I often see on the web these days about how tantrums and meltdowns are different. I understand the importance of connecting meltdowns to sensory and emotional overwhelm, of teaching others to be compassionate and kind in these moments.
My concern is not with how we characterize meltdowns. It’s important for people to understand meltdowns and how to best support the people in their lives. There is so much good writing out there about meltdowns, and I strongly encourage anyone with children in their lives to go read or watch it.
My concern is with how we are characterizing tantrums. More and more often, this discrimination is used by the layperson to imply that there is an element of control involved in a tantrum. A willfulness. A “he just doesnt want to”.
I don’t buy this. It’s not possible for me to work from the philosophy of “kids do well if they can” and for me to see a tantrum as manipulative, or to say “well, she’ll learn to stop when she realizes I’m not giving her what she wants.”
Tantrums, like all other “challenging behavior”, happen when a child’s skills bump up against an environment orexpectation that surpasses their ability to cope. Basically: no, they do not have the skills. They are not in total control. They still need empathy, understanding, and support. They need support to re-regulate in the moment. They also need support to learn the long-term skills needed — and to navigate the triggering environments while they develop. Our job is to meet the need (which does not necessarily mean providing the child’s momentary goal, but does mean connecting with them and centering our relationship.)
Let’s take the classic example of the two year old who wants a lollipop in the store, but has been told no. The child begins to scream and kick the cart, yelling “I want my lollipop.” Yes, this is a tantrum. But — this is still a child who is missing the skills needed to cope with the environment and demands they are facing. This is a child who does not yet have the skill to cope with disappointment, who cannot yet safely express disappointment, who cannot yet negotiate for a compromise, who cannot picture when they will next get an item, who has difficulty shifting from one plan to another. This is not a child who “is in control” and “just didn’t get what they wanted”. We all face times where we don’t get what we want; how we face those times depends on those skills. And to complicate matters: our ability to use those skills and cope are always in flux. Outsiders may see a child mid-tantrum, while the mom knows that this is also a child who is overtired, who missed their nap, who is late for lunch, who is bothered by the lights of the store, who is dealing with big changes at home, and so on.
With all of that happening, isn’t it better to err on the side of “this is a kid who is doing the best they can”? What harm would come from that?
What does that mean in the moment? Regulation takes priority. Connection comes first. And we don’t let fear of “reinforcing the tantrum” keep us from connecting with the little person in front of us. What that looks like depends on the child. For some students, that means empathy and providing language to match what they might be feeling inside. For others, it may be silence or a deep squeeze or simply waiting out the storm in compassionate companionship.
Teaching does not come first. Talking and lectures and conseuqences? They all don’t happen here. Because it doesn’t matter how many lagging skills there are, we cannot teach them in those moments of dysregulation. We can only teach when the person we are supporting feels calm, safe, integrated, and connected to their “upstairs brain”.
And, yes, sometimes that means modifying our expectations. If a toddler regularly has a tantrum in the grocery store about a lollipop, then it might be that they are not quite ready for the grocery store. Maybe it means having the toddler have a grocery “job” so they feel connected to parents during the busy moments of checking out. Or maybe it means that we get our own bag of dum-dums that we carry and provide one upon entering — here’s your lollipop for our trip today. None of this is “giving in”. This isn’t “weakness”. This is meeting our kids where they are. This is providing the scaffolding that is required for our students to be successful. This is helping them get to the next step, one day, when they’re ready.
The best part? Our strong relationship, our many moments of co-regulation? That’s going to set them up for more success than any consequence, ignoring, or lecturing ever would have done. And you are going to feel so much better through the process than you’ll ever feel from leaving a child to cry, placing them in time-out, or otherwise disconnecting.
If you’re looking for more resources on connection first, I cannot recommend the work of Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson more highly. The first step in their Whole Brain Child is “connect, then redirect”.
Disclaimer: Please remember that the work of early childhood is play. All of what I’m about to say is important, for sure, especially for older kids… But also — we need to stop being so focused on work in early childhood. We have pushed down the work expectations more and more each year, but 3, 4, and 5 year olds — even six year olds — should be playing for the bulk of their day. They should be experimenting, exploring, being curious, and living the idea that learning is a fun, full-bodied experience. That learning is something they initiate, they do, they are. Most of our best learning happens way outside of structured work. That is how we create life-long learners.
There have been a lot of questions over the last few weeks about how we engage in students in teacher-supported and teacher-directed learning activities. I think it says a lot about the culture of coercion that can seep into our classrooms, especially in special education, that this question is so pervasive. Before you get defensive, I have been there. I am writing about my past self as much as anything else. It can be hard for me to sit and reflect on the mistakes I’ve made, even when the mistakes are a decade ago. But I’m grateful for the readings, the mentors, and the students who have taught me along the way. And I will forever be committed to doing better in their names.
Things that I don’t do: withhold all the things a student loves, sanitize the environment, require sitting for instruction, “escape extinction”, physically prompt (force) through all of the actions… And, yes, my students to engage in teacher-directed (I choose the activity) and teacher-supported (we choose the activity together) activities throughout the day. Yes, they work many times throughout the day. Yes, they have expectations and rules. Yes, they learn lots of pre-academic and academic concepts. Yes, you can hold high expectations and meet student needs. Yes, you can accommodate and respect students’ bodies while teaching new concepts. Yes, you can pursue student interests and celebrate who they are.
We focus on relationships and felt safety. Students need to feel safe. Students need to know that they can trust you. Students need to know that you will not harm them, that you will help them self-regulate, that you appreciate and honor their needs. This comes first. No other learning can happen when our stress systems are activated. There’s a reason “connect” is the first step for responding when reading any discipline book that wasn’t written by behaviorists. (I recommend basically everything by Daniel Siegel, by the way.) If we spend the first days, weeks, and months of the school year working on establishing these relationships and building self-regulation skills, that is not lost time.
We use visual supports. We have picture schedules, work time schedules, bathroom sequences, visuals for where things belong… We have pictures of what work looks like, what specific expectations look like, what self-regulation can look like… I do not make visuals just for the sake of making visuals. I assess the needs in the classroom and make visuals that will support students to meet expectations. A great example of this are visual cues for directions. In the past, I’ve printed visual cues from TPT — and promptly found that none of my staff were using them. It was overwhelming; it wasn’t targeted to our specific needs. This year, keychain lanyards are specific to our class rules & lining up. These are the times we’ve most found that we need a visual cue. And now they are both used by staff and understood well by students. This means I can’t usually print a bunch of stuff off the internet. I have to custom-make our visuals, and I have to do so many times throughout the year. But they actually work for the needs that come up, and that’s what matters.
We adapt the work to meet the need. I have students who complete 5 work tasks in a row, who work for over 15 minutes, who have to be told, “Please leave work time, because your friend needs to take a turn now.” I also have students who have been working on completing 1-2 actions with an object. Or students who need to take three 15-30 second breaks of running across the room before finishing their work. This is the power of rotating schedules — flexibility to meet student needs. If a student can only work for one minute, then we start with working for one minute. If a student can only do 3-5 pieces of a task, then we might start at 2-4 pieces. We build stamina and engagement over time, rather than forcing a pre-determined time and wondering why students are melting down. Some students prefer to do the hard work first, followed by the easier thing. Others prefer to build momentum by doing easier tasks prior to hard ones. The work itself is also adapted to the student need. For example, if we are sorting letters and numbers at circle time, a student who has trouble scanning an array of 8-10 items may go last — when there are less items to scan. If we are doing finger-painting art projects, but a student detests the feel, we may let them do it with the paint inside a Ziploc. Or just give them a paintbrush, it’s not that big of a deal.
We pursue student interests. Notice that it doesn’t say use student interests. I don’t artificially stack on interests in an attempt to get students to do what I want. I don’t just stick a picture of Mickey on a folder and call it a day. But we do pursue their strengths and interests. If a student loves to count, then I’m all about building on their math skills and expanding the depth of their counting. If a student loves everything alphabet, then let’s practice problem solving and spatial awareness with alphabet puzzles. Let’s look for letter sounds with magnet letters hidden in our kinetic sand. We can read No David for the four hundredth time. We can match letters and sounds within a book we made about your favorite song. If a student loves the magic of dropping something inside a bin, why not do sorting with these bins instead of plates? My daughter’s OT used to practice categorizing with her favorite television shows, so they could talk about her favorite characters, their catch phrases, how they are alike and different. One of my students loves to make pretend soup. I’m going to the library this week to get cookbooks and picture books that will enrich his already awesome play. These are all authentic tasks, expansions on interests.
We are flexible about seating. Students don’t have to sit. They can stand. They can sit in a chair. They can sit on a stool. They can sit on the floor. Yes, I have students that get their work tasks, bring them to a preferred part of the floor, and complete all of their work there. It’s fine. People worry about — “but what about when they are 19 and they have to XYZ?” They aren’t 19 now. We have to stop the pushing down of developmental expectations. We don’t get ready to sit at 19 by forcing extended siting at age 4. We get ready by teaching self-regulation, self-advocacy, motor skills, engagement, etc…
We are thoughtful about scheduling. Most people think of scheduling simply as “if you do the work, then you get this awesome thing”. But that’s not exactly what I mean. When I schedule rotations, I’m very mindful of how, when, and where each student gets placed. Some students need to move their bodies very hard and active before they are able to engage in teacher-directed work, so they may have lots of gross motor play before their work time. Some students need a big chunk of free play time, while others prefer more structured tasks. Some want to complete all of their work at once, while others prefer it split into many sessions. I also work really hard to make sure that no one has to leave a most favorite thing in the world to go to their least favorite thing. Because who would ever want to do that? Mindful scheduling also applies to large groups. I schedule circle at times that will be successful for the biggest chunk of students. Before our morning circle, students may be engaged in gross motor play, sensory manipulatives, or morning snack. Those activities are available to help student self-regulate and adjust to being in the classroom in a way that meets their needs. They are then much more ready to learn and engage in a big group activity. Morning circle tends to be our most successful of all activities because of this.
We talk to our students; we empathize. Hard work is hard! We use “we can do hard things” from Glennon Doyle as a catch phrase all the time. It started in my own family, became a class mantra, and now is even in our student talkers. We all need pep talks and encouragement in our lives. Our students need it too. We talk to them and visualize why something is important. We talk about how work time is like exercise for our brains, making our brain grow in the way that running makes our legs stronger. We talk about how letter sounds help us read words. We empathize with challenges, offer help, and problem solve together. Our students also do not have to be able to talk back yet for us to have this conversation. It is basic respect.
We are mindful of anxiety, apraxia, and pathological demand avoidance. I’m not going to go into detail about each of these things, because they are all their own long blog. But I think it’s important for special education teachers and support personnel to become more educated about each of these — what they can look like, what they feel like, and how they can be accommodated. Work with occupational therapists, speech therapists, and other knowledgable professionals. Read the words of autistic and disabled adults who write about their experiences. For some students, it can be as simple as asking a question and providing plenty of wait time, rather than giving a demand and expecting it to be completed. Others may need a lot more accommodations. That’s okay. That’s what we’re here for.
What Work Time Looks Like
Work time can look very different depending on the students’ needs.
Student A. We approach SA with their schedule. “Let’s check our schedule, it’s time for reading.” Student A takes the picture from the schedule and matches it to the books center. We point to the visual “choose a book”. SA looks at the books but does not make a choice. We wait. After 15-20 seconds, SA picks up one book. We bring their book to the table, pull out a seat, and ask SA to sit with us. They walk to the table and open their book, which happens to be a favorite. We browse the pages together, using core words to describe what we see, pointing out letters, and asking students where various things are. When SA touches the words on a page, we write an observation note. After we have flipped through their favorite alphabet book several times, SA looks to us, looks to their talker, and says “go”. We say, “Yes, of course, go. Can you put your book away?” We hand the book to SA. They put their book on the shelf and run to gross motor center.
Student B. We approach SB with their schedule. “It’s time for work!” Student B is playing with an alphabet puzzle and just put the letter J in the puzzle. “Oh, I see you are finishing an alphabet puzzle. Let’s finish the puzzle, and then it’s work time.” Staff allow Student B to finish placing all of the letters in the puzzle without interruption. Once SB is at a stopping point, staff show the schedule to SB again and offer their hand. SB takes the adult’s hand and walks to work time. When they get there, a shape and color sorting activity is on the table. SB stands at the table and begins to look at each shape. They pick it up, twirl it, and examine it from multiple angles. Staff allow this exploration of materials, because, really, why not? After several minutes, SB attempts to put the square in the circle hole spot. They try this multiple times and then put the piece back down. Staff state, “Hmm… let’s try a different way.” Staff pick up the square and place it on the square spot. They repeat this action several times so that the student can see what they are doing. They hand the square back to the student, who then places it on the square. The student and staff member celebrate this together. Later, the student has trouble with matching the triangle and needs to twist it. After showing, the student is still not able to do so. The staff person asks the student: “Can we do this together?” and holds out her hand. The student puts their hand on the adult’s, and together they twist the triangle to put it in. They do this together for three triangles. The student takes the fourth triangle and puts it in independently and grins. Staff give the student a big high five!
Student C. Student C is listening to a “Baby Shark” book when we approach to show them their schedule. Baby Shark is their all time favorite. We remind them, “Yes, you can bring Baby Shark, but it’s work time” and hand the work time picture to them. They begin walking to the right area, but then walk to the side and hang the picture in a different place. Staff grabs the picture and says, “Work time is this way. Let me show you where I hang this.” Staff get low next to student and point to the work time area, showing the picture again. Staff offer the picture to the student, but the student does not take it. Staff carries it to the work time area and calls the student. The student walks towards the staff and approaches the table. The student places their “Baby shark” book next to their work time area. They look at their work time schedule, pulling the “triangle” off and matching it to triangle on the shelf. They take the “triangle” bin to the table and complete the puzzle inside. They put the bin in finished. They look at their schedule and see “square”. The student does not take the square picture, but turns to the shelf of work time activities. They pull off the circle bin and bring it to the table. Staff say, “Yes, you love the counting cows! Let’s count!” and joins them in counting the cows and putting them in a line. After several minutes of playing with the counting cows, staff point to the student’s schedule and show the square again. The student puts the counting cows in the finished bin, takes the square and matches it. The student then completes their second work activity.
Student D. One staff approaches Student D with the art time picture. SD takes the art time picture to art and hangs it. They look at the art project for today, which is creating a tractor from construction paper cut-outs, and then run away. Staff wait for one minute for the student to re-regulate and then approach again with the art picture. The student says, “No no no no no” and then hides their face. Staff say, “We will try again in a few minutes.” After several minutes have passed, staff re-approach student for art project. The student continues to refuse. Staff go to the art center, collect the student materials and bring it to the student on the tray, moving to where the student is. Instead of forcing the student to participate through physical prompting, staff opens the glue and begins to put the glue on the tractor piece. After glue is on the piece, staff offer it to the student, “Where should this go?” The student turns their head. Staff place the tractor piece on the construction paper. Staff put glue on the wheel and then offer it to the student. The student turns towards staff this time, and watches as staff puts it on the tractor. The student maintains gaze on the art project, so staff offer the glue stick. SD takes the glue and puts a speck of glue on another wheel. Staff exclaim, “I love it when we work together!” and finish putting the glue. They hand the wheel to the student and they place it on the paper. Staff and student continue to work together, taking turns and doing different pieces of the art project until it is complete.
Student E. Student E uses a first/then visualization to help them throughout the day. This student also uses iPad activities for learning. We do schedule the harder, more hands-on activities prior to the iPad sometimes. Hard work is hard. Many of us need time to self-regulate after completing something challenging, and this student self-regulates though iPad play. The sounds, the visuals, the structure all seem to help them stay feeling good in their brain and body over the day. It has really helped this student to 1) know when iPad is on their schedule, 2) know what comes after hard work (it’s not always iPad), and 3) know exactly how much work they have to do. One way that we prevent this from becoming coercive is by having iPad scheduled multiple times through the day. We have times where all students get access to iPad, and that includes this student. We do not hold their work from 10am over them at 11:30am. At other times, the schedule might read “first circle time, then Starfall”, “first reading, then work time”, and “first lunch, then play centers”. I share this to emphasize that the first/then board is not a token economy, but is specifically about making the schedule and expectations visually clear.
There are some really meaningful conversations around abuse prevention happening over in one of my favorite AAC groups today (AAC Though Motivate, Model & Move Out of the Way, managed by Kate Ahern). The statistic on abuse in the disability population are appalling: 1 in 3. I’ve written about the ways that physical prompting can — even if unintentionally — teach our kids that other people are allowed to manipulate their bodies.
This is only one piece of the puzzle, however. It’s one piece of teaching consent, one piece of creating a classroom culture that is centered around respect. We are not only working to prevent abuse now, but we are teaching children and their families advocacy skills and environmental expectations that can help prevent abuse in the future. Below are some of the many other pieces that our essential to our classroom.
Our classroom has an open door policy. Parents are always welcome in our classroom, and for as long as they would like to be there. We literally keep the shade on our big window on our door open at all times. We keep the window shades open on at least half of our windows. When toileting, the bathroom door is cracked open at all times (balance between privacy and safety). I would be 100% okay with the push for videos in special educatio nclassrooms.
We fill our classroom with general education students. I do teach in a self-contained setting. It is something I wrestle with often, as I advocate inside and outside of schools for inclusion for many reasons. And it’s a whole other post conversation to be had in the future. In the meantime, we have general education students in our classroom for 40-50% of our school day. We’ve had years where we’ve been able to have general education students in our classroom for even more. I trust myself and both my staff, but having general education students who are more easily able to report on what happens in our classroom only increases student safety.
We document, document, document. If something happens to a student, if they fall, if they bump their head, if they skin their knee… We write down exactly what happened and what it is. This establishes the expectation that we should know what is happening to students — and that it should be shared. I would add that we share tons of information about what students are doing each day. Abuse prevention is one piece, but there’s also educational neglect. My daughter has sat in rooms where she did nothing all day. It’s not okay. We share all the cool things that we do during our super busy day so that we can celebrate kids, share their wisdom, and establish the expectation that school is for learning.
We are all about cooperation & shared control, not compliance or power over. First: I do not “sanitize the environment”. I do not make students “use their words” or tell them that the only way to good things is through me. That is not the classroom that I run. Students have access to things that they cherish all throughout the day, freely. Students also have unlimited number of breaks. Yes, unlimited. Does that mean there are times when a student takes so many breaks that we don’t get all of their work done in one day? Yep! Is that okay? Yep. We are also flexible. Sometimes we work at the table. Sometimes we bring the work to you. Our focus is on meeting student needs as much as any need for instruction. Sometimes, our entire focus is on social-emotional regulation, sensory regulation, and communication. Those are really important skills. (And if a student is having to take that many breaks regularly, then we need to go back to the drawing board re: the tasks, accommodations, and assistive technology.)
We center our classroom around communication. Respecting students’ communication to us — in all forms — comes first. Modeling language on AAC, whether that’s high-tech, gestures, ro some other form, comes second. Between the two, we are teaching students that their voice matters, that their voice should be respected, and that there are multiple ways to express what’s important to them. We also need to make sure that words important to students and important for abuse prevention are available. They need to be able to say: no, stop, don’t, don’t want to, don’t like this, etc… They need words that can express something is wrong, whether that’s illness, injury, or being hurt. They need to have body parts (all of them) so that they can accurately report if something happens to them. It doesn’t matter if it takes their entire school career for a student to accurately report an injury, it is always, always worth it. Do not give up. Do not fall back onto “requesting only”. Do not fall back on to nouns.
We center respect in every student interaction. We need to think about what we are doing with and to students. We need to think about where we are placing our hands and why. The vast majority of the time, we don’t need to physically prompt students. The limited amount of times that we do, we can ask for student consent and be mindful of how we do it. For example, when walking down the hallway together, we hold hands. We don’t hold wrists. We don’t hold forearms or upper arms. We listen to students’ bodies: pulling away, tightening, facial grimacing… These are all ways that our students say no to us.
If a student drops to the floor while holding our hand, then we sink with them and get low, releasing the hand as soon as we can. We don’t hold a student’s hand up in the air as they lay on the ground. If a student is upset, we wait. If a student won’t do something, we re-evaluate how we are doing it. We don’t pull or push or maneuver our students’ bodies. When I want to have a face-to-face conversation, I get low and kneel next to a student to talk (without ever forcing eye contact). I might offer my hands for them to hold or squeeze. I don’t hold them in place. If they are about to engage in dangerous behavior, such as throwing a large object, I move the object, not the student. If a student is grabbing something, then I move the object, not the student. I don’t block students in an area with furniture. I don’t use seat belts or tray chairs. And — once again — when the culture is built upon respect, when communication is foundational, when the focus is on regulation and accommodation, we don’t have to worry about these things that much.
We talk to students about what is happening. There are times we have to be in a student’s space. This might be when we are supporting them to stretch their muscles, to change positions in a chair, or simply wiping their face after a sneeze. We can still tell students what is happening, why we are doing it, and respond to their needs. We can talk to them directly: “Your nose is very messy. I know you don’t like for me to clean it, but I really need to.” You can offer choices: “Would you like to wipe your nose, or would you like me to do it?” or “Would you like for me to use a wipe or a tissue?”
We listen to our students, even when they are refusing something that feels really important to us and for them. If my daughter’s hip stretch is too much, she will push back. Her physical therapist doesn’t push into it. She waits. She waits to see if the discomfort will pass. She might try the other leg and come back. She might ask my daughter to move a certain way. But she respects what my daughter’s body is saying. She talks to her about what is happening: “This muscle is really tight, and we really need to stretch it. It might be a little uncomfortable but it shouldn’t hurt. Let me know if it starts to hurt.” Shockingly (sarcasm intended), this is what doctors and therapists and people due with neurotypical and nondisabled patients all the time. It’s the same.
We consider abuse prevention in instructional planning. Even when a class or school culture understands this with behavior, there is a continued use of hand-over-hand prompting in instruction and communication. There were so many times that my daughter came home over the years with work that was so clearly not hers. But the use of hand-over-hand prompting within instructional settings is still teaching students to be passive. It is still teaching students that adults are in charge of their bodies. So when we plan our instruction, we need to plan how we can support student learning without that reliance. What accommodations and assistive technology support can we include in this lesson? What ways can a student participate without needing their body to be moved? What other prompts might be effective?
It also means teaching the skills that, over time, build up to being able to self-report. We teach names. We teach pronouns. We teach body parts. We teach words for hurt, burn, sick, hit, bad, dislike… We teach sharing of messages, such as sharing with an instructional assistant an activity that a student completed with me. These aren’t words that always can be made concrete. They can take a lot of modeling, a lot of immersion. All the more reason to start in preschool, not after some arbitrary prerequisite has been met re: “traveling” with a picture symbol.
When we do use physical prompting, we ask. Yes, I’ve probably said this a dozen times before but I’m saying it again. We ask. I have “ASK CONSENT” in big, bright red letters on our prompt hierarchy (as well as a note about how this is the least preferred prompt). Sometimes, I have students for whom pointing to an image, modeling an image, using a pointer, etc, are not effective for that very first time of finding a word on a talker. I ask: “Can I help you?” and hold out my hand. They are free to say yes or no. We occasionally teach skills that benefit from a few times of doing something together (pedaling, the scissor action). I ask. And I remember that consent can be revoked at any time. I remind students that they can revoke their consent at any time. And I 100% listen when they do.
We reflect on our practices, always willing to change. Earlier this month, one student was trying to take another student’s talker. They all have talkers, so this student did have an identical one they could use. I blocked the taking of the other talker, and the student became quite distressed. I then made the mistake of touching the student’s wrist — not grabbing, not holding, but a light touch that was meant to be calming. Except it wasn’t, and I get that. Light touch + me = I cringe (understatement). I was trying to be helpful, but I wasn’t. I was in their space and I was providing light touch that likely pained their sensory system. I was the exact opposite of helpful. The student escalated.
But — I didn’t blame the student. I acknowledged my mistake. I apologized to the student when we were able to talk. I apologized and reminded him that I will not make his body do things that he does not want to do. I talked through the moment with my staff, discussing again the importance of giving this student space to work through his feelings without us being all in it.
This is part of the process of growing as a teacher and of unlearning the ableist and oppressive culture norms that we’ve been raised in. It means sitting with our mistakes, being open to feedback. It means reading blogs, and thinking: oh, maybe I need to think about doing something differently here. It means being open to change. We can keep doing better.
Assessment is important. It’s kind of weird to hear me say that, right? I often write about how assessment underestimates our kids, feeding into harmful cultural norms around disability supports and education. All of that is still very true.
Yet I use ongoing assessment to drive my instruction. I sit down every week to review our data before designing my instructional plans or activities. I use it to know if my teaching is working; I use it to adapt and course-correct when my teaching is ineffective.
How? How do I make assessment work for my students?
The answer lies in both how we assess and what we assess. It lies in what we “count” as learning, what we “count” as demonstrating knowledge. It also lies in how we use those assessment tools.
What are we assessing?
What we choose to assess is as important as why and how. Too many times, my daughter’s assessments have basically been about assessing her competence. They are normative tools that showcase all the ways she is not reaching neurotypical milestones. We already know she’s neurodiverse. We already know that she has her own route and map to her best life.
There are better ways. We can assess what skills are emerging, and develop plans for strengthening them. We can assess a student’s environment to see what is or is not working for them. We can work with our students to determine what goals they want to achieve, and assess how we are doing to reach those goals. We can focus on grade-level curriculum and standards. There’s so much more to teaching and assessing than a list of neurotypical skills in development.
Why are we assessing?
Assessment, for me, is almost entirely about what I can do to better support my students. It’s not about demonstrating what my students cannotdo, which is often the purpose of testing in special education. It is certainly not about setting up a prerequisite where students cannot access XYZ pieces of education until they prove themselves. If I have not yet determined which letters a student knows or does not know, that doesn’t mean that we won’t talk about letter sounds, engage in writing, or enjoy books together. Think about general education students. They don’t always master all of the material in one unit, but they aren’t held to learning that same unit over and over again all year. If you get a C on a geography test, they don’t make you keep practicing the same map as your sole activity each day before you can study early indigenous cultures. Instead, we spiral back through the material throughout the year, scaffolding and supporting students as we go.
And that is what I use assessment for — what do I need to scaffold? Where might I need to more accommodations? Is there something that I should draw attention to more explicitly, even as we move forward with our curriculum? Did I create meaningful experiences that allowed students to make deeper connections? Were students engaged? Did students have the opportunity to show their knowledge through a wide variety of means? Where might we need to include more assistive technology? This reflective process — a process where I adapt to meet the need of my students better — is what makes me who I am as a teacher.
How are we assessing it?
This is the entire crux of when assessment works, and when it doesn’t. Our students have a million barriers that make it difficult for them to show their knowledge, talents, and skills in a typical setting — anxiety, apraxia, communication difficulties, sensory processing needs, on and on. I am not giving tests. This doesn’t just mean pen and paper tests, but also “testing” of knowledge. I am not sitting at a table with an array of picture cards, asking students to touch or point to something. I am not withholding items or “sanitizing the environment” to force a specific type of communication. And this is true of everything I assess: literacy, math, conceptual knowledge… It’s not about showing something when I want how I want. I don’t think that helps anyone.
And I know there are those out there who will say, “but you need to be able to show a skill on XYZ.” I was in a webinar this summer where they said “well, even if it’s not a knowledge problem, it’s a performance problem.” I don’t think it is. I think it’s a “our culture is super ableist and expects things to look a specific way” problem. The answer to that problem isn’t to force our students to show up more neurotypical, or to withhold education until they can show skills the way we want them to.
The answer is to be flexible.
The answer is to observe.
The answer is to listen.
Assessment is about “capturing a moment”. It’s noticing the things that our students do during the day, the subtle and the dramatic. We take observation notes, photographs, and videos to create student portfolios that stand out stronger than any of our numerical data or graphs. We add student work: their writing, their buildings, their collaborative group creations. It’s messy. It happens during meaningful experiences, sensory-rich and hands-on. It happens when they are exploring alphabet letters, reading books with an adult, or running around on the playground after peers. The thing is: when we want to see learning, when we want to see our students’ competence… it’s everywhere.
It’s the student whose eyes track the words as you read the title, even when they cannot get their hands to touch the words along with you. It’s in the student who looks at your feet every time you sing “if you’re happy and you know it, stomp your feet.” It’s the student playing with alphabet magnets and periodically naming them to themselves. It’s the moment that you’re passing out Play-Doh tools, saying “take one”, and a student grabs just the red roller. It’s when a student chooses the snack bag that is more filled. Or a student who plays with blocks by separating out all the little ones so that they can keep the bigger Legos only. How much can you learn about a student when, on a Friday, you say, “Today is…” but their favorite activity happens on Tuesday, so they yell out, “It’s not Friday!” All of these are moments where we learned something about what our student knows. They would be ignored, unseen, or discredited by some. And our students would slowly start to shut down, stuck in a world where they have to constantly prove something.
It’s also about listening and observing the environment to notice what “gets in the way”. For example, a student may be able to locate their shoes in their cubby when the environment is quiet, but not during the “goodbye” song. This doesn’t meant that they cannot follow one step directions, or that they don’t know what ‘shoes’ means. It means that we need to consider accommodations to support the student to be successful. It means not asking students to shift attention rapidly (or when a favorite song is on). It means giving transition time. It means noting that this student uses context clues and routines to increase their independence, which we can use to support them across other activities as well. That’s what I mean when I say that assessment is about capturing knowledge and changing my teaching. It’s not about proof.
Because that’s the thing — I don’t need proof. I know my students learn. I know my students are creative thinkers, problem solvers, competent and capable. I never presume anything less.
(P.S. – I recommend sharing and celebrating all those moments that you capture with students and their families. They will spend most of their educational career being told what they cannot do, unfortunately. Be different. Show them there’s a different lens.)
Access to AAC is a fundamental human right, but it’s one that tends to be forgotten and overlooked in many spaces still today. October is AAC awareness month, which means lots of people are hearing about AAC or gaining access for the first time. The first few steps can feel overwhelming to families and professionals new to this journey. There is a fear about “doing it right” and “doing it enough”. I promise that you can do it. You can do it. You must do it. And it will be worth every step.
Get excited. It can be really easy for AAC to be seen as a chore or “another thing to do”. It can seem like that to families, to professionals, and to AAC users themselves — especially when drilling methods are used to teach its use. It’s really important for all of us that we don’t associate AAC with “work”. We need to stop seeing on AAC as a way to drill our students on all the things they already have a way to say. We need to see AAC as a tool that allows our students to express all the other things they have to say. This isn’t to say that learning a new language isn’t hard (it is) or that magic moments happen every single day. Learning to read and to write and to speak a new language — all of these things can be challenging at times. But they are all things we see as worth it, because of the long-term benefits. We find the joy in all of the moments along the way. The first time our child spells a word by themselves, the first time they “read” their favorite memorized picture book, the first novel we pick out. AAC is like that. Sometimes easy, sometimes hard, and always worth it.
Make sure the system is available. This is the first thing I always tell families or new teachers to do. Spend the first few weeks getting into the habit of always having the system. Problem-solve what you need to make it happen, whether it’s straps, a Post-it note on the door, a different case, etc. Assign staff members who get systems out of backpacks. Figure out a plan and space for charging if it’s high-tech. This shows your student that you truly value their AAC system, that you believe in its importance, and that you want to hear what they have to say. It’s also really hard to model on or use an AAC system if it’s not there.
Assume intentionality. Please, please, please, please, whatever you do, please never say “I don’t think they meant it” in front of a student. I wish you wouldn’t even think it, but please don’t say it. Always respond as if your student meant it. There is no harm in this assumption, but there is so much harm in telling kids’ that you do not believe their words. If you don’t understand, be honest. Ask. “I don’t understand what you mean, can you try telling me another way?” or “Hmm, I have to think about that, can you tell me more?” These are not hard things to say.
Encourage exploration. Treat a talker like a voice. Do not take it away. Do not remove it or block it. Do not put it on the teacher’s desk to be used later or when it’s appropriate. You cannot do this with speech, and so you cannot do this with a talker. Exploration is wonderful. Exploration is learning. Exploration is ownership. There’s a million reasons for children to babble and stim and enjoy their systems. They could be learning the locations of words — how else will they find them, especially if they are not yet reading and spelling. They could be playing with sound and exploring words and language, just as young ones do when first learning how their mouths can make different shapes and noises. They could be engaging in self-talk. They could just be having fun with sound, and that’s fine too. They have a right to autonomy with their AAC systems, the same autonomy that they would have with their speech, the same autonomy they should have with their bodies.
Familiarize yourself with the language system. Adults often complain about not being able to find words or finding systems not intuitive. I’ve found the hands-down best solution is to explore the system. Find a picture book and comment on all of the pages — with the AAC system. Watch a favorite TV show or movie, one where you know all the best parts already, and do the same. Think about words you might want to use on a daily basis — search for them. It truly comes down to practice. There’s a reason so many adults tend to prefer the system they know the best… Once you’re familiar with it, it becomes easy. If you don’t have access to the system itself, see if you can get access to a low-tech version, watch videos of people using it online… Give yourself time and grace to learn something new, but keep learning it.
Model, model, model. And then — start modeling. Modeling is a fancy word for saying “talk with the talker”. Don’t overthink it. When you talk, highlight one or two of the words you say on the talker. If you’re wondering what your child could be thinking, highlight one or two possibilities on the talker (“I wonder if you’re tired? Sad?”) Start with modeling just a couple words or modeling at meals or spending some 1:1 time with your student’s AAC system and their favorite toy. Yes, you can start that small. Yes, you can start by modeling 3-4 words as the opportunity arises during the day. Yes, you can start modeling by talking all about food and drink and favorite TV shows, or other likes or dislikes at the dinner table. Just don’t make it work for them or for you. Don’t make it “say this right now”. Think of your goal less about “doing it right” and more about “getting comfortable with AAC”. I’ve seen fear of being wrong all too often lead to no modeling. And I promise some modeling, modeling with mistakes, modeling slowly, all of it is better than no modeling.
Yes, there can be more to AAC. Yes, there are other things to think about, amount of modeling and vocabulary and recasting and probably some other fancy terms. I’m not denying that. But it all starts here. Don’t overwhelm yourself with dozens of articles and stress about doing it right. This is the foundation. This is what everything else is built upon. Make this strong. Become so reliable about having the device that you feel naked the one time you forget it for 5 minutes. Get so comfortable with responding and modeling with AAC that your child or student never, never, not for one second, ever doubts how important you see their system and how valued you see their words. Everything else comes later.
When families ask for advice, they are too often told to ignore their child’s communicative attempts in favor of oral speech. Oral speech is seen as the be all, end all, and the ends justify the means to get there.
If a child hands you a favorite toy, you’re supposed to pretend to misunderstand until some vocalization is made.
If a child points to an iPad on the counter and looks at you, then you are told to prompt him to say “iPad”. Until he says “iPad”, you are supposed to ignore his communication.
If a child says “cookie”, then you are supposed to wait for an “I want cookie, please” (because, you know, that’s how we all request things and talk all day log).
It’s not fair. It’s also pretty obvious why our students stop communicating with us. We’re not listening when they do.
What would you say if your partner asked, “Do you want a sandwich?” Would it be yes, yeah, sure, nope? What would do if your partner ignored you until you put it into a complete sentence? What if the colleague down the hall ignored your friendly wave and smile, because it wasn’t a verbal hello? Or, worse, what if your best friend responded to your smile by saying, “Say hello”?
We all communicate in many different ways. We gesture. We hand things over. We nod, shake our heads, grimace, use slang, text, email, and speak in person. Why is this multimodal communication okay for neurotypical children, but not for our students with disabilities? Why are we so afraid of supporting all of their communication?
We need to examine these fears. What do we think will happen if we accept pointing, hand leading, vocalizing, facial expressions, and all the other forms of communication? What do we fear? Because, I promise, everyone is always going to use the easiest way for them to communicate at any time. No one thinks, “I can easily access my speech right now, but I’m going to use this slower method of the talker.” Everyone uses what is the most efficient way to share their message.
We need to examine our hopes. What is it that we really want from our students? From our children? We want to know their thoughts, their feelings, their dreams and desires. We want to know what makes them laugh, what frustrates them, what worries keep them up at night. We want to share moments of joy. We want to hear their messages.
This doesn’t have to happen through speech. Communication happens every day. Most of the time we simply need to open our eyes and ears to hear it. That’s what we do in our classroom. We listen for our students’ current communication, validate it, respond to it, value it. We also model and expand on the tools that a student has, so that they always have multiple ways to share their message. They determine what the message is, when they want to share it, and how they want to share it.
If a child hands their favorite toy to me, I might comment on what it is with speech. I might model requesting “help” on the talker. I might ask with pictures — “are you asking me to PLAY with you or to FIX this?”
If they point to the iPad on the counter, I say, “Yes, you want the iPad! Let’s get the iPad!” I might use the talker to model iPad, want, or get. I might sign help. I do this while also responding to the request that has been made. I don’t model these words because their point was invalid. Their communication was authentic and perfect in that moment. I model them so that they have experience with other ways to tell me what they need, when perhaps the iPad is not in sight.
If they say “cookie”, I might expand on that. I might say, “Cookies are delicious” or “you have a chocolate cookie”. I might make a joke about Cookie Monster or model “hungry” and “need more” on the talker.
None of those scenarios are contingent on the child doing anything else. They’ve shared their message. We are just continuing to model and support all kinds of language and all the different ways we can share our message. And sometimes, we might not do any of those because they clearly don’t want to talk about that right now. That’s fine, too.
Yes, I am a teacher. Yes, we focus on communication. Yes, we always immerse our students in aided language simulation. And, yes, we see great gains without the pressure, without the prioritization of speech over all other forms. We create opportunities for communication to happen. We wait without filling in the silence, so that our students have time to gather their thoughts and orient their bodies. Getting their bodies — whether it’s oral muscles or hand muscles or something else — to do what they want can be a challenge in and of itself. We create time and space for that to happen. But if it doesn’t happen, if leading me by hand to a favorite Thomas is what’s happening today… That’s okay.
To me, it’s not about forcing someone to use a particular method. It’s about creating a rich environment that values student voice (of all kinds). It’s about providing a robust education with access to a robust language system. It’s about creating opportunity for students to be heard, to be amplified. And then celebrating everything they have to say.
This specific post is about what we do as a family at home with my children. I am writing because I have seen an increasing pressure on families. I have even seen posts advising ABA therapists to use guilt on selling their services: “what will you regret on your death bed?”
We’ve been through some rocky time periods where we had to confront the fact that tomorrow is not guaranteed. Never once did we worry about whether we had done more ABA. We focused on the laughter, the hugs, the moments of laying in bed and singing “Mr Worldwide” or “I was following, I was following…”
Some of the things will apply universally, across environments, and some may not. Home is different from school. We’re all better off when we acknowledge that. I had to really work to let go of the idea that I needed to be “working on something” all the time. This idea is actually built on cultural ableism: if we do enough, if we continue therapy 24/7, if we work hard enough, our child will get closer to the non-disabled. She doesn’t need me to be her therapist. She doesn’t need me to structure every moment of her day. She doesn’t need to be anyone except herself. She needs her mom. She needs a childhood.
With that framework in mind, here are some of the ways that we have selected to support our children better at home — without ABA.
We start with acceptance. We accept, fully. We accept non-speaking. We accept stimming. We accept passions and routines and repetition. We accept sensory needs and movement needs and an eternal love for Pitbull. This has to come first. Read #actuallyautistic writings. Watch videos unpacking ableism. See a therapist. Phone a friend. Spend time swinging on the playground, enjoying your child as they spin and twirl and chase bubbles. Do what you need to get to acceptance — and don’t write about it on Facebook. Imagine your best friend, your mom, your partner writing about you the way that the world so often writes about autistic children — and without your consent. You wouldn’t like it. It’s dehumanizing and hurtful. Don’t do it to them.
Don’t freak about your child’s timing. Not now does not mean not ever. Allow your child to find their own way. There’s this incredible push to “get kids ready” for adulthood, and it’s striking earlier and earlier. Succumbing to that pressure is a surefire way to spike everyone’s anxiety. It’s why families resort to sticker charts for sleeping on your own, or intensive potty training programs. Doing something at 7, 12, or even 16, doesn’t mean they will be doing it when they are 26 or 36 or 70. Not now does not mean never (and, perhaps a blog for another time, never isn’t the end of the world).
We problem solve with our children regarding “challenging behavior”. A child who is not doing well is a child for whom something has gone wrong. They may be experiencing a health issue that they’re having difficulty sharing. They may be struggling due to inappropriate expectations, a lack of accommodations, or a need for scaffolding. They may simply need some extra connection and time with people who care about them and accept them. We work with our children to uncover the need and develop a solution that meets their needs and ours. For example, we stay with our son until he falls asleep each night. If he wakes up in the middle of the night, we do it again. It meets his need for accompaniment and our need to have our own bedroom space.
We create environments for success. If my child struggles with unstructured vacation time, we bring picture cards and create a schedule for the day. If my child is struggling with long trips to the grocery store, we don’t do long trips to the grocery store. If my child wants to go to the zoo but is struggling with impulsive running away, then we find ways to support their safety (e.g., strollers, kinderpack, wagons, etc). If my child is having difficulty with being safe in their room, then everything in their room is soft and safe and comforting. Our goal is not to do things my way, the “typical” way, the way everyone else does it… Our goal is for our child to be successful. So we change and adapt and accommodate to create that success.
We use restorative practices instead of punishment. We all make mistakes. We act impulsively. We hurt people we love. Teaching relationship repair is one of the most important things I’ve taught my children. When something goes wrong, we brainstorm how to make it right. For example, my son once helped a neighbor mulch their yard in the Spring after breaking something in their yard earlier. It wasn’t a punishment. My son loves gardening and mulching; he loves spending time in the yard with his dad. But it was about making things right with someone we hurt. We could likely all be a little better about that.
We immerse ourselves in augmentative & alternative communication (AAC). We talk AAC. We use AAC to talk with our daughter. We use AAC to talk about what we are doing. We use AAC all day every day. And we see AAC (and all forms of communication) as invaluable. It is as worthy and awesome and beautiful and everything as any spoken word. This can be a huge cultural shift in a world that prizes talking — talking fast, talking loud, talking often. But the thing is — it’s never really about speech. It’s about our feelings, our thoughts, our needs… About connection. And there are many, many, many ways to communicate — with even more ways to connect. Cherish them all.
We love routine and familiarity and comfort. We’re kind of homebodies. We love movie nights and binge-watching Duck Tales. We go to the same stores. We eat the same dinners. We go on the same vacations. We don’t stress about screen time. You may be wondering why this matters, as far as “what we do instead of ABA”. It’s all about removing stress and upping acceptance. There is an unbelievabe amount of stress placed on our autistic children. They are expected to get by in a world that does very, very little to accommodate. All too often, this extends to our family life. We used to be a hiking family, so we bring our kids who are overwhelmed by mountain climbing. Our family expects us at a reunion, so we go, knowing it’s too loud too busy too much. But I refuse to allow my family life to be a source of stress. We adapt. It’s not loss. It’s opportunity. We find new ways to explore our passions, new interests to explore together, new ways to connect that allow us all to be ourselves, fully.
We seek out physicians & therapists who presume competence. When we’ve decided to seek support from professionals, we seek professionals who believe our children are capable. Not capable “within a certain limit”, but capable. Period. We set goals that work on things our children value. We seek doctors who believe my daughter’s “yes” when she says something is painful. We look for therapists who avoid hand-over-hand manipulation and always ask consent. We leave therapists who limit her words or talk negatively about him in front of him. Don’t be afraid to walk away when a therapy doesn’t align with your family values.
We teach. We preview skills before they will be needed. What will be expected and when? For example, we look at maps together before they are studied in social studies. We talk about how long we will have to wait to get through security before we leave home. We model and demonstrate ways to do things. We might show our son how to belly breathe, model new words that have been added to my daughter’s communication system, or bring our children into the process of making to do lists or figuring out what we need at the grocery store. We model these skills again and again, without frustration. We encourage exploration and experimentation, with all the mistakes and problem-solving that comes with. This means that my son can hammer big sticks or plant an avocado seed to see what happens. My daughter can bang on the screen of her iPad as she figures out where and how to get to her favorite apps. We scaffold and accommodate all along the way — what supports can we put in place to allow our children to be more successful? Notice that I don’t say “more independent”. We overly prize independence, when autonomous is more valuable.
We do hard things — together. Sometimes, we have to do hard things. We have to go to the doctor and get a shot. We have to clean our rooms. We have to figure out whether we have enough money when math is hard. We have to deal with the frustrations of life — the ride that was shut down, the brother that makes bothersome noises, the memorization of some key science terms… So we do it together. Even if it seems small to us, it is big to their bodies. We empathize. We co-regulate. And we do the hard things — together.
And, oh, most of all, more than anything, we celebrate. There’s so much joy. There are so many amazing moments that we can have with our children. Different is not less. It is never less. We splash in the pool, while singing “Go, Diego, Go” on repeat for 30 minutes. We watch the same Curious George movie, because the light in my son’s eyes when George dresses up as No Noggin is everything. We joke around with my daughter, whose current favorite AAC phrase is “Got ya!” Oh, we have so, SO much fun. So much freedom. So much flexibility. And I’m so grateful for it all.