Recently, while waiting in a school office for a meeting to begin, I noticed a little boy at an empty desk, staring out a window. A secretary was busy working as staff came and went, and as I waited, I wondered why this little boy was there. On my way out he was still there, and I quietly inquired about his situation, discovering that the classroom teacher sent him to the office for misbehavior.
On the drive back to my office, I wondered what this child did to be banished to the office for so long. I also reflected on what he may be taking away from the social isolation, as my mind wandered to other children I have worked with that have met similar consequences. Not to underestimate the importance of maintaining order in the classroom, I do have concerns about the unintended consequences of sending children “to the office” or even to a “time-out”. My colleague Tina Bryson, whose book with Dan Siegel, No Drama Discipline explains that it eclipses the opportunity for conversation and a “time-in”, when the most valuable teaching can take place.
I agree that there are other, more effective, ways to garner cooperation, while helping children feel safe at the same time. In the world of special needs, this is essential, as children with developmental challenges are so frequently misunderstood and are more vulnerable to anxiety. This prompted the fourth of my list of Ten Things Parents should ask of Professionals Working with their Special Needs Child: Prioritize our child’s feelings of safety in relationships as a necessary condition for learning. It is more difficult for our child to feel safe because he can’t easily communicate his needs. Please help him feel secure, loved, and safe.
Why is feeling safe is a necessary precondition to learning? Because we learn when our minds are in a calm, alert state, and not when we are anxious or afraid. When children cannot name what they are feeling or thinking, especially if they are frightened or insecure, they can feel anxious. It is no surprise that anxiety is experienced at higher rates in children with autism. Sensory integration differences in autism and other forms of neurodiversity impact the way the environment itself—the sounds/sights/smells/touch– is experienced. When this sensory component is combined with an inability to communicate inside feelings, the world can be a scary place.
Here is a list to fill out to help support your child’s feelings of safety. These observations may be useful to share with others, including your child’s therapists and teachers.
1. My child tends to get anxious when: (fill in the blank with a list of the things you know about your child, i.e.: saying goodbye, sitting still, flushing toilet, eating certain foods, etc.). Coming up with a list of challenges to your child’s feelings of safety will allow you and others to provide extra support during these activities.
2. My child is soothed by: (fill in with activities that soothe your child, i.e.: hugs, special songs, movement, firm hug, light touch, etc). Children will have their own favorite ways of being soothed. You may need to experiment with different methods before coming up with a list. By soothing your child through his anxiety, you are giving him the message that relationships matter above all else. And they do!
3. My child loves: (fill in your child’s favorite interests, i.e.: books, Disney characters, legos, stuffed animals, etc.) Incorporating natural interests throughout the day will help your child stay calm and focused. You might try using your child’s favorite toys or props to help her tolerate the difficult scenarios you developed in the first step, above. By using a child’s natural interests, you will be giving her the message that her opinions matter, while supporting alert attention at the same time.
Understanding your child’s individual fears, trigger points, and preferences is essential to helping him feel safe and navigate a world that feels unpredictable and threatening at times. With support and guidance from you, and everyone working with your child, you can help him build resiliency and thrive. We know that relationships are the foundation of all healthy development. In the words of sports psychologist Michael Gervais when he talks about the secret to the Seahawks success: “There is a relentless approach to the idea that relationships matter”. Let’s apply this principle to our children as well!
Do you have any questions or comments? I invite you to write them below and visit/like my Face book page where I post supportive resources for parents and professionals.
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