Bear with me, because what I am about to say cause you to feel defensive or want to click away. Please keep reading.
We overuse physical prompts and support in special education, and we are setting up our students to be hurt in their lives.
One in three children who receive special education services are victims of neglect, physical abuse, or sexual abuse — compared to one in 10 non-disabled peers. They are 3.44 times more likely to be the victim of abuse compared to children without disabilities (Sullivan & Knutson, 2000). 3.44 times! And it is likely that these are underestimates, as children with disabilities may have difficulty reporting (or having their reports believed).
How does physical prompting play into this?
We are teaching our students that it is okay for someone to manipulate their body. We often teach something even more significant — that they cannot say no. When they fall on the floor and we force them up, we are teaching them that they cannot say no. When we force their hands under the running water in the sink, we are teaching them that they cannot say no. When they say “cookie” but we make them say “eat”, we are teaching them that they cannot say no and that their voice doesn’t matter.
I know it’s not the intention. But it is the impact.
I get it. I’ve made this mistake in the past. I’ve had moments that make me cringe as I’ve grown and matured in my understanding of teaching and supporting the kids I so adore. We think that we’re helping. We’re taught this in graduate school. We’re taught this by our children’s therapists. We didn’t know.
Now we do — and now we can do better.
It is possible, I promise. I teach ten preschoolers with disabilities every day with minimal physical prompting. I parent two children with disabilities every day with minimal physical prompting. It’s a journey, but it’s a journey that is absolutely worth it as you teach some of the most important life lessons: autonomy and consent.
How do we start?
Start by noticing. Notice the little ways that you use touch throughout the day. Notice when your child or student might be pulling away. Notice when you accidentally speak over instead of working with. It’s not about shame. It’s about mindfulness. It’s about noticing the ways that we, too, have been indoctrinated by a culture that expects compliance from children (and especially from children with disabilities). Notice when your hands begin to move before your brain even notices.
And then start to do things differently. Below are some steps to moving away from physical prompts and towards a different way of interacting. Your children and students will appreciate the respect for their individuality. They will thrive on having their voice heard and recognized. And you will uncover so much more learning, so much more personality, so much more of THEM when you take the chance to step back. I think you’ll like the change.
Ask yourself: what is this child communicating to me?
- This is too easy / hard / boring.
- I am not ready / I need more time / I need a break from this.
- I don’t understand the expectation.
- I don’t feel well.
When we find the same scenario popping up multiple times a day or week, we need to do some problem solving with the child or student. We can often minimize the need for prompting when we determine what the child is communicating through their actions, whether it’s disengaging from an activity or refusing a transition. There’s always a reason. When we address the reason, we often find that our students no longer need to complain or protest with their bodies.
Ask yourself: is this necessary?
It’s amazing how many times we think we need to do more — but we don’t. I think here about the student who has exercised their right to protest by laying on the floor instead of transitioning. The instinct by most is to pick this student up and force them to walk to the next location. But why? Are they being hurt? Are they hurting someone else? Is there absolutely no way to create safety by relocating peers / furniture / adults? That is the only time where I find it absolutely necessary to intervene in some sort of physical way (such as blocking a student from hitting themselves in the head). There’s a dozen other ways to respond — first and foremost, wait.
Yep, wait. We can wait for our students to re-regulate, offering supports or strategies for regulation when appropriate. We can make sure we stay regulated! And then address the situation together. Maybe we use one of the strategies below. Maybe we all just needed to offer more time to regulate. Maybe we can talk through it together when we are both calm and regulated, such as reminding a student that we take the bus to see mama.
We all want choices in our lives. We all want to feel in control. There’s a difference between a lunch someone orders for you, and a lunch that you choose for yourself. Going to a party because you want to, or because someone else dragged you. Think of all the choices that you make on a daily basis. Think about the number of real, meaningful choices that your students or child gets to make on a daily basis. It’s often pretty insignificant. We need to offer more choices all day long. But we especially need to offer more choices before activities that have frequently served as triggers in the past.
An example: I once had a student who disliked the transition to the bus. It’s a hard transition. There’s a lot happening, and the bus ride can feel very long when all you want is your mama. We’ve struggled with making it out the door in the past. We didn’t really know what to do. We didn’t want to force him through the door, even if it was just through an adult holding each hand. It’s a bit much. But we also know that he needed to be on the bus and that, for once, there was a time limit. We can’t wait for the bus for 45 minutes. You’d be amazed at the simple solution that made all the difference: asking this student if he would like to wear his backpack, carry his backpack, or have help with his backpack. This small choice gave him a sense of control. It also meant that he could tell us what his sensory system could handle each day. Some days the feel of the heavy backpack helped him feel grounded. Other days, it was just too much. That tiny change has meant no tears and eagerly hurrying to get to the bus (and eventually mama).
Moral of the story: notice where you can offer choices, instead of telling what to do, how to do, when to do. Don’t be afraid about sharing control with your students. It’s often one of those antithetical ideas: the more you give away, the more you have.
Use other prompts.
There is a whole TON of other prompts available for teaching. We can use facial expressions, such as the “expectant waiting” face. We can talk to students. We can ask questions. We can give directions. We can show pictures. We can use video. We can point to different elements. We can use pointers and lasers and visual cover-ups. We can do it ourselves while they watch. We can start the process and then hand it over to them. Basically: don’t forget about all the other prompts that are available to you. Physical prompting is fast and it is easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s best. It’s rarely best.
Use assistive technology.
We are so lucky to live and teach in the 21st century. There are so many ways to accommodate our students. The one that most often comes to mind is the use of visual supports. We can use visuals to show each step of the process to complete an activity. We can use visuals to tell students what is happening, when it is happening, and where it is happening. We can use video to capture students doing the task, or showing their peers doing the task.
We can also use accommodations to create alternatives to the task, or modifying the task in some way. If a student regularly needs physical prompting to pull up their pants, maybe a different style of pants is going to allow them to be independent. If a student has difficulty locating a button on their talker, maybe a keyguard or even just a little sticker on the screen protector will guide them. If a student cannot touch one item at a time to count with cars and blocks, maybe they practice their counting with touch screens or focus on subitizing. This is an opportunity for endless creativity — and teamwork. Call on your instructional assistants, assistive tech teams, and related service providers! It’s amazing what we can come up with when we work together.
Always, always remember that a student has a right to say no.
There are still times when we use physical prompting in our class, primarily when teaching a new motor skill. Please remember that many — most — students do not need that physical support even with these skills. But some students struggle significantly with apraxia or other motor difficulties that benefit from some support. I think about my daughter, who benefits from physical support to find words on her talker the first few times she tries them. She cannot see the words very clearly, nor can she see our modeling. She needs us to show her.
But we do so cautiously. We ask — “Can I help you?” Yes, I literally ask my daughter this. I ask my students this. I give them the chance to give consent, or to say no. Even if they cannot verbalize consent, I hold my hand out without grabbing them. Do they put their hand on mine? Do they pull away? And they always should be allowed to pull away.
If they agree to have support, then I offer that support by hand-under-hand. It’s less intrusive, because they can more easily pull away at any moment. Because that’s the thing about consent — it’s an ongoing process. It’s not one and done. By placing my hand under theirs, it is easy for them to pull up and away. It is easy for them to decide to hit a different button on their talker. And they always should be allowed to.
(I know I sound like a skipping CD, stuck on repeat. But it’s a lesson that simply isn’t emphasized enough for our kids, and one that needs to be drilled into our heads. They are allowed to say no. They are allowed to refuse. They are allowed to pull away, walk away, however they convey the idea of NO. They are allowed to say no.)
I think of it as if I was taking lessons to swing a golf club. The trainer may assist me by providing physical support to feel what a swing should be. But notice: the trainer is going to ask me if they can support me. And if I decide, mid-swing, this isn’t working for me and walk away — they are going to let me. The trainer is not going to chase me around the golf course, trying to grab my hands and arms. It sounds ridiculous, yet so often we do exactly that.
Really, though, that’s what it comes down to… How would we want to be taught? What would we want for our own children, or for ourselves? We are caretakers of our children and our student’s trust. We must continuously live up to that. This is one of the most important ways.
Sullivan, P. & Knutson, J. (2000). Maltreatment and disabilities: A population-based epidemiological study. Child Abuse & Neglect, 24 (10), 1257-1273.