(First published in the April 2011 issue of Disability Compliance for Higher Education and available to subscribers electronically in March.)
Students with disabilities that affect their social skills may experience problems related to their disabilities both in and outside of the classroom that are challenging to accommodate. Members of Disability Compliance for Higher Education’s Board of Advisors recently discussed how they deal with such students and whether taking on a coaching role is ever appropriate for disability services providers.
Maria G. Pena: Disabilities that have a social component tend to affect students in every area of college life. In the classroom, for instance, these disabilities can lead to communication problems between students and their professors and other students during group work and discussions.
A student may act sort of “standoffish,” sit in the back, and refuse to participate. On the other end of the spectrum, he could be really extroverted, constantly interrupting the professor and then saying things that are way out of left field.
Sometimes students with these types of disabilities are also quite literal, so they can’t read between the lines like others can, and that can get them in trouble both and outside of the classroom environment.
Tabitha Haynes: I think there’s a difference between providing accommodations versus coaching students with social disorders.
Unfortunately, students who have disabilities that affect social behavior often need someone there to serve in a coaching capacity, and I don’t necessarily see this as an accommodation that we’re in a position as disability services providers to provide. It’s simply too time- and energy-intensive.
Pamela Moschini: On our campus, we accommodate these students as needed, but we also find that we have to do a bit of coaching to help them get along.
However, anyone who might need coaching multiple times a week is beyond our capacity here. In those cases, a personal behavioral coach may be required, and that’s something that individual students would have to get on their own.
On the other hand, I find that in order to avoid getting calls later on in the semester from professors and others who deal with such students, it’s helpful to have discussions with the students early on about their disabilities and how their behavior is affected.
Some students prefer that I notify their professors about their social difficulties. This provides a segue for them to then go in and speak to their instructors personally about their disabilities.
I encourage them to explain to instructors how their disabilities may affect classroom performance and what, if anything, the instructors can do. For example, a student may explain that he needs very clear, literal directions.
Doing things like going to a classroom with a student in advance or asking the professor to do assigned seating can often help when the problem is social anxiety.
Stephanie Gaddy: It’s really important to make sure that faculty members are very explicit in their instructions to students. This is an accommodation that is fairly easy to provide by simply talking to professors and asking them to write out instructions and avoid inferences that these students simply won’t understand.
Once professors are aware of how a disability can impact classroom behavior, they’re usually very accommodating, and it makes them better teachers, because accommodations like providing very explicit instructions ultimately helps all students, not just those with disabilities.
Tom Thompson: I think we need to also provide access and accommodations to students seeking fuller engagement on campus beyond just the classroom.
I had the experience of working with two students who had severe social anxiety. One was an outstanding student and athlete. I worked extensively with her coach to figure out ways in which she could participate in training and long-distance running, since her anxiety in relating to others was a major obstacle to overcome.
Between the college and her family, we found some things that worked, but she tended to still isolate herself and would disappear during meets or refuse to ride in the school van. Ultimately, it didn’t work out well for her athletically. But the important thing was that we accommodated her as best as we could.
Provide extra support when possible, but hold all students to same behavioral standard
As an increasing number of students with autism-spectrum disorders enroll in colleges and universities across the country, disability services providers are seeing more students with social and behavioral issues related to their disabilities. While you may already have a full plate, serving these students may require that you step outside the traditional role of disability services by taking on more of a coaching role.
“It takes a combination of accommodations and coaching or case management to support some students on campus,” said Tom Thompson, a consultant and retired disability services director at William R. Harper College. “It’s not a case of one or the other, although some DS offices may not be equipped to do the latter.”
However, as DS units show more interest in supporting at-risk students in various ways, such as providing peer mentoring, offering coaching has become a more accepted solution.
Partner with other units on campus, such as Residence Life and Student Affairs, to provide the special support these students need, Thompson suggested. That way, it’s not your office doing all the work.
On the other hand, it’s important to avoid doing too much for these students. For instance, all students should be held to the institution’s code of conduct, regardless of whether a disability played a role in an incident or behavior. That’s according to Tom Heffron, the education director for disability services and financial aid at the Wisconsin Technical College System.
“Sometimes a meeting involving a student, a DS provider and a faculty member or dean can head off unacceptable behavior so that it does not continue to occur,” he said. “Other times, and particularly if students are not connected to the DS office because they’ve chosen not to self-identify, we must treat them like any other student who has violated the code of conduct.”
Ensuring students understand that they will be held to the same standard of conduct as others can also help avoid behavioral problems related to a disability, Heffron said.
While some institutions ask students to sign behavioral contracts, others simply take time during new-student orientations to go over the student code of conduct and emphasize that all students must abide by it.
College success courses for freshmen are also a good place to address the issue, as are transition summer programs for incoming students.
Also, it’s important to go beyond educating only students to also educating members of the campus community at large, said Stephanie Gaddy. She’s a faculty member in Walden University’s College of Education and Leadership and a former disability services provider.
“I hear instructors and others constantly say, ‘I didn’t know that. I just assumed he was being disrespectful,’” she said. “When you create understanding as to how students with certain types of disabilities may behave, misunderstandings are less likely to occur.”
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