For posts on bullying, visit The Learn to be Buddies Series Blog.
All images and posts written by and copyright to Amanda Clements (nee Gray) 2009-2012 unless otherwise indicated.
Showing posts with label ADHD. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ADHD. Show all posts

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Dealing with the anxiety of going back to school

One of the issues that causes anxiety for children with a wide range of behavioural, emotional or developmental difficulties as they return to school after a break include the difficulty of predicting what might happen next.  Due to executive functioning issues, many of these children find it hard to retrieve or apply any previous experiences they may have had if those experiences are not exactly the same (same room, same teacher, same peers etc) or if there has been a break in their routine (eg holidays).  It is kind of like waking up to a new environment every day.

The Comfort of Routine

I don't know about you, but I am a bit of a "home-body".  I like going on holidays, but by the time the second week rolls around I start missing familiar things.  My bed.  My kitchen.  My books.  My routines. 

Imagine if you could never go home.  I know that would cause me great anxiety. There is comfort in routines.  It is the comfort of knowing what to expect.  Constantly dealing with "surprises" is emotionally wearing.  And this is multiply true for children who struggle with flexible thinking.  For these children, and children who struggle with self-regulation, the lack of predictability can lead to frustration and anxiety as they struggle to identify and follow expectations (Swanson, 2005).

Managing Anxiety with Routines and Organisational Strategies

Lytle and Todd (2009) highlight how routines are an important factor in helping to manage the stress of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.  Anderson et al. (2008) go further and discuss how organisation techniques taught to older students can have an impact on the academic performance of students with behaviour disorders.  Swanson (2005) provides a comprehensive list of ways that we can help children recognise routines and feel in control by being organised.  Below are the key strategies we could use, both at home and at school:
  1. Organise the environment:  Make sure you remove clutter, have clear boundaries for where you do certain activities, and have set spaces where equipment is kept.
  2. Use visual or written schedules: Calendars help children predict what is coming up, especially if you cross off each day as it passes. Visual schedules for the day's routine, as well as a schedule for an activity, will help children be more confident in what they need to do.  When it is holidays, count down on the calendar to when school starts again.  Keep as much of the "school routine" at home as possible, or (as one parent suggested) start the routine a couple of weeks before school goes back.
  3. Clearly identify start and finish points:  Use clocks, sounds, verbal and visual warnings to help children count up to starting points and count down to finishing.  This applies to individual activities, a session or a new school term.
  4. Be organised:  Use containers, checklists, flow-charts to help children be organised and know what is coming up next.
  5. Have rules:  Display rules that clearly set out your expectations - but don't have too many.  Avoid "don't" rules, but use statements that tell children what they should be doing.
  6. Use photos: Prepare children for important people they will meet or interact with through photos.  You might also use video of new settings, people and/or activities.
Hopefully some of these techniques will help your child deal with the anxiety of going to school.  The techniques will be most effective when they are used at home and at school, so it is important that parents and teachers share what they are doing with each other.

Next time I will talk about using relaxation techniques....



Anderson, D.H., Munk, J.H., Young, K.R.,  Conley, L., Caldarell, P.  (2008).  Teaching Organisational Skills to Promote Academic Achievement in Behaviourally Challenged Students.  Teaching Exceptional Children, 40(4), p6.

Lytle, R & Todd, T.  (2009).  Stress and the Student with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Strategies for Stress reduction and Enhanced Learning.  Teaching Exceptional Children, 41(4), p36.

Swanson, T.C.  (2005).  20 Ways to Provide Structure for Children with Learning and Behaviour Problems.  Intervention in School and Clinic, 40(3), p182.


Monday, August 30, 2010

The Rumbling Stage

When dealing with meltdowns, or rage, it is important to recognise when it is possible to negotiate, re-direct or deflect the child's emotion... and when it is time to "ride it out", letting the emotion take its course. If we can catch a child/youth before the emotion takes over their reasoning or thinking power, we are more likely to prevent or minimise the meltdown (Myles and Southwick, 2005).

The Rage Cycle

According to Myles and Southwick (2005) the rage cycle includes three main stages - the rumbling stage, the rage stage, and the recovery stage. They suggest that before and after these stages teachable moments occur. Once the rage cycle starts, the opportunity for the child to learn is gone.

At this stage it is about management and, where possible, prevention of escalation.

The Rumbling Stage

Parents have often expressed to me the fact that they can tell when a meltdown is coming on. The signs could be categorised into four different categories:

  • Physical signs, including fidgeting, tapping, restlessness, muscle tenseness, grimacing
  • Verbal signs, like name calling, threats, grunting, increasing or decreasing volume
  • Behavioural signs, like refusals, crying

What can we do in this stage?

Myles and Southwick (2005) identify a range of strategies that could be used in this stage. Some ideas include:
  1. Provide a safe, cool down space: Help the child feel safe by moving to a space that is familiar and away from the triggers of their meltdown.
  2. Provide a physical outlet: Give the child a way to get rid of the excess adrenaline that is flowing as a result of their emotion. This can be anything from squeezing a stress ball, to bouncing on a trampoline, to tearing up paper.
  3. Remain calm and quiet: Don't try to reason with them, remain calm and close-by. Walk with them if necessary. For some children, touch can also be helpful.
  4. Redirect: Using a child's interest it may be possible to redirect their attention and emotion. You might need to help the child re-evaluate their goals.
  5. Use routine: Help the child get back to familiar and safe sequences of events.
But the most important thing to remember at this stage is that, as adults, it is important that we remain calm and flexible, adapting to the needs of the child as the child will not be able to be flexible once they have entered the rage cycle.


Myles, B.S. and J. Southwick (2005). Asperger Syndrome and Difficult Moments: Practical Solutions for Tantrums, Rage, and Meltdowns. Autism Asperger Publishing Company: Kansas


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Helping children self-correct and problem-solve

How do you avoid meltdowns when something changes? How do you help your child recognise that what they are doing is making others upset? How can you help a child recognise when they have said or done something that "crosses the line"? Or when someone else has done something to them that "crosses the line"?


You are about to go to a new shopping centre. Or your child is about to go to a new school. These situations will bring up a whole range of new information that they will need to quickly process in order to behave as expected and cope.

For children with executive functioning difficulties, as mentioned previously, this will cause many difficulties (Oates & Grayson, 2004). The best thing to do is to prepare your child as much as possible for their new environment.

Talk about what is going to happen. Talk about the environment, and set relevant rules (Dodd, 2005). Further, whilst talking use video, photos, even a drive past or short preparatory visit to help them process as many things prior to the visit where possible. This will help limit the amount of new information they need to process when making choices about their behaviour.

Using repetitive patterns of language, such as if... then... statements, can also children develop an awareness of possible consequences. This means that this is one less thing that they have to think up in a difficult situation.


The importance of repetition and rehearsal has been discussed previously, but it is important to recognise the significance of role play in helping children develop self-awareness and problem-solving abilities. For young children, this may be done through dress-ups and dramatic play.

For children who struggle with imaginative play, using scripts will be important. That is, teach the child to use a set phrase or set of actions in response to a situation. Older children might want to help you design a screen play and video their new skill.


Children with executive functioning issues will need help storing the information and skills, so they need a concrete reminder to carry around with them in case of "emergencies." Ways to do this include:

The bottom line is to ensure that any visuals are small enough to carry in the child's pocket or on a lanyard or key ring. They need to be immediately accessible, but hard to lose.

Teach emotions

Help children get feedback from others around them by teaching them about body language and facial expressions. You can do this through books, videos, photos and picture strips (Dodd, 2005).

Recently I borrowed a great book called Sometimes I feel....: How to Help Your Child Manage Difficult Feelings by Dr. Samantha Seymour. Apart from the great hints and tips for parents/teachers at the beginning of the book, it is full of great photos of different facial expressions and body language. It also helps build awareness of what can cause someone to feel a certain way.

For example, pages 14-19 read:
Sometimes I feel angry... like when my mummy tells me I have to eat my breakfast before I can go outside and play. Or when it's my turn and my sister won't share."
These are accompanied by relevant photos of young children. This is a great book to help children recognise what can cause others to feel angry, sad, worried and so on. Knowing this can help them self-correct more effectively.

Dodd (2005) also discusses the usefulness of video modelling. This is effective as it can be played over and over again, and can demonstrate step-by-step a process of dealing with or responding to certain emotions.

Another great strategy highlighted by Dodd (2005) on page 187 are little picture cards that include an illustration of an emotion with relevant questions (see image adapted from her examples below).

Have a crisis management plan

It is important to also anticipate difficult emotions and situations when a child may not be able to cope. Have a plan for those times.

One of the strategies that has been discussed previously is the use of a feelings thermometer. This is a visual way of helping children recognise and manage difficult emotions.

Be proactive and positive

But most importantly, we should remember to always be proactive - prepare and anticipate in order to prevent negative events as much as possible - and positive, giving praise and positive reinforcement rather than focusing on "don'ts".


Dodd, S. (2005). Understanding Autism. Sydney: Elsevier.

Oates, J. & Grayson, A. (2004). Cognitive and Language Development in Children. Blackwell Publishing: Oxford.


Monday, July 5, 2010

Helping children adapt to change

"The ability to monitor and accurately evaluate performance and to make changes. Ability to learn from experience and feedback." (Queensland Health, 2007)
"The ability to recognise when the actions you are taking are ineffective, to stop, re-evaluate, and to formulate a plan." (Queensland Health, 2007)

Struggling with change

It would be simplifying things far too much to draw a direct link between executive functioning issues and children's difficulties adapting to change in their environment. However, it can play a significant part in this. But before I discuss the problem-solving and self-correction element of executive functioning, I want to look quickly at changes that children may find difficult to deal with, what behaviour they may display, and some other key factors that can contribute to difficulties adjusting to change.

What changes can cause difficulties?

There are many changes that can cause children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, anxiety disorders, depression, ADHD and even children who are chronically tired to feel threatened or anxious. These can include:
  • New people
  • Familiar people behaving differently
  • Interrupted routines
  • A favourite toy missing
  • New sounds
  • Moved furniture
  • Complex, unpredictable interactions
    (Dodd, 2005; Oates and Grayson, 2004)

In fact, almost any change that a child with these difficulties is not prepared for will cause them distress.

What might you see?

Every child will have their own individual way of demonstrating that they aren't coping, or don't know what to do, when dealing with a change. Some examples:

Executive functioning, self-correction and problem-solving

These elements of executive functioning, alongside the ability to plan and self-evaluate, help us adapt to the changes and complexities of life. As Oates and Grayson (2004) discuss, "the ability to switch flexibly between planned actions and different approaches to a task, without losing sight of the goals that are being aimed for, is a high-level cognitive function that is critically important in everyday life." (p214) That is, in order to cope with the many complexities of life - social, academic and physical - we need to be able to constantly evaluate, identify what is/is not working and adjust our behaviour accordingly.

When the executive functions aren't developed appropriately, then children will have difficulties adapting to change unexpected behaviour.

For example, imagine you are a child who loves playing in the sandpit with your two close friends. Ever since you have been at school the three of you have gone directly to the sandpit as soon as the recess bell has rung. Then one day you are heading out to the sandpit and one of your friends decides they want to join the hand-ball games instead.

You want your friend keep to your routine, so you say, "Come on! Aren't you coming to the sandpit?"

Your friend replies, "Nah. Today I feel like playing in the sandpit."

You say, "Aww. Come on! Let's play in the sand pit. We always do!"

Now, if you have a well-developed ability to self-analyse, self-correct and problem-solve, once you start noticing that your friend is becoming annoyed, you think about previous experiences, what you have been taught, how your behaviour is effecting them. You then correct your behaviour and problem-solve based on your goal of maintaining friendships ... which could mean you join the hand-ball game or go to the sandpit with your other friend.

If you have executive functioning difficulties, you would probably keep insisting that your friend maintain the routine. You may become aggressive in your attempts to maintain the routine (eg. pulling the child towards the sandpit) or have a meltdown as you are unable to work out what to do next since your routine has been broken.

Other reasons why children may struggle with change

  • Theory of mind or social imagination (as discussed in a previous post) ... Not being able to interpret and respond appropriately to your social context will lead to difficulties with problem-solving and self-correction, or the ability to be flexible and adapt to your environment.
  • Intellectual Disability ... a person's IQ is only one element of diagnosing an intellectual or developmental disability. The other element is an assessment of adaptive behaviour. As the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities states, adaptive behaviour is about the ability to use language, social, conceptual and practical skills to live independently and according to the social expectations of our culture. It is therefore recognised that a person's cognitive development influences their ability to problem-solve and self-correct.

Next time....

Next time I will talk about ways to help children self-correct and problem-solve.


Dodd, S. (2005). Understanding Autism. Sydney: Elsevier.

Oates, J. & Grayson, A. (2004). Cognitive and Language Development in Children. Blackwell Publishing: Oxford.

Queensland Health. (2007). Executive Function and Capacity. Retrieved 8th May, 2010 from


Monday, May 31, 2010

The importance of routine...

We can help children with executive functioning issues using routines.

For example, a child with ADHD may lose track of time, not remember where they are up to or what they are meant to be doing. They may hear a school bell, and not know what it means. as bells at different times mean different things.

Routines can be used at home as well as at school. But there are some key elements to making them work.

Be Clear

The best way to make sure the routines are clear to a child is to provide them with a written or visual schedule. First thing of the day, either in class or at home, go over the schedule so the child knows the goals for the day. This will help them follow a pattern or plan to achieve the desired goals.

Goals such as getting ready for school, listening to the teacher, playing with friends, catching the bus... all these have associated behaviour and social skills. If there is a familiar routine, the child is more likely to have success with these goals.

Stick to the Plan

It is important that once you establish a routine that you stick to it. Variation can cause behaviour difficulties such as meltdowns that come out of the child's difficulty in adjusting to changes ... which is about the difficulty with flexible thinking, a topic I will discuss when I come to the self-correction element of executive functioning.

If you can't, give warning

There will be times when unforeseen circumstances may interrupt the routine. As far as you are able, make sure that you talk to the child about this. Use visuals to prepare them for the change. This could be about getting them involved in taking one thing off their timetable and replacing it with the new event. This will help them process the information.


However, as discussed in the previous post, repetition is the key. The more you repeat a process, the more automatic it will become. This way it will be easier for a child to keep track of what is going on and what they should be doing in different settings at different times.

It will help them plan, or act with purpose as they work to achieve a goal either socially or academically (Oates & Grayson, 2004).


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Visual cues to help planning

Recently I wrote a post about the Stop, Think, Do! program on the Learn to be Buddies Series blog. This has been used with some success with children who have executive functioning issues because it helps with the planning process in social situations.

I will discuss the "Stop!" step when I address the inhibition element of executive functioning. In this post I want to focus on discussing the "Think!" phase.


The "think" phase is about helping children think ahead, identify choices and consequences for their actions before they act.

The catchy, simple phrase "Stop! Think! Do!" is acts like a script in a play. It provides structure to help a performance run smoothly. But the only way it can work is if it is rehearsed and if we have prompts in place to remind a child about what they should be doing if they get off track.


At first introducing a child to this phrase, you will need to discuss each step. When you come the the "Think" phase you will need to find ways to help children make links between the way they act and how this affects others.

One way can be developing "if ... then ..." visual or verbal statements depending on the child's way of learning. If you are helping a child with Autism, it is usually best to use visuals. If you are helping a child with ADHD, visuals may be appropriate but you may find that older children/youth can also learn through verbalising "if...then" statements.I made up this little visual prompt using microsoft clipart, but there are many different options for visuals. More and more schools, preschools and other services for children with disabilities have access to Boardmaker, which is a valuable tool for helping children who learn visually.

If you are using visuals, make sure they are hung in and around the places where the behaviour is most likely to occur. The example above would be hung in any room or space dedicated to craft activities. This way the child's memory will be constantly triggered every time they look up. Further, you will be able to use the visual to remind children about the consequences for their actions.


It is important that any script or prompt be used repeatedly. This repetitiveness helps children with executive functioning issues remember.

Executive functioning issues effect the working memory and so can make it harder for things to "stick". The more you use the phrase, "Stop! Think! Do!" and the same visual prompt, the more likely it is to "stick" with the child. The product of this is hopefully helping children plan and make more appropriate choices socially and in risk-management.

Just remember:

Children won't be able to plan if they don't first stop. Don't try to talk a child through a problem if they are in the middle of a melt-down. Help them relax and regain control first.... I will talk more on this when I come to discussing the "inhibition" element of executive functioning.


Saturday, May 8, 2010

What is Executive Functioning?

"Executive functions allow us to set goals and maintain focus, screen out distractions, check our progress and regulate feelings." (KidsMatter, 2009 p2)

Executive functioning is a brain function. It helps us to understand, remember and follow all the unspoken rules and processes involved in everyday life. If our executive functioning is effected by health issues or conditions such as Autism and ADHD it can have a significant effect on how we interact with others and learn in our environment.

The Elements of Executive Function

Queensland Health (2007) discusses six key areas which are effected by executive function. These include:
  1. Self-evaluation
  2. Planning
  3. Initiation
  4. Self-correction
  5. Problem-solving
  6. Inhibition
This month I want to focus on discussing each of these in more depth, and make suggestions about what strategies can be used to help address the issues that arise from each area.

What might it look like?

Let's first explore what difficulties with executive functioning may "look like" in children.

Getting ready for school

Imagine a child getting ready for school. They have to remember to follow a series of steps that look something like this:
  • Get out of bed
  • Eat breakfast
  • Clean your teeth
  • Get dressed
  • Pack your bag with everything you need for the day
  • Get to the bus stop by 8.00am
For most children they may require one or two prompts during the process... but generally they will get on the bus at the right time with all the equipment they need for the day.

For children with executive functioning issues, they will struggle to monitor time. They may focus on thoroughly doing each task, but miss the bus because they couldn't get organised in time. Or they may get distracted by cartoons, seeing a football that is just begging them to kick it, looking for something.... then forgetting what they were looking for.

They many need constant reminders of what to do next, which will probably make the morning a "little" ;) more stressful. And then mum or dad will probably need to check what they have packed to ensure they have not left any important things like pencil-cases and homework at home. And because they lost track of time, mum or dad may have to run them to school because they missed the bus.

At school

Despite having their bag checked by mum or dad, they may turn up to their first class without essential equipment (eg pencils and books). They will also find it hard to settle into class, finding it hard to start concentrating on the things that are important, like the teacher's instructions, as opposed to greeting friends or trying to find their favourite pen.

And when the teacher starts to teach, the child may call out regularly- not intending to disrupt, but because they have a thought they want to express, either on the topic the teacher is talking about or about something seemingly irrelevant but triggered by what the teacher said. They either don't recognise that is not an appropriate time to speak, or only think about this once they have started speaking.

And when they get out on the playground, they are more likely to get into tiffs or find it hard to maintain friendships because they tend to not think before they act. Which means they may hit or kick when they are angry, be excruciatingly truthful about what they think of their friends, be a bit bossy or struggle to wait their turn or share.

Back home

Then when they get home they discover they have left their bag at school, containing the homework that must be done by tomorrow. When they get to school the next day, they find the bag and discover that it contains rotting food since they forgot to eat it due to being distracted by all the fun on the playground.

When they get home they also find it very hard to be controlled in any way because they have spent so much of the day trying to follow rules and not to get in too much trouble at school. Which makes the first few hours after returning from school very hectic, and homework next to impossible, with the child usually being sent outside to kick a ball, jump on the trampoline or punch their punching bag until they feel better.

These are just some of the patterns of behaviour and interaction that you might see in a child who has difficulties with executive functioning. If this rings a bell with you as a parent or teacher, then I hope the next series of posts will be useful for you.


Kidsmatter (2009). How Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) affects children. Retrieved 8th May 2010 from

Queensland Health. (2007). Executive Function and Capacity. Retrieved 8th May, 2010 from


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Holidays are over! The challenge for children

Returning to school can be very exciting for children. It can mean re-connecting with friends and all the social fun! It can mean a return to favourite subjects, fun activities....

But settling back into school after the holidays can also be a time of anxiety and tiredness.

Social Challenges

For some children, returning to the social life of school can bring up anxieties and challenges. After the relative freedom of the holidays, they may find it hard to re-adjust back into the routine of the classroom. As discussed in my previous series of posts on the transition to school, children with special needs may need a slow transition back into the learning routine. And there may be some social "bumps" along the way.

Some suggestions for helping children with Autism, Aspergers or developmental disabilities settle back into the social routine include:

  1. Using photos of friends and staff to remind the child of who they will be seeing at school.
  2. Talking about the photos to remind the child of how they interact with these people. For example, "This is Johnny. You play soccer with Johnny on the playground!"
  3. Display a list of the school rules (at home and in class), with illustrations/photos, and revise, review, talk about and practice them.
  4. Where possible, arrange small group, supervised activities involving the child's interest at recess and lunch breaks to minimise the sensory and social input. This is a good way to prevent behaviour difficulties that may happen due to the busy, noisy nature of the playground.
  5. Establish a home/school reward system so going back to school has its extrinsic (external, "artificial") rewards, even if the child finds it hard to see anything positive about being back at school.

Physical Challenges

Returning to school can be a tiring business for everyone. But it is especially important to recognise that children with diverse needs may find it just that bit more tiring.

This may be because of sensory processing difficulties or impairments. For example, children with hearing impairments often have to work much harder to process and interpret sounds. Children with sensory sensitivities may be tired out due to higher levels of stress during the day as they get used to all the sights, smells and sounds of school again.

Tiredness may also be due to physical disabilities. For example, sitting for extended periods of time, moving around the school and having limited "rest periods" throughout the day could have an impact on children with Cerebral Palsy.

Concentrating and communicating is also a very tiring activity. For children with ADHD or ADD, who struggle with maintaining attention, re-training themselves back into school can be very tiring. Children with language difficulties, including children with Autism and dyspraxia or apraxia, concentrating and listening gets very tiring by the end of the day.

This may mean that, not just in the first few weeks, a child's "endurance" cracks by the final session of the school day. So having less challenging, less intense activities towards the end of the day, and minimising the amount of homework given is essential.

Children arriving home exhausted are not likely to cope with any further physical or "thinking" demands placed on them. Putting further demands on them does not allow for recovery time, and also can mean an increase in difficult behaviour as the child struggles to cope.

Academic Challenges

This links with the previous points about concentration and language. However, there may be the added factor of a child with special needs "regressing" during the holidays. Words they could read, things they could say and do, may have been "lost" during the holidays. This may simply be due to lack of practice as the words and activities of school are often quite different to those at home.

Be prepared to re-teach some old things before adding too many new concepts and activities. Revision will be important to get the child back into the swing of things.

How is the settling-in period going for you and your children?


Monday, January 18, 2010

It's time to get out of holiday mode

Some of you may have already gone back to school, but here in NSW we are in the last throws of our holidays. Just one more week... and it's time to start thinking about preparing for the new year.

The challenges of returning to school

Whilst there is probably some feeling of excitement, going back to school can be challenging for everyone. I know as a teacher that I feel that little churning in the stomach as I think about the "settling-in" weeks. The weeks where everyone is getting to know each other and I learn about and adjust my teaching to the living, ever-changing beings in my classroom.

Whether you are a pre-school, primary, high school or university teacher, the challenges are the similar: How to facilitate a smooth transition into another school year; How to establish a happy, respectful, collaborative and organised classroom; How to learn all those new names!

The challenge can be even greater if you are teaching a child with a disability for the first time. Or if a child with a disability will be in your class and you have not had the opportunity to meet them, find out about their needs or complete a full transition plan. Even if you have had the oppurtunity to put these things in place, the first term can still be challenging.

Here are some little tips I have found useful in a range of inclusive education settings (pre-school to university) to help smooth over those first bumpy weeks:

  1. Be prepared - if you have a well-planned set of lessons, with more than enough resources at your fingertips that cater to all the different learning styles (eg. auditory, visual, kinesthetic), then you will be able to concentrate on developing relationships and managing behaviour with minimal effect on children's learning. This is especially important for children with Autism, Down Syndrome and other developmental delays as they need structure and predictability - and will need your support as they adjust to a new school year.
  2. Set clear boundaries - talk with your students about rules, consequences, how they want their classroom to look and feel. This will help them get involved in articulating and establishing boundaries, which will increase their sense of ownership of these rules and prevent any issues that may arise out of power-struggles. This is especially important if you have children with social or behavioural difficulties such as ADHD or ODD in your classroom. Difficulties with authority can be decreased when their input is respected whilst still recognising clear boundaries and expectations in the classroom. See this process as an essential part of your first week, not as something that is "extra-curricular."
  3. Walk in with a smile and a sense of humour - and hold on to that sense of humour tightly. It can be the greatest tool in developing a rapport with your students.
  4. Know who you can call on if things go pear-shaped. Be prepared to ask for help if necessary.
  5. Have a relaxation and/or celebratory plan in place for completion of the week. Something to look forward to can help get you through any rough patches.
Do you have any other tips?



Sunday, December 20, 2009

How to have a peaceful Christmas... a last post for the year

On this day of only 5 sleeps to Christmas it is time to write my last post for the year. I thought I would make it a short and sweet list of things to do that may help you have a more peaceful Christmas if you are including a child who has special needs. Many of these were suggested to me by parents of children with conditions such as Autism.

Hints for having a peaceful, inclusive Christmas

  • An orientation:
If the child is visiting your place for the first time, it is important to give them a slow and explicit tour of the building. Pictures on closed doors indicating what the rooms are and whether they can be used can help with boundary issues.
  • A guest list:
To help children know who to expect at the gathering, you may send a guest list to parents before the day. You may even help the parent develop a photo guest list. Looking at this every day in the week before Christmas can help children be more comfortable when meeting people they may have not seen for a while.

  • A Routine or schedule:
To help children deal with the anxiety of the day, having a picture or written schedule of events might be helpful. Again, if the child becomes familiar with this before the day it could be even more effective. Here is a sample social story and some ideas from other parents.
  • A way of communicating:
Communication is such an important part of any social gathering. Not being able to communicate can produce difficult behaviour due to frustration or distress. Make sure you understand how the child communicates, and have some special tools available to help with communication. Here is a great example. It comes from this site, where you can find other free samples.

  • A plan for anxious moments:
Because of the noise and busy-ness of the day, it is likely that a child with sensory sensitivities, social or behaviour difficulties may need a quiet space to calm down. Have a room set up with toys that help calm the child - they may bring a favourite sensory toy or object from home.

Tell the parent and the child, and anyone else who you think may need to know, where the room is and when it can be used. Make it clear that the space is out of bounds to anyone except those who need time out. Oh, and think of time out as a restorative process not a punishment. You could use these symbols to help the child know when it may be time to re-join the activities.

  • Patience:
But, overall, your most valuable tool for creating peace at Christmas is patience. Children with special needs may struggle with many things on Christmas day. They may have melt-downs... or times when they become very upset and it is hard to calm them down. They may struggle with things like waiting, taking turns and may seem impolite at times. They may even hit or push their peers or adults at times because they are finding it hard to control their impulses or communicate what they need.

Understand that these are things that they may take longer to learn than their peers. See this behaviour as an opportunity for patience and learning. If you take the perspective that every behaviour has a reason behind it, then your response will be measured and supportive. It will focus on helping to stop the behaviour rather than punishing or criticising it.

Have a wonderful, peaceful Christmas... and a Happy New Year! I will return to blogging sometime in the middle of January. But for now, it is time for a rest.



Tuesday, December 15, 2009

So this is Christmas, and what will we eat....

One of the memories associated with the excitement of Christmas in my childhood was the food. Special food that we wouldn't get all year round.

Savoury snacks like frankfurts dipped in tomato sauce. A whole bunch of meats and salads, or a baked dinner. Lollies. Soft drink. Cakes. Chocolates. All varieties of deserts.

So when I was diagnosed with a chronic health condition that meant refined sugar, yeast, dairy, and more recently gluten needed to be eliminated from my diet, Christmas was somehow not quite the same. Being excluded from sharing the communal meal, or enjoying the annual indulgence of certain treats, can be a very isolating experience. And if special dietary needs are not considered, it can also make you feel a little ignored...

But, thankfully, over the years my family have adjusted. My mother and I have also discovered different recipes... like the sugar-free fruit cake, sugar-free carob and most recently I have been able to adapt a recipe for pumpkin pie, using the juice from boiled dates to sweeten it.

Children with special needs and Christmas treats...

Children with special needs may have special dietary needs, physical issues or sensory sensitivities that may interfere with there ability to join in the Christmas feasting. If we want our Christmas Day to be truly inclusive, we need to make sure we find out if this is the case and what we can do about it.

Special dietary needs

Some children with Autism or Aspergers benefit from or require a gluten-free diet due to their digestive tract issues. The wrong foods can influence mood as well as cause stomach aches, constipation or diarrhoea.

The behaviour of some children with ADHD can be influenced by the amount of sugar and/or preservatives that they consume.

These are only some of the more common issues children with diverse needs and their families might face at the Christmas meal. Some things we can do is ensure that we have a number of gluten, dairy and sugar-free options that look and taste appetising available on Christmas day.

This, importantly, should include sugar-free and additive-free drinks. Carefully reading labels on fruit juice bottles is important as many brands add sugar and preservatives. Another treat is to freeze fruit juice as ice blocks. I found Nudie Crushies best for this as they are thicker and more like the smooth consistency of ice cream when frozen.

If you need recipes, the Gluten-free Goddess has some great suggestions.

My most favourite, well-stained cook book is called "Cooking Without" by Babara Cousins.

Alternately, I have found some good snacks in the Naytura food isle in Woolworths... Orgran being a great brand for gluten-free products.

Physical considerations

For some children with disabilities there are other physical factors that you will need to consider.

First, some children may not be able to successfully manipulate a knife and fork due to fine motor difficulties. One of the ways to deal with this is to have a range of easily manipulated, finger-foods available.

Other children may have difficulties with chewing or swallowing, and so having soft foods available will also be helpful.

Crushed rice+egg cups filled with salsa:
Gluten, sugar, dairy, preservative free, fun finger-food
You can fill the rice cups with anything you (or your child) like

Sensory sensitivities and preferences

We also need to take into consideration the sensory sensitivities and set preferences of children with diverse needs.

For some children, certain textures, aromas or colours will trigger a gag reflex or a meltdown.

Other children will have very specific food preferences... and will struggle to eat anything outside these preferences.

It is important not to see this as a behavioural issue. That is, we need to be careful not to think of a child with Autism who is having a melt-down because something green was put on their plate as being "naughty". Understand their specific needs and "go with the flow"...

This is just scratching the surface, I know.... so if anyone else has advice, or recipe suggestions, please share...



Monday, December 7, 2009

So this is Christmas... and what will we give

Present-giving is such a huge part of Christmas. I remember vividly the excitement that caused sleeplessness on Christmas Eve - then the joy of finding the present at the end of the bed in the morning... Much torn wrapping later, and the day was full of new toys, food and fun.

But present-giving can also cause tension. Trying to please everyone, trying to display pleasure at inappropriate gifts, arguments over money spent, offence at gifts returned.... we all want to avoid these things.

Gift-giving and children with disabilties

I recently listened to parents of children with disabilities discuss the difficulties of presents at Christmas-time. I thought it would be good to use this blog to help build awareness of the issues that we need to consider when giving gifts to children who have special needs.

Some things you need to consider:

  • Narrow interests: One thing it is important to realise is that some children with disabilities have quite narrow interests. For example, a child with autism may only use items that have Thomas the Tank engine on them.
  • Developmental appropriateness: You need to consider the developmental appropriateness of a toy - not just its age appropriateness. For example, some children who have vision impairments use their sense of taste to continue exploring their environment long after their peers have stopped mouthing toys. This means that toys with small detachable parts that might be age appropriate will not be developmentally appropriate for the child as they could be a choking hazard. Other aspects that need to be considered are the child's intellectual, gross motor and fine motor skills. Children with disabilities such as Down Syndrome or Autism may find it more difficult to hold pencils, pick up small items and play with things that involve threading, constructing and significant muscle control in the fingers. Others may find it difficult to balance and use the gross motor skills involved in riding bikes or climbing. And others may find the cognitive challenge of some games such as puzzles, board games, card games and craft activities, beyond their cognitive ability.
  • Sensory sensitivities: Some children with disabilities are very sensitive to certain textures, sounds and even colours. Toys that do not align with their sensitivities will not be used, and may even cause them some distress.

So how can you make sure you purchase an appropriate gift?

The easiest way is to ask parents. They will be able to tell you about the child's abilities, interests and favourite toys. And don't be offended if they give you a list of specific things or places to shop for their children.

Here are two sites that were recommended by parents:

This Australian site provides a range of toys suitable for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Communiation and Sensory Processing Disorders, ADHD, Physical Disabilities and Cognitive and Learning Delays. They have toys priced from under $5 to over $100.

The toys include a whole range of things, from puzzles to computer-based games.

Another parent recommended this Amazon search entitled "Bestsellers in special needs multi-sensory toys."

Spectronicsinoz also has a range of games, though they are more expensive and generally educational. Here are some examples of their games:

Spot on Games
Card Games
Switch-friendly computer games for children with physical disabilities
More computer games called Play with me

All the best for your Christmas shopping :) ... and may your Christmas be full of fun.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Graphic Organisers: An example of a "least intrusive" adjustment

Graphic organisers are one of the best examples of an adjustment that can be made for students with disabilities whilst also benefiting all other students in their class.

What is a Graphic organiser?

Graphic organisers are things like tables, diagrams, flow charts, checklists. They can be used to visually represent the link between ideas, or the steps in a process. You can find many examples of graphic organisers at or

How would you use a Graphic organiser?

Lesson plans:

Graphic organisers can be used as lesson plans to help children be organised and stay on track....

images from Microsoft clipart and

This would be important for a student who has attention and organisational difficulties such as ADHD, Autism, Down Syndrome, Bi-polar disorder and so on. However, something like this could be hung out the front of the room and used for the whole class as it could benefit all students.

Concept maps

These are very helpful to help children with recognising relevant vocabulary, as well as helping them to create links between ideas - which is an important process in learning and remembering things. They can be as simple or as complex as appropriate to the age of the child. They could also be made with pictures and words, or just pictures as well.

Writing and reading scaffolds

Graphic organisers are a great way to help children who struggle to organise their thoughts. It can help them write more coherent, longer stories or essays.

Giving a child who is struggling with literacy a story map before they read a story can also help them focus on the meaning of a story rather than just decoding the words on the page. Having a sense of how the story fits together. This will help them read more fluently as knowing what is going to happen gives children struggling with literacy a better chance of making correct "informed guesses" about any unfamiliar words on the page - a process we all use when reading, especially when we don't want to interrupt the flow of the story.

Story maps can be simple or complex. They can be used for children of all abilities, though you should never force children to use them as many children who are very creative, or gifted in story-writing, work best when they can just let the story flow from their pen. So the "least intrusive" use of story maps would be to use them in demonstrations and introduction to topics and stories, and then making them available for those who want to use them in their writing tasks.

For factual texts, KWL charts are a good way of activating interest and prior knowledge of a child. This can be very helpful for children with ADHD and Autism as it can help them become interested in the topic.

Simple or more complex main idea charts can help students organise their thoughts when they have to write assignments or essays on topics. These can be used in a similar way to story maps.


We have probably all used checklists at one time or another. Checklists are another example of how graphic organisers can be used. Instructions can also be represented in a series of pictures - which is important for any child who is struggling to hear, remember or read instructions.

Rules for Using Graphic Organisers

Blaxendall (2003) discusses the benefits as well as the pitfalls of using graphic organisers. He suggests successful use of graphic organisers comes down to three things:
  1. Consistency: Regularly using the same set of organisers. This helps children get used to what each type of organiser is used for and what they symbolise.
  2. Coherence: Don't put any irrelevant information in an organiser - it is for important information only. Keep it simple.
  3. Creativity: Use them in as many situations as possible (classwork, homework, group work). Use pictures as much as possible, ensuring that they are age-appropriate and specifically relevant to the content of the organiser.

Blaxendall, B. (2003). Consistent, Coherent, Creative: The 3 C's of Graphic Organisers. Teaching Exceptional Children, 35(3), p47.



Wednesday, August 26, 2009

No such thing as evil

“There is no such thing as evil. Youth behaviour that challenges the common expectations and values of society is not the result of inherent wickedness, but is a multifaceted problem emerging from a complex network of factors.” (Leaman 2005 p1)

I don’t think there is anything I want to add to that… I just thought it was a great, thought-provoking statement. It draws attention to what is not always in the forefront of our minds when we are dealing with the most difficult behaviour: that behaviour is very complex and there are many factors both seen and unseen that influence that behaviour.

But, like Leaman, I also want to make that point that this is not excusing behaviour. Rather, it is an attempt to understand it so we can effectively change it.

Leaman also talks about three hidden contributors to aggressive or other disruptive or difficult behaviours.

Low self-esteem

There are many reasons for low self-esteem, but one that children with differing abilities may face more frequently than others is failure. Failure in the classroom. Failure in social relationships. Failure in achieving their potential in other areas.

A child who experiences what they see as failure can be at risk of spiralling into disempowerment and/or depression. For some children this can be seen in bullying behaviour as the child tries to empower themselves. For others it can be seen in both passive and active defiance, or refusals to complete tasks.

For example, it is recognised that children diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance Disorder often have low self-esteem (Better health Channel, 2007). Their refusals to obey rules, swearing, blaming or needling others can be linked to (though they are not exclusively a product of) low self-esteem and the need for power and control. Refusals to obey rules and swearing or bullying others swing the balance of power back in their favour. Blaming others for their mistakes or errors, or simply refusing to attempt tasks, can be a protection mechanism to avoid being seen as weak or having failed in a task. By doing these things they are controlling their environment through intimidation or defiance.


Acting impulsively or acting without first considering the effect of their actions on others can also be a contributor to aggressive behaviour. For more on this see the previous posts on executive function and the development of empathy.

Internalised anger

Children with Down Syndrome can also be seen as stubborn or defiant. However, the issue is more that, due to their intellectual disability/developmental delay, it is more likely that they do not understand what is required of them (Feeley & Jones, 2006). The difficulty is that they may find it very hard to put into words as their developmental delay and physical difficulties can influence their ability to communicate complex, abstract concepts like emotions. This may be exacerbated by low self-esteem from experiences of “failure”, and thus increase the risk of the child acting aggressively or defiantly in order to express their feelings or protect themselves from embarrassment.

It is important, in this case, to recognise that children with Down Syndrome have been shown to be at increased risk of depression and other anxiety disorders (Pollack, 2009). So responding to the needs of the child rather than focusing on the behaviour is important.

Leaman has some great suggestions of strategies to deal with difficult and aggressive behaviour. If you can get your hands on this book, whether you are a teacher or a parent dealing with challenging behaviour, I am sure you will find it very helpful.


Better Health Channel/Victorian Government. (2007). Oppositional Defiance Disorder. Retrieved 26th August 2009 from

Feeley, K. and Jones, E. (2006). Strategies to Address Challenging Behaviour in Young Children with Down Syndrome. Retrieved 26th August 2009 from

Leaman, L. (2005) Managing Very Challenging Behaviour. London: Continuum

Pollack, S.D. (2009) Waisman Center. Retrieved 26th August 2009 from


Monday, August 24, 2009

Helping siblings and peers deal with aggressive behaviour

Please read the post on Roger’s Chain of Action first or this probably won’t make much sense….

Teaching siblings and peers about the reason for aggression

One of the things we need to do is help to promote some understanding of why one child may be more aggressive than another. This can be done in many different ways, but we need to make sure that we do it in a way that doesn’t label or stigmatise the child who is being aggressive.

For example, I just posted a u-tube video about my book, Dave is Brave. One of the things I highlight is that the book can be use to promote understanding of why children may be behaving a certain way.

In the book Golly is seen to be behaving like a “bully”, knocking children over, taking their toys and so on. As we follow the story we learn that one of the reasons he may have been doing this is that he wanted to play but was unable to articulate this. The questions to be used by teachers and parents at the back of the book highlight this and could be used to help promote empathy in children if they have a child with language and/or social/behavioural difficulties in the classroom.

General discussions about anger, fear, frustration, or playing games like charades where children are trying to get their intentions across without words can also be used to promote understanding of reasons behind aggressive behaviour.

But that is just the beginning. We also need to teach children ways they can protect themselves from aggression in their siblings or peers without increasing the chances of them being hurt. This is where Roger’s chain of reaction may come in useful.

Step one: Tactical ignoring

It is possible to teach children to ignore aggressive behaviour that is not threatening or aimed at themselves. For example, if a child with autism is having a melt-down because something is out of place or their routine is disrupted, their behaviour may be what we traditionally see as a tantrum rather than aggression aimed at other children.

In this case you could have a rule or agreement within your classroom or home that this behaviour will be ignored. You may need to discuss with peers and siblings that if someone is angry or frustrated, and they are banging things or screaming or even throwing things in a way is not threatening to them:
- That they should just keep working or playing.
- That their peer/sibling is not angry at them, just finding it difficult to cope.
- That mum/dad/carer/teacher will deal with the situation.

Step two: Simple direction, rule re-statement, or question and feedback.

If the aggression is a result of difficulties with social activities such as sharing toys and so on, you could teach siblings or peers to use prompting phrases like:
- “Use your words/picture cards/point”
- “Tell me what you want”
- “Do we need to get mum/dad/Ms X?”

These could be accompanied by a gesture such as the one used by Dave in Dave is Brave. And make sure you help the children recognise that they should speak calmly and confidently in these situations.

Step three: Repeat step two or take child aside and give them a clear choice.

If it doesn’t work the first time, teach siblings/peers to try at least three times before calling in the teacher – but only if the child is not significantly hurting them.

Step 4: Isolation, time-out, exit from the room.

As discussed in the previous post, you should have a crisis management plan for when behaviour is putting others at risk of being significantly hurt. At this point, peers/siblings could be taught one of two actions.

1. If they are not being closely supervised by an adult, to remove themselves from the vicinity of the child and seek adult help.
2. If they are being closely supervised by an adult, to calmly follow an agreed crisis procedure. This should be practiced just as a fire drill might be practiced.

Many schools have “lock down” procedures in place. For example, I heard of one school whose children promptly and calmly protected themselves with their chairs and filed out of the classroom in response to a teacher’s signal. Then they were re-located to a different room which was then locked so that the child (who was being supervised by a teachers aide) could not cause harm. The children then continued learning whilst procedures were put in place to help the child who was distressed and displaying aggressive behaviour – which may include calling in the police in extreme cases.

Reference for Roger’s chain of action:
Brady, L. & Scully, A. (2005). Engagement: Inclusive Classroom Management. Sydney: Pearson Education.

Safety in schools NSW DET document:

Crisis management flow-chart from the Spastic Centre


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The dreaded power-struggle

“Mark, can you sit down and do your work please?”


“Mark, sit down please.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Sit down.”


“Because….because you need to do your work.”

“I don’t want to.”…

Half an hour later.


“What are you goin’ #$%#$% do?” You quickly duck out of the way of a flying chair. “I said I don’t want to do it!!”

Angry, you confront him and say “Don’t you throw things at me!”

“I will @#$%@ do what I @%%# well like!!!”


Have you ever been caught in an un-winnable argument like this? I have come close with a few children aged between 8-11 who were diagnosed with oppositional defiance disorder, ADHD or bi-polar disorder.

But I usually remembered just in time the important techniques that ensure the child, myself and other children around did not get hurt. Here is one of the techniques that helped me diffuse the situation.

Roger’s Chain of Action

Let’s re-tell this scenario following Roger’s “chain of action” (cited in Brady and Scully, 2005).

It’s homework time at home, or deskwork time at school.

You point to your schedule which is hung on the wall. “Okay, everyone/Mark. Its nearly time to work at your desks/do your homework. You will need your pencil case, your Maths book and your ruler (you write this on the board/on a sticky note and put it on his desk). I’ll set the timer for five minutes so you can get ready.”

Mark is clearly not moving. He looks in your direction to see what you will do.

Step one: Tactical ignoring

You decide to see what will happen if you ignore. The minutes tick away. Mark starts to do things like flicking spit-balls at his sister or throwing small projectiles such as his rubber at his peers.

Ignoring is obviously not working.

Step two: Simple direction, rule re-statement, or question and feedback.

As you are wandering around helping others, you stop close to Mark, ensuring you have his attention without getting “in his face”.

“What are you meant to be doing, Mark?”

“I dunno.”

“You can check the schedule if you don’t remember.”

“I’m not dumb.”

“I know that.” said with a genuine, warm smile. “So what are you meant to be doing?”

Mark reluctantly tells you.

“That’s great! You should have just enough time. There’s still one minute on the timer.”

He starts getting ready, albeit mumbling, “I hate maths!” But you have walked away and ignore this. You know he is capable of the work you have set, and he knows you are willing to support him where necessary, so discussion is not necessary and will only prolong the argument. Though you may want to quickly state these facts before you walk away.

Unfortunately, he discovers a tempting projectile in his equipment and starts to set up a catapult using his ruler in order to release some of his frustration. He’s not ready to stop fighting yet.

Its time to act quickly.

Step three: Repeat step two or take child aside and give them a clear choice.

You don’t waste time with reviewing what he is meant to be doing. Someone may lose an eye.

You put your hand on Mark’s catapult and ask him calmly, “Do you want to do this now, or during recess/your favourite TV show?”

“You can’t do that!” He is hanging for a showdown.

Calmly you say, “It’s your choice. You have about 30 seconds left on the clock.” Then you walk away (with the ruler and the projectile).

Conclusion 1: It works (and it usually did for me)

The success of this process relies on you having built a rapport with the child, respecting and caring for their needs. It also requires firmness, confidence and consistency in application. If you fail to follow-through with choices at any time the child will not take you seriously.

So don't "threaten", just state facts about what is going to happen.

Conclusion 2: He opts out and starts throwing larger projectiles.


Step 4: Isolation, time-out, exit from the room.

Have a crisis management plan in place to respond to any escalating aggression.

At home:
You may have a punching ball or “outburst” space where he can have it out safely.

Or, if possible, remove Mark to his room where anything he breaks has consequences for him rather than the family – though it is likely that this could start another argument and you will be unable to get him out of the room.

Another option is to remove yourself and any other children to a different room.

But there must be consequences after the outburst has subsided. That is, you must follow through with the choice you gave him. So Mark will have to do his work later and miss out on his favourite show.

At school:
Have a “buddy teacher” who is in a room close-by to whom Mark goes to “cool down”. The buddy teacher will have a desk close to the door where he can sit unobtrusively. It would also be important to have some physical outlet, such as a stress-ball. Though just walking between rooms (always being within sight for duty of care reasons) may be enough for some children.

Alternately, you may have a telephone in your room and an agreement that you can call either the principal, the deputy principal or the head teacher for welfare, who will then come down and either remove Mark or stay with him whilst you move your other students to do their work in the lovely sunshine or the library as the case may be.

But, again, you must follow through with the choice you gave him. So Mark will either work on his Maths with you or another staff member (such as the principal or in the library) during recess.

This should be seen as a natural consequence for his actions, rather than a “punishment”, especially if (as his actions suggest) Mark is struggling with self-esteem or self-efficacy issues.

If you follow these steps you might find that you have avoided a power-struggle and saved yourself and others a lot of time and angst.

Brady, L. & Scully, A. (2005). Engagement: Inclusive Classroom Management. Sydney: Pearson Education.

Interesting reading:,%20sample%20&%20guidance.pdf


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