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September 1999

From Chaos to Order

Helping Special Needs Students
Avoid Crisis Behaviour

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wpe2F.jpg (5976 bytes) Maggie’s Grade 10 English teacher was away for a few days and was replaced by a supply teacher. The class, reacting to the change, was louder and more chaotic than usual. The supply teacher presented special activities and did not follow the normal routines. On the second day Maggie began rocking back and forth and humming loudly. When asked to stop, she smashed her head on her desk.

Joseph returned to his Grade 3 class after being sick for a few days to discover that Halloween mobiles, posters and activities had replaced the Thanksgiving theme. Joseph responded by destroying a mobile and scratching his teacher’s arm.

By Ed Mahony and Steve Darby

Inclusion of students with special needs is the order of the day in Ontario schools. Many boards are working to break down barriers that separate exceptional students from their peers. Segregated schools and classrooms are reducing in number with each passing year. Some boards have adapted total inclusion policies. One jurisdiction, the Hamilton Wentworth District Catholic School Board is celebrating 30 years of inclusion.

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, Tourette’s 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 Tourette’s 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 day long.

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 the day.

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 teacher’s perfume or cologne
• the flushing of a toilet.

These can all be a source of agitation for some students, particularly some students with Tourette’s 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 needs.

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. Columba’s 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 successful."

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 be finished.

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 O’Brien discovered a strategy to lessen the chaos for students. She allows students to carry a piece of predictable space with them into each classroom.

"We encourage students to carry a personalized laminated placemat from class to class," says O’Brien. "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 student’s 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 child’s 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. Mary’s 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

Terms to know:

ADHD – Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
ADD – Attention Deficit Disorder
TS – Tourette’s Syndrome
OCD – Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
ASD – Autism Spectrum Disorder