by Kari Beth Becker
When we first developed our clinic model over 17 years ago, we saw how effective it was in engaging students in learning activities. We started with just speech and play sessions, but soon realized that our clients also needed support with academics. Many of our families felt that their children could learn more. They knew that their children had more potential but it was not being tapped. Why? Many of these students were being educated in great school districts by great teachers. What was missing? Based on what we have seen, the answer is easy, but often times difficult to implement. It starts with regulation.
What is regulation? What does this mean when you are talking about teaching a student? Learning requires the student to be ready to gather information. There can be many obstacles to this, even for us as adults. Hunger, pain, fatigue, anxiety…. These feelings all impact our readiness to listen, concentrate, process information and remember what we learned. Regulation for learning means that our body and mind are in an optimal place to be available to gain new information.
Many children with special needs struggle to process their environment effectively. Sensory input such as smell, light, touch, sound and movement are processed differently by their systems. Many students struggle to filter or integrate all of these inputs that bombard us at any given moment. Other students hyper-focus on particular details in their environment. Some students are over-sensitive to certain types of inputs, as others may be under-reactive. For many of these students, it takes immense effort just to “be”. Sometimes, they feel out of control of their bodies and emotions.
So, what is our job? You can image that it is very difficult to engage a student in a learning task when they are feeling so out of sync. Our job is to get them back to a place of comfort, readiness, and stillness. Our job is to do the work in the trenches to understand their amazing system. What gets them going? What calms them down? What are the smallest signs they are struggling? Collaborate with others who know the child. Parents are the greatest resource for knowing the student. Make lists of activities that support the student to be ready to learn. You need to read your student at each step of the way to ensure they are at a place of normalization before placing any expectation on them. If we ignore these signs and don’t take the time to get them regulated, we fail them and their uniqueness. Behavior incidents will increase, our frustration will increase and true learning cannot occur.
How do I get a child regulated?
Take an inventory of your own regulation. You own feelings, worries, and frustrations are felt by your student, no matter how much you try to mask them. Put aside those feelings in the moment and ride the wave of calm. Note: Be sure to talk to someone about your feelings later. If you are really struggling, take a break or ask a colleague for assistance.
Take an inventory of the child. What are their words, body and expressions telling you? Are they too sleepy and need to be alerted? Are they upset, anxious, over-excited or silly and need to be calmed? Are they seeking a certain kind of touch to feel grounded? Do they need a couple minutes to just “be”.
Check your environment. The environment you work in is just as an important variable as you or the student. Make your environment one with limited distractions. Use your space to increase focus on the task at hand. Make it inviting and fun, but calm and organized. Small tweaks to how the environment is organized can make a significant difference in the way a child feels.
Modify the environment if a student requires it. Find a cozy spot to sit. Turn off the lights. Turn on the lights. Light a candle. Turn on soft music.
Stop talking. As humans, we often resort to talking through problems, yet for many of our children, increased language demands can be more dis-regulating. Much can be said with few words. Watch your tone of voice, speed and volume when you do talk. Use your affect and your breathing to convey a mood.
Read the child at every turn and use strategies you have acquired to support regulation. This may be seeking out big movement or telling quiet stories about a favorite topic.
Doing this work both proactively and reactively to keep a student feeling good and ready to learn is the first key step to successful education of students with special needs. Regulation cannot be achieved with 1-2 sensory breaks a day. It is an ongoing, dynamic process that involves you, the teacher, the student and the environment. It needs to be tweaked, massaged and re-evaluated at every turn. Some days will be harder than others and your only job will be for the student to leave more regulated than when he arrived. Many days, when using these tools, you will see a student who is feeling great and ready to learn.
Next time….the importance of building a relationship and the effect it has on engagement.