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Ask an Expert! Parent Questions Answered.

Recently I had a client send me this question. The response is a little long, but I really enjoyed answering it. Please send me your questions!

"My son is having trouble with an activity at school. Every week they review material by playing a game. The kids split into 2 teams and each child takes a turn answering a question verbally in front of the whole group and then doing a motor activity as a part of the game. For example, last week after the question was answered they were given a Dixie cup and added it to their teams tower of cups. The team with the tallest tower won. My son finds this completely overwhelming and will be disruptive if he is required to play. Do you have any suggestions for how we can help him participate successfully and reduce his nervousness?"

This task sounds rather complex for a simple review. I would recommend four steps to go from complete aversion and avoidance back to full participation. Included are a menu of accommodations that may be appropriate for your son. The teacher will need to be on board for these accommodations, but I trust they will find them very useful and might even improve the experience of her other students as well as your son.

Step 1: Stop the Tantrums

The first thing I would do is give him the opportunity to sit out of the game. When a child is engaging in disruptive behaviors, that child is no longer learning. A teacher’s first goal should be to reduce or eliminate these problem behaviors. If the student is behaving inappropriately to get out of the game, he should be taught how to achieve the desired outcome (sitting out) using appropriate behaviors. That means calmly asking the teacher, “I don’t want to play today. May I please sit out?” (or whatever is appropriate for the child’s communication level). This lets the student achieve his desired goal without disrupting the classroom and still preserves the authority of the teacher. The teacher can decide if he is to sit on the side and observe, engage in a silent review activity independently, or if he needs an excuse to step outside to avoid the game completely. These are accommodations that most teachers would be happy to implement, once they realize they could eliminate a weekly tantrum.

Step 2: Communicate expectations and find out what’s wrong

The next thing would be to figure out why the game is so aversive for the child. Most likely, he is aware that he dislikes the game and intentionally acts out to avoid it. The best method would be to sit the child down long before the game and ask him, “would you like to participate in the review game today?” He will most likely respond with “no.” You can take this opportunity to discuss alternative behaviors to get out of the game, and make sure the student understands that if he asks nicely, he won’t be expected to play. Finally, when the child feels happy with their options, make sure to ask “why don’t you like the review game?” His response will determine the kinds of accommodations that he will need in order to eventually participate in the review game.

Step 3: Choose some accommodations:

Any accommodations should be something that the teacher would be willing to do for any of the children. It is important to make any accommodations as discrete as possible to ensure that your child is not singled out. Children can be cruel, and tend to by hyper sensitive to issues of fairness. That is why I recommend implementing the following accommodations that are in line with the Universal Design for Learning. Basically, the idea behind the Universal Design for Learning is that scaffolds designed to support learners with disabilities can also benefit other, “typical” learners.

If your son has issues with automatic memory retrieval or auditory/visual processing:

A simple accommodation would be to increase wait time for all students.

Few tasks in the real world require immediate, automatic responses. Think about the course of the day. How many times do you need to respond to a question within 10 seconds? It is perfectly reasonable to allow students time to process the question and spend time to formulate an answer. Some people process questions faster than others for a variety of reasons. A teacher should expect that some students will respond significantly faster than others. This means that they should find some way to honor neurological diversity and set up reasonable expectations for response time. If one of the students has a documented psychological or neurological condition that would reasonably increase response time, the maximum allowable response time allowed for all children should exceed the average response time for the slowest responder. This accommodation allows for all students to participate in every aspect of the review, even when they are not directly answering the question.

If your son has issues with planning motor tasks:

A simple accommodation that would encourage team building and group cooperation would be to impose a rule that whenever a student answers correctly, they may choose to do the motor task themselves, or select a teammate to participate in the motor task. Often, children try to include each other whenever possible. If a teammate did not have an opportunity to do the motor task on the previous turn because they got the question wrong, their peers could have the option of passing along their motor task to that teammate. Rather than single out your son in a negative way by exempting them from the motor task, the teacher would be setting the child up to look like a very generous individual. Who doesn’t like motor tasks? If your child doesn’t, there will be no shortage of teammates who would be delighted to be selected to take his turn.

If your son has issues with anxiety:

Team activities can cause students with disabilities a lot of stress. “What if I get the problem wrong? What will my teammates think? What if I drop the cup during the motor task?” Kids understand how unforgiving their classmates can be, especially when dealing with a competitive situation. If your son does not feel 100% confident that he can successfully participate in the activity, he will most likely feel anxiety about failure. A good teacher would take great pains to build a supportive environment rich in mutual respect and good sportsmanship. In the best case scenario, a teacher would provide direct instruction in respect and good sportsmanship. There should be key phrases that students are taught to say to each other in a variety of circumstances. It would even be helpful to have some off-limits phrases like “he always gets it wrong” or “how could you not know that?” If your son could watch a game, someone could point out all the ways that students support each other, even when a teammate gets a wrong answer or struggles with the motor task. If everyone uses the same phrasings, your son will pick up on them quicker. These phrases should help to reduce his anxiety associated with the review game.

Step 4: Observe and re-integrate a little bit at a time.

Your son should feel comfortable with observing the activity before re-integrating. If he can sit and observe a whole game, the teacher could tell him that if he ever wants to provide an answer, he may raise his hand and answer from his observation area without being expected to participate further. For a while he could offer answers for any team, until he feels comfortable to be on a team with some more trusted and supportive classmates. Implement the appropriate accommodations for all students (introduce them as a “rule change” that will apply to everyone). Finally, provide a lot of praise for any level of participation and encourage his teammates to do the same as well. Keep in mind his teammates will also be more receptive to him if he is supportive and encouraging to his teammates. Practice supportive statements and hypothetical situations at home or during the observation period, until he feels comfortable saying the right thing at the right time.

What kinds of accommodations have helped your child in the past? How do you talk to teachers about accommodations? What kinds of burning questions would you like answered? Send me an email today!

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