How do you avoid meltdowns when something changes? How do you help your child recognise that what they are doing is making others upset? How can you help a child recognise when they have said or done something that "crosses the line"? Or when someone else has done something to them that "crosses the line"?
You are about to go to a new shopping centre. Or your child is about to go to a new school. These situations will bring up a whole range of new information that they will need to quickly process in order to behave as expected and cope.
For children with executive functioning difficulties, as mentioned previously, this will cause many difficulties (Oates & Grayson, 2004). The best thing to do is to prepare your child as much as possible for their new environment.
Talk about what is going to happen. Talk about the environment, and set relevant rules (Dodd, 2005). Further, whilst talking use video, photos, even a drive past or short preparatory visit to help them process as many things prior to the visit where possible. This will help limit the amount of new information they need to process when making choices about their behaviour.
Using repetitive patterns of language, such as if... then... statements, can also children develop an awareness of possible consequences. This means that this is one less thing that they have to think up in a difficult situation.
The importance of repetition and rehearsal has been discussed previously, but it is important to recognise the significance of role play in helping children develop self-awareness and problem-solving abilities. For young children, this may be done through dress-ups and dramatic play.
For children who struggle with imaginative play, using scripts will be important. That is, teach the child to use a set phrase or set of actions in response to a situation. Older children might want to help you design a screen play and video their new skill.
Children with executive functioning issues will need help storing the information and skills, so they need a concrete reminder to carry around with them in case of "emergencies." Ways to do this include:
Help children get feedback from others around them by teaching them about body language and facial expressions. You can do this through books, videos, photos and picture strips (Dodd, 2005).
Recently I borrowed a great book called Sometimes I feel....: How to Help Your Child Manage Difficult Feelings by Dr. Samantha Seymour. Apart from the great hints and tips for parents/teachers at the beginning of the book, it is full of great photos of different facial expressions and body language. It also helps build awareness of what can cause someone to feel a certain way.
For example, pages 14-19 read:
Sometimes I feel angry... like when my mummy tells me I have to eat my breakfast before I can go outside and play. Or when it's my turn and my sister won't share."These are accompanied by relevant photos of young children. This is a great book to help children recognise what can cause others to feel angry, sad, worried and so on. Knowing this can help them self-correct more effectively.
Dodd (2005) also discusses the usefulness of video modelling. This is effective as it can be played over and over again, and can demonstrate step-by-step a process of dealing with or responding to certain emotions.
Another great strategy highlighted by Dodd (2005) on page 187 are little picture cards that include an illustration of an emotion with relevant questions (see image adapted from her examples below).
Have a crisis management plan
It is important to also anticipate difficult emotions and situations when a child may not be able to cope. Have a plan for those times.
One of the strategies that has been discussed previously is the use of a feelings thermometer. This is a visual way of helping children recognise and manage difficult emotions.
Be proactive and positive
But most importantly, we should remember to always be proactive - prepare and anticipate in order to prevent negative events as much as possible - and positive, giving praise and positive reinforcement rather than focusing on "don'ts".
Dodd, S. (2005). Understanding Autism. Sydney: Elsevier.
Oates, J. & Grayson, A. (2004). Cognitive and Language Development in Children. Blackwell Publishing: Oxford.