By Dan Coulter
If you’re a parent or a teacher, can your kids or students count on you? I mean, do you think about being consistent so they know what to expect?
Kids who have Autism Spectrum Disorders, in particular, often benefit from guidance that’s structured and consistent.
If a child has a habit that you want to modify, or needs to learn a skill, consistently reinforcing a behavior can help make it a part of that child’s repertoire.
Try looking at the teaching process from his or her point of view. If we allow poor table manners at home, but try to enforce proper manners in a restaurant, we’re sending mixed messages. It’s much more practical for kids to learn one set of manners that’s appropriate for both situations.
The world can seem chaotic to kids with ASDs. Think of them as pilots trying to land their planes. It’s hard enough to land on a stable runway on the ground. But navy pilots will tell you it’s a lot harder to land on an aircraft carrier deck that’s heaving on the waves. As much as possible, we need to be the stable runways that our kids can depend on -- and consistently guide them toward behaviors that will be appropriate in the majority of situations they’ll encounter.
I read something the other day written by a teacher who described a challenge with a former student who was autistic. This student would sometimes express affection in ways that were inappropriate for a regular school classroom. The teacher gently redirected him toward other, more appropriate behaviors. However, some of his other teachers found his affectionate behaviors cute and encouraged them. The behaviors continued and caused the student increasing problems with teasing as he entered middle school.
This writer urged other teachers to guide their students’ behaviors in light of the student’s best interests, and to be consistent.
In Scotland County, North Carolina, they’re restructuring a local high school of 1800 students into nine smaller, semiautonomous learning academies or “schools within a school.” To ensure that Scotland High’s programs are consistent with the needs of the real world, six advisory boards with business, community and teacher representatives are working together to establish the academies.
Each academy will have its own guidance counselor and every student will be assigned an adult advocate who’ll stay with him until he graduates. Teachers within an academy will meet weekly to consult about the students they have in common. So instead of seeing a student only in light of the subject they teach, instructors will get a sort of “360 degree view” of each student. They can then develop coordinated, consistent teaching approaches based on an individual student’s needs.
While we can’t look to all our schools to restructure on this model, having parents and teachers find ways to bring a student’s teachers together to consult frequently is a goal worth pursuing.
My son, Drew, who has Asperger Syndrome, had an instructional aide in high school. His aide mentioned how helpful it was to meet frequently with Drew’s English teacher and an in-class support special education teacher. They’d compare notes and discuss teaching strategies so they could be consistent in helping Drew. School staff also set up a system to get feedback from Drew. Every Friday, Drew would meet with his school case manager and his aide for a “week in review” session. They’d discuss Drew’s performance, encourage his progress and set goals for the coming week.
Speaking of feedback, we can sometimes throw up roadblocks to getting good input from our kids without meaning to. Have you ever asked a child about something he did and listened attentively if you liked the answer –- but, if you didn’t like his answer, interrupted him to criticize him and tell him what he should have done differently? Most of us have. Tends to shut off the information flow, doesn’t it?
Being consistent in listening to answers we do and don’t like can be a more effective approach. If you can steel yourself to ask questions and listen during your “research” conversations, then consider your approach and calmly offer your guidance a bit later, you may find you can collect more accurate information to work from.
Using this feedback, along with other input, you can determine a child’s greatest needs and come up with a plan with consistent actions you can take to help him learn key skills or modify his behaviors.
Here’s another thought on feedback from kids. If you don’t get satisfying answers to your questions, it could have to do with how the child’s brain processes information. If he hasn’t thought about a subject, pressing him for an answer may cause him to clam up, or agree with something you’re suggesting just to end a conversation that’s stressful for him.
You may want to try telling him today to think about a subject that you’d like to discuss tomorrow. If tomorrow comes and he still can’t tell you, say, what classes he’d like to take next year, you may want to offer him some choices, explain some of the options, and come back to the subject in another day. It may take a series of consistently calm conversations to help him consider what you’re asking and give you useful input. This can also help him learn about the process of considering alternatives and making decisions.
Consistency in discipline is also an effective learning tool.
Some of us, parents and teachers, have problems modulating our discipline when we’re in a “mood.” If the same behavior in a child draws a sharp reprimand when we’re tired and stressed, and no comment when we’re calm and relaxed, we’re not basing our guidance on what’s best for our child or student.
Think of the ways being consistent helps us in society. Traffic laws say we have to signal before we make a turn, whether there’s anyone in sight or not. If we get into the habit of signaling only when we see other drivers, we risk not noticing someone, not signaling and causing an accident. That’s why the law tells us to signal consistently.
Think kids need to experience some inconsistency so they can learn how to deal with it? Don’t worry, there’s plenty of inconsistency built into daily life. There’s no way to avoid it. But offering consistency where we can, like always putting daily homework assignments in the same place on a chalkboard or whiteboard, can be a real benefit for students. As a backup, you might place homework assignments on a website where students know they can always access them. Steps like these also can help show students the value of being consistent in their own lives.
Being consistent doesn’t mean being inflexible. I think the best combination is to be consistent in offering guidance to our kids, but flexible in adapting to their needs. And there should always be room for creativity, spontaneity and fun in any plan you draw up. Consistency should be a launching pad for creativity, not a weight holding it down.
Ralph Waldo Emerson often gets misquoted as saying, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” What he actually said was, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
And thoughtful consistency in parenting and teaching children is anything but foolish.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter has written and produced numerous special needs videos, including, "ASPERGER SYNDROME: Success In The Mainstream Classroom." You can find more of Dan's articles at: coultervideo.com.
Copyright Dan Coulter 2006 All Rights Reserved Used by Permission