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“Never forget that a child’s perspective of the world is different from yours. Try to understand a child’s world before you expect a child to master yours”. – unknown
All behaviour is communication – whether it be positive or challenging, there is always a message to be heard and a need to be met. Children do not want to upset adults intentionally – I truly don’t believe in ‘naughty’ children.
I could go on about behaviour forever but I have been told that it is best to break it down into the areas that have the biggest impact. As such I believe behaviour can be understood through 3 lenses – Predictability, Respect and Consistency.
Far too often we have expectations of children that we would not place on ourselves as adults. It is the ‘I’m big and you are small’ theory which I believe is ridiculous, and lacks any sort of respect towards our children. We have the option as adults to say no to things that scare us or cause us to feel anxious. We can say no to thigs that we simply don’t want to do. For example, let’s say that I came to you and told you that you had just won a fantastic trip and would be leaving in the next two hours. I promised you that it would be fun, you would see people you like and it is something that you just have to do. I don’t know about you – but I would not be going ANYWHERE and my anxiety would be through the roof, particularly if someone began to try and force me into it!
Now let’s scale that back and apply it to our children. Think about how we speak to our children when they have to go to a new place – a family members house, the doctors etc. More often than not we are rushing out the door whilst trying to reassure our child that everything will be fine.
If we won a trip, the first thing we would ask is where we were going, how long we would be away for, how we would get there, ask to see what our hotel looks like, what our itinerary is and the list goes on and on. We would consider going and then prepare ourselves – this preparation often takes days as well. This is a basic example, but one we can use to help us see things from a child’s perspective and re-evaluate the expectations we are placing on them.
Predictability can go a long way and significantly lower anxiety levels.
This could include showing a child photos of where you are going, how you are getting there and what they can expect – Google maps is great for this! YouTube can also be helpful for first trips to places like the doctors. Make sure to give them processing time. Place a sticker on a calendar or draw a circle around the day that the event is taking place, so that it can be talked about in the lead up to the trip. Discussions the night before or morning of helps too. All these things can seem time consuming, but if we would expect them for ourselves, we should also provide them for our children.
Respect is something we all deserve. Respecting children does not mean negotiating with them and letting them do what they like by any means. Respect means listening to them and understanding that they are much more intelligent than we often give them credit for. We also need to remember that even if they don’t speak – they can hear! Taking the time to be on a ‘child’s level’ and actually listening to the things they have to say (communication can come in many forms not just verbally) can go a long way; I have learned more from the autistic children I have worked with than anyone in my career. Respect the way they are feeling because more often than not, challenging behaviour is caused by anxiety and/or being scared resulting in a fight or flight response. Take time each day to do things ‘their way’, even if it is different from how you would normally do something.
For example, take a stereotypical scenario of a child turning a car over and spinning the wheels repeatedly. Instead of saying ‘turn the car over, this is how you play with it’, sit with them and enter their world for a while. This shows that you respect them for who they are and that you believe they can even teach you things – it is a small action that can go a long way. If you are concerned about their play skills, work with them at a different time and ask them to enter ‘your world’ of play, model this to them. Balance.
Consistency- such a simple word that has the most impact but difficult to stick to. BE CONSISTENT. If something is unacceptable today, it should be unacceptable tomorrow. Children feel safe with boundaries, of course they will challenge them to ensure they can trust them – but once those boundaries are established, anxiety reduces significantly. Children need to know that the adults are in control and can take care of them – they are not emotionally ready to take on the responsibility of making decisions that adults should be making. Consistency is always the most difficult at the beginning, especially if the child is already used to inconsistencies. Although the reward for the child, parents and the family unit as a whole is well worth the work. Consistency links quite closely with predictability – it is knowing what to expect and who is in control of the situation. It is also very important that parents have wider discussions of how to deal with certain situations to ensure consistency across all platforms. It can be very confusing for children if parents deal with situations differently to their wider family network, which in turn raises anxiety again.
Stick to your guns – it will be worth it, that’s a promise!
Children with autism are continuously struggling with many difficulties on a larger scale than we are, but their struggles aren’t all that different (It is just the amount of support they are given through predictability, respect and consistency). Quite often if we could put ourselves in their shoes, we could clearly see what the solution to that particular problem is. It is hard as parents to slow down and take the time to do this, but again just as we would take the time to process and consider big decisions in our lives – we need to remember that the decisions we may view as small for our children are not small to them. Try to remember what it was like to be a child, and what things made you feel safe and happy. Don’t overcomplicate it: just because a child has autism, doesn’t mean that the same things don’t apply.
Children need to be happy above all else – they do only have one childhood.
Gianna Colizza is headteacher at Gesher School which she opened last September 2018 and achieved Outstanding from OFSTED in all areas within the first year. She is a specialist leader in autism and education. She has been working in the field of autism for twenty years and has worked with children and teenagers across the spectrum of autism.