Teens with disabilities, differences, and special needs may display behaviors that are difficult to understand or manage. The students who need extra support come from many different backgrounds, with many different abilities and challenges. We want every student to know what’s expected of them, to feel safe and supported, and to be able to participate in Switch programming as much as possible. With a few new tools and strategies, you’ll be able to better handle challenging situations.
All behavior is communication, so let’s learn to look past the behavior to what the student is trying to convey to you. Try to figure out if the student is trying to meet a need, such as a need for some control, for comfort, for retreat from embarrassment, for sensory stimulation, for sensory retreat, or for relief from boredom. There are many needs that may present themselves as unusual, perplexing, or downright challenging behaviors. Take a look at some of them and prepare yourself with some strategies to redirect or encourage behaviors that are more appropriate.
“NO!” It’s a powerful word. Some of our students who have various disabilities, differences, and special needs seldom get to have freedom over the choices they make. Here are some things to try to avoid defiance or redirect it when it begins to surface.
- Back down when it’s not that important, like joining the big group for worship, sitting in a particular seat for the message, or answering a question in small group. Allow the student to voice their “no.” Let them see you’re not trying to be a dictator and you’re allowing as much autonomy as possible.
- Don’t back down if it is really important, like keeping hands off others, swearing, etc. Continue to work through the strategies below.
- Offer choices as often as possible, such as, “Would you like to sit here or there?” or, “Do you want to use headphones in the auditorium or do you want to go in without them?”
- Try to lighten up the situation or even joke a bit. “Hey, I get it, _____ can be no fun at all. But let’s try it anyway! How bad can it be?”
- Offer rewards for compliance, like, “When you sit in small group, you can use this cool fidget,” or, “When you join the group, I’ll give you a piece of gum to chew.”
- Keep a calm, neutral tone of voice.
- Keep a calm, neutral face.
- Do not threaten. Do not “buckle down” or make a stern, angry face. These practices actually escalate the situation rather than defuse it.
- Encourage. “I believe in you. I know you can make the right choice right now, and I’m here to help you.”
- Step away from onlookers. Once a student has made an initial defiant act or statement in front of others, they may feel they’ll lose face if they back down. Separate them from the group in a non-threatening way. Say, “I hear you. No problem. Come here, and we’ll talk it over.” When you’re one-on-one or away from potential embarrassment, the student may be able to process and follow directions better.
Wandering Off or Running Away
Sometimes a student will wander off out of boredom or because they’ve forgotten what’s expected of them in the moment. Sometimes it’s because of sensory discomfort or social anxiety. Work through the strategies below to help your student stay where they’re supposed to be.
- Give a friendly reminder. Say, “Hey, there! We’re all in small group right now. It’s time to sit with us.” Or, “The parking lot time is all done. We’re supposed to be inside now. Come with me! I’ll go with you.”
- Check for signs of discomfort. If the student found the music too loud, they may feel they need to leave the auditorium or lobby in order to find peace. If the other students seemed rowdy, the student who left may be seeking quiet. If groups were forming, the student who wandered away may not feel like they know which group they should join—or whether they’ll be accepted if they join their group.
- Offer sensory retreat or stimulus as needed. If you think one of the reasons above is why your student left, see if you can help them.
- Offer noise reducing headphones or earplugs if you think noise reduction is needed.
- Offer sunglasses if you think the lights are overstimulating your student.
- Offer a break such as a walk through a quieter section of the building or a location with fewer students if you think they’re getting overwhelmed by the crowd.
- Offer a sensory calming or focusing item that will comfort and help your student to focus—like a fidget spinner, a stress ball, or some putty. Say, “When you come back and sit with us, you can squeeze this putty.”
Your student may not have the same feelings about personal space as others. If a student you’re working with really likes to hug, lean on, or touch others, you will need to work with them to create boundaries.
- Give clear boundaries. Say something like, “At Switch, we only give one quick hug if our friends say it’s okay. And that’s only when we first see them and when we say goodbye.”
- The moment you see a student looking like they might touch someone in a way they shouldn’t—and especially if you’ve already witnessed an inappropriate touch—step in. Say, “Hands to yourself,” or another phrase the student will understand clearly. No need to sound angry, but do sound clear and sure.
- Give a substitute to help the student keep their hands busy. A fidget item such as putty or a stress ball will keep hands occupied and may keep them from leaning on, hugging, and touching others or themselves inappropriately.
- If your student uses inappropriate language, try to figure out their motive so you can better plan a strategy to help them choose appropriate ways of expressing their feelings and thoughts.
- They may have heard the language on TV, at home, or at their school and are simply repeating it.
- Some students will use profanity or hurtful words as a source of power when they’re feeling especially threatened.
- Underreact. A big reaction may actually cause the student to think the word or phrase they said is even more funny or powerful. Keep a neutral face and tone of voice when you’re correcting inappropriate language.
- Give a boundary. If you hear a word or phrase that’s not okay, gently but clearly let the student know. Say something like, “We don’t say that word at Switch.”
- Distract. Change the subject quickly if the student is fixated on a particular word or phrase. Say something like, “Hey—what’s your favorite ice cream flavor?” Tell a knock-knock joke, or ask them how their day was.
What if the Challenging Behavior Doesn’t Go Away?
Give it time. Get to know your student, and connect with other Switch Support leaders. You’ll find new ways to help your student engage less often in behaviors that aren’t appropriate at Switch while having fun and learning about God’s love for them. If you become frustrated or are struggling to keep calm, neutral, and friendly when challenging behaviors pop up, get help from another Switch Support leader or staff member.