Okay, I will admit there is no such thing as a “perfect environment”, especially after the crude introduction of Covid-19 restrictions, but we can strive for an optimum environment and one that is conducive for our children and our entire family.
As parents of an SEN child, you have most probably been bombarded with advice from professionals on which strategies to generalise to the home environment. On top of your daily chores, running your household, possibly working full-time, being a loving parent and partner, you have a list of targets and goals to work through with your child. I understand the frustration and the potential feelings of guilt when you surrender to your need for a short break.
The chaos that surrounds us, not just throughout 2020 and the beginning of this year, and also the speed of transitions and change in all areas of our lives that we as adults have had to deal with, have placed us all in an overwhelming state of feeling alert and alarmed most of the time. You see more advertisements for mindfulness, yoga retreats, and the benefits of meditation lately, than car adverts.
For this reason, I wanted to share some strategies that have been proven to be successful in offering some respite for the parents I have worked with through the years. The reasons for these strategies to be included are to offer some calming techniques, structure, and predictability in your and your child’s day to silence the noises and create manageable and reachable expectations.
Top 8 strategies to help create a “close to” perfect environment:
- Visual choice boards. This is an excellent strategy to decrease possible challenging behaviors and increase functional communication. I would usually advise our parents to have various visual choice boards throughout the house, one for the kitchen to request for snacks, one in the sensory room to request specific types of input, and one where all your child’s toys are kept. We do not require our children to follow up with a verbal request if they look at the picture of the activity or item they require. It should be an easy way for your child to quickly request what they want and then get it.
- Visual schedules. I cannot stress enough the importance of having visual schedules at home throughout the day for your child. It can start with a simple “first ____, then ____” visual and move to a weekly planner later. The reason I highly recommend including a daily schedule is that it teaches your child about organising, planning, and prioritising. These are things which are all extremely important concepts to work on. It also helps to calm your child down during any transition – from going from one activity to the next or from one environment to another. I want to say that if there is one thing you remember from this article, let it be a visual schedule.
- Low arousal tone. I understand this one is easier said than done, but trust me – it makes an enormous impact on the entire home if you can keep your tone of voice calmer than usual when your child is exhibiting any anxiety or similar emotions. The more hyper they become, the more relaxed you should try to be and sound. It will immediately help your child to start the process of calming his or her sensory system if there is constant calm around them along with someone they trust. Even though we have children that will laugh or run when they are “acting out”, we usually recognize as many of these behaviors as anxiety levels increasing and thus, it is important to show your child you are in control of your feelings and emotions and “be there” for your child.
- Transition cues. Another important strategy to remember and be consistent with, is to remind your child when a change is inevitable. This change can be merely going from one activity to another, such as interrupting a game to have a snack break. Make sure your child has time to process the upcoming change as this will provide them with the time to prepare for this. Although it might be second nature to us to manage sudden changes, we have to remember that a change of activity brings about a change of sensory input, as well as the emotions that go along with this, and of course, leaving a potential preferred activity or special interest. You can include your “first, then” schedule before a transition as well as a timer (if your child does not become anxious with a countdown of sorts).
- Visual clutter. Just like most people, your child will also function and act calmer if there are areas in your home that are clear of visual clutter. We usually suggest having specific corners for play activities and other areas that are specific for having a snack or lunch. There should not be too many visual distractions, such as random posters on the walls (of course having your child’s favorite characters in their room is a must though). A great resource is to look at various Montessori classroom strategies and designs where you will find some great ideas.
- Chill space. I remember when I was a child, I asked my mom if I could “Go camping”. She would then create a camping experience by pulling up a tent and placing all the pillows we had in the house into it. I loved “Going camping” as I felt safe and calm in my special space. We ask our parents to create a “chill space” for all our children. It should have some of their sensory toys that they love and soft blankets or pillows. It is a time and space for them to feel completely relaxed and not have any expectations placed on them and yes, they are allowed to engage in self-stimulatory behaviors when they are in their “chill space”. Try it, I think your child (and you) will love this idea.
- Movement breaks. According to the research we did, we realised that we all need movement breaks throughout the day to sustain our attention and interest. I suggest parents provide fun, movement activities for their children every 15-20 minutes. This might seem like it is a lot of movement, but it can be as simple as a quick massage you give your child or a “let’s roll in the blanket to the garden” when they have been sitting for a while. It makes it even more special if you can join in the activities, which usually leads to a “brain break” for you and your child.
- Sincere social praise. The emphasis here really is on “sincere”. I have been trained in various forms of therapy through the years, but one thing is for sure – I have learned that providing over-the-top “GOOD JOB” with a piece of cookie as a reward for certain behaviors can do more harm than good. Our children are excellent judges of characters and they know when they are being reinforced in an unnatural way. I strongly believe in sincere, natural praise that will truly show your child you are proud of them. Some of our children love loud cheering, but I would suggest providing a variety of praises – this also includes at times not placing “demands” on them every single hour. They are, after all, children, who love to have fun and “chill”.
Speaking of relaxing, I believe it is time for a well-deserved movement break for us all.
Enjoy implementing the strategies that you find useful and thank you for being the best advocates for your children!
Karla Pretorius, M. Psych is a Research Psychologist and Co-founder of AIMS Global. She started working in the field of autism in 2002 and has played an instrumental role on an international level in advocating for autism awareness, acceptance, and understanding. Karla received a double Honors degree in the US and South Africa as well as completed her Master’s degree in Psychology through the University of Stellenbosch as a Research Psychologist. Karla, together with her colleague, Nanette Botha has presented in many countries, such as Denmark, Indonesia, Singapore, South Africa, and the US. They have collaborated with autism advocates and adults on the spectrum by providing a holistic support system that evolves as their understanding of autism does too. She is a major role player in the autism revolution. Karla currently resides in Portugal but travels all over the world to work with clients. Her passion for autism drives her to continue learning from her amazing clients, their parents, adults on the spectrum, and professionals in the field.