Tag Archives: Hidden Curriculum

What We Have Here … Is a Failure to Communicate

25 Jan

“Don’t be smart, Mister!” I scolded my then 8 year old Aspie son, after he back-talked me about something or other.  He looked at me, wide-eyed with confused uneasiness.  He knew from my tone of voice that I was angry with him, but he didn’t understand my words… (Don’t be smart?  Isn’t being smart a good thing?  What is wrong???)

As I watched his facial expression retreat from disrespect to confusion to worry, I realized that we were experiencing a breakdown in communication.  I stopped and considered my impulsive reprimand…  Ah ha!!!- Gregory was interpreting my words literally!  At face value, the idiomatic phrase “Don’t be smart” went contrary to my usual promptings, so naturally it didn’t make sense to him.

Like most Aspies, Gregory is naturally very literal and needs to be explicitly taught to recognize when an idiom or other figurative language is being used.  Once I explained that “Don’t be smart” is a figure of speech that means ‘Don’t be fresh’ (hmmm…ok, that’s another figure of speech….) or ‘Don’t be disrespectful’, then he understood.  My message got through  and he apologized for being rude.  My mission was accomplished with that particular communication ‘battle’, but I realized that we had yet to win the ‘war’…

The Hidden Curriculum – Part III – Figurative Language

As discussed in my blog series The Hidden Curriculum, Aspies and others with social-cognitive learning disabilities, can have great difficulty decoding hidden curriculum rules.  Figurative speech, and most especially idioms, fall into this category.

A life-long avid reader, I adore imaginative figurative language and admire writers who can incorporate it effectively into their writing to add color and interest.  Well written prose, with the help of ingenious figures of speech, can take a rather mundane concept and turn it into a memorable, thought-provoking ‘pearl of wisdom’.

As you may recall from your grade school English classes, figurative language contains images and comparisons.  The speaker describes something through the use of unusual comparisons, for effect, interest, and to make things clearer. Appealing to the imagination, figurative language provides new ways of looking at the world – adding richness and depth to our communication.

To refresh your memory, here are some common types of figurative language that we use on a daily basis:  (See how well you remember… I had to look a few of these up!)

As fun, creative and widely used as it is, figurative speech is not intended to be interpreted in a literal sense. And herein lays the problem….  It is common for young kids to take things too literally, but when this misunderstanding continues with age, it can create significant comprehension and therefore social issues.

Figures of Speech Game

To help Gregory develop his sense of figurative language, I created a “Figures of Speech” game that we played each night at dinner time.  I printed out hundreds of common idioms, such as “Quit horsing around”, “Roll with the punches”, and “Bite my head off”.  (An entire chapter is devoted to examples of Figurative Speech and Idioms in Brenda Myles’s wonderful book, The Hidden Curriculum, which formed the basis of my series on the subject.)  As we all sat around the table, one of the kids would read aloud a figure of speech from a little slip of paper and then everyone would try to guess what it meant.  Then I told them what it meant figuratively, including, whenever possible, how it originated.  We giggled about how silly it sounded when interpreted literally, so they could begin to recognize these types of phrases in daily life.

During the game, we would review sayings that we had already covered, to reinforce the learning process.  This time around, the kids usually guessed/expressed the figurative meaning correctly.  We also had lots of fun having everyone come up with other idioms, either from things they had heard or from their imagination.  We all enjoyed many laughs and the lessons got through, because nowadays, when Gregory hears an idiom on tv or reads one in a book, he’ll turn and inform me, “That’s a figure of speech!”

I am Tongue Tied

During a school book fair where I was volunteering, I came across a wonderfully silly kid’s book called  Even More Parts by Tedd Arnold (of Fly Guy fame.) Through the use of very cute cartoons, the author introduces all sorts of common idioms dealing with body parts – from head to toe!  Just imagine the literal illustrations of someone saying “I lost my head”, “I keep changing my mind” or “I am tongue tied” – hysterical!  I bought it immediately – what a fun way to ‘get’ figurative language!    I presented it to Gregory, who was instantly mesmerized by the cartoon pictures of a man who ‘sang his heart out’ (his red, beating heart falling onto the floor), and the boy who ‘went to pieces’ (his snap-together body parts strewn all along the sidewalk).  The book was a huge hit with all three of the kids, who giggled at the absurdity of the literal interpretations to these well known idioms, so I subsequently bought the complete set (Parts and More Parts!)  Kudos Mr. Arnold!

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Today, as a result of our ‘Figures of Speech’ game, the Parts books and lots of general reading, Gregory has a well-developed sense of figurative language.  Even when he doesn’t understand exactly what an idiom means, he recognizes that the phase is not meant literally.  But even better yet, Gregory uses figures of speech himself – to add richness and creativity to his own speech and writing!

So, the next time your child becomes concerned for your safety because you are “just going to jump in the shower….”, you might want to consider a couple of these techniques too.  Comprehending idioms and figurative speech can pose real difficulties for those on the Spectrum who see the world through literal ‘glasses’, but with a little work and a lot of silliness, our kids don’t have to stay ‘out in left field’…

How Rude!

5 Oct

Have you ever been mortified by something rude or tactless that your child has said or done in public?  Or worse yet, been the one to insert ‘foot in mouth’?   I can answer a resounding YES! to both questions.  I’m sure we have all experienced something similar (and wish we could forget!)  One time, I was in a bar and there was this cage…..well anyway, I’d better keep that one to myself, I think!  😉

It happens to the best of us and for the most part, our fellow citizens (especially if they know us) forgive the occasional faux pas.  We apologize, laugh it off and try to smooth over the awkwardness.  If social mishaps occur frequently however, the response changes.  People start to get annoyed, avoid, and maybe even chastise the ‘offender’.  After giving offense too often or perhaps with insufficient remorse, we soon get labeled as odd, self-centered or rude.  Socializing and working within a team become increasingly difficult and we are left out in the cold.

It’s not nice, but that’s how society works.  Disapproval and shunning are the tools society uses to enforce the rules of social engagement.  These rules, which form the unwritten guidelines for social behavior, are critical to keeping society running smoothly.

The Hidden Curriculum – Part II – Manners

As discussed in my previous blog The Hidden Curriculum, Aspies and others with social-cognitive learning disabilities, can have great difficulty decoding these hidden rules.  This inability to correctly interpret social nuance means Aspies make social faux pas…repeatedly…often without remorse…perhaps without even understanding that a rule was broken.  The result?  Being made an ‘outsider’ in society.

Previously, I outlined a few methods that may be used effectively to help explicitly teach some of these social rules.  This week, the focus is on manners, those pesky little rules from our mothers – Those customs and traditions of society that govern how people treat one another and behave in social situations.  In today’s world where these common courtesies are becoming increasingly uncommon, learning about etiquette and manners is important for every child – not just Aspies.

Below are some of the methods to teach kids the ‘mannerly way of life’.  (But parents are welcome too!)

1.  Model Good Behavior

The first rule of teaching any behavior or skill is to model it yourself.  As Gandhi once said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  Demonstrate the correct behavior and with a bit of luck, your child follows suit.  Hopefully, we parents exhibit good manners naturally – modeling the desired behaviors unconsciously on a daily basis.  If however, you are a bit of a slacker at home (hmmm…my husband Barry comes to mind… 🙂 ) then you may need to step up your etiquette game.  Show respect and treat your family members like favored guests.  Be sure to use ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ regularly – to your spouse and your kids.

I’ve been compared at times, to a drill sergeant, issuing orders in the morning like a rapid-fire machine gun, trying to get everything organized and everyone out the door on time.  It might be efficient, but it is stressful, unpleasant for everyone and definitely not ‘mannerly’.  Although I tend to forget, my kids and hubby are not minions at my beck and call – and shouldn’t be treated as such.  It is much better to organize things the night before, and enjoy a calm, pleasant morning by making polite requests and kind acknowledgements.

But modeling good behavior doesn’t stop at home.  Keep in mind that your kids are always watching you and your example – in the car when you swear at that bad driver, in the grocery store when you are rude to the cashier, and at the playground when you talk behind someone’s back.  It is not easy to always stand tall and take the high courteous ground, but remember those eyes are always on you.  Do your best…

2.  State Expectations Ahead of Time

One very effective tactic to teaching good manners is to explicitly state the expectations of behavior immediately before the occasion.  For example, we have ‘Restaurant Rules’, which get reiterated right before we enter a restaurant.  We outline examples of good restaurant behavior (not bothering other diners, saying please and thank you to the waiter, etc.) and bad (complaining loudly about the food, listening to other conversations, etc.).  Our little lambs still need some reminding during the course of a meal, but at least the expectations are well understood.  And although our kids are far from perfect restaurant guests, they have been complimented on numerous occasions by restaurant staff and other diners for their good manners.

3.  Have a Code Word or Action

Even if kids know proper behavior, they sometimes forget.  (Children do have a tendency to behave childishly…)  It is helpful to have a secret code word/phrase (such as ‘quiet hands’) or action (such as a touch to your noise), that coupled with a meaningful look on your part, will discretely indicate a breach of etiquette to your child.  Hopefully that subtle reminder will be enough to correct the situation.  If need be though, the more direct approach has been used by moms for centuries:  The old faithful “Johnny, what do you saaaaayyyy????” is usually effective to prompt a courteous ‘Thank You” from your little cherub.

4.  Read Manners or Etiquette Books

A book won’t take the place of direct instruction, but is a great tool to reinforce your teachings.  One of my favorite books about manners for kids is How Rude! – The Teenager’s Guide to Good Manners, Proper Behavior and Not Grossing People Out by Alex J. Packer, PhD.  This book is not geared specifically toward kids on the spectrum, but its cartoons, teen-relevance and irreverent presentation make it a great and fun resource.  It is so humorous and entertaining (not at all preachy, boring or dull) that Gregory (and his siblings!) actually WANTS to read it, laughing along as he learns the basics of polite behavior in all kinds of situations.

Manners are a critical component of the Hidden Curriculum. Rules of good behavior must be explicitly taught to those with social-cognitive learning disabilities, but every child should receive these valuable etiquette lessons.  Because in society…We all benefit from polite social interactions:

  • Good manners put people at ease and make them feel good – about themselves and each other.
  • Good manners impress people and are attractive to friends, teachers, employers, etc.
  • Good manners allow people to live and work together more harmoniously and productively.
  • Good manners build self-esteem through respect and kindness.
  • Good manners are free!

This concludes our manner lesson for the day.  I have to go now…My kids are beating each other up – and they aren’t doing it very politely! 😉

The Hidden Curriculum

21 Sep

In the Autism/Aspergers world, I’m what is known as a neurotypical or NT, while my son is known as an Aspie or Aspergian.  Although some (like my older brother!) might argue that I am anything BUT ‘normal’, my brain does function fairly typically.  The brains of people with Autism and Aspergers however, do not, and this enables them to see the world in atypical ways.  As such, in my efforts to parent successfully, I’ve had to adjust my NT thinking, to try to see the world through my son’s eyes…with his Aspie brain and unique perspectives on life.  And this has taken some getting used to….

Without realizing it, neurotypical folks constantly, instantaneously and seamlessly survey the written rules or ‘hidden curriculum’ of every environment and every person [we] encounter, to make decisions about how to proceed successfully within a given context.[1]

The hidden curriculum refers to a set of rules or guidelines about social behavior that are often not directly taught.  It is assumed knowledge that helps lubricate the cogs of society and enables groups of people to live, work and interact together harmoniously.  These rules are wide-reaching and complex, covering a variety of topics from table manners to slang words, dating protocol to classroom etiquette…and much more.  Virtually every aspect of our daily lives is based upon a foundation of hidden curricula – widely-held assumed knowledge that we probably don’t even remember learning.

We don’t recall learning most of these rules, because “everybody just KNOWS that!”  We NTs are unconscious social navigators and learn naturally through observation and intuition.  We take it for granted that all relatively smart people should be able to acquire these skills in the same manner.  Unfortunately, for those with Aspie brains, these skills are not acquired naturally.  In spite of being potentially brilliant in other intellectual arenas, they have what is called social-cognitive learning disabilities when it comes to the hidden curriculum

An example of this lack of common understanding occurred recently in our home.  Gregory had been dared to do something stupid [my words!] by another boy, so he did it.  When I questioned Greg about why, he answered, “because he dared me…I had to.”  But, instead of reprimanding him for making a bad decision, I backed up and reconsidered.  “Greg, just because someone dares you to do something, doesn’t mean you HAVE to do it.  You can CHOOSE to accept the dare or not.”  Greg looked at me in amazement…”You can?”   He had totally misunderstood the social rule and believed that there was no option with a dare – no matter how stupid.  I shudder to think what might have happened if he still believed that ‘rule’ into his teenage years…Yikes!!!

So, this deficit can create significant problems.  The inability to develop adequate social skills and interpret social nuance of those around them brings life-long challenges to Aspies.  We, as NT adults in society, are willing to explain and excuse social ‘misbehaviors’ in very young children, but as they get older, kids and certainly adults are expected to know these unwritten, unspoken items of general understanding.  How do we react when someone breaks the ‘social code’?  We are shocked, upset, angry and perhaps even disgusted.  “How rude!” or “Weirdo” or “Can you believe this guy?” rings through our heads.  Because, breaking a hidden curriculum rule can make that person a social misfit or even a social outcast. 

What can we do to help those with social-cognitive deficits?  These individuals must learn the hidden curriculum by direct instruction versus intuition.  Parents and educators must become ‘social anthropologists’ to first determine various hidden curriculum items and then find ways to teach them.  This is not an easy task, because we assume everyone knows the assumed knowledge!  We literally don’t know what to teach them, because we don’t know what we know…

One of the primary ways to recognize an example of hidden curriculum is when an error occurs.  When a teenager addresses the principal as “Dude” or when a young man at the urinal drops his pants all the way to the floor.  When a girl texts using ALL CAPS and the receiver thinks she is shouting at her.  When a man in an office talks over his boss to correct the boss’s ‘error’.  When a woman talks loudly in church or during a movie….you name it  – There are rules for just about every interaction we have on a daily basis.  And when a rule is broken, people notice.

To make things even harder for Aspies, the hidden curriculum is not just vast, but it is complex and elusive as well.  The rules change across age, gender, who you are with, culture, environment, etc.  And to add another layer of complexity, most Aspies have difficulty generalizing, so what they have learned for one situation may or may not be carried over to a similar situation – the hidden curriculum rules must be explicitly taught for each scenario!

There are a variety of methods that may be used to help your child acquire unwritten social knowledge, many of which you can read about in available reference material.  One fabulous book, from which I gained my first insights into this area, is called The Hidden Curriculum by Brenda Smith Myles.  Here are a few methods from the book that I have employed successfully with my son:

1.  Safe Person

Identify one or more ‘safe people’ at home, school, camp, etc. who can help your child with Hidden Curriculum questions.  Your child should trust this person and be willing to ask about social questions.  This parent, teacher, mentor or close friend should understand the deficit and be willing and able to provide accurate, clear clarification to the meaning of words, phrases and situations.

2.  Social Narratives

Social narratives describe social cues and appropriate responses to social behavior and are useful in teaching a new social skill in advance of the situation.  Social narratives often use pictures or cartoons to promote self-awareness and self-management.  The most popular social narrative type is Social Stories by Carol Gray, which prescribes a specific framework for the narrative.

3.  Social Autopsies

The renown educator Richard Lavoie developed the concept of social autopsy to help students understand social mistakes – after the fact.  This method clarifies what exactly happened and then enables the child to see the cause/effect relationship between his behavior and people’s reaction to it.

4.  Direct Instruction

The direct instruction method is the one that I use most frequently in our daily lives, albeit informally.  Through direct instruction the teacher models (or states) correct behaviors and the students practices correct or alternative behavioral responses.  One great tool for direct instruction is the Hidden Curriculum One-A-Day Calendar for Kids by the Blackwell Family.  For each day of the calendar year, there is one specific need-to-know lesson.  In our home, we read the calendar item at dinner time and then use it as a jumping off point for discussion and explanation.

 

These days, I often explain situations and teach the unwritten rules of our daily lives.  I am never sure how much Greg has absorbed about the hidden curriculum on his own, so I explicitly try to help him “navigate body language and social mores in the uncharted areas between the words.”[2]  I guess I’ve been a bit over zealous lately however, because the other day Greg groaned and said, “Mom, can you please stop making everything into a lesson!”  Note taken!

Understanding the hidden curriculum is vital to the acquisition of good social skills, independence and a fulfilling life.  Most of us learn these rules naturally, but Aspies need a road map to our complex, elusive NT social world.  So please – let us all practice tolerance.  Let’s open our NT minds and try not to judge ‘misbehaviors’ too quickly…. That ‘rude’ person may just be an Aspie – seeing the world a little differently.


[1] Brenda Smith Myles, The Hidden Curriculum:  Practical Solutions for Understanding Unstated Rules in Social Situations (Autism Asperger Publishing Co., 2004), p. 1.

[2] Stephen M. Shore

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