Let's Talk 'Challenging Behaviour'
Let's talk "challenging behaviour".
When people hear that I am the teacher in an autism class, I get a wide variety of reactions, but probably the most common is something along the lines of "Oh, that must be very hard."
And I don't think this is right, or fair to the amazing little people I get to share my working days with.
I totally get that the average layperson has a very narrow view of what autism is. Lots of people hear 'autistic' and picture Dustin Hoffman's character from 'Rainman', or a Sheldon Cooper-esque white male... which is blatantly not always true!
When I clarify that I teach in a so-called "special" class, their opinions then go to the worst possible scenario - violent children, unpredictable behaviours and lashing out at those around them.
Certainly, in the years I have spent working in special education, there have been hard days. I have received blows, pinches and bites along the way. However, I can only think of one single incident where the child was actually acting in a malicious and purposeful way, with the intent to hurt.
I am a strong believer in the idea that "all behaviour is communication" and if a child is distressed enough to be displaying "challenging behaviour", then that child is communicating their distress in the only way they can at that moment. In 99% of cases, children want to behave well. They want to try hard and they want the adults in their lives to be happy with them.
As the adults in the classroom, or indeed in the home, it is up to us to avert a volatile situation wherever possible, and when that isn't possible, to hold a calm space for the child and to keep everyone in the situation safe.
One of the things I like best about working in an autism class is the opportunity we have as teachers and SNAs to get to know the children so well. We get to know their likes and dislikes, their strengths and their challenges. We also get to know their trigger points and the early warning signs that the child is not feeling 'just right'. Often, this knowledge and the close relationship we have will allow us to calm a situation and prevent it from escalating.
Humour can be a great distraction, or changing the task or lowering the demands being placed on the child. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, a child's behaviour can continue to escalate and all we can do is try and ride it out as best we can.
In the aftermath, we can then pick up the pieces. We will try to look critically and analytically at what happened, and try to identify if there was anything we could have done differently. Sometimes, in retrospect, we will see a solution that might have made a difference. Sometimes not.
I think the main thing that gets you through tough days and times is the sense of empathy and indeed the affection you develop for the child in your care. You want the best for them and want them to succeed and be happy. You understand that the child wants to please you and wants to feel happy and well-regulated in school and at home.
I love my job, and hate when people think that it is an undesirable one. Is it hard? Sometimes. But on those days, I always try to remember it is a million times harder for the child.
This quote from the psychologist, Dr. Ross Greene, says it all much more succinctly than I can. I couldn't imagine doing any other job than the one I am doing. It is an honour and it is my privilege to work with the wonderful children I come into contact with.