Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Challenging Behavior at School? Here’s what to do…



            As the school year winds down and fidget spinners are all the rage in my classroom, student behaviors are fresh on my mind.  I’ve blogged a bit about my class before, but suffice it to say that I have a class full of sensory kiddos.  They run the gamut from sensory seekers to extreme avoiders, and everything in between.  During my fifteen years of teaching and coaching other teachers, I have worked with lots of different types of learners.  For most of my career, I’ve worked with children of poverty, whose stressful and often toxic home environments bring their own unique behavioral challenges.   I’m not only a teacher, but I’m also a mom to an eight year old who is both a sensory seeker and an avoider.  His autism and anxiety, along with his desire for perfection in some areas and the "hurry up and finish" mentality in others, adds a certain behavioral flair to his classroom.  This past year I’ve had the chance to watch him as a learner at school since I teach right down the hall.  This perspective allows me to view behavior from both the parent and the teacher lens (and also the lens of a person with sensory needs myself).

             And so, without further ado, here are my thoughts on student behavior in the classroom....

            Behavior is not as black and white as some people may think.  I believe that children, in nearly all cases, don’t wake up in the morning with the intention of behaving badly.  Behavior is a manifestation of unmet needs. 

In teacher college I learned about something called Maslow’s Heirarchy of needs.  In a nutshell, Maslow taught that each of us have certain needs that must be met.  Imagine a pyramid that builds on itself.  If the needs at the base of the pyramid aren’t met, then the next level of the pyramid is impacted, all the way to the top (where learning occurs).  The bottom tier of the pyramid are basic needs.  We must have food, water, warmth, and rest.  Then next tier on the pyramid is safety needs.  We must feel secure and safe in our environment.  Following this, we have the need for love and belonging.  This manifests through our relationships and friendships.  The next level up is our self-esteem needs.  We need to feel respected by others and feel confident that we can achieve.  Finally, the top tier of the triangle is self-actualization needs.  This is our ability to be creative, solve problems, and, in essence, learn.

            How does this translate to behavior in the classroom?  Let’s look at Maslow’s pyramid one tier at a time:

Basic Needs:  

It seems pretty obvious that we need food, water, and rest to be successful as learners.  However, over the years I have seen many children who come to school without even these basic needs met.  I've seen many "behavior problems" happen simply because a child is tired or hungry (or both).  Think about how you feel before you've eaten and had your coffee, and you'll know what I mean.

Many children with sensory needs are picky eaters.  I find that some of my students have difficulty eating first thing in the morning, and so they come into the classroom hungry each day. If they are hungry, they cannot learn.  Making a time and space for snack time in the classroom is important.  In addition, I encourage children to keep a water bottle close by.  Little things like food and water make a big difference.  Rest is also crucial.  Many sensory kiddos have difficulty sleeping at night.  Their energy stores are already depleted when they come to school each day.  Sometimes we need to “rev their engines”, and other times we need to help them calm down.  I build energizers and brain breaks throughout the day to help with this.  Some children are on a more individualized plan because they need more frequent opportunities for movement.  I believe that so many behavior problems occur because the child simply needs to move.  Sometimes the seams of a child’s socks bother him, which makes focusing on what a teacher is saying nearly impossible.  If a child’s shirt feels to tight, or the room feels to cold, it’s very difficult to concentrate on learning.  

I strive to teach each child to recognize his or her own sensory needs and then I teach them to find the right tools to meet these needs.  That way, they can be their own self-advocates and ask for what they need, based on what their bodies are telling them.

Safety Needs:  

If a child does not feel safe, learning cannot occur.  There are many reasons why a child may not feel safe.  It’s important to figure out why the child does not feel safe in the classroom and address these concerns as soon as possible. The child may be sensory defensive, a state where the child feels as if the entire world is literally attacking him or her.  The world can seem too loud, too intrusive, too…much.  Children who live in this state appear to be defiant and often become labeled as “behavior problems”.  Children who have anxiety disorders also often manifest as behavior problems.  I have had children who bolted out of the classroom, and later we realized that the root cause of this “fight or flight” response was anxiety.  It is important that the child knows that the classroom is a safe place and that you are a safe person for them who will treat them consistently and predictably, especially since their world is not often consistent and predictable for them.   The more unpredictable a child's behavior, the more calm and predictable the teacher or adult must be.  If a child is a safety risk to himself or others, it is important to devise a safety plan as soon as possible. 

Love/Belonging: 
Children need to feel that they belong to the learning community in the classroom.  I believe that many behavior problems happen because the relationship between the child and the adult, or the child and other children has been broken in some way.  Children don’t display inappropriate behaviors in a vacuum.  There is always a root cause of the behavior, an unfulfilled need that the child is seeking to meet.  This does not excuse the inappropriate behavior, but often times it helps to explain it so that the behavior doesn’t continue to occur.  When a child knows that he or she is loved and accepted by the teacher and the classmates in his learning community, even if he or she many sometimes act differently from the rest, this can go a long way towards keeping and maintaining positive relationships.   Even when a child makes an inappropriate behavior choice in my classroom (or when this happens to my own child at home), I always make it clear that I’m not happy about the choice the child has made, but I still love and care about the child.  Then, if a child has to be removed from the classroom community, it is important to re-establish the child in the community as soon as possible so the child keeps the sense of belonging and wanting to be part of the group.  

I build in lots of social opportunities in my classroom.  These include center time or tub time, where children get the chance to choose whether they would like to build with Legos, K’nex, play-doh, kinetic sand, etc.  The first fifteen minutes of our morning are spent with these tubs.  This may not seem academic, but this social time is a huge part of building our classroom community and it’s vital for teaching children skills of problem solving and collaborating within a group.  We also have morning meetings when each child has an opportunity to greet his or her peers, discuss social matters pertaining to the group, and to feel that sense of belonging in our class family.

Self-Esteem Needs: 
When children struggle in a certain area, over time they will learn to avoid the behavior that causes them the frustration, anxiety, or pain.  Avoidance behaviors in the classroom might look like asking to go the restroom frequently or asking to sharpen a pencil a lot.  The child doesn’t want to appear to be the “dumb kid” in class, so often they will choose behaviors that let them be the funny kid instead.  If a child has unmet sensory needs (such as the need to move, to fidget, etc) and has a teacher who treats this as defiance rather then providing tools to help them manage their sensory behaviors, the child may respond with frustration and anger.   

Self-Actualization Needs:   
It is difficult for a child to be a creative problem solver if he or she is in an environment that stifles creativity and problem solving.  We live in the information age where data is literally available at our fingertips.  It no longer makes sense for the teacher to be the “sage on the stage”.  Instead, the teacher of the 21st century should be a facilitator, or guide, for learning.  It is our job to set the conditions by which learning can occur.  There are a variety of ways to encourage learning, but one of my favorite is inquiry.  This is where the teacher (or the child) poses a probing question and then the teacher guides the child through a process of arriving at the answer on his own.  Learning is much deeper when it happens through self-discovery.  My classroom is filled with creative, innovative learners.  Sadly, before this year many of these children did not believe they were smart.  I think the reason for this is because they were not given opportunities for their creativity and innovation to shine.  Instead, they spent so much time working in their area of deficits (aka reading for most) that they believed that they were somehow deficient themselves.  Once a child begins to see himself (or herself) as a learner, everything changes.  Once they realize their potential, they become thirsty for more.  I have seen this time and again.  The secret ingredient to success in school is a desire to learn.  When a child becomes a confident, self-directed learner, then behavior problems become a thing of the past. 

So what does this mean for you as a parent?  If your child is struggling at school, think about Maslow’s hierarcy of needs.  Which needs are not being met?  What can you do to help your child fulfill these needs?  If you know that your child has difficulty sleeping or eating, for example, make sure that you communicate this with your child’s teacher.  This will help the teacher to understand the behaviors she is seeing in the classroom.  It’s also important to look at behaviors over time to see if there are patterns.  Is the behavior happening during a certain time of day?  Does it always happen during math class?  These sorts of observations can be helpful in determining a plan for success.

If you are noticing that your child is struggling in school even after meeting with the teacher, you can request a meeting with the school’s problem solving team.  This team has different names depending on the state, but every school should have a group of school professionals who meet regularly to discuss student concerns.  Usually you can call the school’s guidance counselor and she will help to set up the meeting.  If your child has an IEP or a 504 plan, you can request a meeting with the team at any time as well.  Perhaps the IEP or 504 should be reviewed or amended.  Each person on the team brings a unique perspective based on their area of expertise, and sometimes a set of fresh ears can bring a solution that you may have missed before. 


Remember- you are your child’s biggest advocate.  It’s easy to become frustrated and overwhelmed with “the system”, but by keeping your cool and going to meetings with a clear plan in mind (and knowing your rights as a parent), you and the team can create a plan that will hopefully help to meet your child’s needs at school and at home.  

Welcome to the Voices of Special Needs Blog Hop — a monthly gathering of posts from bloggers hosted by The Sensory Spectrum and The Jenny Evolution. Click on the links below to read stories from other bloggers about what it’s like to have child or student with special needs.



Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Day My Son Learned He was Autistic



I should have told him sooner. 

I know I waited too long. 

Ben has been diagnosed as autistic since he was four years old.  He’s now eight.  Four years was too long to wait to tell him about his diagnosis.

It’s not that I didn’t try to tell him.  We tiptoed around the subject.  We talked about different kinds of learners and different kinds of brains.  We’ve talked at length about his strengths and weaknesses.  I just never told him that society’s name for his unique brain was autism.

I'm not sure why I hesitated.  I believe that a person needs to know his or her diagnosis.  I believe that labels can be useful tools to help explain a person’s strengths and limitations.  I believe if we ignore the label then we are denying a very real aspect of the person.  Here is a great article that sums up my feelings well.  

Maybe I was waiting for the perfect moment to tell him.

Maybe I felt that he wasn’t ready to understand a concept that so many adults struggle to truly understand.

Maybe, just maybe, the truth is that I waited because I know that autism is still a devastating word with a huge amount of negative energy surrounding it, despite many of our best efforts to change that.  I think the truth is that I wanted to keep him in a safe little bubble just a little bit longer.  I think I was worried that he’d hear messages that autism is a disease and a burden, and he’d equate that to himself. 

Regardless, I should have told him sooner.

I waited too long.

We were in the orthodontist’s office, getting a consultation on how to fix his crooked front tooth.  The orthodontist had just told me that fixing Ben’s teeth was going to be a long journey (not the quick fix I’d secretly hoped it would be).  I was trying to follow his dentist-speak about expanders and phases while I mentally calculated just how expensive this was going to be. Meanwhile, Ben happily occupied himself with is favorite coloring app on my iphone.  I had given him the distraction because I didn’t want him worrying about our adult conversation.   I should have remembered that even when he isn’t looking, he is listening.

“We’ll have to see how he handles taking the impressions, from a sensory standpoint, to know our next steps.”  the orthodontist explained.  “He is on the spectrum, correct?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“What’s the spectrum?”  Ben piped up suddenly.  And then I knew that I could avoid it no longer.  It was time to have the conversation.

I could feel the orthodontist’s eyes on me.  I could hear the unspoken question, “He doesn’t know?” An uncomfortable silence filled the room.

“What’s the spectrum?”  Ben asked again, more insistently this time. 

I gathered myself together and answered his question as simply and honestly as I could.  “The spectrum means the autism spectrum,” I explained to him.  “It’s a way of talking about how your brain works.”  He accepted the answer and went back to his coloring app, but later at home I revisited the conversation.

“You know how today you found out that you are on the spectrum?” I asked.  “Do you want to talk more about it?”

“Okay,” he said.

“Being on the spectrum means you are autistic.  It means that your brain is super skilled at doing certain things, like how you memorize your states and capitals or can do math facts in your head.  However, it also means that some things are really hard for you, like dealing with certain noises or waiting your turn.  It also explains why you feel things more deeply and cry more often than others.   Does that make sense?”

“Are you on the spectrum?” he asked me.

“No, I’m not-“

“Oh, no!” he exclaimed.  Ben is super-attached to me and holds me on a very high pedestal.  His love for me is fierce and all-consuming.  The fact that I’m not on the spectrum too was probably the most difficult part of all for him to accept.

“There are other people you know who are on the spectrum, though,” I reassured him, and named some of his autistic friends.  “There are some really smart people in this world who are on the spectrum.  In fact, many famous mathematicians and scientists are autistic.”

“Really?” he asked.

“Really!” I said. 

And just like that the conversation was over.  A couple of days later, Ben was getting very frustrated while we were waiting in traffic.  “I know it’s hard to be patient,” I explained.  “You’ve just had a long day and are ready to be home.”

“No, mom,” he explained.  “My brain is stuck right now.  It’s because I’m on the spectrum.”

A few weeks after that, I was humming a song while Ben sat next to me on the couch, playing his ipad.  He turned to me and said, “You know that singing tickles my back.  It's because I’m on the spectrum.” 

Maybe I shouldn’t have waited. 

Maybe I should have told him sooner. 


I don’t love the circumstances in which Ben learned of his autism diagnosis, but I am glad that he knows, because now he understands the reason why he does things differently and feels things differently.  Now he has the words to describe what he is thinking and feeling.  

It’s because he is on the spectrum.



Welcome to the Voices of Special Needs Blog Hop — a monthly gathering of posts from bloggers hosted by The Sensory Spectrum and The Jenny Evolution. Click on the links below to read stories from other bloggers about what it’s like to have child or student with special needs.


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Tips for a Sensory-Friendly Field Trip


Two of my students enjoying the Pathless Woods sensory-friendly art exhibit.

I believe that teaching children how to act socially is equally important, or even more important, than teaching the academics.  This year I am fortunate enough to teach at the school where my son attends.  You can read more about my decision here.  This is not a school only for children with special needs, but many children who don’t find success in public school find a home at our school.  I teach children
with learning disabilities, sensory processing differences, ADHD, autism, and the list goes on. 

Last week our class went on a field trip to the art museum.  I love that our school takes field trips at least once a month.  Luckily I had a few parent chaperones attending the trip with me, so I was able to split my class into a group of girls and two groups of boys (yes, I have way more boys than girls!).  I decided to let the girls venture off with their chaperone, and I kept the boys with two chaperone moms and me.  Taking a group of boys through an art museum might seem like a daunting task, especially a group of active, high-energy, sensory-seeking young men who love to sing in the bathrooms and hear their voices echo down the hallways.  I knew it would be an adventure, to say the least.

What follows are some tips for taking a child or a group of children on a field trip or on any kind of outing in public.  These tips will work whether you are a home-schooling mom, a classroom teacher like me, or just taking your kids out for a weekend adventure.  We’ve used these same techniques with our autistic son over the past few years, and they’ve allowed us to have successful outings on cruise ships, Disney World, the theater house to see the musical Wicked, and everywhere in between.  Our son loves eating out at restaurants and visiting our local science museum.  The trick for us is to go frequently and to have sensory tools on hand to help the trip to be a success. 



Sensory-Friendly Tips for Field Trips and Outings

1)   Review Expected/Unexpected behaviors prior to the field trip.
This year my school has started using Michelle Garcia Winner's social thinking curriculum.  Many of my students struggle with understanding how to think through social interactions, so we teach these skills explicitly.  This is different than simply teaching social skills.  One aspect of the social thinking curriculum is understanding the difference between expected and unexpected behaviors.  Rather than talking about behaviors as good or bad, we talk about expected and unexpected choices.  This takes the value judgment out of the situation while allowing us to review what would be socially expected in a given situation (such as quiet voices inside a museum) and unexpected (touching the art exhibits).  We also talked about appropriate noise levels for different aspects of the trip (the bus, the inside museum part, the playground, etc).  I always start reviewing expectations a few days before the trip during our Morning Meeting, and on the day of the trip we also talk about the schedule for the day, which is especially important for my children on the spectrum.  This lets them know what to expect and removes some of the anxiety from encountering a different structure to the day. I do remind them that we may have to be flexible during the day as not everything will run exactly as we have planned. 


2)   Bring sensory tools on the go.

It's important to consider what sensory tools will help a child to have a successful outing.  We have a little boy in our class who used to run away when it was time to get on the bus for a field trip.  We were told that last year he actually once hid UNDER the bus during a field trip.  I recognized that this was an over-stimulated child, and wearing a pair of noise cancelling headsets on the bus and on the field trip have worked wonders for him.  Now he can enjoy the experience because it isn’t “too much” for him.  My son also wears noise-cancelling headsets on the bus and to any live theater performance.  Each child will be different, but if a child needs a chew necklace or a fidget tool in class, then he or she might need the same tools out in public.  Make sure you build in plenty of down-time after the field trip too so the child can decompress after a very stimulating day.  We use calm lighting and relaxing music while we do quiet coloring or centers after we return to school.  

3)   If possible, do the most popular (aka busy) exhibits early in the day.

This helps you avoid the crowds and waiting in lines.  We always use this trick when we visit Disney or any of the other major theme parks  We plan our day ahead and always try to get at our destination as close to when they open as possible.  This is when the crowds are lightest.  We stay for a few hours and tend to leave mid-day, just as the crowds are arriving. 

On the day my class visited the art museum, we decided to visit the mansion first where the art donors had lived, since it was available by tour only.  I spoke to my students about the plan while we waited for the museum to open its doors, and as soon as we were released to go, I walked at a brisk pace through the museum grounds (which the boys loved), and we made it to the front of the line just as they opened up for tours.  This allowed us the freedom to explore the rooms at our pace and then move on to other areas of the grounds while other groups were still waiting their turn in line.  Of course it’s not always possible to be the first, but a little planning and prioritizing can go a long way.  

4)   Don’t be afraid to adapt and adjust plans as needed.

As I mentioned earlier, I chose to keep my most active and sensory-seeking boys with me on our art museum trip.  I knew that we would be exploring the museum our own way.  It was important to me that the boys followed the rules of the art museum, but I also wanted to set realistic expectations for them.  I knew that they wouldn’t be able to handle hours in a quiet art gallery surrounded by adults who might not be as understanding of their youthful energy.

So, even though we were scheduled to explore the quieter main art building, I decided to give us twice as long exploring the circus museum instead.  When it was our turn to head to the main art building, I chose to skip the Asian art room altogether (The dour look on the art docent’s face outside the hall of pristine sculptures was enough to convince me to steer my boys elsewhere.   The boys started charging ahead through the rooms and I had a vision of priceless statues toppling to the ground, so I ushered them out quickly.) and I instead brought them to a sensory-friendly exhibit called the Pathless Woods where they were wandered through a ribbon room.   They loved running their hands through the yards of ribbon hanging from the ceiling, listening to the music, and spreading their arms wide as they walked as fast as they were allowed.

We also decided to take a long walk by the water of the lovely bay that runs next to the museum and the boys looked for sea creatures and rocks by the water’s edge.  We wandered through secret gardens and I let then run through open fields.  In short, we enjoyed the museum our way.  Luckily, the moms with me were both moms of two of the sensory-loving boys in the group, and so they were on board every step of the way.


5)   Use real life teachable moments as they happen.
When unexpected behaviors occur (which is bound to happen), it’s important to use the opportunity as a teachable moment.  

At lunch, one of the kids said that “Nate” was running around barefoot near the trees that were next to the picnic tables.  Sure enough, I spotted Nate’s shoes on the ground and Nate halfway up the tree.  I called Nate over and sat him down next to me on the bench.  We talked about why running around barefoot is unexpected.  “But, I needed a good grip to climb the trees.”  We talked about how that wasn’t safe to do in public.  He understood, put his shoes and socks back on (we had to have another talk about why he needed to wear his socks too), and then I let him go.  I could have yelled and lectured at him, but instead I used the moment as a learning opportunity for him.  Then, I released him back to play to see if he had learned what I taught him.  Had he taken his shoes off again, he would have had to sit out the rest of the playground time and reflected on his choices. 


6)    Remember- it’s about learning and having fun!

Our day turned out to be a lot of fun, but it could have easily gone a different way if I had structured our trip differently.  My boys had their moments of impulsivity (such as when they finally broke free and ran towards the playground the moment I released them, almost barreling over a couple of elderly visitors) but overall they managed to follow the expectations because I set reasonable limits for them.  I like to think that one of the reasons why we were able to enjoy the trip was because I found the balance between setting boundaries to keep them safe while still allowing them the freedom to be themselves.   I try to do the same for my own son when we go on adventures.  I see so many parents at theme parks dragging their child from one place to the next, trying to “do it all” and trying to “get their money’s worth”.  All they succeed in doing is creating a tired, miserable, over-stimulated child.  I can’t tell you how many meltdowns I’ve seen at Disney, which is supposed to be the happiest place on Earth!  Remember- it’s supposed to be fun, and for the trip to be fun for them, we have to consider what works for them.  This will make the outing much more enjoyable for everyone! 


Good luck and happy exploring! 


Welcome to the Voices of Special Needs Blog Hop — a monthly gathering of posts from bloggers hosted by The Sensory Spectrum and The Jenny Evolution. Click on the links below to read stories from other bloggers about what it’s like to have child or student with special needs.