This article appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Spectrum.
In my experience as a teacher, students who display challenging behaviors in school act from a place of frustration. They may have low self-esteem and be unable to handle any form of redirection or correction. They may struggle with the learning process and blame themselves for failures. They cannot communicate their wants and needs while their peers manage fine. These and other issues are often the cause of undesired behaviors that prevent learning. Some students will shut down in class, draw instead of work, or leave the classroom. Other behaviors are more disruptive, including verbal or physical noise, aggression, or moving around. These students are teachable and want to learn. They need adults and peers to like them and want to be around them. They desire success in school. Hence, it is imperative that these children get specific attention to help them manage their behaviors and actions. As a teacher, here are some of the tools I have used to reach students exhibiting challenging behaviors.
Praise, praise, praise. All children need praise. Children who struggle especially need praise. If the school has a system of praises per redirection, have more for autistic/neurodivergent children. Some children show undesired behaviors for the reward of attention. Being unpleasant and difficult guarantees negative reactions, which is a controllable result. This gives a reward to a child who feels no control. Replace that control with expected praise for good behavior, and no negative reaction for bad behavior. The child will seek out controllable results and will start showing good behavior in exchange for the praise.
Have high expectations, but ensure the student knows you have their back. High expectations are the best kind of respect you can give any child. This tells them that someone knows they are capable and deserve respect. Be positive and determined.
Talk to the child in a language that you would with other children. It helps raise their maturity. Many children have variations in maturity because autism is a developmental delay. It can be easy for an adult to slide into baby speak with a child who has limited language. However, it shows respect to talk to them as you would another child of their age. Only alter language when you discuss topics that are difficult, such as social skills/thinking, and bring in visuals. Simplify language or limit language when the child is feeling stress or is under duress.
Rewards can be given for on-task or desired behavior. The period can be adjusted based on how long the student is productive. Give occasional lengths and/or tasks which can be easily accomplished by the student, so they can know and appreciate success. Their motivation should also increase.
Make the rewards tangible and simple. A stamp or sticker will do, and they can be collected in a book or on a chart to trade in for something bigger. The reward system can be class-based, or schoolwide. Charts and tokens work at all grade levels.
Give rewards, but do not take them away for setbacks. Give fewer rewards when the child is on task. Extend the on-task time as the child can self-manage before giving a reward. The child will learn to feel pride in accomplishing acceptable/desired classroom behavior, because they will see how the adults respond well to them. The result is to help the students grow and raise self-esteem.
Social-Emotional Regulation Tools
This is a growing field in schools, especially for schools in underserved communities. Students have suffered greatly in their abilities to communicate due to the year(s) of quarantine and remote learning, leading to separation from peers. The students in underserved communities have faced even more struggles with the challenges in the home, such as parents losing work and food insecurity. There are new positions in school districts for educators to teach social skills and social emotional regulation. Students have been returning to the school environment with mixed bags of undesired behaviors, including poor hygiene, inappropriate language, disrespect, and mostly, lack of perspective taking.
Perspective taking is one very essential skill to develop. It starts with having mindfulness of one’s own thoughts and actions. Once this is established, the student can then start thinking of others’ thoughts and actions. This is a start towards taking perspective. Students with autism have struggled with this, due to being preoccupied with their own anxieties and focused interests. Students who have been remote learners the past two years have been socially stunted and need these skills as well.
Behavior analysts, speech/language pathologists, and teachers use many tools to teach social emotional regulation and perspective taking. One popular tool is the Zones of Regulation. Leah Kuypers, an occupational therapist and autism specialist, developed the program as a response to the challenges that students with autism were facing in school settings. In addition, the Zones were effective with students dealing with trauma. Any issue that affected communication needed a simple means of expressing feeling. The program takes the complexity of emotions and simplifies it to color coding. The simplicity of a color or code helps especially when the child is stressed or distracted.
Different colors are associated with moods and emotions which are desirable or not desirable to the learning environment. Students learn that emotions which help with learning fall into a “green zone.” Other colors are associated with distractable emotions, such as tiredness or excitement. The “red zone” is for the emotions that cause a child to lose control (such as rage or high anxiety). When students are reminded to get back into the “green zone,” the color association can snap them to attention because of the visual mnemonic.
The Zones can be taught in a variety of ways. I have made miniature color-coded and laminated cards that go on desks. Students review their zone and mark it at the end of the day. Any students who had a meltdown must mark the red zone; however, they are allowed some leeway until they are able to take responsibility in their actions, and they find pride in doing better. I have seen students start to crumble when put on the spot to report themselves, and I back off. Then they begin to come out of their shells and take initiative towards their own behaviors. That is a very cool thing to see.
Eventually, students will not be reward driven. They will find satisfaction in making progress for the sake of personal growth. They may share their growth with an adult or even with peers if their class has evolved into a supportive environment. I have seen this. As students grow, their next level is reaching outwards and helping other students grow. A fun way to get students to recognize others is to give them opportunities to praise their peers as they were praised. In my classroom, I have offered the opportunity for students to write notes to classmates, practice giving compliments during social times, or “grade” others’ works with adult supervision. It helps the students to pay attention to each other, and relationships will start to build. With adult supervision as needed, students begin to master their own social and emotional regulation and gain those vital connections with peers.
Mary Janca is a teacher and coach for students of all learning differences. She has been teaching for twenty years, has a Master’s Degree in Teaching, Behavioral/ Emotional Disorders, and is certified in multiple subjects from first grade to high school. She coaches youth and adults with life skills and academics. She is currently working on a client base to serve students in Greensboro and Raleigh. Mary has Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD. She has faced many struggles in life due to these differences, but is proud of her desire to get back up, learn, and keep going. She loves to help others succeed with whatever challenge they are facing.
Tags: autism, autism behavior, autism communication, autism education, autism resources, autism social skills, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Developmental disability, special education