Hanging in There

Keeping Students Comfortable, Relaxed, and Focused

Inclusion Rules by Paula Kluth
Adapted from: P. Kluth (2010). “You’re Going to Love This Kid!”: Teaching Students with Autism in the Inclusive Classroom (Rev. ed.). Baltimore: Brookes.

Oftentimes, learners with autism struggle to stay seated, remain focused, and engage in required work or assigned tasks. With proper supports and adaptations, however, students may be able to increase their time on-task and remain comfortable even during longer periods of whole-class instruction. In this article, five options for helping students “hang in” during such moments are offered.

Encourage Fidgeting

Some students can be comforted if they have an object to manipulate during lessons. One student I know likes to pick apart the threads on patches of denim. Another folds and unfolds a drinking straw during long lecture periods. A third student creases paper over and over again, creating interesting origami-type sculptures.

Students having such a need might be offered squishy “stress” balls, straws, stir sticks, strings of beads, rubber bands or even key chains that have small toys attached to them. When possible, students might be given objects that are related to course content. For example, a student in a social studies class, liked to pinch a stress ball during class. His teacher found a globe-themed stress ball at a teaching conference and gave it to the young man. The two then began playing an informal and somewhat humorous game of “Which country are you squishing?” at the end of class each day. Likewise, a student in an elementary-level math class often used small interlocking cubes as a fidget support; he stacked the cubes during whole-class instruction and then used them for counting and other calculations during individual work time.

Allow Doodling

Allowing students to draw can be another effective “stay-put” strategy. Unfortunately, doodling is often seen as off-task behavior by teachers. Many learners with and without identified needs, however, are better able to concentrate on a lecture or activity when they are given the opportunity to draw on a notepad, write on their folders, sketch in a notebook, or even (depending on the student’s age) color a worksheet.

Have Them Walk it Off

Some students work best when they can pause between tasks and take a break of some kind (walk around, stretch, or simply stop working). Some learners will need walking breaks – these breaks can last anywhere from a few seconds to fifteen or twenty minutes. Some students will need to walk up and down a hallway once or twice, others will be fine if allowed to wander around in the classroom. Teachers concerned about the student missing content can give the learner a content-connected task to accomplish during his or her walking break. For instance, a teacher in a middle school language arts class regularly asked her student, Mary Liz, to do a library search for the class during one of her walking breaks.

Another teacher who realized the importance of frequent movement and interaction decided to offer “ambulatory opportunities” to all learners. He regularly gave students a prompt to discuss (e.g., What do you know about the stock market?; What is a statistic?) and then directed them to “talk and walk” with a partner. After ten minutes of movement, he brought the students back together and asked them to discuss their conversations.

Offer Seating Choices

Appropriate seating may not be the first thing a teacher considers when planning for a student with autism, but for some, the right type of classroom furniture is pivotal to their success and comfort. One of my former students could not tolerate sitting on the hard desk chairs provided in all of his classrooms so the teachers let him bring a cushion to class. Another student often preferred sitting on the floor (where he would prop himself up with two large pillows) so at any point during the day, the young man was allowed to sit in his “nest” (as he called the space) or in his desk (where he sat on a small pillow).

Having a few different seating options in the classroom can potentially boost the educational experiences of all learners. Seating options that may appeal to learners with and without autism include couches or loveseats, stuffed footstools, padded seat covers, rocking chairs, lawn chairs, pillows, floor mats, and swivel stools.

Ask the Student For Help

Depending on the age of the student, the teacher may want to explain the situation to the learner and explore whether or not the individual has ideas for improving the situation. One student was asked how the teaching team might help him with his “jumpiness” during the last twenty minutes of the day. The child swore that sucking on jaw breaker candies would help him stay in his seat and feel more relaxed. The team laughed and was skeptical, assuming that the suggestion was a ploy to get the teachers to supply a daily treat, but the “jaw breaker pedagogy” (as it came to be called) worked beautifully. From the first day it was instituted, the young man was able to keep his body calm during the time period in question.

If the student with autism is unable to communicate in a reliable way, teachers can go to families for help. Parents can share tips they have found most useful or observe the situation and provide possible solutions based on their experiences in the home and community.