School Days Ahead (+How can I teach my child to sit?)
This month has been quite the whirlwind here at ABA Senegal. Due to the global COVID-19 pandemic that continues, only the French system schools are choosing to open here in Senegal. Several ABA Senegal students are within the French system here in Dakar, so we have stayed flexible throughout the admittedly rocky start to the new school year. Our ABA services are synchronizing with this system as much as possible.
This coming October and November will see the opening of the Senegalese school system, bringing a second wave of transitions. Bob and weave with the tide!
We are welcoming two new students this month, bringing our post-lockdown total to 5 daily therapy students and 3 school consults.
Additionally, two of our staff had a birthday on the 7th this month including our assistant Reine. Longue vie, santé de fer, and beaucoup de bonheur!
A note on sitting
For many of our students, learning to sit and do work at a table is a top-priority goal to get them ready to attend school. Sitting and attending to tabletop tasks can be taught in many ways. Though first instinct may be to repeat instructions frequently (like "sit down") and block a child's movements away from the table or towards the chair, there are a few other strategies that can work - and that are less of a hassle for everyone! They just take some time and patience.
We make the sitting area a positive space. Before asking a child to sit, we bring many favorite toys to the table. We split the therapy room materials into 2 groups: tabletop toys, and non-tabletop toys. They quickly learn which are for the table and which aren't. After they're sitting well for several minutes with their favorite toys (this can take several sessions), we start introducing new tasks very briefly. For example, a single puzzle piece into a puzzle. Once they complete the task, they can access their toys again. In the beginning, we try to make the "work" tasks easy and fun. Later on when the child is working well, we will still start with a "fun" work task before moving on to the child's "real work."
Shaping. If a child does not want to sit for any reason, we give reinforcement for simply approaching the table! This can be hugs and smiles for some kids, or toys or little snacks for others. Then we start only reinforcing for standing facing the table. Then for being by the chair, then sitting in the chair for a second..... Then we can introduce a super-fun tabletop activity that they'll love. The request "can you sit?" is truly a request here - We never force.
Removing reinforcement for leaving the sitting area. This one is tricky. Why is the child standing up or not sitting in the first place? Is it to access toys in the room? To look out the window? To satisfy a sensory need? We figure this out first, then teach the child appropriate moments to access these things. For access to toys (etc) we remove access to those toys first. We lock them in a cupboard or place them outside of the room. We block windows with curtains. If the child is seeking attention to escape the activity, we ask staff to not give them special undue attention (positive or negative) while the child is not seated. We wait it out and show the child all the cool work at the table - They can choose what they work on! We may even start "working" at the table ourselves and having fun "without them." Once the child approaches and sits, we immediately reinforce (with toys, praise, it depends on the child) and make the needed sitting time very short at first. We may even give them the toys they were trying to play with away from the table!
Communication goals: Our students should trust that they can access what they want again soon. We nearly always add in a communication goal: "Break please" or similar. This is especially important for high-energy kids and kids with sensory stimulation needs. How long are they allowed a break? What are the allowed break activities? Work in sensory experiences whenever possible. Sometimes we have the break activities for requested breaks be "less fun" or briefer than the activities allowed during breaks planned by the adult (regular breaks should always be scheduled). This encourages sitting to wait for an adult-planned break time. Additionally, teaching the child to make choices and giving him choices frequently during work time can make a huge difference to a child's experience.
Priming and timers! Kids needs to know exactly how much work they will be doing before they sit. How many puzzle pieces? (put the rest to the side or on the ground). How many math problems? (count them out or cover up the unneeded ones). How many minutes? (set a timer or simply use number flash cards and take away one for each minute passed). With repetition, the child will come to trust this pattern and begin to build their temporal sense. They will also come to trust you. Never go beyond the promised amount of work - This will create instability and uncertainty.
Systematic increase in expectations. Over time, the amount of time a child sits and their work level will both increase. We usually start with time, for example, a goal of 10 minutes seated with a preferred activity. Once that is possible, then we introduce "work" tasks little by little. We plan this part out very carefully ahead of time, and we take lots of data during the process.
Rapid trials and task variation! Last but not least, tasks at the table are usually brief and often changed, especially for our students who are very young. We don't want anything to get repetitive! "Quick - Sort this! Awesome - What's this color? Can you make yours like mine? Hey - let's touch our noses! Good job! That was silly. Do you want more playdoh, or do you want to do photos now?" We also throw in several tasks that the child has already mastered. This important for both skill maintenance and morale. It's our job to keep things engaging and doable for the child. If the child is too challenged or bored, then we need to change our techniques.
"If a flower does not grow, we change the environment - not the flower."
UPDATE DECEMBER 2020:
For those still struggling with sitting, it may be useful to ascertain if the child will respond to some task bids WHILE holding their favorite toys. We currently have 2 children who will respond to some questions or tasks this way, and we prefer to not take their toys away if it is unnecessary. Sometimes they need reminders - For example the teacher gently blocking the toy with a hand and repeating the question or instruction - But otherwise, they do just fine. Taking toys away from autistic children can have negative results, such as:
1) Anxiety/meltdown: Some children hold onto toys as comfort items in certain environments, and carry objects from place to place. These children will be prone to crying if the toy is taken away. Typically-developing children often attach to a specific toy, but children in our center will often switch from one toy or object to another.
2) Understimulation: Many toys provide sensory stimulation for autistic children. Taking them away will cause the child to seek stimulation elsewhere, e.g. rummaging in drawers or shelves, standing up and opening cupboards, pacing, etc. Playing with a sensory toy at the table allows the child to sit near the instructor and access the materials. The only alternative would be the instructor themselves providing the stimulation, such as hand and arm massages while talking, or being VERY animated while using lots of hand gestures, sound effects, quick movements, or other engaging techniques that the child enjoys. This is often difficult to maintain across long periods of time.
So: Having a toy at the table can sometimes be beneficial. We have a couple ground rules, however:
- For a student who needs oral sensory input: She must use her chewy necklace or other chewy toy for this, NOT other toys. If she chews on other toys twice, they get taken away and she is redirected.
- For students learning hand signs to communicate their needs, they must make efforts to sign with the toys in their hand or be willing to switch to a smaller toy or switch hands. For sensitive/anxious or very young children, we don't take toys away here, but simply stop making bids/reinforcing and wait until the child drops the toy on their own, which is then placed elsewhere temporarily. We often teach the vocabulary needed to get the toy back!
- For a student who stims and sits: He must respond to bids within 7 seconds. He always has a second chance (we repeat the question) but after that chance, his toy is blocked or placed on the table next to him until he responds (NEVER placed far away). We always teach "I don't know" or "help me," since our students often fall silent if they don't understand.
**It's also very important that "work" and tasks are fun and easy for students, as well as directly useful for their daily experiences. For example, a student will learn letters of the alphabet by typing on a keyboard in Google Images to look up his favorite cars or other special interest.