Help Autistic Kids Help Themselves

A Personal Aside

Note: I choose to avoid person first language at the direct request of autistic individuals with whom I interact in real life as well as on the internet. I choose to err on the side of referring to autistics in the way they tell me to rather than follow a political convention.

Today I had to apply the CPS model, described here, with two autistic students. Both of these students have demonstrated major behavioral issues this school year and were even worse today, the first day back from a 10-day spring break.

The TL;DR of this post is that communicating with autistic kids is the best way to help them solve their own problems, rather than trying to impose solutions upon them.

How I approach working with autistics

Based on my life experiences with my twin brother, Kyle, I have learned to never underestimate an autistic. In fact, I often favor assuming autistics have a much greater ability than what is immediately apparent. I also wholeheartedly believe that the basic human need for compassion, understanding, and communication is stronger in autistics than any of us realize.

That being the case, I approach any behavioral issue with an autistic student as I would approach an issue with myself at that age. They either lack the ability to communicate what they need or what they lack in a way that the rest of us understand, or else they are feeling some emotional state that needs a resolution–again lacking the communication skills to access their needs. These two options apply both to Kyle and myself, so I go with it as a rough guide.

When I see a student misbehaving–one student today was trying to hurt others and to cause chaos in the classroom and the other student was running out of the classroom–I approach them for a conversation. I do this paying no regard to the student’s communication skills. I consider it my job to understand what they are communicating, not their job to make me understand.

Specific Example

Student 1

I will call this student Erin. I walked into a classroom and this student was peeling the name cards off the tables in the classroom. They then ran across the room and punched two students, and ran behind the teacher’s desk. I went over to Erin and got on their level. I asked them what they needed in order to work.

Erin said, “Toys”.

“Toys?” I said. ‘Tell me, what does [Erin] need to do to get toys”

Erin: “[Erin] needs to work first, then toys. Work first, then toys. [Erin] needs toys to work.”

DH (me): “So [Erin] needs toys to work. Do you need to see toys to earn? What do you mean? How can I help you? What do I need to do to help you work?” (I know this is too many questions, but they are rephrases of the same questions, I was hoping Erin would answer one of them).

E: “[Teacher] erased my board. [Teacher] broke the rules. No toys. No toys. No work for 5 minutes. No first work then toys. No!” (At this point Erin sprinted across the room and tipped a chair with a student still sitting in it while staring at the teacher).

DH: “[Erin], do you need to come talk to Dr. H in private?”

E: “Yes, now please [gives name of teacher’s room to go to] please.”

DH: “Okay, talk”

E: “Dr. H please work first then toys. Work first then toys. Work then toys. Work 5 minutes and then toys 2 minutes. [Erin] control the timer. Work first then toys. Please now.”

DH: “How do I do this. How can I help [Erin] do this?”

E: “Big marker and white board” (they brought me a sharpie and a whiteboard.) “No erase. Never”

DH: “[Erin] wants me to write words on the board?” (I wrote “First work 5 minutes, THEN 2 minutes toys” on the board).

E: (gives me a hug) “[Erin] will say sorry and do work for toys.”

Erin then proceeded to walk back to class silently, gave a personal apology to each teacher and student they had wronged, and asked a teacher to give them work so they could work for toys.

Importantly here, I did not give Erin any solutions. I did not tell them what to do, how to do it, and I certainly did not tell Erin to apologize to the peers and teachers that had been harmed during the incident in class. Erin had a solution in their mind already, but I was the only one willing to ask what they wanted and wait until they were able to formulate an answer I could act upon.  The moment I helped Erin achieve their solution, they ran with it and did not require further adult help.

Student 2

I will call this student Bryan. Bryan had a substitute teacher in their class. That being the case, Bryan ran out of class three times and refused to come in from recess. I was not involved in these incidents. I came in later.

The incident I dealt with was when Bryan ran out of music class. One of my students from last year found this student running down the hall and engaged them in a game. He then yelled down the hall to get my attention.

When I got there I let my old student go back to class. I sat down on a bench and looked at Bryan who was 10 feet away from me hiding behind a pillar.

DH: “[Bryan], can you come over here on the bench and have a chat with me?”

B: “F*ck no, you will grab me”

DH: “What if I sit on my hands?”

B: “Prove it”

DH: “Okay” (I made a show of standing up and putting my hands entirely under my legs and sat down)

B: “I am coming out!” (he walked VERY slowly until he was just out of arm’s reach of me) “What do you want”

DH: “I want to help you get back to class. Running out is unsafe and I cannot let that happen” (I don’t lie to kids, they see right through me. So I level with them, it has worked thus far).

B: “What”

DH: “I want [Bryan] to be safe and happy so he can go back to class. What does [Bryan] need, what does he want?”

B: “[Bryan] wants to be on his bed in his room playing Roblox on his laptop.”

DH: “Wait, what? This is about home?”

B: “Yes. Dad said I was naughty boy. He closed my laptop. He locked it in cupboard up too high for me”

DH: “So, dad said [Bryan] was naughty and took away the laptop so no Roblox”

B: “Yes. Mad. Angry.”

DH: “What does [Bryan] need to be able to go to class”

B: “Laptop”

DH: “Not an option”

B: “How can get Roblox back on laptop?”

DH: “Can you ask your dad how to earn it back? If he took it, then he thought you did something bad, maybe being good will help you get it back”

B: “Ask dad? Why? Dad closed laptop. Took roblox. Dad hates [Bryan]”

DH: “Dads do things that make them look like they are mean and hate kids, but it is because they love us and want to help us do good things. They take things so we learn to stop being naughty”

B:  “No hate?”

DH: “Nope”

B: “Good at school help laptop?”

DH: “Couldn’t hurt”

B: “OK. Hate class. Want games.”

DH: “I get that. But if you do not go to class can the teacher tell dad [Bryan] was good at school?”

B: “I go to class. Now. Hurry”

I then followed as Bryan slowly walked to class. He asked a number of questions about why parents are “assholes” and why they don’t understand his needs. I corrected the language since now we were not in problem solving mode and it was a teaching moment to teach expected vs. unexpected language in school.

He went to class and got his good report.

Why did it work

The standard adult tells student what to do model is less useful. It is because of this there are students that will punch their peers and say, “sorry” and assume all is well. They also develop a dependency on adults to solve their problems. They become powerless. They have no accountability. They have permission to misbehave so long as it is a new way of misbehaving. It is a vicious cycle I have seen over and over.

That was not what happened today.

I think today was illustrative because I worked with two students that have relatively low verbal language skills and underdeveloped coping skills. Both students were able to communicate in their own way the solution to their problem and engage with the solution. I did not spoon feed them. I just used a modified Rogerian psychology trick of restating what they just said as a question to keep them communicating. They did the work. They got their own needs met. They were empowered. They learned. They were accountable for their own solutions.

In short, by helping autistic students communicate to get their own needs met, they grew. They grew as students. They grew in character. They grew up a little. They grew as people. And that is my goal as a special educator. To build character and prepare autistic kids for the real world. Today I feel I helped, if only a little bit.



We Need to Approach Behavioral Management Differently

A Teaching Aside

I was reading a blog post that was being circulated on twitter and it got me thinking. It was a blog post about how most of the time we are not actually managing the behavior of autistic or other disabled kids in order to help the kid, but to make the kid appear normal. Here is the link. The following blurb was what got my brain’s juices flowing:

People who advocate for the use of behaviour modification strategies, in my experience, are expecting the child to make changes that others want them to make. Often, if you look closely, the changes are for the convenience of the parent or teacher and are decided on by them. The strategies to induce change are also devised by the parent or teacher. These strategies are said to be helping the child learn a skill or develop a strategy. In truth, they are an externally imposed expectation the child will do something differently because someone told them to. The consequences of not complying are the withdrawal of something the child likes or wants. This kind of coerced compliance is dangerous for many reasons.

I have a very similar opinion of most behavior management methods used for autism and other developmental disorders, and I disagree with the basis for most of them. For example, Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) places their emphasis on socially relevant behaviors as targets for their training and behavior plans. Theoretically this would suggest that ABA selectively targets only behaviors for change that impair the daily personal and social function of the individual. However, in practice, socially relevant behavior tends to mean “autistic behaviors” such as stimming, restricted interests, abnormal speech patterns, etc; regardless any lack of negative impact on the social or personal function of the student. I do not mean to pick on ABA as they are not alone in this approach, PBIS, DIR, PRT, and other systems share a sort of train the disabled kids to act like the “normal” kids approach to behavioral management. I bring these examples up as most behavioral management methods used in schools are derived from these programs.

This post is not about behavioral management as compliance training for these students (I have done that before, a couple of times), but rather asks a far more basic question, “Why do we actually use behavioral management techniques in the classroom?”

My approach in this blog will be to sort of think out loud with regard to how and why we should best manage behavior in the school setting. I know this sounds like a trivial and silly topic to undertake-and for some reason this is why I undertake it-but I hope to show you that most of us get it wrong. And it is bad for the kids when we do.

Behavioral management in the classroom – Why do we do it?

This is obviously a bit of a silly question, but I intend to answer it in a somewhat controversial manner.

As teachers, we should never engage in behavioral management in our classrooms simply in order to make it easier for us to deliver instruction, rather we should manage student behavior to maximize the ability of every single student in the class to learn what is being taught as best they can.

Simply put, proper application of behavioral management techniques should be done with an eye on improving student learning, not making our lives easier as teachers.

So, that was not too difficult, was it?

Before I go further, two important definitions:

  1. Positive Punishment: Adding a stimulus that decreases probability a behavior will re-occur (e.g., Police Officer giving a driver a speeding ticket in order to reduce speeding)
  2. Negative Punishment: Removing a stimulus that will decrease probability a behavior will re-occur (e.g., Take away recess after student misbehaves in order to reduce misbehavior)

Here is the rub, in classrooms around the country, classroom management methods are not put in place to teach the students how to improve themselves and build character. They are put in place to shut the kids up so the teacher can talk without interruption. Students talking out of turn in class is treated as a major disciplinary infraction, oftentimes with an office referral attached. The goal is that the student comply with classroom rules. Full stop. This is evident in the charter school movement toward zero tolerance classrooms. In my opinion, that is a rather large problem. A compliant student is very often stressed out and anxious about avoiding noncompliance, and thus not in a healthy space for learning.

I have seen this numerous times whenever a level system comes into play (see below for an example of professionally designed response cost charts-referred to as behavior charts since the terms “response cost” and “level system” are falling out of favor-I got out of a teaching catalogue that about made me burst a head pipe). These response cost systems use the threat of both positive and negative punishment to control others.

Most of the time these level systems come in the form of stoplight systems wherein students start at green and move to yellow or red depending upon the egregiousness of their misbehaviors (or the whim and caprice of a frustrated teacher/paraeducator, but that is a rant for another post). More modern systems start kids out in the middle, and they earn their way “higher up” on the system or else they are moved downward for poor behavior. Importantly, rights and privileges come with each level, not to mention punishments and aversive consequences if one goes down.

There was a great post I saw a while back that explains why this is a silly and dangerous approach to controlling student behavior. Basically, the same students will always end up at the same place on the behavior chart. Red kids, Orange kids, Yellow kids, Green kids, Purple kids… These names sound funny until you realize the fatalism that comes into play when kids believe they are a red kid, and thus incapable of becoming yellow, let alone green. They get used to missing recess. Used to isolated lunches. So they are left with a choice:  withdraw or explode.


So, how do these levels work and what do they mean?

I also have seen Class Dojo used to flat out control students. Many teachers state they will use Class Dojo to “zap” kids back on task (Article here). This is a problem. The points are being used as a punishment system rather than as an incentive to behave appropriately. Again, positive and negative punishment comes on board with Class Dojo, especially if red Dojo points are given for “bad” behavior.

Note: I have no problem with Class Dojo being used as a data collection tool, but if that is the sole purpose, why do we throw the points up on the whiteboard so everyone can see each student’s standing in the class compared to not only teacher expectations and the golden student, but the rest of the class members as well.

Overall, what I see most, virtually all, classroom behavioral management systems have in common is punishment, either positive or negative punishment, and usually some combination of both. I can tell you from experience that using punishment does not result in long term learning. Rats, mice, monkeys, dogs, cats, humans, etc. do not truly learn by aversive training. By this I mean that any conditioned behaviors fade very quickly. Punishment has to be doled out 100% of the time when there is bad behavior in order to be effective. And even then, some individuals will take it upon themselves to test the system and they will creatively break rules relentlessly to see if there is a gap in enforcement. We all know this student. We all learn from this student. What we learn is that this student beat our system and we cannot control him/her. They won. When doing animal research, never seemed to fail that one or two animals in every group would thwart the system.

Let me extend this example one step further, imagine a student with autism, ADHD-hyperactive/impulsive subtype, or a developmental disability like Fragile X Syndrome. These students WILL BREAK YOUR RULES OVER AND OVER AGAIN. They do not do it on purpose, and they have very basic needs that often run in the face of school discipline systems (see here). They need to move around, make noise, fidget, talk in some cases, etc. Do we really think punishing them by removing points or moving them down to red will teach them proper classroom behavior? Or are we just going to make them behave worse and worse because we are stressing them out and making their lives a living hell on earth?

Basically, what I am trying to say here is that we do not use “behavioral management techniques” in classrooms to help students know how to behave, we use them to guarantee they do behave the way we want. In the end, this is why so often students “blow up” or “explode” out of the blue one day in class. They get exhausted from trying so hard to be good all the time. Especially our disabled students that are trying so very hard to behave that they get tired and lose -. This is preventable. We as teachers and adults just have to change our mindset.

So what is the alternative?

So what should behavioral management in a classroom do? What is it’s purpose? In my opinion, classroom behavioral management should exist solely with the intent to help students learn. Now, this means as a teacher one has to grow up a little bit and accept that there is no such thing as a perfectly compliant student-and that perfect compliance to adult request is not the natural state of a child. The adults need to understand that student behavior is about the situation, not the adult. In other words, students do not misbehave to spite the teacher. They are acting out because they do not know how to act; at least not until we teach them that is.

The teacher also has to take a step back and decide what they really are willing to deal with out of a student and what they aren’t. For example: Do you really care that all four chair feet are on the ground, that the student is not reaching in their desk and fiddling with stuff, that they are standing behind the desk rather than sitting at a desk “normally”, does it matter if they whisper to themselves? Does it really matter that they look the teacher in the eyes?

To me all the above questions are met with a solid, “Nope, I honestly don’t care”. If a student is able to learn, answer questions, participate within their ability, and are having fun, I am happy. My classrooms tend to be full of students that are fidgeting, sitting in weird ways, looking off into space, etc. Despite these “off task” behaviors, however, the students can answer my questions, get their assignments done, and build social skills they need moving forward.



Personally, this was me as a student. I never met a chair I did not love to use wrong. To this day I am notorious for sitting in chairs weird. I even engage in the Riker Chair Maneuver as seen in the video below. By no means does this mean I am not listening. I just do not sit still very well.

Importantly, I do care when the student disrupts the learning of others. If a student is disruptively noisy or otherwise disrupting/disrespecting their peers I address it in two ways:

  1. I pull the disruptive student aside and ascertain why they are being disruptive and if there is a need being fulfilled that I can redirect if necessary
  2. If the student is being intentionally disruptive, we have a less pleasant conversation about character and why they are being disruptive

As a concrete example of what I do, I had a 3rd grade reading group this last year that was full of kids known to get into trouble for not completing their work and for being disruptive. After a few weeks of having multiple tables and feeling like I was herding chickens, I did the unthinkable and moved the entire group of 12 students onto a single table in the middle of the room.

We had a discussion about expectations, which meant that each and every one of the students was to complete their work to the best of their ability and take it to class when it was complete. I further explained that I was going to teach them a skill their peers knew but they did not: I was going to teach them how to talk with friends and get their work done at the same time. And they did.

When you came into my class there was a lot of laughing, a lot of talking, and a lot of pencils being used. It had to be interesting the first time the principal walked in and saw a rather free form classroom full of giggling students with me running around helping them with any questions. These students started completing their work and making gains that were eluding them only a few weeks prior. Do I believe that talking in class helped them learn? No, it didn’t. What did help them improve scholastically was that these students were happy and did not feel like I was hanging over them to correct and punish them for inappropriate behavior and breaking my rules. They were less anxious and less stressed. They also knew exactly where the limits to their behaviors were and checked themselves before I had to get on their cases. My classroom was a place of fun and being with friends-so long as they finished their work.

In my previous school in a small group autism class, I gave all my students a chunk of TheraPutty and let them fidget with it while they were doing work. I also emphasized that if they had a question they were to interrupt me to ask it. I taught them that in my classroom they were to raise their hand and say, “Dr. H” at the same time, otherwise I may miss them. These students started the year were under the impression that they were to sit quietly and listen to the teacher and then start their work in groups, whether they understood the lesson or not. This resulted in a lot of inappropriate behavior and a lot of students being punished for these transgressions. I saw this and immediately changed the classroom expectations. The students appreciated it and their behaviors greatly improved, as did their classroom participation (Link).

I also ended up replacing all the chairs in the classroom with yoga balls (Link) so the students could move around and bounce. Their behavior improved dramatically. They were louder and did not “look” as engaged as they might had I enforced an ABA-derived attending program, but they learned. And in the end that is all that matters.

I have a solution that works, but it is hard to do

The precis of my solution is: as teachers we should all grow up. When we grow up and move on into the real world we sit in chairs wrong, look at our phones when we are supposed to pay attention, surf Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter when “taking notes” during classes and meetings, and whisper to our friends when we are supposed to be on task. If we practiced what we preached in class we would have to assume that our behavior is a severe detriment to learning and we should be punished, but we all know that is silly.

As such, we need to teach students the behavioral skills we have developed as adults. I find teaching kids as if they are small adults works rather well. Because they sense I am treating them like a grown up, they work very hard to meet my expectations. However, we simultaneously need to remember that these are still children. If they make a mistake, it was a mistake. It was not a willful act done with the intent of disrupting class. It was a mistake. If we teach rather than punish after their mistakes (and even their boundary pushing), they will learn and trust that we have their best interest in mind. If we punish rather than teach them, then they will behaviorally escalate and cease to trust us. They will rebel against our control. They will become noncompliant. And it will be our fault. Aside…seriously I have had to stop using animals during a punishment research study, because even the sight of me set them off in an explosion! Change the study with rewards and boom, behavior completely changes. I never had to exclude an animal in a reward study…just saying!

Behavior management should to teach character

This means that we set up and enforce classroom rules in order to teach students to be better people. We should set up our class rules in accordance. Mine were as follows (in no order other than the one at the bottom was always last as I felt it was especially important in my classroom):

  • We keep our hands, feet, and objects to ourselves
  • We use appropriate words and voices for the situation
  • We are good listeners with voices off
  • We follow directions the first time
  • We try new things even if we don’t want to

I pulled one of these rules aside based on student behavioral challenges the previous day and we had that rule as a daily focus, and that guided my “catching students being good” praise. In time, the students started catching each other being good! They tattled on their peers following rules!

I also had the students read aloud with me the following class motto every day before class as part of morning meeting:

“I make mistakes so I can learn, I learn so I can succeed, I succeed so I can help other kids when I grow up”.

I felt this was important because many of my students were perfectionists and felt that they were abject failures if they were less than perfect with rule following.

In practice, classroom behavioral management needs to be individualized for each student. This takes work from the teacher and administration, but it is worth it in the end. Students notice when we have designed systems to help them and they appreciate it. This is particularly true in my experience when the teacher sits down with a particularly troublesome student and has a discussion about building character, and how classroom rules fit into that.

This individualization is done by taking the following steps:

  1. The teacher should work with the school team to determine which of their students have unique needs in the classroom
  2. For each of these identified students, the needs should be catalogued and simple plans for each student drawn up
    1. Plans should focus on what skills the students needs to learn in class
    2. Plans should include how the teacher can teach those skills
  3. The teacher should then develop hard lines for what is considered inappropriate behavior in the classroom-these will be enforced with 100% fidelity
    1. Enforcement needs to be predictable and consequences need to be explicitly written and explained to students
    2. After enforcing rule, teacher needs to explain *why* they enforced that rule
  4. The teacher should also develop strategies to help students understand why the classroom rules are important and what the students can learn from the rules
  5. The teacher or other school personnel design social skills curriculum surrounding important rules

Finally, any individualization needs to be explicitly take into account the specific needs of each student, be it ADHD, autism, OCD, Fragile X Syndrome, Down Syndrome, etc. All of these disorders result in specific, predictable behaviors that can be accounted for. The best way to accommodate these needs is to work with the IEP team (especially parents) to design the program.


What we have to do is to give each student what they need to achieve success. Some need to move around, some need to fulfill sensory needs, and some need to make noise occasionally. So long as they are not disruptive to the classroom in general, let’s support them in fulfilling their needs. Once needs are met, students can engage with our lessons, not before.