Experiential Avoidance

Most of us do not enjoy experiencing difficult emotions. It is an understandable reaction to want to avoid experiencing hardship. Students learn it may be ‘better to be bad than look stupid’ and they may:

  • act out to distract from or to avoid challenging situations
  • self-medicate
  • engage in strategies to avoid experiencing negative emotions and stressors.

For example, a student with LDs may appear more distracted or less focused in class and they may be more hesitant to participate in group activities or answer questions in front of their classmates.

Experiential avoidance may complicate a student’s readiness to accept help and accommodations. Trying to avoid uncomfortable emotions and challenging situations may be effective in the short-term as it reduces distress, but in the long-term it is a maladaptive strategy. By not staying with and tolerating intense negative emotions or challenging situations, individuals miss out on opportunities to gain mastery and skills to self-regulate and cope, and to develop resilience.

Fight, Flight and Freeze

At times of perceived stress or threat, our hard-wired reaction is to experience increased autonomic nervous system arousal. Our bodies go into fight, flight or freeze: we experience a physiological response when faced with a threat as a means of survival. Think of our ancestors fighting a sabre-tooth tiger in a cave. It was adaptive to experience either a ‘fight’ reaction (responding to a perceived threat with aggression) or a ‘flight’ reaction (outrunning the threat).

We are predisposed to react to perceived threat by turning on our activation systems, yet in today’s world the threat is usually not life-threatening, such as anticipating an exam or presenting in class. Often, we have ‘go to’ ways of responding. For some, they may have angry outbursts or they may go on the offensive when anxious. Others may retreat and avoid. Still, others may freeze and become stuck.

Challenging Behaviour

There is a wide range of reasons why we may see challenging behaviours in students, particularly those with LDMH. For example, what might look like stubbornness or oppositional behaviour might actually reflect a student with LDs in processing speed and executive functioning, as well as anxiety, who needs more time to process instructions, to get started on an activity, and who freezes up when faced with something new or unpredictable.

In addition to LDs and mental health considerations, other factors that may contribute to the behaviours we are seeing on the surface may include:

  • physical issues, such as sensory integration problems (i.e. too much noise in classroom), fatigue or hunger
  • environmental considerations, such as conflict or recent change in the home, and learned behaviours
  • social challenges, such as bullying, exclusion, or conflict with peers

Behaviour is often a form of communication that something else is happening.

Behaviour as the Tip of the Iceberg

Cartoon of Iceberg in ocean water

Students with LDs may be communicating something through their behaviours, even if they are not aware of it. One helpful analogy is to think of the behaviour as the ‘tip of the iceberg’ (what we see on the surface) and the various factors contributing to the behaviour as the portion of the iceberg that is underwater and out of sight. For students with LDs, challenging behaviours may arise when the demands of the environment outweigh the student’s skills and abilities to manage or cope with the particular environment.

In order to help a student with the behaviour, we have to try to understand what is ‘under the surface’, or what the behaviour is communicating. If the behaviour appears to go beyond what is considered normal or typical for the student, notice when the behaviours are occurring and try to answer the following questions:

  • What was happening directly before the behaviour?
  • What happened after the behaviour?
  • What might be reinforcing the behaviour?
  • How frequently is the behaviour occurring?
  • How long does the behaviour lasts?
  • How is the intensity of the behaviour?

By looking for clues about what might be underlying the behaviour, educators can start to develop a richer understanding of the behaviour and possible solutions.