Are you working with children who constantly avoid tasks and resist demands either at home or in the classroom?
If you are, then it's important to understand the difference between regular demand or task avoidance (something that all children engage with from time to time) and pathological demand avoidance (PDA).
From understanding the underlying causes to implementing effective strategies, discover tools to turn resistance into collaboration and learning.
Download other FREE SEMH resources to use in your school: https://beaconschoolsupport.co.uk/resources
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Show notes / transcription
Simon Currigan 0:00
If you're working with children that avoid tasks, you know, the ones that take foot ever to sharpen their pencil and arrange their resources before they actually get down and do some work, it's important to know the difference between task avoidance or demand avoidance, which is something that all children engage with from time to time, which is perfectly natural from pathological demand avoidance, which is something very, very specific indeed and need specific support strategies. Find out more about that in this week's episode of school behaviour secrets.
Welcome to the school behaviour secrets podcast. I'm your host, Simon Currigan. My co host is Emma Shackleton. And we're obsessed with helping teachers, school leaders, parents, and of course, students when classroom behaviour gets in the way of success. We're going to share the tried and tested secrets to classroom management, behavioural Special Needs, whole school strategy and more all with the aim of helping your students reach their true potential. Plus, we'll be letting you eavesdrop on our conversations with thought leaders from around the world. So you'll get to hear the latest evidence based strategies before anyone else. This is the school behaviour secrets podcast.
Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan. And welcome to this week's episode of school behaviour secrets, which is very much the Up Up Down Down left left, right, right AB of supporting kids with their behaviour and social emotional and mental health needs an introduction for the Konami fans in the audience from the 1990s. And how often do you hear that at the start of an educational podcast?
Emma Shackleton 1:30
Simon? What does that even mean?
Simon Currigan 1:32
Those who know and know that was the voice of my co host, Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma, how are you doing?
Emma Shackleton 1:37
I'm good. Thanks. I haven't got a clue what you were talking about in the intro, though.
Simon Currigan 1:41
Google it? If you listen to this, and you don't know Google, up, up, down, down, left, left, right, right. That's as much as you need to Google and you'll find out exactly what I'm talking about. Before we get into the podcast itself today. Do you mind if I ask you a question?
Emma Shackleton 1:55
Simon Currigan 1:56
What activity do you actively avoid doing If you possibly can?
Emma Shackleton 2:02
Actively avoid? The first thing that springs to mind is anything to do with any sort of maths beyond the absolute basics, I've always been pretty terrible at maths. And now I automatically assume that I won't be able to do anything to do with maths. So I go out of my way to avoid doing maths wherever possible. Usually, I'll get someone who's better than me at maths to do it for me, or I'll use Google or some kind of technology to get to the shortcut. Rather than even attempting maths. I just assume I'm not going to be able to do it. Why do you want to know about that. Anyway?
Simon Currigan 2:38
So this week, we're focusing on the difference between demand avoidance and pathological demand avoidance, usually shortened to PDA, which are two totally separate things, we're going to explain the difference between the two, and give you strategies for managing students who present both successfully
Emma Shackleton 2:55
Oh, I'm really glad we're doing a podcast on PDA because this is something that I'm coming across more and more in my in schoolwork. Just before we get to that though, I'd like to ask everyone listening, if you wouldn't mind and you haven't done it already. Please, could you take out your device, and remember to like and subscribe to our podcast, and that will make sure that you never miss another episode. Obviously, only do that if it's safe for you to do it right now.
Simon Currigan 3:22
So if you're removing buckshot from a wound with tweezers, De- quilling, a porcupine with your bare fingers, or you've just zipped up a squirrel suit, and you're about to make a base jump.
Emma Shackleton 3:32
Yes, yes, it's best to keep your device in your pocket.
People listen to our podcast while completing a range of other activities. And you can't be too careful with these public announcements
Are you trying to avoid us getting sued?
Simon Currigan 3:43
Again. A lot of people in squirrel suits who are subscribing to the show are experiencing terrible accidents. We don't want that to happen to you.
And while you've got your podcast app open, we've got a free download for you and it supports this week's episode perfectly. So if you're working with children who present behaviour that challenges or you find difficult to manage in the classroom, and you're just not sure why they're acting in that way, and you're looking to dig into the root cause of that behaviour, then we've got a brilliant download just for you. It's called the SEND handbook. And the handbook will help you to link behaviours that you've seen in the classroom with possible underlying causes such as trauma, autism and ADHD.
The idea here isn't for teachers to try and make a diagnosis for that child were not qualified to do that. But if we can link behaviours we see in the classroom to possible causes more quickly. It means we can get the right help and get early intervention strategies in place to support that child.
Emma Shackleton 4:45
And the handbook even comes with a set of fact sheets for conditions like pathological demand avoidance, which we're going to be talking about today. Oppositional Defiant Disorder, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and others. The handbook is completely free. And we'll put a direct link in the episode description. So all you've got to do is open your podcast app and click directly through to get your free copy today
Simon Currigan 5:12
That said, it's time to take a deep breath, reach deep into the outside drain, curl our fingers and yank out the stinking fat blockage we call behaviour.
Emma Shackleton 5:24
Simon Currigan 5:25
A plumbers intro. Right? So today, we're going to look at the difference between demand avoidance and pathological demand avoidance. And let's start with demand avoidance, because that's the simplest demand avoidance is actually really, really common. It's common in children, it's common in adults. And essentially, it does what it says on the tin. It's a behaviour a student engages in when they don't want to do a task or follow an instruction. And the main in avoidance whilst annoying is perfectly normal. All children at some point, will seek to avoid doing things they're asked to do from time to time. So let's think about what this might look like in the classroom. Here, you might see kids engaging in task avoidance, so you hand out a piece of work, and you find that certain children take forever, to get their materials together, just so with a ruler lined up at the top of the table and everything perfectly square, well, you might find them just sitting staring into space, rather than getting on with the work. Some kids are specialists in sharpening pencils for hours at the wastepaper basket, you might find some children asking to go to the toilet every five minutes to the point where you're concerned, there's something wrong with their bladder, or the kids rather than engaging in the activity itself might start doodling or drawing. Sometimes you'll find that task avoidance can look like excessive off task talking. And I know everyone, adults and children alike do often talk during a task. And it's not all on task. But when you see this to an excessive amount, then what you're seeing there is demand avoidance not sort of a normal level of social interaction. You might find interestingly, that some kids start asking lots and lots and lots of clarifying questions to actually avoid doing the task. So they'll ask you a question. They'll do the minutest fragment of that test, and might write three or four letters, or three or four words. And then they're back up to ask more questions to clarify whether they've done it right or what happens next. And then sometimes you'll find that this task avoidance or demand avoidance can escalate into a refusal, whether people just says no, I'm absolutely not doing it. Sometimes younger children are just absolutely shut down, they'll refuse to communicate with you at all. Well, the more extreme ends, you might find a child running out of class to literally escape the work that's on their desk.
Emma Shackleton 7:43
So that's a range of behaviours there that we might see with demand avoidance, so why are they doing that? What it's pretty obvious, they're trying to get away or avoid doing what's been asked of them. And there's a load of different reasons why children or adults might engage in demand avoidance behaviours. So it's things like maybe they're just not interested in the topic, maybe they just can't see the point of this work. So they just don't want to do it. So they're finding ways of delaying starting that task, or if they can, preferably, getting out of doing it all together. Some children as well, we've talked about this on previous episodes, will not start a task because they believe that they're not going to be able to be successful. And in the past, when they've tried a task, and it hasn't quite gone to plan, they've felt that big knot in their tummy, that big feeling of failure, and that's horrible sensation. And as humans, we're programmed to avoid horrible sensations. So if we know that we might get that feeling of failure. Of course, it's logical for us to try and avoid encountering that fear of failure. So the easy option here is just not to start the task at all. Rather than risk doing it and getting it wrong and feeling that horrible ball of failure in our tummies. Some children as well have got perfectionist tendencies. They feel very anxious if the work doesn't look exactly how they want it to be. Or they feel like they haven't met the teachers expectation around a task. So I bet you've all encountered children who will maybe do a little bit of the task, but then get very caught up in asking for a rubber rubbing out what they've done crossing out what they've done scribbling out what they've done, sometimes even ripping out what they've done, because they can't bear the thought that isn't absolutely perfect, and they'd rather have nothing to show than an in perfect piece of work. Some students as well lack confidence. So they don't feel like they're actually going to be able to do whatever is being asked of them. And again, feeling like you don't know what to do feeling lost, feeling silly, feeling ashamed that other children can do it. And you can't. These are all huge driving emotions that make us want to avoid getting involved in the task in the first place. So rather than start it and get it wrong, just don't start it at all. So go and sharpen your pencil, ask if you can go to the toilet, go and have a chat to your friend ask a million questions to the teacher, because that will delay the inevitable fear that actually, I don't know how to do this, and I'm not going to be able to do it well. Some children as well have got trouble with executive functioning skills. So when we set the task, they can understand what to do. But even simple tasks have got a lot of steps that need to be done in the right order in order to complete the task. So sometimes just the simple action of asking the children to get out their books, open it at the next clean page, use a ruler to draw a margin, write the learning objective underlying it with a ruler, you know, that's five steps before they've even got into what the task is. And if you're a child who's struggling with executive functioning skills, by the time you've got to the table, by the time you find the right book, by the time you find the right page, you might then have forgotten what the other steps of the tasks are.
Similarly, for children with difficulties with working memory, so holding all that information in your head and getting going can be quite tricky. Another factor of why we might avoid a task is social pressure. So sometimes, you know, children don't want to look like the goody-goody in the class, or they don't want to look like teacher's pet. If their friends are not getting straight on with the work, they don't want to be singled out as getting on if everybody else is not doing it. So they might be taking cues from their peers, if their friends are a bit reluctant to get engaged or grumbling about the task or just not doing it, it can be hard to go against social pressure and just get on with the work. If other people who you care about their opinions are not doing it. And then another factor is language processing. So some children in your class are not able to keep up with the rate of language and instructions, for example. So they're actually a little bit lost, and they don't know what to do. And that can feel embarrassing. So again, they might be looking to their peers for cues. But there are many, many reasons why children are not just getting on with the task, there are lots of different things that might be affecting their ability to just go away and crack on with what you've asked them to do.
Simon Currigan 12:56
And what we're going to have to do here really is connect the right strategy to the right underlying need, we need to think about why the child is engaging in demand avoidance or task avoidance. And that is going to be different from pupil to pupil, the strategy you're going to use to support a child who has confidence issues is going to be different to the strategies you use to support a child with difficulties breaking tasks down into its individual steps, we've got to think really deeply about what is causing the demand avoidance. So for instance, here's an example. If the demand avoidance comes from a fear of failure, say you could use questions that specifically help the child to develop realistic thinking about what might happen if they got their work wrong. So you can ask questions like, What is the worst thing that could happen today with me? If you got this work wrong? What happens to the other students when they get a question wrong in my class? What would you say to a friend who was worried about making a mistake? And if you did make a mistake? How would you cope on a scale of one to 10? In how much danger are you right now, if you make a mistake with your work, when people make mistakes in my class? How have you seen me respond in the past? What are the consequences of not having a go in this situation, because actually, task avoidance brings its own consequences that which might actually be worse than tackling the thing. You're worried about itself. Talking about how in this class, you as the teacher care about the efforts people put in rather than the outcomes they produce. So comparing the examples of if someone finds this work hard, but they sit down, and they get their head down, and they work really, really hard, and they produce half a page of work in their exercise book, then you're happy with that. But if someone finds this work easy, and they slack off and produce half a page of work when they were capable of two or three, then you're not happy because in this class, what matters is the effort and so on. So, demand avoidance can have a whole range of causes. It's entirely normal. But what we need to do is match the strategy for the child to the underlying cause.
Emma Shackleton 15:05
That really makes sense. So now what we're going to do is introduce pathological demand avoidance known as PDA. So PDA is a very, very specific condition. And it's a particular part of the autistic spectrum. But what's difficult about PDA is it presents very differently in terms of behaviours, to what you might typically see with other autistic pupils. Now, of course, every autistic pupil is unique, just as every child is unique. But there are a range of behaviours associated with PDA that are specific to that condition.
Simon Currigan 15:49
So what you might see in the classroom is actually to start with at a lower level, similar to what we've already discussed here. So you might see task avoidance, procrastination, putting the task of staring into space, lots of off topic, talk, lots of preparing materials, or wandering around the room looking at things. And interestingly, often with PDA kids, what you tend to see is a lot of social manipulation. So let's unpack what that means. It means to avoid the task, what the child will do is engage in lots of bargaining and negotiating with the adult. So they might talk about how much work they would like to complete, as opposed to what the teacher said, they might say, Is it okay, if I only do half of it, or the first part, they need to do some different work because this work is too difficult, they might try and talk the teacher around to reducing the expectations. Or they might make lots and lots of excuses, their hand hurts, or this work isn't right for them, or it hasn't been explained very well. So he can't understand it. Once you get past that social manipulation with most pupils, right, in a typical classroom with most people you're working with. If the adult adds pressure, then assuming there's no other underlying difficulties, most kids will then bottle down I think, oh sir's upset with me, I better do the work, they start to realise that the situation is getting serious and that it may face consequences. If they don't start getting on. With PDA pupils, the opposite is true. In that case, that you're getting this social manipulation, you get in this task avoidance as an adult, then the more pressure you add, as you increase the demands, what's interesting is you get more resistance, not less resistance, it's counterproductive, with PDA pupils to pile on more demands and more pressure. And what you'll eventually get is like a volcano, the pressure increasing increasing inside the child until they can't cope anymore with those demands. Eventually, what you push them towards by increasing those demands is more physical behaviour. More meltdowns, the child running away, the child becoming overwhelmed, and so on.
Emma Shackleton 17:51
So what's really going on here? Well, it's important to note that PDA is fueled by anxiety. And whenever we feel anxious, our natural inclination is to get away from the thing that's making us anxious. So we tend to exhibit avoidant behaviours. So trying to escape from the demands. When people feel anxious, they feel safer when they have got control. So back to what Simon was saying earlier about children with PDA, engaging in lots of social manipulation, trying to bargain about the task trying to negotiate what needs to be done with the teacher, that's the child's attempt to get some control over the task and over the demand, because they don't like the physical sensation of anxiety that the demand or the asking of the task is causing for them. So remember, the aim isn't to seek control per se, like you might see with other students, but it's actually their attempt to get away from the feeling of anxiety. And the important point here is it's the demand itself and not the task that's important. So it's not to do with how hard the work is, how long the work is, how much the task is how time consuming the task is going to be. It's not really about that. It's actually the fact that somebody else is exerting control over them. So it's the actual demand of somebody else wanting that work done. That is causing the child with PDA to feel that result of anxiety.
Simon Currigan 19:34
So you can be working with a child with PDA and you could instruct them I am telling you, you have to play Minecraft and they might love Minecraft but now because you're telling them you're instructing them what to do, then you're going to build that anxiety in them and build that resistance. So what we have to do as teachers and as adults in the classroom and this is counterintuitive to the way we've been told to manage kids in general, is to reduce the pressure. Remember, the simple equation more pressure equals more demand equals more anxiety equals a more dysregulated pupil. So three really effective strategies for working with kids affected by pathological demand avoidance are giving lots of choices. So when a child's in the classroom and you give them a task, if they feel like they have some control over that task, that makes them feel less anxious and less heightened, and then they'll become more flexible, and more likely to engage in the work, we aren't telling them exactly how to do it by handing over the objective and the task, but we give them very, very quickly we bombard them with choices. So it can be really simple things like, Would you like to do it in pencil? Or would you like to do it in pen? Do you want to sit with a friend? Do you want to sit on your own? Do you want to do it in a book? Or do you want to do it on an iPad, whatever the activity is, by suddenly giving them lots of lots of choices. When you're given choice, you feel like you're the boss, you're in control, and then that anxiety around those demands decreases. And we're more likely to see on task behaviour and successful choices and behaviour in the classroom.
Emma Shackleton 21:08
And the second strategy is to work hard to give oblique rather than direct instructions. So anything that feels like being bossed about to the child is definitely going to increase anxiety. So it's being a lot more casual in your approach. One terminology or phraseology that I found works really well is when you say to the child, could you help me with this? Could you show me how to do this do you think you can help me is much less confrontational, a much less demanding than here is what you have to do. All this work has to be done by this time. So it's giving the child the power if you like to put them in a helpful position. So letting them feel like they are doing it under their will to help you often children with PDA really care about social interaction. And they really care about relationships with the children. And with the adults. They're not just trying to do this to annoy you, that they do care about connecting with you. So when you can give instructions in a more side on fashion, rather than direct and bossy instructions, it feels less demanding, which means less anxiety, and then more ability to comply with the task.
Simon Currigan 22:33
And the third approach is simply to deliver the work frame the work through their personal interests. So if they have an irrational love of South Antarctic penguins, channelling their writing, or their work through the topic of penguins can actually get them to want to do the task for themselves. And then you're removing the demand, they've got a natural desire and inclination to engage with the work. So then anxiety goes right down, and the child feels happier or more settled in class, and the less likely you are to see heightened behaviour, there'll be doing the same work, the same learning objectives, just through a different context. I remember I worked with a child once you had a great love of Thomas the Tank Engine, it was almost impossible to get him to sit down and do any Maths. But by drawing a couple of pictures of Thomas the Tank Engine on a worksheet, suddenly I got his interest, he was fired up, he was interested and he wanted to do the task for himself. And that was all it took to get him to engage. He felt he was in control, he felt he was excited about the task. It took the demand away. And he focused him on completing the activity successfully and calmly and without anxiety.
Emma Shackleton 23:41
So that's our explanation of the difference between demand avoidance and pathological demand avoidance. Demand avoidance is something that you'd expect to see from time to time in many pupils, and it's got a range of underlying causes. Whereas pathological demand avoidance is a very specific profile of autism, where the pupil experiences really high levels of anxiety around any demand placed upon them. And the task avoidance and controlling and negotiating behaviours are all about and attempt to cope with that feeling of anxiety.
Simon Currigan 24:20
As ever, it's about knowing your own kids, all kids are different. All kids have different needs. No two children are the same. We were painted with some broad strokes about PDA, but there are differences from children's children, you need to think deeply about what's driving their behaviours, and then connecting the child with the right support strategies because similar behaviours can have different driving factors in different children.
Emma Shackleton 24:44
So that's all we've got time for today. If you've enjoyed listening in or find the episode helpful or useful, remember to open up your podcast app and rate and review us that will take you less than 30 seconds and it really does help other teachers, school leaders and parents find us because it prompts the podcasting algorithm gods to suggest our podcast into their feeds as well. It's a small thing, but it makes a big difference to us. And it helps keep the podcast going and growing.
Simon Currigan 25:16
And to celebrate leaving your review, why not get yourself a large cardboard box, cover it with silver foil and shoulder straps and attach, you know a couple of plastic cups to the bottom with the open ends of the cup facing downwards. Why, sir, you made yourself and that's a little jetpack now where your futuristic artwork on your back walk around the streets by your home, and the neighbours will believe you're part of the Space Programme. You'll look quite a man or woman about town and if you bend your knees from time to time and shout to infinity, you'll even give them the impression that you're ready for takeoff at any moment. You'll find your social status goes through the roof. People will start asking you for Elon's signature and only you and I will know your special secret. Well, the one about the jet pack anyway.
Emma Shackleton 26:02
Okay, I think we'll leave it right there. Thank you for listening today. Have an excellent week and we look forward to seeing you next time on school behaviour secrets. Bye for now
Simon Currigan 26:12
(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)