The classroom can be a confusing place for a child with language difficulties. However, sometimes the playground can be even more confusing. Many children who have speech and language difficulties (though by no means all) also have difficulties with social interaction. The lack of structure at break times especially, can be a real challenge for some children. What can we do for these children to make break times a more positive experience?
Here are a few ideas that I have seen work well for some children. Obviously every child and every school is different. It takes planning and specific thought to identify the best strategy for each child. However, here are some ideas of a few strategies that could work for your child or your school.
- Be sure that you understand what the problem is. Take time to just sit back and watch. I have often been surprised that what I thought the child was struggling with was not what I saw when I observed. Just watching and taking notice will help to pinpoint where the breakdown is occurring and where to start in trying to help – often this can be the hardest part!
- Specifically teach rules – don’t assume that the child understands and knows what is expected of them. Specifically tell them what to do. Keep this as simple as you can. I once went into a nursery to observe a child who, throughout my observation, kept taking things from other children when they were playing with them, causing the other children to get upset. Each time this happened, a member of staff would go over to him and deal with the situation, get him to give the toy back and explain to him that snatching things wasn’t kind and he would get a turn later. The only problem with this was that the child in question only understood single words. He had no idea what they were saying to him and just kept doing the same thing again and again, trying to play with the others! We discussed the situation and made a picture to show him that taking other people’s toys was not what was expected. Then each time he did it, adults said “no” gently but firmly, nothing else, just “no”. Then they demonstrated for the child how to interact with the others, saying “can I play?”. Everyone said the same phrase each time. Eventually the child started to copy and began to get a positive reaction from the other children.
- For older children, a good way of explaining the whole social situation is with a social story. These are positive stories, related to a particular child and a particular situation, and seek to explain the whole surrounding situation and how the child should respond. You can find out more about how to write a social story here. Often when children struggle in social situations, they feel anxious or scared, and it’s important to acknowledge these feelings as part of the social story, but then offer a positive way to deal with the situation.
- Buddy systems – some schools operate a buddy system where children in older years volunteer to be a “buddy” for a younger child. There are various ways of operating this sort of system and it often works well as something on offer to the whole school rather than a strategy put in place for one child. However, it can be really useful for some children.
- Social skills groups – sometimes a social skills group can be a good way of talking through and practising particular skills. These can be difficult to do well, as obviously understanding something in a quiet classroom setting is not the same as being able to do it when the situation presents itself in real life. However, these can be a good introduction to some of the issues and a good, safe opportunity to practise social skills with adults there to support. For planning social skills groups, I recommend the Talkabout books for infants, juniors and teenagers.
- I realise that extra adults can be like gold-dust in schools and often the limited TA time available is prioritised for Literacy and Numeracy. However, if it’s possible, even short-term, to have an extra adult on the playground who is looking out for the child, this can really help. They don’t need to follow the child everywhere, just observe what’s happening and help to problem-solve strategies. Also, with younger children, an adult starting up some playground games can be really useful. The child who struggles with an unstructured situation has some structure and also learns some games that they can then play by themselves another day. I have seen this work really well in some schools.
- Make sure that the child has a particular adult that they can talk to and/or a safe place to go to if things get too much. The playground can be overwhelming and sometimes children who struggle just need to get away and be somewhere quiet. Give them this space and praise them for using it!
- Use visuals – I’ve sort of covered this, but I’m making it a separate point, because it’s important. Often some great visual support strategies are being used to help a child in the classroom (visual timetables, pictures, signing etc). However, when the child goes out to break these things are not available. It is difficult to have a visual timetable on a playground, but there are ways that visuals can be used! If the child uses signing, make sure at least one adult on the playground (preferably more) is able to sign to the child. Otherwise that child is unable to ask for help. With pictures, I’ve worked in schools where all the staff have lots of laminated symbols attached to them with a keyring, so they are always there when needed. They don’t need to be stuck on a wall! Whatever is working well in class, find a way of transferring it to the playground.
- Some children find having free choice difficult and don’t know how to fill it. For some of these children, offering a narrower choice of activities can help. EG instead of “what do you want to do?” try, “would you like to ride a bike or play football?”. Use pictures for the child to choose from if needed.
These are just some general ideas – the likelihood is that everyone involved with a particular child will need to sit down and work out strategies to help that individual. For more ideas specifically focussed on children with ASD try this page of the National Autistic Society website.
If you have found this post useful, you may also like the other posts in this series about how to support children with different aspects of school life. Click the links to find out how to support a child with exams, school plays and school trips.