Free time doesn’t always feel free

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When a child has problems with self-regulation, they can find so-called ‘free’ time stressful. They probably have difficulty planning. 

Organizing themselves and figuring out what activities to do is hard if not impossible. This will increase their anxiety and, as they feel more stressed, their ability to plan and organize gets worse.

What can you do to help?

First, help your child calm down. Use some of the suggestions from our posting.

Then narrow their options. Choose two or three activities your child might enjoy. It’s best to choose some they can do on their own. There are lots of activities online. I really like shoebox tasks and file folder activities because they’re well-organized and, just by looking, your child will know what to do. Search “shoebox task ideas” for lots of suggestions. Many excellent file folder ideas organized by grade level can be found here.

Show your child the options. Either use printed words or pictures plus printed words – visual information is easier to remember and deal with, especially when they’re stressed. Let your child choose which one to do first.  
Remember, you can include making shoebox or folder tasks as one of the activities you choose with your child.

Put time limits on each activity. Even though your child really enjoys an activity, you don’t want them to become so immersed in it that it’s all they focus on. Agree with your child how long they should do an activity. Set a timer and stick with the agreed time – your child can always do the activity again later.

Lay out the two or three activities so your child can finish one and more on to the next. The more organized you care the easier will be the switch from one activity to the next.

For more information on organizing activities, see this posting and this

Keep in mind that free time can be anxiety-inducing in children with self-regulation problems. It means something very different for them.

We all need feelings of connectedness

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The current pandemic and confinement to our homes has made us aware how connections to others are such an important part of life. Regardless of whether we’re mainly introverted or extraverted, we need a sense of being connected to others in this world.

Connectedness is how close or related we feel to other people or groups. It’s a feeling of being loved, cared for, valued, and respected. We can feel connected to our families or friends or to organizations, like schools or clubs. We can also feel connected through pets.

These connections give us a sense of belonging. They make a big difference to our wellbeing. Children who feel connected to their families and schools are less likely to have behavior and mental health problems (1,2).

Connectedness with others not only makes us feel good about ourselves, it can open doors to learning and new relationships. Feeling connected in one part of our life can compensate for lower levels in other areas. So, if a child doesn’t have a sense of connectedness at school, they can gain their sense of value from family or community groups.

How do you find out where your child feels connected?
There are three main ways to figure out connectedness in your child.:

1. Watch your child. The simplest way to figure out your child’s sense of connectedness is to watch them. Does your child gravitate to certain people or places? Do they protest if they have to spend time with some people or in some places? Be sure to include family members, other children, neighbors, teachers, education assistants, therapists, other school staff, staff at clubs or community groups. Sometimes children develop a connection to kindly bus drivers and cleaning staff – don’t forget them,

2. Watch the other people. Another thing to watch for is how other people treat your child. Do they show that they care about and value your child? Do they respect your child as a person?

3. Ask your child. Make a list of people and places you think your child feels connected to. Ask your child:  
“If you’re worried or sad about something, who do you go to?”
“I feel happy when I’m with ______.”
“_______ is important to me.”
Since most of us are confined to our homes, you’ll have to skip to #3 above or try to picture past encounters. I’ve had some sweet moments with children when I asked them, “Who makes you feel happy when you think about them?
Here are two responses I received:

I thought I’d get a grandparent or friend but one child wanted Bear, his dog, and the other wanted Mickey Mouse. I’m fine with that if thinking of those things makes them feel happy. Go with what you get.

What do I do with this information?
Now use this information to help your child feel more connected while in confinement. Here are some ideas:
Make a picture or collage of the person, things, or people who make your child feel connected. Put it up on the wall or wherever your child wants so they can look at it and feel happy. I like to make thought bubbles out of cardboard, put a drawing or picture of the person on them, and put them in a prominent place.
Contact that person by video (for example, FaceTime, Skype, Zoom) or telephone and let your child chat. It’s usually best to help your child organize what they want to say and show the other person beforehand.
Have your child make something for the other person that tells them how they feel. This could be a paper hug like the ones below – you can find other ideas on the internet. Mail it to the special person.  

  • Encourage the other person to make a paper hug for other small gift for your child and send it by.
  • Ask your child what makes them think of the other person or animal. It might be an object – my grandma always wore a brooch which by looking at it or holding it makes me feel comfort. It could also be a certain aroma (like baking bread) or particular dish. I listened to a podcast the other day where a person in confinement made dishes his mother used to cook. They helped remind him of his deep connection to his mother.
  • Online interactive games can also give your child a feeling of connectedness. If these activities are well-supervised, they can be positive experiences.
  • Tell your child you love them and how much you value them. Do it every day!

Make sure you help yourself feel connected. Contact important friends, family members, and colleagues – the ones that make you feel valued, loved, and respected. Do things that remind you of those people. These things will help you stay healthy and you’ll be able to help your children even more.

Do you have other ideas? Please share them

1. Foster, C. E., Horwitz, A., Thomas, A., Opperman, K., Gipson, P., Burnside, A., Stone, D. M., & King, C. A. (2017). Connectedness to family, school, peers, and community in socially vulnerable adolescents. Children and youth services review, 81, 321–331.
2. Marraccini, M. E., & Brier, Z. (2017). School connectedness and suicidal thoughts and behaviors: A systematic meta-analysis. School psychology quarterly32(1), 5–21.

Looking for clues, signals and models – the next step in cognitive self-regulation

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The first part of cognitive self-regulation was helping children be systematic and focus their attention on one thing at a time. The next step was to help them figure out and focus on just the most important information.

Now we teach children to look for things that can guide their responses. There are three main types of guidance: signals, clues, and models.

Signals help us know where to go, what to do, and what’s happening. They might simply be the written instructions on an activity. The signal might also be a stop sign that tells us to halt. 

Clues are like signals, but they’re sometimes hidden and not too obvious. Crumbs on someone’s chin suggest they just ate a cookie. The red X in the example below is a clue about what is expected – cross out the different word. 

Models show us what to do. A photo on a LEGOÒ box shows what the structure is supposed to look like when it’s done. Here’s one example that gives both the final model and steps for completing it:

An example of the use of signals, clues, and models is when you want to find a toilet in an unfamiliar restaurant. You look first for signals – where is a sign that says “Toilets” or “Women/Men”. If that doesn’t work, you look for clues – there’s a person talking to a waiter and the waiter’s pointing toward a doorway; that’s got to be the way to the toilet. Another way to locate the restroom is to look for a customer who seems to be heading toward the back of the restaurant with a sense of purpose.

We teach children to look for the guidance of signals, clues, and models that can help them figure out what to do. They might choose another child as their model – hopefully a good one! They might miss the teacher’s instruction but can check what the other students are doing. That’s a model.

One we start working on emotional self-regulation, we use signals, clues, and models again. They help guide the children’s social behavior as well.

All executive functions are needed when looking for and using signals, clues, and models:

  • Inhibitory control – making sure they take the time to look around and don’t get distracted by things that aren’t important.
  • Planning and organization – being systematic and figuring out how to use the signals, clues or models to guide them.
  • Working memory – remembering the signal, clue, or model and reminding themselves about the main focus.
  • Self-monitoring – checking to make sure they’re on track.
  • Cognitive flexibility – switching between the signal, clue or model and their own work.

Do we really want kids to be compliant?

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Compliance should no longer be a goal with children

Compliance is what a lot of people focus on when working with kids with self-regulation problems. They want the children to ‘do as they’re told’.

Compliance happens when someone agrees with or does things they’re asked or told to do.

There are different ways adults try to get children to comply. There’s coercion – forcing someone to do what you want. Then there’s use of rewards, like treats or favorite activities, for doing what the adult asks. The third major way is punishment. That’s where the child is given a time-out or is ignored if they don’t comply.

There are situations where compliance is important. When safety is involved, unquestioning compliance can be critical. If you’re about to step into the road with a car zooming toward you, and someone yells, “Stop!”, you need to do as you’re told. There’s also willing compliance where a child does what they’re told because they want to. They might be told to eat their ice cream or get their favorite toy and willingly comply.

Compliance in response to coercion or promises of rewards or punishment are different. When force, rewards, or punishment are used there’s a power imbalance. The adult tries to control, regulate, or direct the child. The child is generally helpless. This type of compliance is seen too often in teaching and therapy situations. The adult tells the child to sit still, put their hands in their lap, be quiet, etc. The adult has all the power.

Where does learning compliance lead?

 Forcing children to comply can push them do things that are uncomfortable or make learning more difficult. Urging children with autism to make eye contact is one example. Eye contact is uncomfortable for most autistic people and can overload their systems. Making them comply with an eye contact rule can create high stress levels where they simply can’t learn. Read our article on eye contact.
 Focusing on compliance can lead children to develop learned helplessness. They expect others will tell them what to do. I’ve watched young adults with autism stand around flapping and pacing while waiting for directions.

Teaching children to comply can also lead to their becoming victims of bullies and other unscrupulous people. Up to 77% of children with autism experience bullying (1). If a child learns to do what they’re told, they can be more easily manipulated. This is the case for many adults with autism (2). They often don’t know they can say, “No.”

Children might also learn to become bullies themselves. They learn that coercion, threat of punishment, or rewards can make other people do what they want. They might then go on to bully others.   

What should we do?

First, remember that certain amounts of resistance to  compliance are a normal, positive part of development. Children are learning to be more independent. They’re finding they have choices. Toddlers love to say, “No”, to exercise their new-found independence. Teenagers aren’t much different.

Second, all children can make choices. With some children, you might present two options to choose from (see our article on simplified choice-making). For other children, you can give more complicated options. Simply adjust what you offer as options and how you present them. One teacher I knew would say to a reluctant child, “You can do it yourself or my hands can help you.” It was a bit coercive but in a gentle way and was often successful in gaining cooperation.  

Third, recognize that change is difficult for children with autism (see our article on cognitive flexibility). If you ask them to do something different from what they’re presently doing, it can be a strain. They might struggle and reject your suggestion, at least initially. Providing simple reasons why you’re asking for change can improve cooperation. 

Finally, making decisions is challenging for autistic people (3). Remember, people with autism typically have problems with executive functions. This makes it difficult to narrow down choices and figure out what’s most important. It can lead to ‘analysis paralysis’. They may also be afraid of making a mistake. These things can cause stress which, in turn, challenge decision-making.

Compliance should no longer be a goal with children. Instead, focus on setting up the conditions to allow them to be self-motivated. All children are motivated; we just have to help them be more engaged. Watch the video in the next section to find out ways.

We also need to teach children strategies for making decisions. Turtle Breathing will help them remain calm (check out our article on the effect of calmness). Then cognitive self-regulation skills will make sure they don’t end up with ‘analysis paralysis’. They learn to figure out what’s most important and what they have to do. They then keep this in mind while recalling similar experiences that might help them. Teach them to keep their options open so they can change if needed.

Give children time to think things through. Try different approaches. Provide guidance,  support, and reasons for what you’re asking them to do. Simple prompts like, “How about …” can create wonderful opportunities for children to make decisions. For example, “How about we look over here to see what to do?”, “How about we try this one?”, or “How about you see what happens if you try it?”  

Rather than focusing on compliance, work with children on learning to make decisions on their own. This will build lifelong skills which lead to a better quality of life.
———————————-
(1) Cappadocia, M. C., Weiss, J. A., & Pepler, D. (2012). Bullying Experiences Among Children and Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders42(2), 266–277. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-011-1241-x

(2) Chandler, R. J., Russell, A., & Maras, K. L. (2019). Compliance in autism: Self-report in action. Autism23(4), 1005–1017. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361318795479

(3) Luke, L., Clare, I. C. H., Ring, H., Redley, M., & Watson, P. (2012). Decision-making difficulties experienced by adults with autism spectrum conditions. Autism16(6), 612–621. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361311415876

What you can do to help your child during school closure – Part 3

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Part 1 was a discussion of ways you can help your child and yourself deal with anxiety. Stress and anxiety are expected in situations like our current confinement. You need to have things in place to held deal with them. Don’t just wait until they boil over.  

In Part 2, the importance of organizing time and activities was highlighted. I realize when you’re stressed it’s hard to get organized but please do it for your child(ren). I’ve seen that even knowledgeable, highly skilled parents of kids with self-regulation challenges are forgetting/avoiding this.

Don’t let your children just binge on the same thing for hours on end. That’s not doing them any favors. It can keep them occupied but, you have to think about what life’s going to be like at the end of this school closure. Your children are going back to school routines and schedules. It’ll be a massive shock to them if they go from free-flow, do-what-interests-you to set schedules. If you want to truly help your child, set up a schedule. It doesn’t have to be elaborate but it should involve a variety of activities, some they love and some that are just okay.

Don’t just wing it. Use a visual schedule. Remember that a lot of children have difficulty with working memory. That means they can’t hold a lot of information in their memories at the same time. By making a visual schedule, they can check back to make sure they’re on track. It lets them be more independent – you  don’t have to be reminding over and over.

Here are some things you need to do when making a schedule:

  1. Decide what activities your child would like to do, what they can do, and what they need to do. You’ll need to ask your child what they’d like to do – what are their favorite things? Then decide which things they can do on their own and what ones will need your input. Choose a mix – some favorites, some they can do without your help, some new things they need to learn.
  2. Make pictures of each activity. Get your child involved in this by having them draw pictures of each activity. You can also find pictures online or in magazines. Each picture should be no more than 2 inches by 2 inches (about 5 cms by 5 cms). Glue each picture to a piece of cardboard (old cereal or other box is fine). Print the name of the activity on it. Then, cover the whole thing in clear tape. That’ll make it last longer.   
  3. Decide how many activities to show on the schedule. Some children do better with just two things on their schedule – do this first and then that. Other children can handle longer schedules. Think about how many things your child can do independently, add a couple of things where they need help, and start there. Increase the number of activities over time so you can get them less and less dependent on you.  
  4. Make the schedule. Cut out one of the schedules below or make your own – there are only three spaces for activities on the longer schedule because of space restrictions. Glue the schedule on to a piece of cardboard. Cover in clear tape if you want it to last. Also, if you have non-permanent markers, you can write on the taped-up schedule and then erase it.

5. Decide on the order of activities with your child. Show your child pictures for all the activities they’re going to do. Let them decide the order of things but make sure they do one fun or easy activity followed by something a little more challenging followed by another easy one.

6. Decide how long to do each activity. Use this table to help you figure out how long each section of your schedule should be. 

7. Follow the schedule. Follow the schedule – making sure your child does an activity for just the number of minutes you decided on. But, if your child is getting bogged down or feeling a little too frustrated, tell them what you’re seeing – “It looks like that’s a little too hard/frustrating/long for right now. We can change our mind. How about we finish/change that and do the next thing?” This will help your child put a name to their feelings at that moment. Also, you’ve helped them learn about flexibility – you can change things even though it’s on the schedule.

Please please please get your schedules going.
Let me know how it’s working (or not) for you. Just email at selfregcentral@gmail.com I’ll get back to you quickly – I’m in lockdown too!!

What you can do to help your child during school closure – Part 2

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In Part 1, we talked about how to reduce stress in the whole family. Stress and anxiety are to be expected in our extraordinary situation right now.

There were a couple of key points made in Part 1. One was that it’s not the time to be a perfect parent. Don’t expect yourself to be in top parenting form. Do the best you can for both you and your child(ren). In other words, ease up!

The second thing is that all the suggestions I made are not to be simply imposed on your child. A parent commented that they could try scheduling times to check on virus updates but their child would keep checking anyway. Whatever you want to work on has to be done as a family. You need to sit down with your child(ren) and explain what the issue is – “Checking all the time on the virus can make all of us a little nervous.” Then ask for their thoughts on how to deal with it – “What can we do to help ourselves?” Don’t just tell them what to do. Help them understand the problem and then ask for their help in dealing with it. Make suggestions and then, as a group, decide what to do. It doesn’t matter what you decide. The goal is to set a rule that’s agreed on by everyone. As a group, decide how often you’ll check on things. Try to make it a group activity so you check in together. Then you can be available to help calm any worries.  

Today’s topic is: Get organized

Recognize your child’s difficulty with planning and organizing.

Help them plan out their days so there’s some predictability. Make a list of things your child enjoys. Include some they can do on their own as well as some where they need adult input. Indoor activities can include homework as well as crafts, coloring, enjoying their collections, board/card games, computer/video games, drawing, reading, or watching videos.  Outdoor activities are generally limited to what can be done on a balcony or in the garden/yard. That means you can still set up obstacle courses, bowling, or scavenger hunts.
 Show your child the activities available for that day (you decide) and let them select what they do and when. Make a visual plan like the examples. 

The first example (to the left)is for older children. There’s some emphasis on homework but it’s slipped between physical activities and those your child enjoys a lot.
Always use written words on your schedules. Add pictures if your child isn’t a strong reader. Visual schedules make it easier to remember. There’ll be fewer disagreements about what happens next. If it’d be helpful, put time limits for each activity. That way, they won’t over-focus on just one thing. Schedules can be hand-drawn or you can find pictures on the internet. It just takes minutes and will make life simpler and calmer for everyone.

When you make up the schedule with your child, include times to focus and times to ease up. Think of it as breathing in (focusing) and breathing out (relaxing). Follow a relaxing activity with one that takes more thinking and concentration. Follow relaxing and favorite activities with ones that require more problem solving. Read more about rhythm in schedules here.

To the right is an example for younger children and those who don’t have homework to do.

Add activities that’ll prompt your child to help around the house. They can help make lunch, sort laundry, sweep the floor, exercise the dog or cat, load/unload the dishwasher.

Another important area for planning is keeping contact with friends and family. With children out of school, they lose contact with other children they usually see everyday. Don’t forget grandparents and extended family members. Use video calling if possible (Skype, FaceTime, Messenger, for example). That way they can see the other person. Set your child up for success. Help them figure out before the call what they want to tell the other person. If your child is preverbal or low verbal, help them show what they’re doing that day. If they tend to freeze when online, make a short video beforehand so they can show it during their call. Help your child anticipate some of the questions that’ll be asked. Make up lists of these questions (“What did you do today?”) and comments (“Boy, that looks difficult/delicious.”). Then put together some responses with your child. Typical small talk topics include weather, sports, movies, family, school, and food. Practice asking and answering questions about these topics. It’ll make it so much easier.

Get your child to organize and plan activities with you every day. Plan a variety of things so they don’t get stuck on just one or two. The more you organize life, the more engaged your child will be. And the less likely they’ll be to become stressed.  

Resources

There are lots of resources on the internet that will give you ideas for
activities. I’ve listed some below.

Also, check out Canadian Child Magazine and AuKids Magazine for more ideas. Explore the possibilities at Little Puddins and DLTK-Kids. Search on the internet for kids’ activities during school closure for more ideas.

Rhymes and songs for preschoolers and early elementary-age (Primary through Year 2) children

Mama Lisa’s World International Music and Culture Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes – action songshand-clappingmarching
Kiddles Kids’ Action Songs
Elementary School Music Early Childhood Songs and Rhymes
Fingerplays, Action Poems, Nursery Rhymes, and Songs
Action Songs: Children’s Music that Calls for Movement, Participation and Dance
Action, Participation, Movement Songs for Kids

Jump rope and skipping songs and rhymes
Mama Lisa 
Very Well Family 

Songs and rhymes for older children
Scout Songs
Action Camp Songs
Dragon’s Campfire Songbook
Ultimate Campfire Resource

Yoga
10 yoga poses for kids
Yoga for kids

Games
Simple outdoor play 
Traditional games 

Make your own rhythm instruments
Homemade musical instruments 
More homemade musical instruments 

File folder activities – these are self-contained activities your child can do on their own
File folder fun
File folder games 
More file folder games
Even more file folder games
Many more 

Crafts and activities
Crafts involving cartoon and animé characters
Recipes with step-by-step pictures 
Lego with step-by-step pictures (have to enter keyword describing the object or the number of the set) 
Fun paper airplanes

Coloring pages
Popular cartoon and medieval characters
Popular cartoon, movie and book characters
Popular cartoon, movie and book characters
Author Jan Brett
Wide array of popular singers, actors, etc.

What you can do to help your child during school closure – Part 1

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Children who have difficulty with self-regulation and executive functions usually find breaks from routine challenging.

All the things that make up their daily rhythm are changed. They’re at home and not at school with their teachers and friends. Children can become overwhelmed by these changes. The routines they usually rely on are gone or changed. Stress abounds!

In addition to that, the uncertainty of our current pandemic is stressful to parents too. This means that it’s not the time to be a perfect parent. Don’t expect yourself to be in top parenting form. These are unusual times. Do the best you can for both you and your child(ren).

When you and your child are stressed, self-regulation will be at a low point. It’s harder to plan and organize but that’s what’s needed. Thinking flexibly is more difficult too when you’re stressed. This is what I hope to be able to help you with.

Here are some things you can do.

Make sure you and your child are Calm, Alert, and Nourished.

1. Be calm

We know the calmer adults are the calmer children are. Check out Calm Adults, Calm Children for a discussion of what your emotions mean to children.

One way to help remain calm is to get lots of exercise. Here are some resources you can try for in-home exercise:

Search online for “free exercise for kids” to find more.

Don’t forget your children can go out in the yard/garden for free play so long as they stay a good distance from others. Free time to run and play are critical to children’s ability to cope, remain calm and to eat and sleep better.

Be sure to make time for calming and enjoyable sensory activities. Take the time to relax with Turtle Breathing. Here are some simple instructions to guide you and your child: 

Do some yoga – try Cosmic Kids Yoga or search for “free yoga for kids”. Yoga helps combine Turtle Breathing with slow focused movement. It gives such a good break from worries.

You and your child need some quiet time with things you enjoy. It might be warm baths, flashing lights, sounds of nature, spinning fans … all those sensory experiences they enjoy. Quiet time with favorite books can also restore a sense of calm.

Give you and your child breaks from the news. Make a rule that you’ll check only two or three times a day. Let yourself look at the news for only a certain number of minutes. A lot of the information we’re receiving can just add to your stress level. It’s usually best to limit it.

Schedule exercise, yoga, and calming activities. The goal is to catch you and your child before stress mounts up too much. 

There are  lots of strategies you can use to remain and regain calm. Check out our articles on Regaining Self-Regulation with DistractingDismissingDisplacing, and Distancing.

2. Be alert

Do things that you and your child enjoy. If your child is a fan of certain YouTube channels, videos, or whatever, schedule in time to indulge. There’s nothing like a favorite activity or topic to sharpen your mind.

Keep bedtimes as close to normal as possible. Make sure you and your child get lots of rest. It’s one of the best defenses against stress.

Also, if you or your child aren’t feeling well, don’t push for self-regulation. Just ease off and try again when you’re feeling better.

3. Be nourished

Make sure you and your child eat regularly. Try your best to have a balance of protein, fruit, and vegetables. At times like these when stress levels may be up, sweets and carbohydrates are the go-to foods. Do your best to sneak in other foods that fuel real energy and better moods.

Check out our article What’s a tummy got to do with self-regulation? for more information.

The next step in cognitive self-regulation: Find the most important information

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The first part of cognitive self-regulation was helping children be systematic and focus their attention. The next step is to help them figure out and focus on just the most important information. They learn to pay attention to only those things that are relevant to what they’re doing.

Throughout, we continue to expect children to work systematically and use strategies that are helpful to them.

Start off by teaching children to match. They have to keep the one thing in mind while they search for another one the same – the one that matches. This is a good way to help them understand the thing they’re matching is most important right now.

Then they learn to listen to instructions and say the key words over to themselves while they do the activity. For example, they repeat “Find a dog with long ears.” while searching for it.

Believe it or not, we teach children how to ignore things. This is part of becoming more resilient – “I can stay on track if I can ignore things that aren’t important right now”. Ask them if the thing distracting them is “important right now”. If the answer is ’no’, prompt them to ignore it. Notice that we use the phrase “important right now”. That’s because things change from moment to moment but, right now, that’s not important to us. 

This process works on all executive functions:

  • Planning and organization is emphasized when children figure out what’s most important and then either find it or follow the direction.
  • Inhibitory control gets a good workout since they have to control their impulses and not get distracted by irrelevant things. They must keep themselves on task.
  • Working memory is activated by having children repeat instructions over to themselves while they follow them.
  • Self-monitoring comes into play as they check their progress in finding or doing the most important thing. They also have to keep checking that they’re not getting distracted by unimportant things, no matter how interesting.
  • Cognitive flexibility is activated by having children move from task to task, each with different ‘important things’.

Where to sit? Some important dynamics when teaching children

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We know there are important dynamics in seating arrangements. The chair at the head of the table is the ‘power’ seat. That position is usually reserved for the most powerful, senior, or revered person. Sitting beside your husband’s ex-wife’s new husband is one to avoid – don’t ask!

With students, though, there are other important considerations. We know that different seating arrangements can influence the climate of the classroom, relationships among the students and teacher, and learning in general.

For students with difficulty self-regulating, these considerations are particularly important. What do you do with a child who’s likely to disrupt other students? I’ve known teachers who put those kids at that back of the class. But that’s isolating to the student … and all the other students know why they’re sitting by themselves. Some children are seated up front near the teacher to reduce distractions. That also can cause social isolation – not something we want for the student. You can just hear other children remarking, “Bobby has to sit there cuz he makes too much noise or can’t sit still or …” It can all be pretty negative in terms of how other students view them and how they view themselves.

Considerations for seating arrangements are usually based on how students are viewed by the teachers (as potentially acting out or drifting off) and how that student might impact others. There are other things to consider, however. For example: What’s best for the academic learning of all students in the class? What’s best for learning appropriate behavior? What is tolerable for the students?

Academic learning is generally more effective when students are seated side-by-side in rows facing toward the teacher*. This seating arrangement keeps focus on the teacher and gives a greater sense of order to the classroom**.

Learning appropriate behavior is enhanced by grouping students together as buddies or in small groups. This means placing a child with self-regulation or learning challenges with students who have strong social and leadership skills. Small groups and learning buddies can help students learn cooperation as well as exposing them to good models. In addition, other children will start viewing them more positively. Just sitting close to a ‘higher status’ child can improve the buddy’s own standing in the classroom. Importantly, the children with strong social skills are usually not affected by the less regulated behavior of their buddy**.

Tolerable situations are those that are not too over-stimulating or under-stimulating. Children with autism and related conditions have many sensory sensitivities. Sitting close to other people, smelling their breath, sensing their movements, hearing them cough …. makes this all the more challenging. I recall a child who purposely made errors on a test so he could get away from the adult’s smelly breath.

Let’s look at the different seating arrangements.

Facing teacher sitting in rows. Students are expected to watch, listen, and respond consistently to the teacher (shown as gray chair). The physical closeness of the students can increase the sensory demands on them. Having to watch and respond to only one person (the teacher) can make this seating arrangement a little more tolerable for some students.
 

Students in small groups and pairs. In these seating arrangements, students are expected to pay attention and respond to verbal and nonverbal behavior of other students. They have to deal with the sensory issues related to being physically close, in addition to working on a task. Since children are generally less predictable in their behavior than adults, these seating  arrangements can prove to be quite challenging for some students. The reduced number of people in the one-on-one (rather than the group of four) can be easier to deal with. The side-by-side arrangement can further reduce demands.

Teacher or assistant face-to-face with student. This seating arrangement is typically used when testing children or teaching new or difficult tasks. The adult works individually with the child and the student is expected to pay attention and respond to them. The child has to deal with sensory issues related to being physically close to another person in addition to working on a task. The greater predictability of adults makes this situation a little less challenging. But there’s a confrontational nature to this seating arrangement because it is one-to-one and face-to-face.

Teacher or assistant behind the student. This seating arrangement is perhaps the best for teaching new skills and academic content. The teacher or assistant sits behind and to the side of the student. The student’s main focus is then on the task and the adult assists when needed. There are reduced sensory demands because the adult is not visible. Also, the adult’s role is as a helper rather than challenger.

The major take-away from this discussion is that there’s no best way to arrange seating. Observe children carefully and understand their sensory challenges in addition to their learning and social/behavioral needs. Use different seating arrangements for different purposes. If academic learning is the main goal, consider sitting behind the student or seating them in rows. Face-to-face across a table is still an option for teaching and testing but be aware of the dynamics and sensory concerns. If you want to focus on social learning as well as to practice skills, consider buddying children up or seating them in small groups. Those arrangements are not ideal for introducing new or more difficult tasks. As children develop their self-regulation skills, change seating arrangements to help build their resilience and self-advocacy skills.



* Note I didn’t say ‘looking at the teacher’. Eye contact can be disruptive to learning by students with autism and related conditions. Making students look at the teacher is not recommended. Looking in the direction of the teacher is something you can work on over time.
** For further reading, check out these studies:
Gremmen, M. C., van den Berg, Y. H. M., Segers, E., Cillessen, A. H. N. (2016). Considerations for classroom seating arrangements and the role of teacher characteristics and beliefs. Social Psychology of Education, 19, 749–774.
van den Berg, Y. H. M., & Stoltz, S. (2018). Enhancing Social Inclusion of Children With Externalizing Problems Through Classroom Seating Arrangements: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders26(1), 31–41. https://doi.org/10.1177/1063426617740561
***Sitting with a child with special needs may not be considered ‘cool’ by some students. It may be wise to rotate on a consistent basis in order to limit any negative effects on likeability.

What’s the best predictor of success? Hint: it’s not IQ

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There’s so much focus on IQ, so-called ‘intelligence’ as the a predictor of learning and success. It just infuriates me when I hear people talk about a child as not being able to do something. How do they know? I’ve battled against this IQ-referencing a long time. People will cite a child’s IQ and use it to determine if they qualify for certain services or not. That’s just ridiculous in my opinion. 

Results of intelligence tests are used by some government agencies to decide what services someone can access. If your IQ score isn’t high enough, you’re considered to be ‘unable’ to benefit and you’re cut off. This same thing happens in school systems. If your IQ isn’t high enough, you’ll likely be routed through special education classes.

These ideas make a lot of assumptions. One of them is that the measured IQ is indeed the person’s level of ability. As the researchers at the University of Montreal have found, results of assessment can seriously underestimate intelligence, depending on the test used.

Another assumption is that IQ is the only predictor of achievement. A fascinating article was published in 2011 that made my heart soar. It presented the notion of the hungry mind as a factor in achievement. They found that, in addition to IQ, strong predictors of achievement were persistence and curiosity.

If a person is persistent, they put in the effort, they plan, they organize themselves …. they self-regulate. Persistence was found to be independent of intelligence – you didn’t have to be smart to work diligently.

Students who are curious look for chances to learn. They have a drive to know and to experience – an appetite for information. As with conscientiousness, curiosity was not related to how smart you are.

When persistence and curiosity were combined, they predicted achievement better than IQ! So, your IQ is less important if you have a drive to know and you refuse to give up.  

This reminded me of students I’ve known over the years. One young girl, in particular, was classified as “educably mentally retarded” (excuse the terminology, those were the olden days!). This meant she wasn’t allowed to attend mainstream classes. She had to be in special education. Her parents worked hard to give her learning opportunities. I remember being impressed by the girl’s persistence and drive to learn. Some years later, I met her again at a university where she was a student, getting her degree in early childhood education. She reminded me of the importance of perseverance as well as the injustice surrounding IQ referencing.

What does this all mean to children we live and work with? Number one, don’t let IQ determine how or what you teach. Number two, help children develop their behavioral, cognitive, and emotional self-regulation skills. Then they can more readily develop their persistence and curiosity. This, in turn, will impact their achievement.


For the curious, here are two interesting articles:
von Stumm, S., Hell, B., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2011a). The hungry mind: Intellectual curiosity as third pillar of academic performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 51, 12-31. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26168378
von Stumm, S., & Ackerman, P. L. (2013). Investment and Intellect: A Review and Metaanalysis. Psychological Bulletin, 139, 841-869.  https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/ea81/8d3ed84875d9981d9d39f61ac11bc2374f61.pdf