What are the pieces your special need's child needs in order to be successful in their work and in life?
Throughout the course of carrying out special needs vocational training within cafes, pharmacies, law firms, restaurants, we have come to learn that our students were held back not by skills they lacked (cutting, cleaning, arranging skills..etc.), but by the foundational fundamental building blocks to SUSTAIN the skills. Whether you are a parent, caregiver, teacher, shadow aide, we urge you to take a moment to examine whether these foundational elements are being fostered in your child’s life.
Here are 5 fundamental functional questions to ask ourselves before we continue teaching academics and skills.
1. Are our children able to make good choices?
Researcher Alexander J. Tymchuk states that,
“People, regardless of whether they have learning or behavior problems or are developmentally disabled, are capable of understanding consequences of their actions and can learn how to make effective decisions. Effective decision making is easily the most critical skill that anyone can learn.”
Culturally in Malaysia, we are used to making choices FOR our children because adults feel we know best. Even if decisions are not made directly for our children, parents and teachers are prone to make CLEAR what the best decision should be.
While this is alright when they are younger, it holds them back as they get older.
This can lead to learned helplessness - where they believe that they are incapable of making good judgments and decide not to decide on anything at all.
At LemmeLearn, we have found that the inability to make effective choices for themselves stops them from being useful at the workplace. Struggling to make good choices hampers their ability to make sound judgments, needing constant guidance and assurance, and on the whole preventing independence.
Choosing meals, picking out clothing, scheduling their daily activities, troubleshooting are just a few examples of functional living tasks that REQUIRE effective decision-making skills.
As much as having an ultra-submissive child is convenient, it is not always functional.
Are you teaching your child to make choices, understanding the consequences of each choice, and reflecting on the mistakes that they make in the process?
2. Are we building their self-awareness?
Are we teaching our children to understand how they are doing? Are we teaching them to understand the level that they are at? Can your child assess how good they are at a task? Areas where (s)he needs help? Can your child understand what triggers them and self-advocate for their needs?
We have found that within tasks, self-awareness helps them understand details. They will start to look at themselves to see where they are, what they did well, what they need to improve on.
Without self-awareness, attainable goals cannot be set. Without self-awareness, they will struggle to identify the problem.
Self-awareness does not always equate self-improvement. Sometimes self-awareness leads to shame, depending on how the people around them respond. The absence of shame and blame helps our child see where they are now, and how they can get on the road to improvement.
“Miss Eileen, if I talk to myself, will people have weird thoughts about me?” asked a student. I had to tell him, yes. But because of his self-awareness, he has been quicker at catching himself whenever he starts self-talking.
If you feel that self-awareness is a concept that is too lofty, start off with helping your child understand what they like and dislike, what makes them happy and upset. Help them get acquainted with themselves.
3. Are we encouraging functional communication and response?
Hong Kong TVB actor Sunny Chan who raised his son with Autism asked whether we are actively putting things in place to encourage functional communication. Are we listening to them?
Often people don’t attempt to communicate when they do not feel that they have a voice. Are we giving them a voice? We often mind-read. Are our assumptions robbing them of their voice?
Communication is key at the workplace and in functional living. Everything from ordering food to clarifying tasks require effective communication.
We have also discovered the importance of teaching our students how to communicate their response appropriately. So often our students expect a slight shake of the head or walking away to mean ‘No’ but when they work out in public, people struggle to understand them, and feel that they come across as being rude. While social anxiety can cause these responses, we have seen students learn to respond with at least a clear “Yes” or “No” when taught and expected to do so.
Do we encourage their communication? Are we responding to it appropriately? Are we setting up the situation so that their communication to us fulfills its purpose? Are we expecting our child to communicate their responses appropriately?
4. Are we mentally preparing them?
Don't underestimate the importance of mentally preparing a child/person for what to expect. We have found that mental preparation is key for so many of our students to keep it together during stressful situations - new places, new tasks, new people.
“It will be noisy and crowded in there. Your ears will have to get used to loud talking. If it is too much, tell me and we can take a break out here.”
"You will be walking up by yourself in two weeks time, let’s take note of the important signs."
"Next week, you can try taking orders. I will be beside you."
"Remember that you will need to greet your co-workers when you go inside."
Social stories with visuals (or in video form) are particularly helpful for mental preparation.
You may start off having to tell them the ways in which they have to prepare for the job, situation, environment. But soon, as they get better at this, you can ask them to project for themselves what to expect in that place. This will help them regulate themselves and help with proactivity and planning.
We have used mental preparation to help our students build their work stamina from 2 hours to 3 hours just by helping them anticipate what is to come.
It has been proven that mental preparation sets them up for success!
In what ways can you use mental preparation to help your child cope?
5. Do they have options to respond / manage themselves?
Tying into mental preparation, if your child will be in an uncomfortable situation (too loud, too narrow, extremely quiet, an activity that will leave them feeling exhausted..etc.), do they know different ways they can respond? Or is having a meltdown their only learned option? Talk through with them the possible feelings they may encounter and how they could respond. Do they know that they can:
Ask for a break
Ask for noise canceling headphones
Whisper while they self-talk
Have a drink of water
Say “Excuse me” and retreat to somewhere more spacious
Tell an adult “I don't like _____”
Shorten the time they spend at the place/doing the activity
If a meltdown occurs, use that as an opportunity to learn. Talk through with them the feelings that they were experiencing, their responses, and brainstorm with them what we as adults can put in place and how they can respond better the next time something similar occurs.
A great resource I use by Social Thinking is "What is the size of my problem?". Michelle Garcia Winner has written an in-depth article (linked above) about helping your child find a response that matches the size of their problem.
6. Do they struggle well?
It is uncomfortable watching someone struggle. Instinctively we want to dive in and help, especially if they have special needs. However, through months of vocational training, we have found that many of our students don't know what to do when they face a challenging situation - they instantly give up. Yet, it is amidst the struggle where they learn perseverance and start to get creative in problem-solving.
We are concerned that struggle and suffering can lead to hopelessness. But in her book Grit, Angela Duckworth quoted a neurobiology experiment that showed that “It isn’t suffering that leads to hopelessness. It's suffering you think you can’t control.”
Reflection after the struggle is key to bringing value to the situation - to show them how they can take control.
It was hard.
Why was it hard?
What could help it become easier?
What are things you need to improve on?
What can you do at home to help you practice?
What can we try next time we face this struggle?
What are things I(the adult) can do to help you learn better?
Never discredit the perseverance and grit when that individual puts up a fight and keeps struggling on (even if that attempt is unsuccessful). Do not let them feel like they were “dumb” that’s why they struggled (because EVERYONE struggles with something), but help them see that they have not yet learned the skills needed, and point them to ways they can learn it.
Are we allowing them to persevere through the struggle? Are we equipping them with problem-solving strategies and grit, to become learners through the struggle?
There may be other foundational elements but these were the few that we encountered at LemmeLearn and are trying to build within our students. It is never too early to start building these foundations into their life.
I hope that this was helpful to you as you reflect on how to prepare your child with special needs for their future. Comment and share other experiences and ideas that you feel support your child's learning, I would love to hear from you.
Let's learn together,