Heidi Whittaker is a Parent Consultant for Utah Parent Center. This is an excerpt from her blogpost, published 3/19/13, shared with her permission.
(Comments in bold print and italicized are enhanced/updated contributions by Jo Mascorro, M.Ed. 2023)
A Note From Heidi Whittaker, Utah Parent Center Consultant:
When I first started typing the notes from this two day conference, I had 14 pages worth and still hadn’t typed up half of the notes Jafra and I both had taken. I decided that it didn’t make sense to type up every single word we had written, but only the most important and poignant information so people would get something out of it without having to read a thesis. So, I started over and hopefully edited only the most important and useful information.
I put topics in categories so you could browse through and look at the titles you’re most interested in OR if you’re reading it straight through, you’ll find the information builds on each other.
Just as a clarification, this workshop WAS geared to parents who have children with disabilities, but wait! You will find that this information absolutely and completely applies to all children, “typical” or no. I found the information to be some of the best I have learned from parenting classes I’ve attended through the years.
I really hope that you get some good strategies to help you in your parenting route! Here goes!
4 Part Blog Series
Part 4: Some Strategies to Help
DON’T ASK: “WHY DID YOU DO THAT??”
Don’t ask your child, “WHY DID YOU DO THAT?” In the heat of the moment, the amygdala comes on and the learning cortex goes off. Instead, say to your child, “SHOW me why your hand hit me on my face.” OR “SHOW me what you want.” OR “TELL me why your leg kicked my shin.” SHOW OR TELL, NOT WHY…
Another thing you can say as a parent is, “I don’t know what’s wrong right now, but (with your palms facing upward) I want you to show me what we need to do.”
**(Most adults will agree that we can recognize when our child:
… is having an OK kind of day (by demonstrating no particular challenges and/or compliance issues)
… looks like they’re going to have one of those” kind of days” (by something appearing off, as their behaviors and/or responses to directives are telling you they’re not their typical self)
… may be on the verge of a difficult behavior demonstration (by testing the waters and pushing the envelope during daily activities and/or when given a directive)
… is having a full-blown experience (by demonstrating a complete meltdown, hitting, kicking, throwing things, elopement, etc.)
… is coming out of it and on the road to recovery
What is so very crucial during these challenging moments is knowing what to “say” and “do” in each of these specific scenarios, because OUR response and/or contribution to the event will determine whether the child’s behavior escalates or de-escalates! Typically, we are skilled in doing “something”, however, the timing of “what” to do and “when” to do it can be a real game changer! Remember, when faced with challenges that we find disturbing, at that critical moment, the ONLY person we have full control over (sad but true!), is OURSELF, so in other words, during challenging times, our IMMEDIATE focus should be on what do we do to alter OUR personal, SELF, EXPECTATIONS, and immediate ENVIRONMENT rather than what to do to the person who’s demonstrating behaviors that are interfering with the daily routine, and/or learning/teaching environment. With that said, here are a few pro-active, points to ponder when considering your responses to the prior 5 scenarios.
When everything appears to be fine, rather than assume everyone knows what to do and what is expected, this is prime time to focus on clarity of how the SELF models particular EXPECTATIONS, stays on top of rituals and routines, seizes opportunities to communicate clear expectations, AND takes advantage of the relative calm to TEACH, LEARN, and PRACTICE whatever you feel is important that day! Remember, ALL brains are most receptive to responding productively when in a non-stressed state of MIND!
This is when you use strategies that might distract someone from whatever they might be starting to do that’s taking them potentially off track, engage a bit in the distracting activity, then reintroduce the kinds of things mentioned in the previous comments under number 1.
Time to really start focusing on SELF skills regarding how to avoid giving feedback (facial expressions, gestures, comments) that might trigger a continued trajectory of a potential escalation of behavior. Rather than immediately setting parameters that may create a standoff, now is the time to use strategies that intentionally DISTRACT with the intent to DISENGAGE the child away from the behaviors that are starting to escalate while trying to keep in mind how to safely navigate the ENVIRONMENT where the behaviors are occurring. BEWARE, that using the words “No! Don’t! or Stop!”, or even choosing to say a phrase like “you need to calm down!”, can potentially fuel the behavior to an increased level of severity!
Responding in a time of crisis is when your “SELF”, EXPECTATIONS” and “ENVIRONMENT” skills should be on high alert, and therefore, keenly focused on “Dos and Don’ts” that are high priorities if your INTENT is to HELP! For example, if multiple adults are present, it is absolutely, unequivocally essential that only ONE ADULT speaks! When multiple adults speak, you potentially invalidate your attempt at de-escalating the situation and can cause what is already a difficult experience, to become much, much worse.
Once the adult that has accepted the responsibility of being on high alert, is the only adult speaking, and is focused on the awareness of “SELF”, “EXPECTATIONS” and “ENVIRONMENT”, it’s now crucial to consider what TO say, and avoid what NOT to say!). Refrain from stating any phrases that end in a question mark and instead, pay attention to using phrases that VALIDATE THE EMOTION being expressed in the behavior demonstration … “Crying tells me you’re really sad right now”. “Hitting says you’re not happy and feeling angry.” “I’m so sorry you’re hurting and I’m not sure what to do to help.” …
If you begin to see a subtle change in the behavior (slowing down) then it might be a good time to consider another type of distraction (that has nothing to do with the event) to help further de-escalate the situation.
When the escalation finally starts to subside, continue validating and distracting. Once the behavior has stabilized, if possible, return to the routine that was originally interrupted and if you’re not able to do so, have an experience to
“move on to”, so you can distance the brain chemistry of the child AND yourself (including everyone else possibly involved!) from the original, difficult emotional experience.)**
What does the behavior LOOK like (don’t want it to sound like judgment) – when talking to your kids about what they shouldn’t be doing, don’t get caught up in the disrespect of the child. Can you count the behavior? You can’t count disrespect, but you can count how many times they have sworn. You can’t count how many times the child is “off task,” or hasn’t followed directions, but you can count how many times the child didn’t pick up their toys. If you can count it, you’ll know how to be more clear. What does the behavior SOUND like?
TRUE “PRAISE” REQUIRES “VERBAL ARTISTRY!”
We need to try to emulate Bob Ross (the painter). We have a blank slate—no one knows what we mean, but as we speak the picture becomes clear. It’s called, “verbal artistry.” Describe in detail what we mean! Be a “verbal artist” when you praise your child. State very clearly what your child did and embellish it a little, so your child really understands WHAT they did well. Be more descriptive and detailed in what you’re praising.
**(One way to help you determine if you’re clear enough is to apply the word “by” to your comment. For example, you can “see” (what does it LOOK like?) and “hear”, (what does it SOUND like?), if stating a praise phrase like “Good job”, and then adding the word “by”. It will change the statement to “Good job by putting on your shirt, pants, socks and shoes all by yourself!” and hopefully one can now actually “hear” and “see” the difference in clarity!)**
Be a “verbal artist” when you praise your child. State very clearly what your child did and embellish it a little, so your child really understands WHAT they did well. Be more descriptive and detailed in what you’re praising.
MANIPULATE THE ENVIRONMENT BEFORE THE CHILD:
Be aware of who is there. Always plan strategically. Get the schematics. Plan in advance. Be prepared. Focus first on your creature of habit and routines.
Manipulate “things” before people. Don’t force. Take the thing to the person.
**(Being in reactive mode can be tough so try and switch gears into proactive mode when able! You’d be surprised how often you can plan small things that, in the long run, can make a big difference. For example, there are things we can plan and think about it when leaving the home for a particular event like going to the store, church, restaurant, etc. (the list goes on and on!) when you consider things like;
location of the closest bathroom
location of the nursery and/or sound-proof room at facility
distance from parking lot to building and specific traffic patterns/cross walks, etc.
access to a drink and snacks that are packed, just in case
busy times and crowds (avoid grocery stores/restaurants on pay-day, 1st run movies on opening day, peak travel seasons, excessive weather (too hot or cold)
closest escalators vs. elevators
Just some important things to think about!
Regarding placement of your hands … Anytime you extend a hand toward your child, make sure your palm is facing up vs. down. It’s way less threatening and much more inviting. Get with another adult and try it both ways and watch what happens with your brain chemistry! Most often, it will influence your reflex response as to whether you choose to lean in, or away from the person reaching for you!)**
WANT YOUR KID TO DO WHAT YOU WANT? GET HIS BODY IN MOTION FIRST!
So say you want your child to take out the trash. Well, you’re not going to get good results if that child is sitting or lying down or in a state of “rest.” Try giving a direction of motion to your child who is standing or in motion. For instance, you shouldn’t say to a child lying down, “Ellie, take out the trash.” Instead, try asking the child when they are standing up or moving. Here’s something Jo has used with her own child: “Ellie, come here quick! You gotta see this QUICK!” Her daughter came and then she said, “Please take out the trash.” It’s tricky, but it’s taking the thing to the person! Get the body in motion first!
PUT OBJECTS, NOT KIDS IN TIME OUT!
Put OBJECTS in time out instead of the kids
Check out the Tough Kid book series
“OWE-YOU NOTE” IDEA TO GET JOBS DONE:
Here’s a great idea called an “owe you note.” If you ask your child to do something and they don’t do it, write it on a post it note, and hang it on the fridge. Then when that child asks if they can go play with a friend or do something, you say, “let’s check the fridge first.” If there’s an “owe you” note on it, you give that to the child and tell them, “yes you can after you finish this ‘owe you’ note.”
**(Another twist is that this activity is referred to as the, “I owe you a no” probability. If you find yourself repeating a directive to your child, over and over, and their response is something that appears to be any number of resistant comments/behaviors that, by the end of the day, basically mean the same thing, … ”I’m NOT going to do it!”, try and refrain from escalating, begging, threatening, etc. and take a deep breath to calmly disengage. Go to the kitchen (or any place where you can remember to place a note!) and place a note on the fridge that states the date, time, and the statement, “I owe you a no”. The next time your child approaches to ask you for something, tell them to come to the kitchen so you can share something with them. Get the note and state, “Remember when I told you to … (be holding the note with the date and time!) …. and you chose not to do it? Well, that told me, I owe you a no, so here you go!)**
“YES OR NO” BAG IDEA:
Here’s another idea: Every time a child does something “good” you write YES on an index card and put it in a bag. If the child does something wrong, you write “no” on an index card and put it in a bag. The idea to teach is that you want to have more yeses in the bag than no’s. Then at the end of the day there’s a prize or some sort you’ve arranged. If the child picks out one of the yes cards, it’s a yes on the prize. If the child picks out a no, then they don’t get the prize that day. At the end of the day, take the whole bag and dump it in the trash as each day is a new day. Start again the next day. (This idea might not work with every child or disability.)
WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE FOR YOUR LIFE EXPERIENCE?
Ask yourself, “What would I like for my LIFE EXPERIENCE?” Perhaps your kid wants the same experience as you! We’re the avenue to that experience. What we bring to that table is going to imprint on our children.
“Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school” – Albert Einstein
Did you like this post? There is more wisdom to find in the first 3 posts of this series. Continue on to the first post in this series, Part 1: Changing Our Child vs. Changing Ourselves.
This is the fourth part of a 4 part blogpost series dedicated to giving parents resources for teaching their neurodiverse children at home. Notes were provided by Utah Parent Center employee, Heidi Whittaker, from a conference where Jo Mascorro, an Education Consultant, presented her ideas. Ms. Mascorro was kind enough to review these notes to make sure all content is up to date.
Jo Mascorro, an Independent Consultant for Education for over 32 years, is best known for her practical approach when teaching alternative methods for responding to individuals who demonstrate extreme behaviors. During her 45 years of experience in the field of Education, Jo has provided training throughout the nation in areas specific to proactive, behavior intervention practices, communication strategies, parenting skills, and programming for individuals who experience from mild/moderate to severe/profound disabilities (birth-adult). You can contact her at JoMascorro.com, by email at email@example.com, or at 310-912-8584.
Heidi Whittaker serves as a parent consultant with Utah Parent Center in the Nebo School District. While not a homeschooler, she is a parent, and she is uniquely qualified to help parents as she has raised her own neurodiverse children and works daily with parents of children with extra needs. She lives in the South Utah County Area. If you live in that area and are educating a child with special needs, she is happy to help you in that journey. Browse more at her Nebo Special Needs website, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call/text at 801-228-8144.