For many of my students, it is their anxiety which is their biggest barrier to success. The difficulty with anxiety however is that is isn’t a constant, it ebbs and wanes; meaning that on some days my students can tackle the world and on others the smallest of tasks feels like climbing a mountain.
The inconsistency with which anxiety displays itself can make it difficult for mainstream staff to understand their needs. How can a student who bounded into class full of the joys of spring yesterday, be sat in the unit today unable to leave its sanctuary? How can a student who yesterday would have eaten anything and everything, today refuse to eat anything in case it has been contaminated with germs? From the outside, to the uninitiated it looks like our students are simply playing games. The reality however is somewhat different.
We need therefore to be flexible in our differentiation to have a toolkit which means that our scaffolding can be altered depending upon the anxiety levels of a student on a particular day. We cannot assume that a student who was able to work independently yesterday, will be able to do the same today.
Differentiation for these students can be about compassion as much as resources, about welcoming them when they can cope about not chastising them for when they can’t. About understanding, and showing them that you understand that they really are doing their best.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have to do the work. On the contrary they do. All of our unit students leave each week with all of their work completed. They are willing to catch it up in their own time (during breaks and lunches), because they haven’t been made to feel ashamed for the fact that they couldn’t do it the first time. Firm boundaries are needed, we have high expectations of all our students, but those boundaries need to be flexible. If we understand our students and preserve their self-esteem, we will help them to understand that we like them, that we respect them and that we care about them… especially at those times when they need it the most.
So next time a student with autism has missed a lesson or even a few, don’t quiz them or feel agitated that they weren’t there; just be glad they’re back, welcome them kindly, show them you understand.
I know it’s hard; you have exam pressures to think of and are accountable for progress. But in the long term, understanding will pay off, your students will work harder and they’ll come back sooner. Go on; give it a go? What have you got to lose?