By: Ashlei Funtjar
What do you think about when you hear special education? What about if you hear a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorders or Emotional Disturbance?
Many people have at least one, if not many experiences that come to mind when any of those words are spoken. And while my hope is that those experiences lead to words such as unique, one of a kind, smart, creative, caring, and so on, the truth of the matter is, the words that might come to mind are, quite frankly, less positive.
Physical aggression. Elopement. Noncompliance.
Those three words are often three words I hear frequently with regards to students who are in my program or who might be on the path to coming to my program. They are three target behaviors often observed in special education classrooms. These behaviors can be daunting to all parties involved including parents, teachers, and other students. However, it is important to realize and understand that significant behaviors are a form of communication for many students. Students who are hurt, hungry, frustrated, confused, sad, thirsty, and even sometimes, overly excited. These students are demonstrating a skill deficit and it is our job to help teach and replace these undesirable behaviors with more socially acceptable behaviors.
For the last 5 years, I have worked in a centralized (also known as self-contained) special education classroom in a public school setting. I have students kinder through fifth grade with various diagnoses, most of which are on the Autism Spectrum. And I would be lying if I didn’t say they are the lights of my life. I am filled with joy, each and every morning, to walk in and see my students, regardless of how the day before played out. I should preface this by saying all of my students receive special education services from me in a centralized program. This program is centered around significant social skill deficits, alongside deficits in emotional regulation skills and behavioral skills. These deficits, for a time, may limit the amount of time they are accessing the general education classroom with typically developing peers. It is my job to work with each and every student to identify their target behaviors, intensity levels of each behavior, and teach the skills they are lacking in order to gradually and appropriately increase their general education access.
No one wishes significant behaviors upon any child and despite how hard it can be to emotionally detach and not take behaviors personally, there are a few kid tested, teacher approved strategies that can help any student and teacher work through an episode of escalated behavior.
I am here to help provide some insight into my world and the tools and strategies that have been tried and proven to be successful in my classroom. There are no right or wrong ways to go about a significant behavior episode; however, I do find that the more tools I have in my toolbox, the more prepared I feel to help the needs of each individual student. We all know, what works for one, may not work for another. We all need to talk, collaborate, and share what we have tried in our classrooms to help build our repertoire.
Strategies for Cool Down
Cool Down. Calm Down. Calming Area. Safe Spot. Get it Together.
Whatever you choose to call it in your classroom, having a designated location for a child to decompress is vital. The space needs to be a place where students and staff members are safe from possible escalation of behaviors.
I would suggest having various calming tools around the area. However, if the child is in a heightened state of emotion, it is best to remove all materials that could potentially cause harm. I have a Calm Down station on wheels. Using a three-tiered cart, I can easily store various calming tools nearby, but out of reach during the escalated behavior. More to come about calm down tools.
Having a set procedure for calm down can be really beneficial for your rule driven, rigid thinking, or defiance driven student behaviors. All of my students follow the same cool down procedure at their own pace and when they feel they are ready to “get back on solid ground”. Our procedure is simple, with 1-3 words and a picture for each step. Each step is on an 8.5” x 11” piece of green construction paper and is laminated and posted in the cool down area.
- Talk with Teacher
- Back on Schedule
This procedure has no time frame associated with it and is NOT completed by the child alone. There is always an adult present to first and foremost, watch for student’s safety; but also to be a calming presence and let the student know they are not alone in the process of cooling down. One caveat to this is if a student requests to sit alone and they have demonstrated safe behaviors but are still in a mind space of being escalated. I have very verbal students who sometimes want and need their space. They will escalate more quickly with an adult present and need the designated location and some alone time to cool off.
Students are taught that during the “Timer” portion, they can choose to think about the choices they have made or think about what happened to make them feel and act the way they did. They are taught to use deep breathing techniques and to slow their breathing down to a pace that allows their body to physically cool off.
Once the student’s timer goes off, it is time to debrief with the teacher. Debriefing is a component often overlooked but extremely necessary in the process of getting a student back on schedule with a plan of how to be successful. While some students might need to debrief later in the day instead of immediately following a behavior, the entire debrief process is crucial.
Debriefing is a time for the student and teacher to reconnect. It is a time to build therapeutic rapport with the student. A time to let the student know that you do not blame them or love them any less because of the incidents that occurred. Debriefing is also a time to discuss what caused the behavior, create a plan to move forward, and help the student get back on their regular schedule. During the debrief, it is important for the student to recognize what choices they made, how it made other people around them feel, and how other’s feelings towards them ultimately make them feel.
If you are looking for more information, I highly suggest checking out Social Behavior Mapping by Michelle Garcia Winner. Additionally, during the debrief, it can be used as a teaching time. A time for the teacher to verbalize what we noticed as the possible trigger, remind students of the behaviors and how safety was threatened, and discuss how to fix it. It is a time to discuss how to make it right to the people and objects/things that were affected.
While I trust in the process of Cool Down, I also understand and want to make clear that cool down can sometimes last hours with a single behavior episode. For some students, it could take several years for them to complete the cool down process within 10 minutes or less. Additionally, it could take years during the debrief portion for a student to actually remember what happened, remember why it happened, and to understand the impact their behavior can have on those around them. However, each and every time a child goes through cool down, they are building a rapport with you, their teacher, and going through the learning process of different emotions. They are learning how they act with each emotion and are learning how to identify triggers that lead to those emotions. Sometimes, a student has no idea they are gritting their teeth or beginning to ask repetitive questions. They are unaware of what their body does during the anxiety stage of their escalating behavior. It is our job to identify and teach our students how to recognize their triggers. And over time, students will start to self identify. They will start to understand they are becoming anxious/worried/nervous/frustrated/mad and they will begin to independently use strategies to either remain or regain a ready state of learning.
One last thing I want to discuss are various calm down tools and strategies I use in my classroom that have benefited my students throughout the years. This list is not an exhaustive list and while I have many more things available for students to use, a few of the most used items to help my students cool down include a weighted blanket, light covers, music, pillows, and social stories.
First, is a weighted blanket. I have two blankets of different weights in my classroom and they are used on a daily basis. If you are in the market for a weighted blanket, I would highly suggest the one from Everyday Educate. It is made from some of the softest fabric and is the perfect calming colors (seafoam green on one side and gray on the other). At the perfect weight for many elementary students, this blanket can be used anytime throughout the day whether it be on the carpet during a whole group lesson, at the teacher table for small group or 1:1 instruction, and even during the timer and talk portions of debrief. It provides an additional sensory aspect to cool down that the students may not even be aware they need.
Next, I have light covers on all of my overhead lights in the classroom. I have the white light covers in my classroom and they completely change the feel of the classroom. In years previous, I have used the light blue covers and while they work for many teachers and students, I couldn’t help but feel a more “homey”, welcoming, soft tone with the white light covers. They provide the perfect amount of cover up to the bright, sterile, overhead lights while still providing adequate light in the classroom for students to have while working. They instantly change the feel of the classroom, give off a soothing aesthetic, and provide immediate relief from the harsh fluorescent lighting in classrooms.
Then there is music. I keep a light, instrumental music playing at all times in my classroom and I have found that it not only helps to drown out the white noise or lack of noise in the room, but also provides soothing tones for students to learn along with. Music is also used with some of my students during the timer portion of cool down. I downloaded a free lullaby app which allows me to play wordless melodies while students are sitting quietly and slowing down their bodies.
Additionally, I have various pillows/soft seating choices available in my classroom. I find soft seating to be beneficial during the anxiety stages of a behavior. Once I can antecedently recognize a student is beginning to escalate, I am able to pause their work, express what I am noticing, and give them a few minutes to lie down or sit on any of the pillows/soft seating choices. This gives them a chance to take a short break from work and cool down prior to a behavior erupting.
Last but not least, I use social stories throughout the debrief portion of cool down. Whether it is a pre-created story or one that is created on the spot with the student, social stories offer straight forward and step by step instructions for how to engage in socially acceptable behaviors. I have found that after having to verbalize a specific instruction, procedure, or expectation more than three times, I turn it into a visual or social story. It takes “me” out of the equation and puts the information onto a piece of paper for students to refer to. Additionally, social stories and visuals can travel around the building and be used throughout the day for any situation the students need. Social stories can be short or long with lots of words or lots of pictures. They can be tailored to any and all individual needs and help provide nonverbal reminders to students about expectations.
Educators around the world are pouring their hearts and souls into the students who walk into their rooms each day. And for many of us, our students are not only facing academic challenges, but social and emotional challenges as well. We are given the opportunity every day to set the necessary expectations and boundaries while providing a loving and nurturing environment for our students to grow and succeed.
We may have many roles and responsibilities on our plates, but our primary focus and concern is to help our little ones learn to identify, recognize, and utilize cool down strategies independently. It is our job to help teach social and emotional competence to children who might have the odds stacked against them. We are there to teach them but we are also there to advocate, collaborate, and communicate for our students and their lives.
Ashlei is a special education teacher from Texas. Follow her on Instagram for her classroom tips and strategies she use on her special needs class.