I am an autistic adult. Many, many autistic adults have been traumatized by the world, simply for being autistic. There are so many things that people do that hurt, unknowingly.
Removing and controlling autistic people’s passions is one of them.
It seems harsh, maybe. But when you take away the Dora, the Pitbull, the Ben 10, the repeated final scene of End Game?
It hurts. It traumatizes.
First, we allow allistic (non-autistic) children their interests. We encourage their passions. We take them to dance camp and pay for travel soccer teams. We should do the same for our autistic children. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand it. It doesn’t matter if it’s Legos, or yarn, or the way the light filters through the blinds. It’s their love. But, also, autistic passions are more than just “likes”. For me, it is integral to my very being, like breath and thought, intertwined with all the joy and brightness that exists within me.
One of the worst insults I’ve received, one of the ones that has stung and last the longest, was when colleagues told me: “Gosh, you really love this job” about teaching in a way that implied “too much”. Because it’s what I want to talk about, always. All day. It shut me down, closed out connection, and cut at the very heard of who I am.
Growing up, free access to everything I loved is one of the ways that I knew I was loved.
To share an autistic passion, to see it, to experience it… It is an autistic love language.
My mom bought me every Titanic book and helped me find cool Titanic exhibits to see. She stored bins and bins and bins of newspapers from the time when I was laser focused on politics and the media. I was allowed to spend whole days in my books, days and days.
My grandparents decorated their guest room in Little Mermaid when that was all I would watch. They recorded my absolute hands down favorite episode of Babar so that I could watch and re-watch and re-watch, long past the age that other kids were watching. They created Saturday morning routines and stuck to them, because I needed them.
Some of my daughter’s largest smiles are when we sing, “Click! Take a pic!” on repeat for twenty minutes (especially if we can do it in the pool). My son loves to show off his collection of sticks that he’s found.
Think about this when you tell a child that they spend too much time talking about Disney, or when you ask them to comply with neurotypical standards before you deign to “provide access.” Or when our children hear that they must hide this part of themselves, that it’s “too much” for their classmates or friends. That they must change. They must be LESS.
What are you telling that child about themselves?
What are you telling them about the things they love?
What are they learning?
And is that the story you want them to learn? Are those the feelings that you want them to have?
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.
Summer is coming to an end, which means that all of my preschool babies are getting tired. It’s a long school year when you’re 3 or 4 years old. They are so absolutely ready to swim and splash and have their days in the sun. Add transitions and life events and medical issues, and there’s been some visible signs of stress showing up in our day-to-day routines. Work avoidance. Difficulty sharing. Words that won’t come out right. And a million other little ways that they say: “I am done. D. O. N. E. Done.”
I myself have been under a larger amount of stress than is typical this year. I’ve been sick. I’ve had surgery. I’ve had a larger caseload than typical. Graduate school. Financial stress due to those medical bills and graduate school. One child leaving elementary school, one child in her last year of middle school.
My family sees the impacts.
Conversations of more than 3-4 exchanges — not happening. It’s not just that I cannot participate, but I don’t even want to be around them. It’s too much at once. I have reverted to having the vast majority of my longer conversations with my husband via text message, even when we are in the same room. Sensory input that I could typically ignore, like someone patting their legs or singing under their breath sounds like it’s on volume 200. I’ve eaten the same food for dinner for 4-5 nights in a row. My screen time? Way up!
There’s a couple of take-aways… It would be really easy to see me walking away from a conversation or asking people to stop talking as being mean or rude. At best, someone might think I’m lacking some skill or another. Maybe they would see my screen time use and think that I’m a disengaged parent. Basically: there’s a lot of judgements that people could make, and none of them would be right.
Because — none of the above. It’s a stress response. My tank is full. My tank is over-filling. All the neurons and skills that I had for coping with life’s bumps (such as too much sensory input) in more “acceptable” ways are gone. And so I revert to this. Younger children or people under more stress may revert to other things: hitting, screaming, scratching, falling on the floor, and so on.
The other piece: this happens at home. It doesn’t happen during my school day. It doesn’t happen when I’m in a super important meeting with a parent. It happens at home. That doesn’t mean that I’m “doing it on purpose” or that I could just pull it together. And how many times have we thought or said something like that? But the space we have for coping skills is always in flux, sometimes more, sometimes less. And sometimes we choose to use up more of our skills in one place, knowing our safe place will be there for us when our tank is empty.
I get that this is easy to forget. It’s not exactly something our culture prioritizes. But doesn’t it make all the difference?
I think of a student who may disembark the bus screaming. If we focus on “quiet mouth” (ugh!), what do we miss? What if they’re simply hungry and have no way to tell us? What about the student who falls on the floor every time someone comes near them? Do we just enter their space anyways? What if their sensory system is so on fire that the possibility of any sort of imminent touch is sending signals of pain through their body? We are so much better able to support these students if we look to minimize their stressors and support their over-flowing systems.
It comes down to this — can we just remember that our kids are doing the best that they can? Because I think that would change everything else we do, from the tones that we use to the plans that we make.
My own safe space is home. I see in my family the kind of classroom that I want to have. I see in my husband the kind of teacher that I want to be.
And always, always recognizing that I am doing my best.
Can’t we give our kids that same benefit of the doubt?
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.
When people enter my classroom, they are sometimes confused. There is a lot that looks different from a typical classroom. A quarter of our room is filled with things that one would typically see outside: ride-along trains, cars, slides. Half of my class spends their days without socks or shoes. If we are in a large group setting, students may be seated at the table. They may also be doing something else in the back of the room, pacing near to the large group, or coming back and forth from the table. Independent work happens on the floor, standing at the table, in rocking chairs, next to squeeze machines. Students engaged in child-directed play may be stacking, lining up items, or scripting. Not only that, but you’ll find classroom staff delighting in these things, expressing joy right alongside the students.
People see this and think that I am permissive and lenient, that I don’t believe in my students, or that I am not teaching them.
Yet — I get good outcomes. Scratch that — I get great outcomes. My students master their IEP goals. My students develop a ‘functional communication system’. Their self-injury, aggression, and meltdowns disappear over time. They learn to tell someone no, to be more independent, and build relationships in ways that honor and support their needs & desires. My families are very happy with the learning that happens in our room, sometimes the first big progress that a student has made. My students and families trust me, which is even more important.
And this doesn’t happen in spite of the environment, but becauseof the environment.
My classroom environment respects neurodiversity. My classroom expectations respect neurodiversity.
Whenever we set an expectation in my classroom, I ask myself: but why is this the expectation? When we choose a skill to target for instruction: but why are we selecting this skill? I don’t just accept my first answer, but dive deep into it. Where did this expectation come from? Is it necessary for safety? Is it necessary for learning? Is there an alternate way?
Let’s take a look at wearing shoes in the classroom. Why do we insist on this? Is it because this is what we are familiar with? This is what the neurotypical students do? What reason would we have for pushing shoes all day? Is it necessary for safety? No. Students put their shoes on to leave the classroom. They put their shoes on for the playground. But in the classroom, it is not necessary to wear shoes in order to be safe. Is it necessary for learning? No, and I would argue that it is actually counterproductive to learning. If you’ve ever had an unmet sensory need, you would know what I mean. It can be one of the most distressing and distracting experiences, causing pain and discomfort for the entire time that it is unmet. I want my students to learn. This means meeting their sensory needs.
Similarly, with large groups — why do we believe that students can only learn or learn best when seated together in a group at the table or the carpet? Can the student hear my instruction when they are pacing behind our group? Almost certainly, and possibly better than they can when seated. Can they add to the conversation or take their turn with the materials even though they had to leave for several minutes and then return?
I don’t insist on greetings and closings when entering and leaving the classroom, much less eye contact. I make sure that I greet each of my arriving students with warmth and affection in a way that works for their personalities and needs. But they don’t have to return that greeting. They don’t have to look me in the eye. They don’t have to say hello or good morning or good-bye. Once again — is it necessary for me to insist they greet us? Does it have to look a certain way? What purpose does that serve? Why do we do it? If the answer is, in any shape or form, “because that’s what neurotypical children do”, then we need to step back and ask ourselves if that’s enough for something to be necessary. It usually isn’t. Instead, we can create a classroom environment that allows for and recognizes a much wider display of “what something looks like”. We can recognize as valid and beautiful the many different forms there are to acknowledge someone’s presence (e.g., what a greeting is). We can recognize that some days, students may need time and space upon entering the room. We can recognize that people move through the world differently. It’s not only okay, but beautiful and essential.
It’s not that I don’t hold high expectations for my students. We engage in real reading, real work with letters, and real writing. We learn about numbers, geometry, and measurement. We explore patterns. We do science experiments. We create art. We participate in teacher-directed activities. We work really hard every single moment of the day on speaking and listening. We are safe with our bodies and our friends.
It’s that I recognize that our world is better when our world recognizes that validity and importance of different ways of being in the world. And that is why we do as well as we do.
This is part one in a series on selecting what’s important in our special education classrooms. Future posts will feature conversation on play, selecting target goals, and teaching social skills as a form of code-switching.
We’ve had a couple of little “problem behaviors” pop up that have occurred across multiple students pop up in my class. Going into closets. Climbing on the counters. Dumping everything in the toilet. The instinct from grown-ups tends to be that whole “no means no” — repeat, day after day, ad nauseam. And we say, “Why aren’t they getting it?”
But we can look at it another way — these behaviors are the best tools that the students currently have to meet their needs. These students are telling us: I don’t yet have the skills to handle this exact situation on my own. I need supports; I need instruction. If we want the behaviors to cease, we can’t just say no. We need to create environments that support students to use the skills they have, while we teach the skills they don’t.
So that’s what we did this week.
Situation 1: Climbing on the Counter
Above the counter are shelves — filled with all the things that we don’t allow free access to. Not because we are controlling and keep a “sanitized environment”, but things like Cheerios, Cheetos, glue, scissors… Things that just can’t be free access. They also tend to be things our preschoolers really, really want. Thus the climbing on the counter. All of our students have a way to ask for help or ask for those items. But in the moment, the impulse control, attention shift, and emerging communication skills just don’t line up for them to do so. Because they’re in preschool.
We added a Big Mac switch to the counter that says “I need help”. It’s LOUD. It’s easy — even our most emergent communicators can use it. Just leaning in to the counter as they think about climbing it often activates it, so that they can quickly learn the association. It also serves as a big visual support — a “STOP AND THINK” kind of moment. And it worked. Within just a few hours, multiple students were running to the button, asking for help, and then telling us what they need when we brought their talkers to them. Climbing fell off dramatically — and fast. So much faster than any “no means no” instruction could have done. Because we met the students need.
Situation #2 – Potty!
The toilet is a tempting playground. My own son went through the same phase; we had to call the plumber multiple times for all the things that were flushed down the toilet. It doesn’t matter that we have lots of sensory fun available throughout the room. It’s the TOILET. It flushes! It’s loud! It makes noise! The best way to help our students stay out of trouble is to help them stay out of the toilet.
We also have students who are just recently potty trained, who need to be able to run to the bathroom and gain access quickly. We needed to balance all of the competing needs.
Enter switch #2… It sits right above the door handle, and says “POTTY!” We can keep the door shut, because we are allowing students to have a quick and easy way to meet their need. Just like our counter switch, we positioned it for the easiest access for this particular group of kids. Like with help, they all have the ability to ask for potty on their talkers. But it’s hard. It’s new. We need a bridge until we get there, and this is it.
And once again, it works. We have students requesting the potty that I had under-estimated, that I had not been sure they were yet able to request. It’s not that I did’t think they ever could, but I wasn’t sure they were “ready yet”. But they have an awesome way of continually reminding me that “readiness” can be an arbitrary concept, one that is primarily used to limit them. Readiness is about accommodations as much as instruction. It’s about what I am doing more than anything they are doing.