What Does PDA Mean in School? How PDA Impacts Learning

What does PDA Mean in School
Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge

Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge

Parents navigating the challenges of raising children and teens with mental health and behavioral issues know that every day is a unique adventure. Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) is considered a subtype of autism characterized by an extreme avoidance of everyday demands and expectations. Think of it as your child or teen allergic to anything resembling a request. But what does PDA mean in school?  

Signs and Symptoms of PDA in School Environment

In schools, social interaction matters. Spotting signs of PDA in school settings requires a keen eye. It’s important to watch out for students who have Pathological Demand Avoidance. This might manifest as a persistent resistance to instructions, excessive need for control, and an aversion to everyday demands.

Symptoms of PDA in Children at School

  1. Persistent Resistance to Instructions – a marked aversion to following everyday demands and expectations, turning simple tasks into potential battlegrounds.
  2. Excessive Need for Control – becoming a master of orchestrating their environment to align with a need for predictability and autonomy, showcasing an unusual level of control.
  3. Meticulous Rituals or Routines – engaging in specific and often intricate rituals or routines as a coping mechanism, finding comfort and predictability in these structured actions.
  4. Difficulty with Social Interactions – struggling to navigate the complex world of social dynamics in high school, leading to challenges in forming and maintaining friendships.
  5. Resistance to Unwritten Social Rules – difficulty deciphering and adhering to unspoken social norms, contributing to a sense of isolation in the bustling social landscape of adolescence.
  6. Sensitivity to Physical Contact – a heightened discomfort with physical displays of affection such as holding hands, hugging, or kissing, stemming from an increased sensitivity to sensory stimuli.
  7. Engaging in Public Displays of Defiance – demonstrating a unique form of public display of defiance by resisting requests and instructions openly, showcasing a protective mechanism against overwhelming demands.
  8. Academic Challenges Despite Potential – demonstrating academic potential but facing difficulties in tasks that require flexibility, cooperation, or adaptation to the demands of the learning environment.
  9. Emphasis on Predictability – seeking and creating predictability in their surroundings, potentially displaying anxiety or stress when faced with unexpected changes or disruptions.
  10. Limited Adaptive Coping Mechanisms – displaying a limited range of adaptive coping mechanisms, with avoidance being a primary strategy in response to perceived demands.
  11. Social Isolation in Public Settings – a tendency to withdraw or isolate themselves in public settings, struggling to navigate the social nuances of crowded and dynamic environments like schools.
  12. Communication Challenges – difficulties in effective communication, both verbal and non-verbal, leading to misunderstandings and potential challenges in expressing needs or feelings.
  13. Emotional Dysregulation – fluctuations in mood and emotional states, with an increased vulnerability to stressors in the school environment.
  14. Selective Participation in Activities – choosing specific activities or subjects based on personal preferences, potentially avoiding those perceived as demanding or challenging.
  15. Heightened Sensitivity to Sensory Stimuli – demonstrating an increased sensitivity to sensory input, making them more prone to distress in environments with excessive stimuli, such as crowded hallways or noisy classrooms.

These symptoms can look similar to behaviors seen in autism, ADHD, ODD, anxiety and other conditions, so it is important to rule out other clinical issues. 

Impact of PDA on Learning and Behavior

The impact of Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) on a student's learning and behavior in the high school setting is as nuanced as the teenage experience itself. I recently worked with boy named Chance who has PDA and unlike his brother with autism, he avoids most tasks and there is just about nothing that will motivate him.

It’s important to recognize these impacts to help them navigate their educational journey. rIn school, the demand for adaptability is constant. PDA introduces a unique set of challenges that can significantly influence a student's academic performance such as:

Academic Challenges Despite Potential

While a student with PDA may possess intellectual capabilities that suggest academic prowess, the challenges arise in tasks that demand flexibility, cooperation, and adaptability. It's like having a child who excels in certain areas but struggles when facing unpredictable demands.

Difficulty with Unpredictability

The emphasis on predictability becomes crucial as the unpredictability of the school environment triggers anxiety and stress. But with the right support, these challenges can be navigated, transforming the school into a more predictable and manageable space.

Impact on Social Dynamics

The social landscape of high school is often complex and demanding. For students with PDA, the struggle to decode unwritten social rules and engage in expected forms of interaction can lead to social isolation (Fidler & Christie, 2019). 

Acknowledge the emotional toll this takes on students and emphasize the importance of fostering an inclusive environment where everyone, regardless of their unique challenges, can find a sense of belonging.

Resistance to Collaborative Learning

Collaborative learning is a cornerstone of the modern school system, but for students with PDA, it can be a source of distress. The aversion to everyday demands can manifest as a resistance to working in groups or participating in team activities. While group projects might be the norm, a student with PDA might prefer to tackle tasks independently to maintain a sense of control.

Struggles with Communication

Effective communication is essential for success in the academic realm and beyond. However, students with PDA may face challenges in expressing their needs or feelings, which leads to potential misunderstandings. Encourage open communication between parents, educators, and students to bridge these gaps and create a more supportive learning environment.

Emotional Dysregulation

Navigating the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence is challenging for any student, but for those with PDA, emotional dysregulation can be more pronounced. The heightened sensitivity to demands and sensory stimuli can increase vulnerability to stressors. Understanding and addressing these emotional challenges allows educators and parents to create an environment that fosters emotional well-being.

Strategies for Supporting Students with PDA in the Classroom

Navigating the high school with students experiencing Pathological Demand Avoidance requires a thoughtful and individualized approach. Here’s a toolkit of strategies to support these students in their educational journey.

1. Tailored Instructional Approaches

Understanding that students with PDA may face challenges with traditional teaching methods is the first step. It's essential to tailor instructional approaches to suit the unique learning styles of these students. This could involve providing clear instructions, breaking tasks into manageable steps, and incorporating visual aids to enhance comprehension.

2. Establishing Predictability

Creating a predictable classroom environment is crucial to answering the need for structured routines and consistent schedules. Minimizing unexpected changes allows educators to help alleviate anxiety and provide a sense of security for students with PDA.

3. Collaborative Communication

Open channels of communication between educators, parents, and students. Foster a collaborative approach where everyone involved actively participates in the student's educational journey. Regular check-ins and feedback sessions become essential tools to understand their needs and adapt strategies to address them.

Individualized Support Plans

Recognize that one size does not fit all. The development of individualized support plans is crucial. These plans should outline specific strategies, accommodations, and interventions tailored to the unique needs of each student with PDA. This personalized approach ensures that the student receives the support they require to navigate the challenges of the classroom environment.

5. Embracing Neurodiversity


Shift the narrative from viewing PDA as a hindrance and start recognizing it as a unique aspect of neurodiversity. Educators are encouraged to celebrate the strengths of students with PDA. By acknowledging and leveraging these strengths, educators can create an inclusive classroom environment that values the diversity of each student.

6. Sensory-Friendly Classrooms

Classrooms can be sensory overload for students with PDA. While others might see it as a bustling environment, for these students, it can be akin to a sensory minefield. Creating sensory-friendly classrooms involves minimizing distractions, providing comfortable seating options, and incorporating tools like fidget items to help students self-regulate (Fidler et al., 2015).

7. Social Skills Training

Navigating the social intricacies of high school can be challenging for any student, especially those with PDA. Implement social skills training programs that address the specific challenges faced by students with PDA. This can include explicit teaching of social cues, communication skills, and strategies for building and maintaining friendships (Leung et al., 2020).

8. Flexible Evaluation Methods

Traditional evaluation methods may not accurately reflect the capabilities of students with PDA. A more flexible approach to assessments allows for alternative methods of demonstrating understanding. This could include projects, verbal presentations, or other creative ways that align with the student's strengths and preferences.

9. Emotional Regulation Support

Given the emotional dysregulation often associated with PDA, providing support for emotional well-being is paramount. Teach emotional regulation strategies and create a safe space where students feel comfortable expressing their feelings. Educators can collaborate with mental health professionals to implement effective strategies for emotional support.

10. Training for Educators

Educators should be well-equipped to understand and support students with PDA. They will need comprehensive training programs that cover the nuances of PDA, its impact on learning and behavior, and practical strategies for creating an inclusive and supportive classroom environment.

The BrainBehaviorResetTM Program is a holistic program that delves into the neurobiological foundations of PDA. It incorporates natural solutions, specifically emphasizing the role of neurofeedback, PEMF therapy, and magnesium supplements in resetting brain function. 

The BrainBehaviorResetTM Program is tailored to recognize the uniqueness of each individual, employing cognitive-behavioral strategies to reshape maladaptive thought patterns. Implementation involves personalized assessments, dynamic interventions, family involvement, education, and creating a supportive ecosystem. 

The program is not just about managing PDA but empowering individuals to reset, adapt, and thrive. It offers a transformative journey towards a brighter and more resilient future of demanding challenges.

Parent Action Steps 

☐ Understand the neurobiological nature of Pathological Demand Avoidance and that your child isn’t acting like this on purpose.
☐ Personalized Assessment: Seek a personalized assessment for your child.
☐ Include magnesium in your child's diet.
☐ Create consistent routines at home to minimize unexpected changes.
☐ Implement cognitive-behavioral strategies in daily interactions.
☐ Focus on skill building. 
☐ Download your Free Guide to School Accommodations.
☐ Use the Solutions Matcher to get personalized treatment for your child.

Citations

Fidler, R., & Christie, P. (2019). Collaborative Approaches to Learning for Pupils with PDA: Strategies for Education Professionals. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Fidler, R., Christie, P., & Powell, J. (2015). Can I Tell You About Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome? A Guide for Friends, Family and Professionals. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Kildahl, A. N., Helverschou, S. B., Rysstad, A. L., Wigaard, E., Hellerud, J. M., Ludvigsen, L. B., & Howlin, P. (2021). Pathological demand avoidance in children and adolescents: A systematic review. Autism, 25(8), 2162-2176. https://doi.org/10.1177/13623613211034382

Leung, P. W. S., Li, S. X., Tsang, C., Chow, B. L., & Wong, W. C. (2020). Effectiveness of Using Mobile Technology in Improving Cognitive and Social Skills Amongst Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Systematic Literature Review (Preprint). JMIR Mental Health, 8(9). https://doi.org/10.2196/20892

O’Nions, E., Viding, E., Greven, C. U., Ronald, A., & Happé, F. (2014). Pathological demand avoidance: Exploring the behavioural profile. Autism, 18(5), 538-544. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361313481861

Are you looking for SOLUTIONS for your struggling child or teen? 

Dr. Roseann and her team are all about science-backed solutions, so you are in the right place! 

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147 Therapist-Endorsed Self-Regulation Strategies for Children: A Practical Guide for Parents

Dr. Roseann is a Children’s Mental Health Expert and Licensed Therapist who has been featured in/on hundreds of media outlets including The Mel Robbins Show, CBS, NBC, PIX11 NYC, Today, FORBES, CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Business Insider, Women’s Day, Healthline, CNET, Parade Magazine and PARENTS. FORBES called her, “A thought leader in children’s mental health.

Dr. Roseann - Brain Behavior Reset Parent Toolkit

She coined the terms, “Re-entry panic syndrome” and “eco-anxiety” and is a frequent contributor to media on mental health. 

Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge has three decades of experience in working with children, teens and their families with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, concussion, dyslexia and learning disability, anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), depression and mood disorder, Lyme Disease, and PANS/PANDAS using science-backed natural mental health solutions such as supplements, magnesium, nutrition, QEEG Brain maps, neurofeedback, PEMF, psychotherapy and other non-medication approaches. 

She is the author of three bestselling books, It’s Gonna Be OK!: Proven Ways to Improve Your Child's Mental Health, The Teletherapy Toolkit, and Brain Under Attack. Dr. Roseann is known for offering a message of hope through science-endorsed methods that promote a calm brain. 

Her trademarked BrainBehaviorResetⓇ Program and It’s Gonna be OK!Ⓡ Podcast has been a cornerstone for thousands of parents facing mental health, behavioral or neurodevelopmental challenges.

She is the founder and director of The Global Institute of Children’s Mental Health, Neurotastic™Brain Formulas and Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, LLC. Dr. Roseann is a Board Certified Neurofeedback (BCN) Practitioner, a Board Member of the Northeast Region Biofeedback Society (NRBS), Certified Integrative Mental Health Professional (CIMHP) and an Amen Clinic Certified Brain Health Coach.  She is also a member of The International Lyme Disease and Associated Disease Society (ILADS), The American Psychological Association (APA), Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), International OCD Foundation (IOCDF).

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