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Part 2 of Helping caregivers and teachers support children to meet fearful challenges

Last time, we met Shannon and Devon. When we first met Shannon, she was crying as a peer played with a new toy. Although Shannon’s experience has been repeated with children affected by developmental challenges such as PDD-NOS, Rett’s Syndrome, or Autism, children who are typically developing may also experience a range of responsiveness to stimuli like loud noises or strange sounds. Long-term, it’s supportive to give children resources to handle inevitable changes in their environment, startling sounds like chairs scraping, animal sounds, or other children crying- especially when entering a new preschool environment! Similarly, Devon in the story struggled to face his fears of animals. His mother was afraid to take him to a park because of his fears, and yet she also wondered what would happen one day if he was invited to a friend’s birthday party in a park, or whether he would ever be able to play sports.

 Instead of stopping or thwarting learning opportunities, we can expand them.

  1. Resolve situations by providing the child experience successfully interacting with a stimulus he or she once feared. It’s great to “end on a good note”. Shannon’s program provided her many opportunities to push the toy away until she was doing it with a smile or even a laugh. When a given step wasn’t scary anymore, we moved on.

  2. Teach others to support the individual to resolve challenges and communicate (including asking for help) when needed, instead of minimizing the opportunities to interact with the challenge. Instead of moving an object away which looks scary, we can acknowledge what the student is feeling and empower her to do something about it. One of Shannon’s first major steps was learning to reach for a toy and push it away. Instead of screaming and laying down, she began to stay in the situation playing with her own toys. This allowed more teaching to occur. She even learned to take toys that had frightened her at first, and offer them to other peers who enjoyed them. Lessons about taking turns, offering choices, sharing, and helping friends find things, were now able to be enjoyed by the entire class.

  3. Broaden the child’s repertoire, instead of diminishing or limit it. After supportive strategies were used to re-introduce the toy to Shannon, she quickly learned different ways of using it. She eventually requested to play with the same toy that was scary at first. Similarly, instead of refraining from visiting or discussing parks, Devon’s mom learned to provide many opportunities to do park related activities, and Devon ultimately began to enjoy them.

  4. Build in learning opportunities to help the child deal with the fear, making it possible to enjoy activities that were off-limits before. Does the child have the skills to access (or ask for) assistance, a break, materials or calming activities? If the child is practicing something that is difficult, does s/he understand when this try will be over? Does s/he understand what she can do for this try to be successful? Does s/he know what will happen next? Devon had a safe space where he could sit down and take a chill out break if he became too scared to be near the creatures. He learned to request appropriately to leave the park, instead of screaming and kicking and pulling her clothes (which usually happened in the past). He also learned to stay and play for longer periods of time, and eventually was able to play in the park even if a dog played nearby.

  5. Enlist others to help if necessary, to help a parent or other caregiver through stressful or anxiety-involved times as the program begins. If a child has been avoiding or escaping fearful situations by using screaming and tantrums to refuse, it may be necessary to enlist the support of a behavior analyst or specialist to identify specific strategies and build a program helpful for the individual child and his or her history. And parents can face challenges especially when helping a child to follow through on trying a thing he previously refused with inappropriate behavior. “Helpful” community members may cause further distress when parents help their child face these fears in public. Devon’s mom introduced him to the park again during visits with a behavior analyst providing supportive coaching. But this can be practiced with a sibling, babysitter, parent or grandparent, too. Similarly, Shannon’s parents and preschool teachers were all able to implement supportive procedures after a quick review with her behavior analyst.

Bottom Line: Facing the difficult or scary thing will make it less difficult or scary, and is a great thing to model for the children and caregivers around you.

Final Notes: Care should be taken when introducing an individual to new skills, new environments or toys, or when reintroducing ones that have been paired with fear or anxiety. Individuals and their families select learning targets that are useful and valued by their family and community, with input from professionals as appropriate. Some of the additional factors considered by Behavior Analysts when developing goals and helping caregivers strengthen skills, include whether others in the individual’s natural environment will support task being taught and whether the task is needed in the individual’s life. For example, a fear of the dentist might be more important to address quickly than a fear of the dinosaur museum, although both could be addressed using similar procedures.

As always, the scenarios represented in this series are general and are not recommendations or procedures for your child. Behavior treatment should be implemented under the guidance of a qualified Board Certified Behavior Analyst or other appropriate professional if needed.