Most students with special needs cope, work and play in integrated settings without
incident. Unfortunately, a small number of students with special needs sometimes find
school so confusing and anxiety-producing that they act out their anxiety aggressively,
creating unsafe situations for themselves, peers and educators.
The labels and terms used to describe students with special needs include attention
deficit disorder, Tourettes syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder and autism
spectrum disorder, to name but a few. We can become overwhelmed by the sheer weight of
information attached to these terms.
Fortunately there are strategies that, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the
individual, apply to all children with special needs.
Crisis behaviour can be minimized if we provide environments that are more predictable
and do not over-stimulate.
Some students with special needs are distracted and over-aroused by the hustle and bustle
of modern classrooms that most students take in stride.
Brenna, a 17-year-old student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, likened
class to being in a room with 20 TVs on, all very loud, on different channels, and being
expected to solve problems being presented on one channel.
Another student with Tourettes syndrome might add that to understand his day,
imagine that several of these TVs were producing a sound akin to nails on a blackboard all
We can turn off some of these imaginary TVs by recognizing sensitivities as an issue
and using a variety of strategies to minimize overstimulation such as:
permitting headphones or walkmans that produce white noise
providing written material on the board and on paper so that the student does not
have to depend solely on the spoken word
understanding that loud and busy periods are stressful, and lessening the load on
the student to reduce anxiety.
We can also build anchors of quiet time into the students schedule (quiet
planning time in morning, library time, for example). Indeed, a daily scheduled
"escape" from class can be used as a carrot to motivate the student throughout
One former student with obsessive compulsive disorder reminds us that the teacher must
remember they, too, are part of the classroom environment.
"When I was in Grade 8 my teacher would use quiet reading time as a chance to fix
the bulletin boards and organize the room. It used to make focusing on my work so hard ...
I found myself having to follow what she was doing rather than working."
Sensitivity to fellow students and other people is not the only source of anxiety. The
physical environment itself may also present problems:
the hum and flicker of the fluorescent lights
the sunlight passing through blinds blowing in the wind
the flashing of the timer on the VCR
the teachers perfume or cologne
the flushing of a toilet.
These can all be a source of agitation for some students, particularly some students
with Tourettes syndrome and autism spectrum disorder.
Still another possible source of agitation is related to the change of seasons. As
seasonal clothing changes from summer shorts to winter pants and sweaters, the addition of
cloth or removal of cloth from arms and legs can result in irritation. It might help to
think of ourselves as blind and deaf in the world of some of our students with special
Once we understand that they experience stimulus so differently, we are able to look
for reasons for crisis behaviour and make adjustments to their environment.
Creating predictable routines and spaces is another important way to reduce anxiety in
many special needs students. A structured environment where a student knows what is
expected of him is essential for many.
Tina Kresina, a child and youth worker at St. Columbas Elementary School in
Hamilton, notes that, "With many children with obsessive compulsive disorder, as well
as other students with behavioural needs, one of the first things we do is start to create
a sustainable daily routine that we will be able to follow day in, day out.
"When a student has been in crisis, we often are able to trace its cause to a
change in his living and school routines." Tina adds that routines must be based on
" skills and interests the student has and not simply imposed if they are to be
Change is a fact of life that we sometimes cannot avoid. We can help students cope with
change by giving them advance warning. Some students benefit from reminders at regular
intervals before a change of activity. Other students require visual reminders.
Autism spectrum disorder consultant Steve Darby recalls, "We helped a 15-year-old
boy with ASD accept moving from one activity to another by providing him with a timer that
showed when an activity was over and a picture schedule that showed the student what
activity was next."
Care must be taken, particularly with some students with obsessive-compulsive disorder,
to not abruptly end activity before its natural end and not to begin activity that cannot
Predictable space is space that does not appear to change over time. Many students with
special needs, particularly those with autism spectrum disorder, require some degree of
predictable space. Predictability can be provided by allowing the student to use the same
desk every day and choosing a seat location that provides a more constant field of vision,
where there is less movement of other students.
Schools that use rotary systems pose an added source of unpredictability. Halton
Separate Board educator Marilyn OBrien discovered a strategy to lessen the chaos for
students. She allows students to carry a piece of predictable space with them into each
"We encourage students to carry a personalized laminated placemat from class to
class," says OBrien. "By placing the mat on their desk, they create a desk
that remains constant from room to room."
School hallways can be difficult spaces for students who require predictability. The
constant movement of students provides little predictability. One way to deal with crowded
hallways is to avoid them altogether or choose times when halls are empty. This, however,
is not always possible or practical.
A "human shield" can be helpful in crowded and chaotic situations. An
educator walks beside the student in such a way to shield the student from as much of the
movement of others as possible. The adult becomes the students predictable space.
The degree to which sensitivity and predictability need to be addressed depends not on
the label that follows the student but by each childs unique personality and their
set of needs as well as by the specific classroom environment. Many students require minor
adaptations to their program while a very few students require substantial changes.
Providing predictability and accounting for oversensitivity to stimulus are attractive
strategies because they are positive, proactive and preventive. Doug Trimble, principal of
Highview Middle School in Hamilton, notes that these strategies focus on avoiding rather
than reacting to crises.
"It is far easier as caring people to provide an environment for another that
promotes the least anxiety or aggression than dealing with the consequences of an agitated
person," he says.
Ed Mahony is a special education resource teacher at St. Marys
Catholic High School in Hamilton and Steve Darby is a crisis prevention consultant in
Hamilton. They teach "Rethinking Restraint," an accrediting crisis
prevention/intervention course focusing on autism spectrum disorder, to parent groups and
educators throughout the province. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Terms to know:
ADHD Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
ADD Attention Deficit Disorder
TS Tourettes Syndrome
OCD Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
ASD Autism Spectrum Disorder