As humans, we generally like knowing what to expect. Before we apply for a job, purchase a vacuum, book a trip, or whatever, we ask around or go online to acquire all the information we can find. Knowing what to expect provides us with the cushion of comfort we crave before diving in.
Expectations are also major when it comes to teaching and raising individuals with special needs. Diagnoses from doctors help provide us with a frame of reference for what type of disability a child or adult has and the level of impact it will have on his/her life. Labels and symptoms for what an individual with special needs is experiencing often come as a relief because they lift the cloud of the unknown while giving an idea of what can be expected in the future.
In the realm of special education, expectations help us adhere to the requirements of our students’ IEPs and set the tone for positive learning environments. We assess, reassess, and take data documenting present levels of performance and supporting progress towards students’ goals. Then, we set behavior expectations for our students because we know learning follows only when clear expectations and strong behavior management systems are put in place.
While all the above is needed, it’s time to take a closer look at how the expectations we place on individuals with special needs are directly helping or hurting their growth.
How our expectations help individuals with special needs
I’ve found in my experience teaching adults and children with mild to severe behaviors and a range of disabilities that sometimes stripping away those “paper-based” expectations (what we think a student can do based on reports, observations, etc.) allows the most space for progress to come through. This progress can be anything from spontaneous communication and peer-to-peer interactions, to increased rapport, to independence in previously unmastered or non-preferred tasks.
Instead of relying on expectations based on a student’s assessed abilities, prompt him/her to do something as though you expect he/she can and will do that thing. Always bear in mind the student’s personality, the kind of day he/she is having, his/her triggers, etc. What raising expectations beyond his/her current levels does is show him/her you believe he/she can do that thing. By definition, an expectation is a belief something will happen in the future. So, if you expect growth, you must start believing in his/her growth instead of only seeing his/her current level.
If you’re like me, then you’re thinking, “That sounds lovely and easy, but can you prove it?” Well, here are some concrete examples of expectations that may help the growth of children and adults with special needs:
Helpful expectations for nonverbal children
- Expect a response. Whether they are choosing a snack, activity, or answer choice, expect a response for that choice in whatever method of response they most often use (AAC, visual schedule, gestures, ASL, etc.). Give an appropriate amount of response time for them to respond in ANY format. Even if it feels like a very long 15 seconds, or if they attempt to grab a choice without responding, stick to your expectations. If they can point or eye gaze, they can make a choice. It’s up to you to help enforce making choices by responding in whatever waythat works for them
- Expect participation. Just because someone is nonverbal does not mean he/she has nothing to say. Create opportunities for nonverbal individuals to participate and be involved. This can look like so many different things, from asking them to pass their siblings toys to having them circle pictures on the whiteboard to answering questions in group activities
- Expect surprises. Children and adults who are nonverbal know and understand more than we will ever be able to comprehend ourselves. Be open to being surprised, in a good way!
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Helpful expectations for children with unwanted behaviors
- Expect effort. Many times, students with unwanted behaviors are testing the waters. They’re seeking reactions from you to see whether it’s safe for them to trust you. I had a student who would often create stories to get out of working. The student would say it was illegal to do math (particularly subtraction). I’d say, “Oh, no! I wasn’t aware, thank you for letting me know. Please have law enforcement bring in the papers as soon as you can. Until we have those papers, though, let’s try these problems.” Then, the student would begin working. After a while, I think the student knew what I was doing, but by that time we trusted each other. It was known that I still expected the work to be attempted
- Expect follow-through. Even on those emotional, anxious days, it’s especially important for people with behavioral challenges that you model follow-through. This means that if their room is in disarray after an outburst, they are responsible for cleaning it up. Or, if they were aggressive at school or at home, preferred reinforcers are off-limits for that day. That consistency sets the tone and shows them you value their growth more than the temporary comfort of an iPad
Helpful expectations for children learning a new task
- Expect attempts. Whether it’s zipping up their jacket independently or doing a double-digit division problem for the first time, encourage them to always try. We all must start somewhere when we learn something new. Our expectation that they will attempt it shows that just because they aren’t currently able to do something, doesn’t mean they should stop trying
- Expect repetition. We all have to practice something before it becomes an ingrained skill or habit. Sometimes an individual with special needs will be able to do a task one day, then struggle with the same task the next day. This is when it’s very important to keep holding expectations for growth, because the possibility is always there
Are our expectations hurting individuals with special needs?
Sometimes, we get so caught up in the diagnoses, labels, preparations, and expectations that they begin to take over. We forget they are not end-all-be-all indicators of how things could be in the future. We forget that without all these frames of reference, the world still goes on. Even if we forget to use a “First-Then” statement, an action will still occur. Even if we get a diagnosis for a loved one’s condition, the person behind the diagnosis is still the same person.
The simplest way to ensure your expectations are not hurting the growth of an individual with special needs is by asking yourself if you’re helping him/her reach his/her potential. Are you challenging him/her in a healthy way that allows him/her to see you believe in his/her abilities? Are you providing opportunities for him/her to grow in ways that align with his/her strengths? Are you introducing him/her to tasks and concepts within his/her skill range, so he/she continues to feel successful?
It’s painful to hear people say things like, “[Insert Professional Practitioner Title] said Johnny will never be able to [Insert Life Sentence Here].” Because while these statements make sense when they’re directly related to physicality and diet, they can otherwise be detrimental to progress. From toilet training, to eating new foods, to communication as a nonverbal child, I’ve heard too many “never” statements I’m happy to say have been disproven.
At the end of the day, when labels and expectations are dropped, individuals with special needs are still people desiring and deserving love. A girl with emotional disturbance who attacked her classmate is still a teenage girl. Maybe we expect her to be angry and aggressive, but if we shift our perspective, we see she is timid and suspicious because of a rocky home life and is aching to make some friends. A nonverbal child who keeps to himself and makes funny noises is still a little boy. Maybe we expect him to be lonely and strange, but if we shift our perspective, we see even though he loves alone time, he also loves his family and his peers, and wants to be included more.
The reality is that monitoring how our expectations are hurting or helping children and adults with special needs is simple and challenging at the same time. However, appropriately levelling up our expectations makes room for growth, possibility, and positive change. Why wouldn’t we want that?
This article was featured in Issue 116 – Enhancing Communication Skills