Kids Count on Consistency
Dan Coulter, April 20, 2006
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If you're a parent or a teacher,
can your kids or students count on you? I mean, do you think
about being consistent so they know what to expect?
Kids who have Autism Spectrum Disorders, in particular, often
benefit from guidance that's structured and consistent.
If a child has a habit that you want to modify, or needs to
learn a skill, consistently reinforcing a behavior can help make
it a part of that child's repertoire.
Try looking at the teaching process from his or her point of
view. If we allow poor table manners at home, but try to enforce
proper manners in a restaurant, we're sending mixed messages.
It's much more practical for kids to learn one set of manners
that's appropriate for both situations.
The world can seem chaotic to kids with ASDs. Think of them as
pilots trying to land their planes. It's hard enough to land on
a stable runway on the ground. But navy pilots will tell you
it's a lot harder to land on an aircraft carrier deck that's
heaving on the waves. As much as possible, we need to be the
stable runways that our kids can depend on -- and consistently
guide them toward behaviors that will be appropriate in the
majority of situations they'll encounter.
I read something the other day written by a teacher who
described a challenge with a former student who was autistic.
This student would sometimes express affection in ways that were
inappropriate for a regular school classroom. The teacher gently
redirected him toward other, more appropriate behaviors.
However, some of his other teachers found his affectionate
behaviors cute and encouraged them. The behaviors continued and
caused the student increasing problems with teasing as he
entered middle school.
This writer urged other teachers to guide their students'
behaviors in light of the student's best interests, and to be
In Scotland County, North Carolina, they're restructuring a
local high school of 1800 students into nine smaller,
semiautonomous learning academies or "schools within a school."
To ensure that Scotland High's programs are consistent with the
needs of the real world, six advisory boards with business,
community and teacher representatives are working together to
establish the academies.
Each academy will have its own guidance counselor and every
student will be assigned an adult advocate who'll stay with him
until he graduates. Teachers within an academy will meet weekly
to consult about the students they have in common. So instead of
seeing a student only in light of the subject they teach,
instructors will get a sort of "360 degree view" of each
student. They can then develop coordinated, consistent teaching
approaches based on an individual student's needs.
While we can't look to all our schools to restructure on this
model, having parents and teachers find ways to bring a
student's teachers together to consult frequently is a goal
My son, Drew, who has Asperger Syndrome, had an instructional
aide in high school. His aide mentioned how helpful it was to
meet frequently with Drew's English teacher and an in-class
support special education teacher. They'd compare notes and
discuss teaching strategies so they could be consistent in
helping Drew. School staff also set up a system to get feedback
from Drew. Every Friday, Drew would meet with his school case
manager and his aide for a "week in review" session. They'd
discuss Drew's performance, encourage his progress and set goals
for the coming week.
Speaking of feedback, we can sometimes throw up roadblocks to
getting good input from our kids without meaning to. Have you
ever asked a child about something he did and listened
attentively if you liked the answer -- but, if you didn't like
his answer, interrupted him to criticize him and tell him what
he should have done differently? Most of us have. Tends to shut
off the information flow, doesn't it?
Being consistent in listening to answers we do and don't like
can be a more effective approach. If you can steel yourself to
ask questions and listen during your "research" conversations,
then consider your approach and calmly
offer your guidance a bit later, you may find you can collect
more accurate information to work
Using this feedback, along with other input, you can determine a
child's greatest needs and come up with a plan with consistent
actions you can take to help him learn key skills or modify his
Here's another thought on feedback from kids. If you don't get
satisfying answers to your questions, it could have to do with
how the child's brain processes information. If he hasn't
thought about a subject, pressing him for an answer may cause
him to clam up, or agree with something you're suggesting just
to end a conversation that's stressful for him.
You may want to try telling him today to think about a subject
that you'd like to discuss tomorrow. If tomorrow comes and he
still can't tell you, say, what classes he'd like to take next
year, you may want to offer him some choices, explain some of
the options, and come back to the subject in another day. It may
take a series of consistently calm conversations to help him
consider what you're asking and give you useful input. This can
also help him learn about the process of considering
alternatives and making decisions.
Consistency in discipline is also an effective learning tool.
Some of us, parents and teachers, have problems modulating our
discipline when we're in a "mood." If the same behavior in a
child draws a sharp reprimand when we're tired and stressed, and
no comment when we're calm and relaxed, we're not basing our
guidance on what's best for our child or student.
Think of the ways being consistent helps us in society. Traffic
laws say we have to signal before we make a turn, whether
there's anyone in sight or not. If we get into the habit of
signaling only when we see other drivers, we risk not noticing
someone, not signaling and causing an accident. That's why the
law tells us to signal consistently.
Think kids need to experience some inconsistency so they can
learn how do deal with it? Don't worry,
there's plenty of inconsistency built into daily
life. There's no way to avoid it. But offering
consistency where we can,
like always putting daily homework assignments in the
same place on a chalkboard or whiteboard,
can be a real benefit for students. As a backup, you
might place homework assignments on a website
where students know they can
always access them. Steps like these also can help show students
the value of
being consistent in their own lives.
Being consistent doesn't mean being inflexible. I think the best
combination is to be consistent in offering guidance to our
kids, but flexible in adapting to their needs. And there should
always be room for creativity, spontaneity and fun in any plan
you draw up. Consistency should be a launching pad for
creativity, not a weight holding it down.
Ralph Waldo Emerson often gets misquoted as saying, "Consistency
is the hobgoblin of little minds." What he actually said was, "A
foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."
And thoughtful consistency in parenting and teaching children is
anything but foolish.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter has written and produced
numerous special needs videos, including, "ASPERGER SYNDROME:
Success In The Mainstream
Classroom." You can find more of Dan's articles at:
Dan hosts an Internet radio show, "Life In The Asperger Lane,"
at 12 P.M., Eastern (US) Time, on the second Saturday of each
month on Autism One Radio at
Copyright 2006 Dan Coulter All Rights Reserved Used By
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