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Making Sense of the Hidden Curriculum

By — Autism Society
Updated on May 1, 2014

Lavoie (cited in Bieber, 1994) described the “hidden curriculum” as important social skills that everyone knows, but no one is taught. This includes assumed rules, adult or student expectations, idioms and metaphors. Understanding the hidden curriculum is difficult for everyone, but it is especially so for individuals with a deficit in social interactions. The following example illustrates the difficulty students with Asperger Syndrome (AS) have understanding the hidden curriculum.

Charlie was a popular eighth-grader, despite his social awkwardness. His peers accepted him and were understanding of his diagnosis. One day Charlie was hanging out with his friends in the hall before class when his friend Matthew began cursing in frustration about his B in social studies. Charlie picked up on the cursing and associated it with frustration. The bell rang and Charlie went on to his next class. As he sat down, Charlie realized that he left his math book in his locker. His teacher, Mr. Way, would not let him go back to his locker, and immediately Charlie got upset and began to curse. Mr. Way sent Charlie to the principal’s office, leaving Charlie confused about what he did wrong. He thought it was okay to use curse words when he was frustrated at school. Charlie did not understand the hidden curriculum—cursing may be acceptable around peers, but you should never curse when an adult is present.

Hidden Curriculum Social Skills

There is no one comprehensive list of all hidden curriculum items. The following is a brief listing (Myles et al., 2004) that may be applicable to children and youth with AS in school and community settings.

  • Treat all authority figures with respect (i.e., police, firefighters). You would not address a police officer like you would your brother.
  • Not all people you are unfamiliar with are strangers you can’t trust. You may not know your bus driver or your police officer, but these are people who help you.
  • What may be acceptable at your house may not be acceptable at a friend’s house. For example, although it is acceptable to put your feet up on the table at your home, your friend’s mom may be upset if you do that in their home.
  • People do not always want to know the honest truth when they ask you a question. Your best friend does not want to hear that she looks fat in a new dress she just bought for the high school dance.
  • Teachers do not all have the same rules. One teacher may allow gum in the classroom, while the other gives out fines for chewing gum.
  • Teachers have assumed expectations for their students. They are expected to greet the teachers, sit down when the bell rings and listen quietly to announcements.
  • When a teacher gives you a warning, it means that she wants the behavior to stop and that most likely there will be a consequence if the behavior occurs again.
  • It is absolutely impolite to interrupt someone when he or she is talking, unless it is an emergency.
  • Acceptable slang that may be used with your peers (i.e., “dawg,” “phat”) may not be acceptable when interacting with adults.
  • When the teacher is scolding another student, it is not the best time to ask the teacher a question.
  • When a teacher tells another student to stop talking, it is not an appropriate time for you to start talking to your neighbor.
  • People are not always supposed to say what they are thinking.

Helping Students Understand the Hidden Curriculum

Students with autism spectrum disorders do not always incidentally develop or understand the hidden curriculum necessary in school and community environments. It then becomes important that the teacher provides direct instruction to facilitate skill acquisition. The One a Day method is an effective means when teaching the hidden curriculum. For example, the classroom teacher writes one hidden curriculum item on the whiteboard each morning and introduces this item to students as a first activity. Once students understand the hidden curriculum item, they are asked to indicate how it will impact them at school or at home (Myles et al., 2004).

Understanding the hidden curriculum is not specific to children with AS; however, social challenges put them at a disadvantage. To assist with these issues, it is important that, as educators, we are equipped with strategies to help students make sense of the hidden curriculum.

References

Bieber, J. (Producer). (1994). Learning Disabilities and Social Skills with Richard Lavoie: Last One Picked…First One Picked On. Washington, DC: Public Broadcasting Service.

Gagnon, E. (2001). The Power Card Strategy: Using Special Interests to Motivate Children and Youth with Asperger Syndrome. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.

Gray, C. (1995). Social Stories Unlimited: Social Stories and Comic Strip Conversations. Jenison, MI: Jenison Public Schools.

Gray, C. (2000). Writing Social Stories with Carol Gray. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons.

Myles, B.S., & Southwick, J. (2005). Asperger Syndrome and Difficult Moments: Practical Solutions for Tantrums, Rage, and Meltdowns (2nd ed.). Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.

Myles, B.S., Trautman, M., & Shelvan, R. (2004). Asperger Syndrome and the Hidden Curriculum. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.

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