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Unstructured times are the worst!

By Karen Ferguson, Director of Linrow Education – speaking at the Live Online National Education Show on 6, 7, 8 October 2021

Within a school environment, many strategies and techniques are in place to support and guide students on the Autistic Spectrum, and it’s important to focus upon the key areas of difficulty around social interaction, communication, thought, imagination and sensory. As educators, we understand that all students are unique and individual and address their needs accordingly. However, when unstructured times come along – including breaks, lunches and lesson change-overs - all routine and structure are typically lost, which dramatically escalates our students’ anxiety and stress.

During these challenging times, there is a range of difficulties that can occur. One of the first and often the most upsetting is sensory overload. Thinking about the level of noise during breaks and lunches, students will often describe it as having many radio stations playing at once and not being able to tune into a single one of them. The number of students is raised dramatically from being in a classroom; add to that the colours and smells outside, and sensory overload is very common.

There are some simple strategies and techniques to help alleviate the concerns, anxiety and stresses for our young people in these unstructured times. A simple mechanism to implement is the training and education of pupils - enlightening students within the school is a fairly easy fix. This will give all students an awareness and allow more of an understanding during these more challenging times.

In my experience, giving some structure to breaks can be another easy fix. Having a designated quiet area for students with sensory overload can help, as can planned games that are organised by staff or peer mentors. Another interesting activity is the challenge bag, which consists of a set of cards with challenges and allows students to work independently or in groups. The challenges can be categorised, and involve both physical and academic challenges, such as: ‘Who can do the most star jumps in one minute?’ ‘How many items begin with the letter B?’ ‘Can you count the number of trees?’

Another excellent resource to help with the challenges of unstructured times is effective communication, particularly between home and school. Working together can also be very beneficial for all parties; sharing the strategies and techniques that work and, more importantly, don't work, is essential to making these times more manageable and enjoyable for our students. Being able to discuss possible triggers to allow a preventative approach to unstructured times can only be advantageous to all concerned.

Additional difficulties that we need to address are around the unwritten social demands and rules that all neurotypical students appear to know and understand. This can cause a lot of anxiety - Who should they speak to? How close should they stand? What should they talk about? Our students find these unstructured times totally exhausting and wearing.

One solution - which is by far the most effective, if not the easiest or quickest to implement - is to teach these skills. Working with small groups to develop basic communication skills will aid understanding, addressing both the social side of communication and the more abstract non-verbal signs. The amount of information communicated using non-verbal signs can be far more valuable than what is actually said, and of course, is the most difficult for our students to understand and develop. I often use emojis to start the process, as many of our students will have an understanding of these; however, we then need to relate them back to real life, and this is often where it becomes more challenging.

The key to unstructured times is reducing the anxiety and stress using all the tools in the teacher’s box of tricks. Being proactive is always going to be more successful than being reactive!

Karen Ferguson is the Director of Linrow Education and speaking at this year’s National Education Show on 6,7 and 8 October. Book your 3-day free pass here.

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