A Habit that Serves in Special Education
“Good Habits formed at youth make all the difference.”
The Merriam-Webster definition of a habit is “an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary.” Most of what we do each day consists of habits and of course, some are healthy and useful, and some do not serve us. I have devoted much of my work with children in promoting the healthy habits of exercise and mindfulness. These habits have proven to make my life more joyful and productive so I knew they would be beneficial to my students. I believe that when we work with a child instead of just for a child, we share the opportunity for growth because we connect through our joint actions. We are always co-regulating and modeling for children, whether we are consciously creating our life or whether we are just going through the motions unaware. I know I still have much work to do in cultivating life enhancing habits. Currently,I have been working on several habits that I know contribute to my sense of well-being, and at the same time help my students to thrive. One that has been on my mind a lot lately has been the habit of slowing down.
I grew up in New York City. As a child, I was running before I learned to walk. With four children in my family, I learned to talk quickly, or risk having one of my siblings garner the limited attention of my parents. Speed can be addictive. It can make us feel productive when we rush through our much too long to do lists. However, hurrying also creates a state of stress and overwhelm. As a parent, I remember the days of constantly rushing my young children to get out the door or hurrying to get through shopping trips. Those moments made me feel frazzled and guilty because I knew my children were not getting the time and attention they needed.
This incessant need for speed is seen all throughout our schools. Impossible academic schedules, 20-minute lunches, and limited opportunities for play are the norms in most schools, rather than the exceptions. When we have students with IEP’s we even feel more pressure to get their goals met. There never seems to be enough time in our day as we try to squeeze in one more activity, one more lesson. We have very strong agendas but sometimes forget that these are our goals, and they often have nothing to do with a child’s actual needs in the moment.
The first step, in the recovery of speed addiction, is to ask whether this speed is necessary. Do we have to get to every goal? Does the child in front of us need more rushing or could we take a moment to pause and perhaps make our time together a reprieve from all the busyness? If you have been working with children for some time, you likely have found yourself in a situation where a child is happily engaging in a calming sensory activity. Though they are regulated and content, we often feel the urge to push them through it to move onto the next thing on our list. Lately, I have been working on creating more space for the child to decide when they have had enough, instead of my own incessant need to be on to the next thing. When I let go of control and my own habit to keep moving, I find not only do the children benefit, but I feel calmer and more connected in the process.
Many children need more time to process language. Are we talking fast and expecting children to respond immediately? Well known research has studied the need to increase teacher wait time. On average, teachers allow only one second after they ask a question for their students to answer. In these studies, when teachers were encouraged to wait 3 seconds, there were a multitude of positive outcomes. For many of our neurodiverse students, these wait times need to be increased to perhaps five-seconds or even longer. This can seem like an eternity if you, like me, are used to speed and constant talking. Often what we do is jump in and give the child the answer, thus robbing the child of their autonomy and encouraging learned helplessness. Allowing for conscious pauses can be uncomfortable at first, so you may need a visual reminder to wait and allow for the discomfort to arise. A trick teachers have used to create wait time is counting out the seconds in their heads after asking a question. You may find that a visual to demonstrate “quiet” is useful if you are working with more than one child (so that peers do not blurt out the answer during the wait time). Again, these moments of waiting, over time, can become a short reprieve from the busyness and chatter in our day.
Some children have great difficulty slowing down and may need practice to know what "slow" feels like in their bodies. We can start by introducing extremes in movement. I often do this with music, as you can have children move to varying beats. When we use our body, instead of just relying on language, we can experience what it means to slow down. For concrete learners, I often talk about animals to demonstrate slow and fast movement, such as walking like a turtle and then running like a cheetah. I have also used a glitter jar to demonstrate moving very fast (when first shaking the jar) to watching the last pieces of glitter fall to the bottom of the jar to demonstrate slowing down. At first children may be uncomfortable when asked to move slowly but, again, over time, children will change and often come to really enjoy these slower moments. However, we must model, which can be very challenging when everything around us encourages speed.
Lastly, the conscious use of slow, deep breathing can become a habit if we remember to make it a regular part of our work with children. When we slow down our breath rate, we can immediately become more centered and calmer. We can also have children check in with their heart rate to see if slow breathing alters their heart rhythms. These moments to reflect on their internal states, help children to improve their interoceptive sense and their overall body awareness. When children practice slow breathing, they can use it anytime they may need it, even without cueing. I have seen children independently use slow breathing countless times, but it requires commitment on the part of the adults to consistently model. Every time I model conscious breathing with a child, I create the opportunity to slow down my busy mind and I often realize that just being, even for a moment, is perhaps all we both needed.
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