by Brandy Stanfill

There are unspoken rules and expectations in every environment.  Dr. Brenda Smith Myles dubbed these unspoken rules “the hidden curriculum.”  The hidden curriculum includes the unspoken or implicit academic, social, and cultural messages that are communicated to students across the school day.  Most neuro-typical people pick up on the hidden curriculum automatically.  People on the autism spectrum generally do not.   The hidden curriculum includes those unstated rules or customs that, if not understood, can make the world a confusing place and cause people who are not neurologically wired to automatically “get it” feel isolated and “out of it”.

Generally, when you think or say things like “I shouldn’t have to tell you, but…,” “everybody knows…,” “common sense tells you…,” “it is obvious that…,” you’ve stumbled onto the hidden curriculum.

The Hidden Curriculum in Action

The hidden curriculum can indicate how close you may stand to someone in the elevator or whether or not you are encouraged to chat with people seated nearby or if you should sit quietly.  It can also include essential information like police officers expect you to remain in your car if they pull you over for a traffic violation, or that you should expect to wait for hours in an emergency room despite the fact that you feel that your injury or illness constitutes an emergency.  If you violate these rules of the hidden curriculum by getting out of your car and approaching the police officer, or loudly complaining and demanding to see a doctor, your health and well-being may be in jeopardy.  Therefore, it is essential that educators and therapists actively teach aspects of the hidden curriculum.  To begin consider:

  • What environments are challenging for your student?
  • Who are the other people in this environment and what are their expectations?
  • What activities happen in this location, with these people?  What are the roles, rules, or expectations for completing the task?
  • And which of these pieces of information does your student know?  Which do they need to be explicitly taught?

yellow tic tacs in a container with faces drown onto several of them

Image source

Once you’ve identified what your student doesn’t know, it’s time to come up with a plan to teach them the info.  How you’ll go about this depends on the age and developmental level of your student.  You can experiment with a social tip of the day shared during homeroom or morning meeting, guided partner discussions of social expectations in advisory, one-to-one conferences to introduce hidden curriculum rules and prime students for new experiences, social stories or articles that lay out the hidden curriculum in a given situation, or highlighting social expectations in read alouds or just right books and connecting them to a student’s real-life experiences.  

Whatever method you choose it’s essential that you provide the hidden curriculum information that your student needs to be safe and successful.

To read more about the Hidden Curriculum, look at the Hidden Curriculum collection by Brenda Smith Myles.