When you’re faced with challenging behaviours, giving a little ground can make all the difference, says Adele Devine…
Imagine you are sightseeing in snowy Austria. You reach the top of a very steep slope and your guide hands you a snowboard, saying, “Meet you at the bottom!” And then they snowboard off.
You had not expected this and had not planned to learn to snowboard. You watch as others skilfully descend, making it look so easy, but the idea absolutely terrifies you. How might you feel?
Situations that seem simple to the majority can cause the child with special needs or autism overwhelming anxiety, fear and frustration.
Maybe they don’t have the language to express how they are feeling, but they need to find a way to let people know. If a child is refusing to join the group or struggling to follow rules and routines then have a brainstorm with your team.
See if there is a way of finding some middle ground – as Hedy Lamarr once observed, “Compromise and tolerance are magic words.”
When faced with challenging behaviours, ask yourself the following questions:
If the child is…
Simple compromises or small changes to the way you do things, such as those suggested above, can make all the difference as the case studies opposite illustrate.
Zachary’s need to know
Zachary found it difficult to settle into school and would cry by the door for a long time. Settling had been priority and had required us to stretch some rules while building his trust.
Zachary showed good understanding of the visual timetable and when things would happen throughout the day. He needed information about the day broken down more than most children. He was very literal.
For example, our class timetable might show lunch then outside play, but the reality was that not all children would finish at the same time and if we opened the door to outside, some of our more anxious eaters would not stay at the table.
Most of the children did not question this, but Zachary needed to know exactly what was happening and when.
Knowing really helped reduce his anxiety and associated behaviours. He was making some sounds, but not speaking yet so he had learned to use PECS, exchanging symbols to communicate when he wanted something.
Time for lunch?
If Zachary’s lunchbox was accessible he would go to get it and eat the whole lot, so the staff had locked it away in a cupboard up high. Zachary was fixated on getting it back and we needed to think of a compromise because he was climbing and getting very cross. We discussed what to do at our team meeting. Could there be a compromise?
The next day before putting the lunchbox away in the cupboard we removed most of his lunch so there was just a snack and drink inside it. Zachary was not aware that we had done this.
We added a photograph of his lunchbox to his PECS book, and when he went to climb to get the lunchbox he was shown the photo. Zachary was very good at using his photos and symbols to make requests and comment so he knew what to do.
He took the photo and placed it on his sentence strip making the sentence ‘I want lunchbox’ then he handed it to me. I opened the cupboard and gave him his lunchbox and he ate the contents. At lunchtime he was able to have the rest of his lunch with the other children. Everyone was happy.
What’s next, Ben?
Ben had a good understanding of his visual timetable and was able to transition using a ‘Now and Next’ visual schedule.
We have transition boards outside all of the classrooms and Ben would match his symbol to the symbol on the board. When it was a transition he liked he was brilliant. The issue was that when it was not so motivating he would choose to go to the place he thought should be on the timetable.
Care to dance?
Every Monday we have a dance session in the school hall and this was not a session Ben enjoyed. He was able to take part and would sometimes use ear defenders if he found the noise too much.
But Ben had started to find the transition to the hall more frustrating. On the way to the hall he walked past the room where we have a big trampoline, and Ben loved this more than anything. Instead of going to the hall he would stand looking through the window to the trampoline.
We discussed the behaviour at our team meeting. What was Ben telling us? He was clearly communicating “I would rather go on the trampoline than go to dance.” Was there a way to compromise?
A new approach
First thing I booked Ben a trampoline slot later in the day. He only needed 10 minutes and it meant we would not be saying “no”, but “not now”.
Then we had a think about the dance session and what he was finding difficult. The session did not always start right away, and often by the time it did he had lost interest and gone to find something better to do (usually climbing).
We decided to bring Ben in 10 minutes later so that when he arrived it had started already. Ben understood our sand timers and we used them a lot, so we added a timer symbol to his ‘Now and Next’ schedule, so he could see that he only needed to stay in the session for 10 minutes.
In the morning we followed our plan and made sure Ben had seen his visual schedule. He clocked the ‘trampoline’ symbol and smiled widely. Ben waited the 10 minutes then transitioned straight to the dance session and stayed 10 minutes. He was brilliant! As time went on we added another 10 minutes and he coped with that too.
Adele Devine is a teacher at Portesbery school & director of SEN Assist.