Driving to work on a early Monday morning after a stressful and unpleasant weekend, this glowing amber red sunrise triggered the mood for a much better start into a new week. It made me reflect on all the triggers we are exposed to throughout a single day.
We all have moments, days, weeks, where things just do not go the way we want them to. Negativity creeps into our lives, and energy and creativity virtually disappear. This is true for any human being - nothing will ever change that. It cannot all be positivity and enthusiasm; or as some teachers would say ‘rainbows and unicorns’ (if you see that as a pleasant thing). We need the down times, the struggles, and challenges to appreciate the good times in life.
Our ‘down times’ often look very different than our students’ or kiddos with autism.
When I see Giovanni, my 5th grade student with low functioning autism diagnosis, having to handle a schedule change, or his para being out, it means the world to him. Him making a mistake is the worst he can imagine, and he suffers accordingly. We often hear educators and paras say “calm down”, “get over it”; well, often they can’t.
It is not their choice that they experience these feelings so much stronger and experience situations that are easy to handle for everyone else so much more intense and devastating. The overproduction of cortisol leads to this high stress factor that causes humans to tense and experience fear, worry, trying to want to get away from the situation experienced.
As an adult, we have learned to cope; we have learned to control emotions, we have learned to look ahead, plan ahead, and we know it will get better eventually (or not, but we deal with it). Well most adults anyway... at least it is expected by society.
For students with autism this reflection is impossible. They are in the moment, and in that moment they experience high stress and uncontrollable emotions.
By the way, I am convinced some of these strong emotions are also existing in our pre-teens and teens. It seems rationality and coping mechanisms disappear until a much later stage in their lives. So, observing triggers and what sets students off is not just an interesting factor to look at for diagnosed students in a class, but helpful when working with 5th graders onward.
During a workshop in Elgin, Texas, we did a simple exercise of thinking of negative triggers. We took about a minute, closed our eyes and thought of things that really triggered us in a negative way.
When we shared, it was intriguingly interesting to see the huge variety of things that people mentioned and the very strong reaction they showed when talking about it. People mentioned items like make-up cotton ball removers because of the almost inaudible noise they make, balloons because of the taste they leave on your lips when trying to inflate, and an all too familiar hatred for fluorescent flickering white lights, and so much more.
Items some people do not even think about... which made me realize, often we do not know what triggers our students. We do know there are certain common denominators like lighting, loud screeching noises, but really until you get to know your students, we simply do not know. What we do know is what many humans appreciate as positive triggers, soft adjustable lighting; if possible natural lighting. Soft nature noises and comfortable temperature with fresh air.
My classroom environment changed because I suddenly noticed all the negative triggers that could be an issue for so many students. Our 60's bright orange counters that have been driving me insane for the last five years, certainly trigger a response from every teacher I've ever talked to. But changing it was never really a priority until I realized the high importance of creating an environment that is ideal for learning. Counters are now covered in wood looking adhesive tape that can easily be repaired and replaced.
My $5 plastic chairs that keep on breaking and have annoyingly bright colors have been replaced with tree trunk stools that are solid, smell lovely, and the students love dragging the heavy duty seating options to where they want to be. No cost at all, donated by my Dean of Students who wanted his yard cleaned up.
He also brought in a tree trunk as a bench seat that students love rolling back and forth- having the same effect as a rocking chair. Flexible seating, a mattress and ‘cave area’ with Christmas lights invite to read and allow for a place of solitude.
I am still working on a ‘campfire’ area with grass carpet and natural painting supporting a setting of story telling and collaboration. So much we can do as teachers to move away from the industrial prison like setting we all know is not helpful or supportive for learning or creating a love for learning.
We hardly turn on our overhead lights anymore. Konrad Jarausch donated a natural sunlight lamp for my model classroom. http://www.sunlightinside.com the brain is so much happier with natural light- I am a little envious to have it in my class and not my home...that might change soon ;-) Positive triggers lead to positive behavior leads to better more effective love for learning.