Words … more powerful than you think

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The words we use around children shape their views of themselves now and in the future. Even if you’re not sure your child understands your exact words, don’t be fooled. Children who are preverbal or who speak very little understand way more than you might think.

We need to support our children to become more independent, confident and willing to try new things. They hear us say, “John doesn’t eat meat.” and that pretty well seals it – John’s less likely to try meat. 

Talk about children in terms of what they can do. If they have setbacks or run into difficulty, there are still options available. If you tell your child they’re a good athlete and they lose a race, how does their self-evaluation change? If you tell your child they’re a really good reader but they misread something, how do they evaluate themselves now? If we put children into categories, like being a good reader, helper, athlete, artist, etc., once they run into difficulties, there goes their image of themselves. But, if you tell them they’re good at reading, helping, running, drawing, etc. they have room for setbacks and for successes without damaging their own image. 

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Subtle but surprisingly powerful. A recent study looked at these subtleties. Children were told either they were good helpers or good at helping. That didn’t affect anything until the children ran into setbacks (spilling milk, dropping crayons/colors). The ‘helper’ children gave up – they seemed to think, “Ya, what a great helper I am!” They were also less willing to help other people. The children were left “feeling like they were ‘bad’ members of the helper category” (p. 12). It’s better to focus children on their intentions (to help, read, draw, etc.), especially when things don’t pan out well. This’ll help them understand that difficulties and mistakes are chances for learning and not the end of the world.

The effect of labels doesn’t go away. Children who were praised for trying or working hard as preschoolers were more likely to treat mistakes as chances for learning five years later. But, children who were praised for being a ‘good girl’, ‘big boy’, or ‘being smart’, were more likely to be frustrated by difficulties and give up.    

Here are my rules for talking to children:

  1. Always speak in front of your child as if they understand everything. They’ll understand your tone of voice and whether it’s positive or negative even if they don’t understand every word. Talk about what they do well and how hard they work. 
  2. NEVER talk about your child’s problems and difficulties in front of them. For years, I’ve heard people say, “Well, she didn’t breathe when she was first born so …” and “He has autism so …” That’s just damaging! Of course, we want children to be realistic about their talents and areas of need more help but don’t put limits on them. All children can learn and want to learn. You can talk about challenges but make sure you highlight their strengths.
  3. Talk about children in terms of what they do, not who they are. Use action words to describe them – “You are doing such a good job helping/cooking/reading/jumping.” Find positives to encourage your child so they’re motivated to keep trying.

How to activate your child’s thinking

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We’re so used to telling children with autism what to do – stand up, sit down, look here. That seems to be the way many people think our children learn.

Do we want passive children who wait to be told what to do? Or do we want children who can think on their own?m Do we want our children as adults to stand around and worry about what might happen? Or do we want them to figure out what to do?

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The passive approach leads to dependence on others. Active thinking leads to problem-solving and greater independence.

Children need to be engaged and involved. They need to participate actively and think on their own.

Here are six things to get this started:

1. Help your child understand the meaning and purpose of things you ask them to do. Children (like anyone else) are more likely to be interested in activities if they see some purpose. Explain in simple words why you’re doing activities and why you’re using different strategies – “We’re practicing doing Turtle Breathing to help your brain and body feel calm”, “We’re brushing your teeth so they stay healthy and strong”, “We’re being systematic so we don’t miss anything.”

2. Prompt them to think on their own – This is difficult for a lot of adults because it means waiting. You have to be prepared to wait and give children time to think. Encourage them with positive messages – “I know you’ve got lots of good ideas”. Don’t worry if your child struggles a bit. Be patient and calm and let them try. Use questions to prompt them – “What can you do to help yourself?”, “What do you think we’re supposed to do here?” If your child seems stuck, give some hints – “Is there something missing here?”, “It might be easier if you did this part first”.

3. Give them a chance to show what they can do – Give your child freedom and confidence to do things on their own. Children often surprise us when we give them a chance. Stand back and let them try on their own. Let small errors pass. Praise what they can do. We want our children to be unafraid of trying. They need to learn that making mistakes is part of learning.

4. Make your child feel competent – Feelings of competence come from experiencing success. Encourage your child with patient interest in what they’re doing. Be positive even if your child doesn’t do what you expected – “Hmm, that’s really interesting. Help me understand what you did.”, “That doesn’t look like what I got. Let’s check it out.” Avoid negative words, like “no”, “not” and “don’t”. They can stop your child from trying. 

5. Give your child a sense of control – Your child needs to become the commander of his own body, thinking, and emotions. Let them try things out without fear of being corrected. Of course, you’ll choose the activity carefully so they’ll be safe. But let them try out their wings.

6. Share activities and experiences with your child – Children need to know we’re there to support them. If they have problems, we’ll be there. The other side of that is that we expect them to be actively involved with us. There’s a sense of ‘we’ when doing activities. Use the word ‘we’ to signal to your child that it’s the two of you working on a task or activity. Let your child make some choices about what to do, how and/or when. This gives them a feeling of participating rather than being told what to do.

Letting go

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Yes, that’s what we have to do with children learning self-regulation. We have to allow them time and space to become more independent.

Our ultimate goal in teaching self-regulation is for children to make choices for themselves. They need to develop a sense of freedom. This means they become more autonomous …. and they don’t need us so much.

How do you go from hovering so disasters don’t occur to giving children space to become more independent? How do you stop acting as children’s frontal lobes?

First of all, we have to teach them how and when to regulate their bodies, thinking and emotions. They need help to become aware of their ability to self-regulate, of when and where they need to use these skills, of how to be more resilient and how to advocate for themselves. We don’t just throw them into a situation and hope they can swim!!

Find the balance between your actions and your words. Stay calm (calm adult = calm children) and show confidence in the children’s ability.

The words we use are critical. Even if you’re not sure the children understand everything, at the very least they’ll understand your tone of voice. When working with children with autism, we become used to telling/ordering them what to do. We also help them a lot – doing things for them. These are ‘doing-to’ and ‘doing-for’ approaches that ultimately keep children dependent on the adults around them.

There’s a time and place for telling children what to do (like, “Stay away from that dog!”). Some ‘doing-for’ things are steps in the right direction. For example, when we set up visual schedules and streamline the environment, it’s clearer to children what they’re expected to do. Over time, we want them to organize themselves and cope with some uncertainty.

We need to move to ‘doing with’ the children. That means becoming a learning partner. It’s not easy to do. You have to be willing to wait, watch patiently, and let the children make mistakes. You have to focus on the end-goal: we want children to do-it-yourself. We want the children to plan and organize on their own, inhibit unhelpful behaviors, remember what they plan to do, check their own progress, and change approaches if need be.

That’s huge! But here are some beginning steps:

  1. Sit back and pretend you’re in the passenger’s seat and the child is the driver. Trust yourself and trust the child. 
  2. Use inclusive language. Use “we”. It’s a simple but powerful way to tell children you’re in this together and you’ll be there to support them if needed. 
  3. Ask rather than tell. Use words like “How about …?”, “What do you think if we do it this way?”, “What’ll happen if we do it this way?” when making suggestions. 
  4. Give hints and encouragement. Prompt children to think for themselves and figure things out. Ask them, “Did you notice this thing over here? Do you think that might help you?”, “What do you need to do?” or “What could you do to help yourself?”
  5. Give them choices. Choices can be about what to do, how and/or when or by giving a reason when choice is limited. Choice is powerful. It tells the children they’re important and have some say. Choices can start out really simply. For example, you decide what things need to be done but the child determines the order for completing them. You offer milk and juice and the child selects one. Remember, once children make a choice, you have to respect it … even if it’s not what you had in mind. 
  6. Invite and value their opinions. Ask about what they’d like to do, how they’d like to do it, why they don’t want to do it, etc. Listen to their ideas and respond to their suggestions. Acknowledge their outlook even if you disagree.
  7. Think out loud. Explain in simple terms what you’re thinking and the reason you want to do things in certain ways. You may not get your way but the children will learn about other ways of doing things.