Structure Your Free Time

Today was our last day of term; a day on which clearly the gods were looking down on us. Unbelievably, the day passed without a meltdown.

For the uninitiated, this may not seem unbelievable. However, for our students it is. It is these days – the days on which changes occur and normal structures disappear, on which they struggle the most.

Today, however, looking around my room at students happily playing together no one would have guessed that these situations can be challenging. And that is down to my amazing staff. I came in from an early morning meeting, to find two speech therapists playing giant snakes and ladders on the floor with two of my students, a game of cards being led by very enthusiastic staff on another table, a member of staff sharing an iPad game with a students, another looking at something with students on a computer and yet others involving students in creating resources for next year. Somehow out of the chaos, they had a created order.

Free time is fantastic; our students need to experience it. But we also need to scaffold that freedom by providing activities that our students can do. We need to know and understand our students, well enough to find activities that create structure within the freedom. We need to give our students a chance to be successful.

So next time, it’s form time or toy day, and the day isn’t quite the same as usual – make sure you give a thought to those who might need that little extra help to make the day fun. One look at their faces, and you’ll know it was worth it…

Free Time Matters Too

Free time with my students means the world to me! But for many students with ASD unstructured times are the times they find most difficult. At these times there isn’t a designated plan of action, instead we expect them to navigate the complex social world around them, often without support. The student often arrives back in your classroom upset and frustrated, feeling as though the world is against them and desperate to do anything but settle down to work.

It doesn’t have to be that way though. Free time can be used to your advantage. It can be a positive thing. It’s one of the reasons that both I and many other members of my team don’t take a break and eat our lunch with our students. No one has asked us to do it; we just do it because it works best that way. My students will tell you that eating my lunch with them is my favourite part of the day – and what’s more they are right!

I love lunch times because it allows me to be with my students on their terms, to talk to them about their special interests, to find out what makes them tick. If I make time to listen to them, they are far more likely to want to work for me. For me it’s a win win situation!

If we are around we can help our students to navigate these social times successfully, but more than that we can equip them with the skills to be more independent in the future. We can practice conversations, get to know our students better, give our students independence when they can cope but be near enough to step in and prompt when they can’t. Surely this is what lunch time supervisors are for, I hear you cry. True, they are. But our students often need more skilled support from someone who knows them well, who can spot them when they are starting to get anxious not when they have entered full-blown meltdowns. Who know the right moment to whisper ‘will you play with me?’ in their ear, when they are standing looking longingly at another child, before the moment is over and they’ve walked away assuming that the other child doesn’t want to play with them.

At break times, I have students who will sit and chat, I have others who will play tig, others who need some alone time on a computer and others still who like nothing better than to help me with jobs. I have students who will only play if a member of staff plays too, and ones who want to be alone.

We know that one learning style doesn’t suit all of our students; we create lessons to help them succeed. So what makes us think that one type of break time suits all of our students? Some need time to run and play and let of steam – others need time to escape from the pressures of social interaction and lose themselves in technology. We need to be adaptable and provide our students with the opportunities for both.

So why not try something different next break time? Arrange some different activities, ask someone to help you with a job or just sit and chat. Give it a try; you’ll be pleasantly surprised. After all, if your teacher said ‘If you don’t do your work, then you won’t get your break’ and break was your least favourite time of day, what would you do?