I was excitedly telling another homeschooling Mom, that I had come across a website that described my son’s behaviours to a tee. That website discussed children who were very difficult to pin down to do schoolwork. At anytime when you wanted them to be present they were either spacing, or coming up with excuse after excuse why they couldn’t do that work at that moment. Excuses such as “I need to go the bathroom”, “I’m tired”, “I’m busy”. At that moment, my girlfriend piped up, “Oh you mean, procrastination. I have that problem all the time, and simply tell my child it’s either do the work with me, or go to school.”
However, for some children it is a real chore for them to attend to the task at hand. They become skilled at avoiding whatever demands are currently placed on them. This becomes exceedingly frustrating to the teacher or parent, and equally disruptive to the classroom or home environment. I was very surprised to hear there were other children like my son, who spent more energy avoiding the task than it took to actually do the task itself.
In my case, it can take an hour for my 6 year old to go through a simple worksheet while his younger 4 year old brother during the same time has finished 8 pages of appropriately leveled material. Why was it that whenever I wanted to present a new game, my eldest rather than listen to the instructions on a game he has never seen before, wanted to invent his own rules? Why did music teachers get exasperated with the child who has never played the instrument before wanted to tell them how to do it properly? Imagination and creativity are great traits, but they are not required at all times. And on the contrary, being creative or thinking out of the box at the wrong time can be outright dangerous. At some point, we all need to follow rules, and regulations. This has led to discussions with my son, that Mommy and Daddy can’t just decide to drive on the other side of the road because they feel like it. There are rules that have to be followed; otherwise motorists can be seriously injured.
In the U.K., children who are very adept at socially manipulating others particularly adults around tasks, can be diagnosed as having Pervasive Development Avoidance Syndrome or PDA. This syndrome was first described over twenty years by Professor Elizabeth Newson OBE, Hon FRCPCH based on research in Nottingham.
The disorder has strict diagnostic criteria that must be met. It is believed that this disorder is related to the autism/asperger syndrome. While the latter, may have difficulty interacting with the real world and others, children exhibiting Pervasive Development Avoidance Syndrome, are quite adept socially. These criteria include:
- “Passive early history in first year: ignores toys, often delayed milestones, ‘just watches.’
- Continues to resist and avoid normal demands to a pathological extent; seems to feel under intolerable pressure from these, does everything on own terms.
- Surface sociability, but apparent lack of social identity, pride or shame. Seems sociable, but doesn’t identify with other children, and shocks them by complete lack of normal boundaries.
- Lability of mood, impulsive, led by need to control situations… Rules and routine do not help; better with variety and novelty.
- Comfortable in role-play and pretending: some appear to lose touch with reality. May take over roles as coping strategy; parents often confused as to ‘who s/he really is.’ May behave as teacher to control other children, or as baby or disabled person to avoid demands; often more animated when pretending than in real life.
- Early language delay, perhaps result of passivity: good degree of catch-up, often sudden. Eye contact often over-strong, and facial expression over vivacious. Speech content usually odd or bizarre.
- Obsessive behaviour. Much of child’s behaviour carried out in obsessive way, especially demand avoidance and role play.
- Neurological involvement. Soft neurological signs: clumsiness, awkwardness; many never crawled. Some absences, fits or episodic dyscontrol. Most show barely controlled excitability and impulsivity .” Source: Contact a Family:for Families with Disabled Children, Pervasive Developmental Avoidance Disorder.
In the United States, Pervasive Development Avoidance Syndrome is not recognized as its own disorder classifiable by the DSM IV. Rather, it is viewed as part of Pervasive Develpment Disorder non-specified and not a separate syndrome of its own accord.
Whether or not this disorder is classifiable, and whether or not one needs to give another label to their child, there are certain skills needed to deal with these types of resistant children. These techniques once known, are pertinent and useful for all parents who are homeschooling their children who may not be compliant in following directives.
Strategies for Dealing with an Avoiding Child:
These strategies include:
- Recognize that your child’s behaviour is due to a problem coping. These annoying or bizarre behaviours are a result of uncontrollable anxiety towards anything that remotely resembles performance upon demand. My son at various times, has curled up and rocked, bounced around the rooms on all fours, turned his eyes into the far corners of his eyes, and other demonstrations that are extremely frightening to watch, alerting me to the fact that “something is wrong, or not quite right with this child”. Parents of autistic and aspergers children, have told me that these sound like stimming, or repetitive motions that are done unconsciously by the child to self-soothe. Casting my son’s behaviours in this new paradigm, I can now view that my son isn’t doing these things to annoy me, but he is doing it because he can’t help himself. Having to do something that he may not be good at, literally scares him and manifests itself physically. He is simply unable tell me that he is uncomfortable.
- Give advanced warning. Hours before starting, in a neutral tone mention that you expect your child to cover certain topics today. Note that this is not a discussion, only a statement in fact done in a non-threatening, non-dictating manner. Continue to give advanced warning, such as half-hour before we start x, 15 minutes before we start x, 5 minute warning etc.
- Exercise. During the advanced warning phase, let your child move around, play, ride a bike etc. Experts say exercise increases blood flow throughout the body including the brain, and helps stabilise mood.
- Water According to Dr Daniel Amen, a brain-imaging specialist and distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, the brain is 80% water. Experts say that our children are often dehydrated. Increasing their water intake, will increase their brain function, and thus their ability to learn.
- Practise behaviour momentum. Prior to starting your required task while you are doing advanced warnings, ask your child to do small things that they don’t find threatening such as, getting a drink of water, eating a snack, bringing you an item not related to work. The positive momentum from compliance with these small requests may spill over into compliance with your larger demands, if done in the same non threatening mode.
- Follow small directions first when you are beginning each task. An experienced school teacher gave this tip, “Ask your children to highlight the instructions in any color they want. Let them decorate the page, or pretty it up with stickers before you require them to work on it.” Once again, letting them choose the colors and what they want to write or draw, can divert a power struggle when it comes time to perform on the task.
- Let your child choose between tasks. This can work quite successfully if you let the item that you are interested in them completing seems less difficult than the other choices. If they by chance choose the more challenging item, than enjoy the unexpected bonus.
- Show them the amount of work they are expected to complete in a session. This will enforce that they won’t be tied down all day, that there is an end in sight. Encourage them that the faster and more accurately they do it, the quicker they can go onto something else.
- Remain flexible and introduce variety. Be cognizant that things that worked before in getting your child to participate may not work this time.
- Use humour and soft challenges to get your child to do the work, such as ” I bet you can’t do this by the time the timer rings,” or “I wonder how this works…” as opposed to direct methods, such as “Finish this now, or else”, or “You must do this.” These latter approaches tend to result in children digging their heels in and parents or teachers have a power struggle on their hands.
- Get out of the chair. Worksheets aren’t the be-all and end-all. Handwriting can be practised by drawing in the air, writing in the sand, or playing “Snakey, Snakey” on someone’s back. Get your child to do their math orally while bouncing on a mini-trampoline or if you are flexible, bouncing on the couch, or hopping up and down the stairs. Let them read upside down, or standing up. Play I spy, while on a nature walk practising spelling at the same time. Let your child’s attempt at being creative with the directions, make you creative on how your objective is executed.
- Pay attention to internal motivators. When my son was beginning to read, we found out that he had great joy and pride when he could read the book by himself. When he was able to do this we would put an M in the front cover in pencil on that book in recognition that he had mastered it. It wasn’t long, before he would come to us to ask if he could read the book for mastery.
- Introduce contracts with rewards. Following from the above, we wrote up a contract with our son, which was based on his current pace of mastery of 3 to 4 emergent readers a week. We agreed that if he read a certain number of books by June, we would reward him by taking him to a children’s museum of our choice. It worked. He actually reached the goal in February, and in March went to New York with his Dad. During that trip he went to the Natural History Museum in Manhattan and to his delight saw fossil dinosaur skeletons.
- Recognize positive results, and reduce your own expectations on how much you will accomplish in a particular session. However, if your child is going gung ho, then it may be the time to push further and continue your session longer than originally planned.
- Realize that you may have to reinforce lessons that you thought were previously mastered. Because lessons may be disrupted or completely blown up, you may have to go over the material several times, albeit in different ways to keep it interesting.
- Don’t take your child’s behaviour personally. This is especially difficult if you were a compliant child yourself and found school easy. For some children, it is very difficult to stop and take direction. I have to often remind myself that when I think today is the day we are going to cover tsunamis, or start the 3 multiplication tables, that it may not happen.
- It takes as long as it takes. According to Captain Bill Pinckney, the first African-American sailor to circumnavigate the earth solo, when he first asked another sailor how long it would take for him to acquire a boat to start his adventure, he received this answer, “It takes as long as it takes.” The same can be applied to homeschooling and one that I have difficulty reminding myself. It takes as long as it takes. One of the joys of homeschooling is that we can be flexible and not required to complete a certain topic at a certain point. If our children are not on that day, hard as it may seem, do something else. Let ego drop and remember the pressure or stress that we feel about mastering a subject may be self-induced. A lot of times, we are so worried about comparing our children to those who are in school, peers or relatives, that we put unneeded pressure on ourselves. This pressure is then translated into impatience with our children.
- Role-play on occasion. Let your child be the teacher and teach you instead.
- Recognize that your style may tend to become authoritative as you demand your children to do as they are told. This may work in the short term, but will add stress to the environment. No one likes to be shouted at moreover, intimidation freezes up the mind. Allow yourself to walk away. Yes, you too can put yourself in time out if needed.
Reading over this list, I realize that I have several strategies under my belt, yet on occasion I can still find myself banging my head against a wall. I’ll need to print these out and paste them near our work area. For a more in-depth article on strategies, some mentioned here, check out: Educational and Handling Guidelines for Children with Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome
Finally, remember our children don’t come with a manual. We learn a lot about them through our personal experiences. As always, abandon what doesn’t work. And please post in comments strategies that you’ve found successful.