Spectrum Warriors: Life Through The Autism Spectrum

Making It Visible: Inclusion in the Early Years – Conference Summary Part 4 of 4

The last post in our four-part series that reviews and summarizes guest-poster Kayla Wilcox’s take on the Making It Visible: Inclusion in the Early Years Conference, held in New Brunswick late fall, 2014 and hosted by the New Brunswick Association for Community Living,

For a refresher of Part 1, an overview of the conference – click here
And  you can read Part 2, a summary of the “Communication: Building Bridges to Children” here.
Part 3, “Tips for Transitioning Children to School” can be read here

This is by far my favourite post of the series. It really hits home and reminds me of how far we’ve come. Through the ABA therapy we received most of the time we are now responding to MJ’s challenging behaviours in the ways described below and it has made all the difference. Notice I say most of the time? Yeah, I’m not perfect and it can be really hard in the moment to react in the recommended way all of this. This post served as a great reminder for me to make more of an effort this year (call it my resolution) to strive for more positive than negative responses with my child, we were taught to always aim for a 4:1 ratio.


A wonderfully-wise woman named Barbara Kaiser was the last presenter at the conference with her talk entitled “I Didn’t Mean to Ruin Your Day: Understanding, Preventing, and Responding to Challenging Behaviour in Young Children.” Ms. Kaiser is the co-author of Challenging Behavior in Young Children (3rd Edition, 2012) and Challenging Behaviour in Elementary and Middle School;Barbara Keisier - Challening Behaviour in Elementary and Middle School she presents workshops and speaks on challenging behaviour throughout the US and Canada. When I referenced receiving a course on parenting and life in an earlier post, it was Ms. Kaiser’s talk that I was referring to as it held a mirror up to my actions, and to my strengths and weaknesses as a parent and a person.

Ms. Kaiser addressed how challenging behaviour makes it impossible to achieve our goals and interferes with learning opportunities. Children rely on challenging behaviours to not only communicate their needs, but also to achieve a desired result. Challenging behaviour is difficult for everyone: the child exhibiting it, the children observing it, teachers, educators, and it can be confusing. Furthermore, challenging behaviour can harm others, interfere with development, and impede success with learning.

Given the potential negative outcomes of challenging behaviour, it’s important to do detective work to find the root cause. What led to the behaviour? Has a child been poorly transitioned to an activity? Are their senses overloaded? Are they hungry? Tired? Knowing what variables affect behaviour can assist us with helping children find better tools to respond to situations. Family stress, stress at school, the effect of media on families (parents being less present), punishment, can all increase stress—these variables do not build bridges, they build walls. Ms. Kaiser emphasized that in place of punishment, we should teach. If a child does not know how to read, we teach them to read. If a child does not know how to behave, we should model how to behave.

In order to effectively deal with challenging behaviour, we also need to self-reflect. What pushes our buttons? Our level of experience with children, our cultural beliefs, training, support, may all be an influence. Does not having control set you off? Does being interrupted annoy you? Some of the tools, or lack thereof, that we bring to parenting come genetically, others come as a result of how we were raised. Parenting styles, as well as biological and environmental risk factors, can make children prone to behavioural difficulties. Are we present when we’re with our children? Is the attachment insecure or disorganized? Parents who struggle with mental illness, alcohol, or drug abuse, single parents, or parents who fight, families who have large numbers of children, may all struggle to form secure attachments with their children. We have to shine a spotlight on our lives to understand what is driving our children’s behaviours. Increased exposure to stress can impact children’s long-term development.

After self-reflection, we need to examine ways that we can improve on how we cope with life so that we can better assist our children in coping with theirs. Ms. Kaiser provided a wealth of advice. To counteract the effect of our buttons being pushed, she advised that we remember our strengths. We’re all good at something – perhaps it’s playing with our kids, or coming up with creative activities, or being patient. We need to calm ourselves before responding because if our emotions get out of control, we lose our ability to reason, which may escalate the behaviour rather than manage it. When our children are exhibiting behaviours, we need to not only focus on what they are doing but on how we are reacting.

Adults tantrum too, and we really can’t expect any more from our children than we do of ourselves. We need to examine if the expectations we place on our children are too high. If we lose our patience after all of our years of experience, then it’s acceptable for children to do the same. Ms. Kaiser said it takes six seconds to take back control of our brain once we reach fight or flight mode. There is a STAR acronym for managing what she calls an “emotional hijack”: Stop, Think, Act, Review. If we stop, think about our favourite place to go, count to 10, or think about things we love about our child, it gives us time to center ourselves, which increases our reasoning ability and allows us to take back control of our response. Better yet, we can model that behaviour for the child by announcing that we are going to take a minute to calm ourselves and count out loud.

While the STAR acronym is a great tool, it’s not always possible to reflect in the heat of the moment, especially when we’ve had long days at work, when unpredictable stressful events happen, or when illness strikes. All we can do is try our best and apologize if we have an off day. I explain to my children that people have a range of emotions and talk about what triggers them. Something like, “You know how you get cranky when you’re sick, hungry, or tired… well mommies and daddies do as well; everyone does, and that’s okay. With a little rest and healthy food, we’ll feel better.” Our family uses the Zones of Regulation as a way to talk about emotions. I give my children the freedom to feel how they feel. My effort goes into modelling how to manage emotions to try to avoid losing control, and modelling how to regain control if it is lost.

Another helpful piece of advice was to assess how we describe behaviour. She recommended that we not say things like “He’s defiant,” and make a personal attack. Rather we could say, “When Bob is upset, he throws things.” This connects the emotion to the response and describes the behaviour rather than the child. How we respond to a child exhibiting behaviours not only affects how that child thinks we view him, but also how others view him. We’re modeling for all children in our environment.

Ultimately, our task is to focus more on our children’s strengths than challenges and make sure that our feedback reflects that. If your child put on one boot and threw the other across the room, what would your reaction be? Many parents might jump to scold the child for throwing one boot when it may have been better to say, “Thank you for getting ready. Let me help you with your other boot.” The child will take note of the action that elicited a response; behaviours that draw attention are likely to be repeated. Also, if children misbehave, it’s because it’s working for them—they have gathered attention, obtained a desired object, or changed their level of stimulation. Ms. Kaiser gave an example of a child who dumped all of the Lego blocks when asked to clean up. The child never performed this action in another class where the teacher assigned children toys to clean up. Turns out he was not behaving poorly, he was simply confused about what to clean up.

Ms. Kaiser stated: “Our best tool is our relationship with our children.” In order to build a positive relationship, we have to consider what relationship deposits and withdrawals we are making. Withdrawals come in the form of criticism, avoidance, intimidation, invading personal space, punishment, and making demands. Note that our body language is often more important than what we say. If we listen to our children, smile, comfort, engage, nurture, hug, eat with, reassure, and show that we care, these are all deposits that will strengthen our bond with them. Sharing things about ourselves and our day, as well as finding alternatives to punishment can also help. We should also use effective praise. That means “good job” doesn’t cut it—we should be specific. For example, say “I like how you’re being calm” or “It’s very kind of you to share your dog with your brother.”

Since children use their behaviour to escape things they cannot do, we need to provide options. Instead of saying “Joey, don’t run!” say “Joey, please walk.” This keeps the interaction more positive. If the way we respond to a challenging behaviour is not working, we need to reassess and not continue responding that way. Make sure to talk with the child privately, instead of embarrassing him in front of others.

I won the centerpiece at my conference table, which now sits on top of my living room cubby as a reminder that behaviour is a form of communication. There’s a lot of work I have to do as a parent to live up to my good intentions; but one thing I hope to keep in mind is that when my children are acting out, they are reaching out to me, trying to build a bridge; and I need to build one to them by staying calm, remaining patient, and using what I know about them to drive communication. I also need to understand myself—I need to know my triggers, and my strengths and weaknesses. Lastly, it’s important to live as balanced a life as possible. Not having time to decompress means I can be more anxious, less patient, and more reactive. If I don’t take care of myself, it will be hard to be who my children need me to be.

Parenting is difficult, and there are some extra challenges (but also wonders!) that come with raising a child with a disability. If it is difficult for us with all of our experience to navigate life, imagine how hard it is for our children when there are so many unknowns. It’s our responsibility to tune in and bridge gaps in communication.

Thank you Kayla for your fantastic reviews and insights. I apologize for the tardiness in getting these posts up on our site, as I found them really valuable, and I hope our readers did too.

– Rebecca

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