourselves very disabled indeed – unable to drive, watch movies, write legibly, and complete a myriad of other tasks related to our daily life. Many of us would also find ourselves unable to learn effectively in the traditional method of presentations or lectures, where a visual impairment would mean we were unable to see a power-point or a whiteboard.
In fact, I found myself in this situation not long ago. Sitting in a large lecture theatre for a presentation that I was attending voluntarily, I reached into my purse for my glasses and realized I had forgotten them at home. The lecture was two hours long and although my hearing is fine, being within a visual fog that made it impossible to see the lecturer was frustrating. After a while, I gave up trying to listen, and I took out my cell phone instead.
Was I unmotivated? No, I had chosen the lecture myself and was looking forward to it, although it may have seemed this way to others. Was I lazy? Not particularly, I simply felt overwhelmed, frustrated and headachy, but possibly people sitting around me may have thought so. Was I rude? If the lecturer had seen me texting, this is exactly the conclusion he may have reached…but I don’t consider myself generally rude. Was I disabled? Absolutely. And by being disabled, my behavior suffered.
Certainly in this case, my rude behavior could be traced to one of the ways that I was physically prevented from participating fully (I should add that in this case it was my fault, and I’ll try to remember that next time I’m irritated that a student doesn’t have a pencil with them…) but are there more subtle ways for children to be disabled?
The question that came to mind for me this week, was the following: Can an environment be emotionally or behaviourally disabling? And, if so, how can we address these barriers to success, given that emotional needs are so subjective, changeable, and private?
Over the past couple of years in my classroom practice, I have been working with the Collaborative Problem Solving Approach (CPS), pioneered by Dr. Ross Greene. As Dr. Greene describes it, “challenging behaviour in kids is best understood as the result of lagging skills […] and the best way to reduce challenging episodes is by collaboratively solving the problems setting them in motion in the first place, rather than by [...] intensive use of reward and punishment procedures” (livesinthebalnce.org). The basic idea of CPS is that, behind every challenging behaviour, there is a missing skill. When the environment demands the use of a particular skill in order to cope, and the child struggles to meet that demand, we see the challenging behaviours that are familiar to all of us who teach or parent; whining, crying, hitting, refusing, swearing, and all the rest. And, Dr. Greene emphasizes, we don’t just see these behaviours in kids who carry the descriptor of “disabled”.
This strikes me as such an important personal insight as it connects to UDL. We understand, through UDL, that environments can disable learning and the significance of identifying and eliminating barriers to access. Further, we understand that children whose learning is obstructed by the environment, can sometimes behave in challenging ways. CPS takes this one step more, encouraging teachers to recognize that even children with no physical or cognitive barriers to learning, may struggle with emotional barriers. These may be difficult to identify at times, but identifying and collaboratively addressing these barriers is as essential to our work as it is to ensure that children can work within their preferred learning style, or have access to assistive technologies. This doesn’t mean that the demands of the environment are wrong – “no hitting” is a fair and realistic rule, for instance – simply that some children don’t have the skills to abide by these expectations and that preparing them to do so is a teaching task, not a task of punishment.
If we believe (and I do), that children who fail to be engaged in school work and learning are in some way disabled by their environments, then I feel we must believe the same of behaviour. Rather than labeling children with unkind and unhelpful descriptors such as “unmotivated” or “defiant”, we need to see challenging behaviours as expressions of an inability to meet the demands of the environment. As Dr. Greene notes, it should the right of every child to have their personal emotional struggles regarded as legitimate and not as deliberate refusal to meet expectations, because “kids do well if they can”.
(Sorry this post is so long! Has anyone else worked with CPS? Do you see the same relationship to UDL that I am seeing? I’d love to hear your thoughts!)