Originally Sent: 1/15/2015
January 15, 2015
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Calming Stormy Behavior
By Krisa Winn
Are you anxious and exhausted because of your child’s frequent behavior meltdowns? Have you concluded that something has to change because what worked with your other children is not working now? If so, this newsletter is for you.
Obviously, there is much that can be said on this subject. My intent is to present general suggestions to get you thinking and exploring. Yes, maybe your child has autism or some other diagnosis, but why does he cry when it’s time to start math?
Does the texture of the workbook pages bother him? Is he hungry? Is there something going on outside (a daily siren or other environmental noise) that bothers him just as math begins each day? Was he engaged in a much-loved activity and doesn’t know any other way to describe his disappointment in having to stop?
These are all things to consider. I hope that what follows will help bring some calm to otherwise stormy behavior.
I know it is exhausting and discouraging to weather those behavior meltdowns. It’s emotionally draining for everyone. Not only that, but meltdowns are huge time stealers—which adds to your worries: “How will we ever finish geometry if this continues?”
Sometimes it takes hours for things to get back to normal. That’s why it is so important to take the time before the storm to help your child learn to regulate his or her emotions and behavior. At first, your child may need your help in this, much like he or she needed your help in order to fall to sleep as a baby. In time, you will move to a less supportive role, and your child will be able to regulate himself independently. It’s all a process.
Here’s a very practical calming activity to teach a younger child. When I taught kindergarteners, I always had a STAR sign (a star glued to a large craft stick) near my chair. I taught my students what to do when they saw that sign: S-Stop, T-Take a deep breath, A-And, R-Relax. We practiced it a lot, so that when one or more of my students was melting down, they knew what to do when I raised the sign.
Dr. Karyn Purvis, director of the institute of child development at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, and author of the book, The Connected Child, offers many intervention activities to use with children of all ages. For instance, you may help your teen devise a plan for what he will do when a certain situation triggers an emotional outburst. You do this when things are peaceful, not in the heat of the moment. It could be as simple as having him write out: “When _______ happens, I will ________.”
Even with older children, Dr. Purvis plays and has fun as she helps them learn healthy ways to relate to others. She encourages families to teach strategies for handling stressful situations through a playful, peaceful, joyful manner. She notes that it’s hard to be mean when you’ve played with someone.
Dr. Purvis’ passion is to help families who have adopted children from “hard places,” but the principles she presents are applicable to most, if not all children. Her website is here.
Rethink the Environment
Simple changes in the physical environment of your learning space could make a huge impact in your child’s behavior.
• Some people use a tension rod and simple curtain to hide shelves containing school materials such as notebooks, textbooks, and supplies. It reduces clutter some children may find overwhelming and distracting.
• Look at your child’s workspace. Are her feet dangling from the kitchen chair? Or is she bent over a table that is too small? Providing a chair and table the appropriate size for your student is best and will most likely help him or her stay focused.
• If you are conducting an activity on the floor, consider defining the space. In other words, help your child see and possibly even feel where the activity is taking place. To do this, you could use a rug, carpet squares, carpet samples, or even a blanket.
• Along those same lines, your student may do better sitting on a therapy ball or t-seat or using a foot fidget device. You can find these and similar products on website such as School Specialty or Special Needs Toys.
• If noises are troublesome, have your student wear headphones when he needs to concentrate. I’m thinking of the big, cushiony headphones, not earbuds; so that environmental noises are greatly reduced.
• Sometimes using a tri-fold stand (such as a science fair presentation board) helps to limit visual distractions. Using two folders on end is another option for creating a private “office” for your child. Open each folder to a 90-degree angle, and then bring the two ends together to form a “U” shape. Voila! A smaller, easy-to-stow tri-fold stand is created!
• Perhaps your child is actually over-stimulated by the movement, songs and sounds, smells, and teaching aids you use throughout the day. If you have a lot of posters and other things to look at, try taking those down and see if that helps. If you’re using CDs for music, try singing the songs without accompaniment.
• For students who shut down immediately upon eyeing the size of a textbook, Sue Patrick suggests simplifying textbooks by removing the spine and hole-punching the pages. This way, individual chapters or sections of the book are presented instead of the entire book at once. Sue also encourages parents to modify worksheets so that they are less cluttered and more “to the point.” This takes extra time, energy and planning, but the results could be well worth it.
• Along with furniture and room accessories, consider these factors: noises, smells, lighting, color, clothing, temperature, and food as other potential triggers to meltdowns. However, certain sounds, smells, lights, and colors can have a calming and positive effect. It’s important to provide a solid sensory diet based on your child’s needs. Weighted blankets, a rocking chair, a mini-trampoline, essential oils, are examples of items that might be found in a calming corner or sensory section of your homeschool.
In addition to the physical environment, take into account the less tangible aspects of your child’s environment. Dr. Purvis teaches parents to create an environment of predictability and control. I’ll address predictability in the next section. For now, I’d like to focus on creating an environment of control.
I once heard someone say that stress can be boiled down to one problem—a perceived lack of control. Sometimes giving a child appropriate levels of control can be as simple as offering meaningful choices: “Do you want to wear your tennis shoes or sandals?” “Do you want to complete your reading assignment first or work on English?”
Offering these types of choices goes a long way in making relational connections with your child. You’re creating an atmosphere that reduces stress which in turn reduces the fighting, the melting down, and avoidance.
Sometimes children have difficulty changing gears. They feel a need to continue in the activity that they are currently engaged in, even when it’s in their best interest not to do so.
One way to help with this is to give verbal reminders of what is about to happen next. I mentioned this before in my “Tools for your Teaching Tool Box” newsletter, but it bears repeating. Starting at five minutes, you could say, “In five minutes we are going to meet at the couch for story time.” Do it again in three minutes, then one minute. If verbal reminders aren’t enough, you might invest in a Time Timer clock,(available at most school supply stores/catalogs) for a very visual reminder of how much time remains before a new activity begins.
Most children on the autism spectrum function better with a predictable schedule. Depending on your child’s age and development, a visual schedule may be in order as well. I’ve heard of some moms adding a “?” card to the daily schedule to represent those times of the day that don’t go exactly as planned. You can find resources for creating a visual schedule online.
Like environment, there is another aspect to being predictable. It’s important for YOU to be predictable—as much as possible. Your child needs to know that she can count on you to be consistent, even when she lashes out. If you lose your temper or display aggravation, model humility and ask for forgiveness. Especially for children who have attachment disorders, your consistent demonstration of unconditional love is huge!
Commit Your Way to the Lord
Finally, pray that God will help you to see beyond outward behaviors and into the treasure that is your child. Continue to look to the Lord for the wisdom needed to train your son or daughter. It is my hope that something you’ve read today has been an answer to those prayers.
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