Relationship Between Behavior and Curriculum

The management of disordered behavior is one of the most common issues in special education. This particular concern is not limited to students with any one type of disability, but occurs in connection with many students facing a variety of challenges. The examination of behaviors and their function is a highly specialized area, and has become a niche practice for many professionals.  

In matters where the child’s behavior is a problem, we usually work with experts in behavior analysis to help us determine why the child is behaving the way he/she is and who will then determine the best way to address the problem. Invariably, our experts always tell us that behavior cannot be looked at in a vacuum, and that one of the first places to look in ascertaining the function of behavior is the child’s curriculum. Is it too easy? Too hard? Let’s look at some real life examples to see why curriculum matters in managing behaviors.

Louis is a fifth grade student attending his local elementary school. He spends most of his day in a classroom with other disabled students, some of whom are nonverbal. Louis is identified as a student with a cognitive disability. While Louis has an articulation issue, his language is otherwise appropriate for his age. Louis’ academics are abysmal however, and he is 3-4 grade levels behind in reading and math. Almost every day, Louis screams and becomes aggressive with his teachers, who then place him in a time out room where he continues to scream and throw objects. An independent expert evaluates Louis and determines that he has no cognitive disability, but does have a learning disability in reading and math. The evaluator recommends specialized reading and math programs, and says that Louis needs to be removed from the multihandicapped classroom. Louis’ behavior improves as his reading and math improve.

Patrick is a sixth grade student with severe spastic cerebral palsy, is nonverbal, has a cortical vision impairment and is confined to a wheelchair. Patrick cannot respond to yes/no questions. At school, Patrick is taught the Ohio extended content standards including material about the Civil War in social studies, and physics in Science class. Patrick frequently screams and attempts to hit his teachers and aide. The school is unable to ascertain why Patrick’s behaviors continue to escalate. A behavior specialist is brought in who determines that Patrick cannot understand the material presented to him, and is lashing out at his teachers because he cannot make himself heard any other way. Patrick is removed from the program and taught to communicate basic wants and needs. His behavior issues decline significantly and he is taught to communicate using a card system as his motor skills allow.  

Arlen is a second grade student with high functioning autism. Arlen’s IQ is in the very superior range and his reading and math are at a sixth grade level as a result of computer programs and books provided to him by his parents. At school, Arlen disrupts the class, talks out of turn, cries frequently and engages in stigmatizing self-stimulatory behavior. The district is at a loss. A behavior expert from the County comes in and creates a basic reinforcement system which fails to improve the student’s behavior. The child’s private speech therapist is brought in, and after observing the class, says that Arlen needs enrichment every day in every subject in order to manage his behavior. Arlen is allowed to move ahead and assist the other students who need help. His behavior improves and he is motivated to self regulate his behavior in order to continue to move ahead with his academics.

Each of these scenarios really occurred. This is not to say that every case in which a child’s behavior impacts their learning or the learning of others is attributable to the curriculum. Behavior is a complicated thing, and most particularly those behaviors resulting from underlying mental health issues. But where a child’s behavior is a problem, regardless of the disability, the school’s program should be one of the first things to consider. Unfortunately, the curriculum is frequently never considered as a possible cause of unwanted behaviors. The notion that children with disabilities, including those with significant cognitive disabilities, do not get bored when presented with the same material over and over again must be debunked. Students with disabilities get bored just as nondisabled students do. And children with learning disabilities are often well aware that they cannot read or write at the level of their peers, and may act out in an effort to detract attention from their academic deficits.  

Parents know their children best and should be proactive in helping their child’s school understand what their child’s needs are. While districts are supposed to teach to the content standards, the practical application of how that is done is not something that the Ohio Department of Education weighs in on. We all need to learn to think outside the box and make sure the child’s program is designed to meet their unique needs. A child’s educational program must be part of the solution to disordered behaviors instead of part of the problem. 

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