Tutoring and Pathological Demand Avoidance


Lucy Spencer demonstrates the potential of school-led or home-based tutoring for children with SEND and explores the benefits of this personalised approach for pupils with Pathologic Demand Avoidance (PDA), a profile associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA)
The main characteristic of a PDA profile is the avoiding of everyday demands and expectations, to an extreme extent. PDA is widely understood to be a profile on the Autistic Spectrum, and teaching techniques for engaging autistic children need to be carefully tailored for children with a PDA profile. 

While children with PDA can appear to have ‘good’ social and comprehension skills, they can experience significant difficulty when processing information or communicating and socialising. Often, children with PDA profiles will use their stronger social skills to avoid the ordinary ‘demands’ of daily life, such as attending school and learning in a traditional classroom environment, by diverting conversation or making excuses. This can have a substantial impact on their education and outcomes. It is important to highlight that the root cause of this avoidance is anxiety. A student once explained, “It’s like I have a funnel in my brain and every time someone asks me to do something, I can only deal with one demand at a time. It’s very tiring.” This is why many students with a PDA profile find the mainstream classroom environment a challenge. Home or school-based tutoring provides educators with the versatility needed to create a learning environment that is led by the child’s individual needs, interests and energy.

Teaching a child with PDA
For children with PDA, the traditional idea of learning, putting on a uniform and sitting with a classroom of thirty children listening to a teacher direct them on a series of tasks to achieve an objective, ‘demands’ too much of them, and can trigger an extreme reaction to avoid these activities. A tutor may be able to help children with PDA by supporting their learning in a way that captures and harnesses their educational energy without ‘demanding’ anything from them. By allowing the child’s natural curiosities or interests to lead the learning, we as tutors can find teaching moments within everyday life or topics that would not fall within traditional lesson plans. 

For example, I turned up one morning to meet a new student, who had received a slime set for Christmas, which sparked a conversation, and I was able to used my understanding of scientific concept cartoons to guide a covert formative assessment. My interest in the toy allowed us to incorporate and cover various maths models and English text types over the next three weeks. To be able to steer conversation like this and weave in necessary learning topics, I had to have a strong and confident understanding of the curriculum but also my case studies of other learners. In-depth knowledge can help tutors gently direct discussions towards relevant content to ensure children with a PDA profile reach their learning milestones. I have found that so many of my students with a PDA profile feel comfortable initially assuming the role of director and decision maker in our team.

Access to tutoring  
A common perceived barrier to tutoring is funding, but there are several financial support options available to schools and parents looking for a tutor to support a child’s individual learning needs.  The UK government’s National Tutoring Programme provides additional, targeted support for children and young people whose education was most heavily affected because of the pandemic.

Most commonly, parents of children with a PDA profile find themselves dealing with school refusal and an inability to access mainstream provision. In these cases, many parents consider Elective Home Education. This can be problematic, as de-registration places the weight of the financial burden to fund the entirety of a child’s education on the parents. It is not a decision to be taken lightly.

Education Otherwise Than At School (EOTAS) is another consideration. EOTAS makes educational provision for children with social, emotional, behavioural, medical, or other issues who, without its provision, cannot sustain access to suitable education. We provide packages of 4-12 hours per week of tutoring for local authorities which support pupils on EOTAS packages. 

The future of tutoring
As is the case with many children with SEND, the key to effectively engaging children with a PDA profile is a thorough understanding of the challenges and the impact it has on how a child interprets information, communicates and learns. The Covid-19 pandemic saw the education sector innovate by necessity, and led to some amazing technological advancements. Long-accepted concepts such as learning being confined to a physical classroom gained a new perspective. In my opinion, individualised methods of delivering education have the potential to revolutionise pedagogy and create an education system that suits everyone. Tutoring is well placed to boost outcomes for all.

Lucy Spencer

Lucy Spencer is CEOofEducation Boutique at Eteach.



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