Controlling The UncontrollableEvery year I see coming into my classroom a group of children with behavioural and learning issues that pose a challenge to the functioning of the class. Over the years I have come to summarise this cluster of symptoms in a particular way that I find helpful in terms of finding workable strategies. In short, these children may be any or all of the following: hyperactive, impulsive, inattentive, anxious, slow scanning, unco-ordinated in the handwriting, dyspraxic, obsessive, socially isolated and verbiose.
I am not pretending here to be an expert on learning difficulties. I am not offering online diagnoses. I am just speaking as I find. Your learning difficulty children tend to have those sorts of issues. And there are two things I want to stress about it:
1. It is not their fault. They can't help it. You cannot discipline an ADHD child, for example, to be better organised.
2. It has nothing to do with intelligence. These children often have above average intelligence.
I am assuming here, that like me, you are alone in the classroom and not one of these privileged people who has full or near full time assistance from aides. What do you do when a child with these issues starts acting out? They are out of their seats, interfering with other people, taking the stage and making it impossible for you to be heard and for the other children to hear you. Their books show a hit and miss pattern of work that is only occasionally done. They read at a snail's pace and to be able to cope at all you have to devote the lion's share of your attention to helping them just to read.
It is draining and demoralising work as you see the poor progress of these children and the other children suffering from neglect.
Over the years I have found myself able to find ways of breaking through this difficulty and making a difference in the lives of these children and making the classroom a comfortable place for everybody.
It is of the utmost importance to truly understand and accept that conditions such as Asperger's and ADHD are features of the child's personality and not penalties or impediments, and certainly not discipline issues. Once you believe that and enter into the world of someone with these issues it really does become a joy to work with these people.
The first tip I would like to share is that almost universally, these children are good at art. Don't ask me why; I wouldn't have a clue! But they are. Art and music. These are great ways to capture and sustain their interest, reward and motivate them. You can make their troubled world feel a whole lot brighter each day just by starting it with a song, or some music to listen to while they are working. Many lessons can begin with visual impact. For example, you can start creative writing lessons by doing art. All of a sudden, these kids are the stars of the show. In the process of doing their pictures they are forming ideas, themes, characters, settings, plots. It gets them going.
Second, a structured routine makes them feel secure. It reduces the sense of chaos they live with in their internal world. Have a set timetable and stick to it like clockwork. Have predictable activities that are frequently repeated. Keep activities short and achievable. Part of having a structured environment means recognising naughty behaviour for what it is e.g. disobedience, or harming another child. It means some simple internal punishment system that gets it over and done with the same day and enables the child to save face.
Third, do not send anything home that needs to come back. Keep everything these children need for school at school. What needs to go home e.g. for Homework, hover over them and make sure they have it in their bags. And ask their parents to reciprocate the favour by supervising the packing of their bags in the morning.
Fourth, teach the rest of the class to be nurturing e.g. "Didn't Johnny tackle his words well today?" or "Let's give Susie a clap for reading that sentence without any mistakes." And make sure that when Johnny and Susie do well in Maths their achievements are well publicised so that when the class hears them struggling with spelling or reading they know they are not "dumb".
Fifth, sometimes if everything is going wrong and you are feeling frustrated to the hilt, it helps to just find something - anything - positive to say. "Susie your hair always looks so pretty." And never mind that she is running riot around the playground instead of walking quietly in line to her library lesson. Or, "Johnny, your smile makes me feel so bright when I see it." And never mind that he is tipping water over people instead of putting the science equipment away.
Sixth, have ultimate rewards. In my room, I have two games of kingball on offer each week and a Friday afternoon movie. Certain behaviours, however, can incur crosses and if there are five crosses the games go and/or the movie.
Seventh, make it as easy for these children to focus and concentrate as possible. Do not sit them next to other inattentive people. Sit them near you. Hover over them frequently to check on what they are doing. Do not leave them twiddling their thumbs. Keep them busy. If they are stuck, model it for them. Let them fiddle with something; it helps them to concentrate. e.g. during recitation of tables, it helps them to be squeezing a piece of plasticine.
Eighth, artificial colourings (especially yellow) and preservatives can make a significant difference. Bear in mind, they don't always though. Definitely one to consult with parents over, but always worth a try.
Ninth, don't ask me why jigsaw puzzles are so therapeutic for these children but they are. Have a big jigsaw puzzle on hand that can be an ongoing thing.
Tenth, have a couple of spare desks. It helps these children to feel that on occasion they can change where they sit. In other words, they can get up and wander to their other seat and sit next to somebody new. Don't ask me why it scratches a particular itch, but it does make a difference.
I apologise if this off the cuff amateurish approach has offended anyone. I just felt inspired to put some helpful tips out there. No child should feel so hopeless and helpless about their issues that their lives are lacking in value or worse, not worth living.