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Consistency and High Expectations: Managing and changing behavior with students with ASD

Autism Immersed Podcast, Season 2, Episode 1

On today’s podcast, Behavioral Specialist Sean Hanrahan stops by to talk to us about managing students and children in the home with behavioral issues, the importance of expectation and consistency, and how these methods are vital to the practice of Social Immersion.

Sean is a certified teacher of TCI, therapeutic crisis intervention, and teaches and certifies teachers. He is also one of founders of Oakstone Academy, the school that developed and practices successful Social Immersion.

Sean will be speaking at the Oakstone Institute this fall which you can find out more about at oakstoneacademy.org

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You can’t get through it unless you get to it.

You can’t get through it unless you get to it.

This simple phrase is a staple in our approach to behavior. What does this mean? Certainly we are working to help our students extinguish their behaviors that are harmful or exclusionary. This long process can involve a lot of work, both for the student and the adult.

There are no short cuts.

It might not be fun.

But we can not stop at the point where it is uncomfortable. We all have developed new skills in our lives that were hard to do at first. We have mastered some skills through work and practice. It is the same for our students. They can learn. They will learn. We all want the process to be short-lived, but what we are changing may be deeply rooted for the student; often times, we see behavior because it has served a purpose for them. It may get them what they want. It may get them out of what they do not like. In some way, it has been effective for them.

When addressing behavioral hurdles, we need to meet the challenge head on. We want to clearly let the student know “This way that has worked for you in the past is not acceptable.” We are asking them to be socially appropriate. We are asking them to communicate a want or need in a way that does not include those previously learned ways, ways that we may have reinforced (consciously or unconsciously). What we don’t want to do is placate or give them what they want without communicating- in other words, hoping we keep them happy enough so that we never see behavior. This cannot be sustained by the adult and certainly has not taught the child a better skill.  While we may be able to keep a child happy and therefore avoid difficult behaviors, the world will not be as kind. The most loving thing we can do is prepare children to face disappointments and challenges and roadblocks, rather than try to shield them from the hard things. This is true whether your child is typically developing or is on the Autism Spectrum.

We believe in all children’s ability to learn a better way to express themselves and get what they want or need. We will teach them a better way to take a step forward. Real life expectations in the classroom lead to handling similar situations at home and in public in more socially appropriate way. So, with behavior, we set a high expectation and then help the student be appropriate within that framework- not with a separate expectation for a student with Autism. Sometimes, we see behavior getting worse before it gets better. This is expected as you are asking them to change not just an external behavior, but an internal understanding of how the world works.

You may need to find a team to help you. It is confusing to the child to pick and choose when certain behaviors are acceptable and when they are not. It is hard for the adult to try to go at it alone. Find support and use that support, whether it is for the child or for you. Consistency is the key, and a team approach helps you achieve that consistency.

Don’t give up.

Through all of the challenges thrown at your child and you or your student and you, remember your job. Help them know what is acceptable. See the challenging behavior they have and work to help them do better. Push through the times that are tough or uncomfortable. Believe that they can and believe that you are being helpful. We take the steps with them, but we always have a goal of them being able to take steps on their own.

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Immersion builds friendships

“When I was out of control, I was angry, and, like, when I was angry, I was out of control…. One thing that made me angry was not having friends…. Learning to be in control helped me learn to have friends.” -10th grade student in immersion school

Autism Spectrum Disorder can be socially isolating, as many children with ASD have a hard time interpreting social cues. Others struggle with disruptive behaviors that make them look different or seem less approachable to other children. Unfortunately, many students with ASD struggle to establish friendships because they just aren’t immersed in a setting that readies them for friendship or supports them as they learn to make and keep friends. Finding people who not only understand you, but accept you, like you, and seek you out can be a powerful experience in a student’s school development. Also, making friends adds an authentic, natural purpose to behavioral expectations.

Here are a few ways that immersion helps students develop the skills that lead to socially acceptable behavior and, therefore, friendships.

  1. Immersion classrooms support and teach skills that lead to friendships.  In an immersion class, social skills are explicitly addressed. In some rooms, this may be a lesson about friendship.In others, it could be a book, activity, or discussion. Immersion teachers understand the importance of making the hidden lessons of friendship more visible for students.
  2. Students have clear expectations for socially appropriate behavior and receive support in deficit areas. In immersion, the expectations for behavior and how we treat others are not a mystery to be solved. They are instead laid out in plain language for everyone to understand and learn to apply. Students who continue to have trouble receive targeted remediation, just as they would if they struggled in math or spelling.
  3. Students who disrupt class or classmates have consistent  consequences for their behavior. It is not excused or ignored. Regardless of disability status, students who are bullies or who violate rules must have intentional consequences that clearly link to the behavior. Consequences are a natural part of life, so they are embedded into school life as well.
  4. In immersion, students learn that anyone can have a bad day, but it doesn’t make them a bad person. In a classroom that has a wide range of abilities, one student doesn’t always stand out as the problem kid in class. Also, because teachers expect that some students will struggle, they are ready to teach them the correct behavior and ready to offer a fresh start the next day. This attitude of acceptance is set by teachers and is adopted by students. This helps prevent kids from becoming targets or from being excluded.
  5. Immersion opens a student up to a larger group of students. Instead of the 8-10 students that are typical in many self-contained classrooms, immersion students are in a class of 20 or more. Additionally, they are at lunch and recess with an even larger group of students. By casting a wide net, students have more opportunities to find others who share their interests.
  6. Peer models in an immersion setting understand that people with special needs are people first. Because classroom are set up equitably and everyone has a voice and a responsibility to the class, no group of students is prioritized over another. This helps teach students to look at each other as classmates first. No one is a guest or a visitor in the classroom. Everyone belongs.

A student who has never experienced friendship and acceptance may not be as motivated to act in a socially appropriate way. In this aspect, building friendships and learning to manage behavior go hand in hand. They feed each other for a positive outcome for students!

“When I am with my friends, I don’t worry about my autism. It just doesn’t matter.”- 8th grade student in immersion school

kid 2

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Managing behavior in Immersion classrooms

Behavior management within the Academic and Social Immersion Model begins with setting the tone of “the community”, where teachers and staff demonstrate acceptance for all students, and define the expectations (or rules) for appropriate behavior within the classroom and throughout the school (which all students are expected to follow, both neurotypical and ASD).  Behavior is deeply embedded within our character education program. Students are taught connections between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors and the six pillars of character defined by the Josephson Institute of Ethics.

Frequent review of expectations or rules with the student along with visual expectations provides supports to increase the likelihood of improving target behaviors.  Visuals may include visual schedules, rule reminders, and social stories. These are used alongside a self-monitoring system to help the student connect the rules to his/her behavior, and is a way to make the behavior concrete for the student.  These systems are paired with positive reinforcements, which may include teacher praise, tangibles, and natural access to social opportunities. The systems are also adapted to students’ cognitive abilities and classroom placement. 

Teachers and staff use “clues” in the natural environment to aid in connecting behavior with the natural environment and to encourage appropriate social behavior.  Pointing out the actions of others compared to the action of the student with ASD (“Look at your friends. They are standing in line without touching their neighbors.”) would  be an example of “clues in the natural environment”.

One example of this at work may look something like this. A student who becomes angry, screams, and kicks his desk because he doesn’t get his way:

  1. Is referred to his self-monitoring system to review the expectation and take accountability for his actions, and to remind him of the “reward” or positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior
  2. Is instructed to “Look at your classmates.  They are not screaming and kicking” to redirect the student to an appropriate behavior model,
  3. Is reminded that screaming and kicking is disrespectful to others in his class in order to connect the behavior to the character pillars.  Teacher then talks with student about RESPECTFUL ways to voice his frustration the next time.

These strategies used in combination can increase the likelihood of success, both social and academic, in the typical classroom environment.  Consistent and appropriate behavior management is crucial to a student with ASD being truly immersed in a classroom. A student left to his or her own devices may alienate peers, making inclusion in classroom activities more challenging. With this in mind, consistent and firm behavior expectations are the most appropriate, effective, and loving strategy to help children with ASD become fully participating members of the classroom and community.

The overall approach in Academic and Social Immersion emphasizes the teaching and learning nature of behavior management. Make a plan for success!