Q & A: Young student – who whines, gets under the table, calls out, speaks loudly, has poor awareness of personal space, and always wants to be first in line
April 25, 2021
Q: ‘I have a child Todd in my class who whines and can get under the table when work is required of him. He calls out and lacks understanding of other children’s personal space. He speaks loudly close up to their faces. He also wants to be first when lining up. Todd is in Reception (Foundation Year) and turned 6 years of age at the beginning of the year. I want to help him manage himself as best he can to maximise learning and fit in socially.
Todd does not have an intellectual disability, but he is under consideration by a paediatrician in Adelaide for Autism Spectrum Disorder and won’t be seen for several months. I’m wondering if you have any specific strategies that I might try in the meantime to assist him and others in the classroom. He is a very friendly boy, and I have a supportive classroom.
Todd is interested in trains, mathematics and acting out several movie characters all of which often get in the way of his classroom work. He did have a ‘meltdown’ and was hitting several children in a specialist class in the second week of school, but he settled down after I spoke to his parents and my team leader. She suggested maintaining a calm quiet classroom, a good choices visual chart (which shows expected behaviours such as hands up to speak, keeping hands to self if upset, speaking quietly, keeping an appropriate distance from others). Putting up a small tent in classroom and an additional quiet space for Todd and others to use when needing a break was also a helpful suggestion. The principal also mentioned sensory resources as another means to help ground and settle him, which I am investigating further.
In addition, my team leader suggested sending home some information about the class program e.g. the topics being explored, maths concepts being taught, books being read and so on so the parents can try to reinforce these at home and encourage engagement with broader school content rather than Todd being focused on his key interests.’
A: While some students with ASD are bright and creative, others have diverse challenges and very specific or narrow capabilities or interests. The issues that you describe can be seen in children with ASD who can become stressed and anxious with the sensory overload and complex demands associated with starting school. Stress and anxiety significantly diminish a child’s capacity to self-regulate and learn. Giving Todd a regular, simple classroom job may help him develop a sense of self and ground him in the present.
Students on the autism spectrum can find new work ‘terrifying’
Todd’s whining and getting under the table are likely to be linked to him being overwhelmed with new learning. The calm, quiet classroom, home-school engagement, good choices visual chart, and the safe spaces suggested by your team leader are all useful strategies. Investigating sensory resources to help ground and settle Todd as mentioned by your principal may also be useful. In addition, the following strategies might be helpful.
- Students like Todd are typically ‘utterly obsessed or completely uninterested’  in certain work tasks and Todd may be under the table because of a complete disinterest in the topic or task being introduced. Creating a bridge to his past learning or special interest and/or the use of a visual chart to prepare him for activity change, may help him to cope and to settle. If not, allowing Todd to go to a tent in the classroom to give him additional time to process the task requirements before starting work may help. The use of rules and logic may also help.
Use rules and logic
- Talk to the class about the school rules of ‘group learning’ and ‘individual learning’ times. Todd and other children may need support to learn that there are times when all students in a class need to work together. Encourage active participation in group/class learning through use of ‘First-Then’ cards to highlight that a preferred individual task comes next. For example, first we will do our class maths (e.g. writing the numerals), and then you can draw and number (your interest area) for example, the train stations on Adelaide’s Outer Harbour line. This activity links new learning (writing numerals) to past learning, strengths or special interests (a specific train line).
- In addition to rules, use logic with Todd. For example, all train drivers and mathematicians need to be able to read and write to do maths (maths is an interest area), so they can drive trains, and that includes you.
- Avoid chaos when lining up. Students like Todd may always want to be first. Implement a turn-taking system so everyone gets to be first in line on a cyclic basis. For example, tell Todd that today he can be first, but tomorrow he will be second, then third the following day and so on. Inform the rest of the class of this rule. This will assist with Todd’s acceptance among peers.
Use visual and physical resources to support your talking
Vision is typically the dominant sense for human beings. Be mindful that most teachers talk in class more than they realise  and students like Todd often prefer visual information. So keep verbal communication short and simple. Visual spatial communications such as drawings, visual prompts, hand signals and gestures can help to make learning clearer for everyone. To review how much you talk, to evaluate the effectiveness of your teacher talk, and to gain evidence-based feedback, use the free Visible Classroom App.
Use personal bubbles and quiet voices
Students like Todd often have difficulty navigating and being aware of their body in relation to others. To remind Todd and others about not being in the personal bubble of other children and teachers, and to help everyone to learn to speak quietly and not call out, try the following:
- Practice the social skill of judging personal distance. Ask Todd and others to do simple role-plays to practise sitting and standing at an appropriate social distance. Using their outstretched arm as a guide (without touching others) and coloured dots stuck on the floor as reference points can help to teach this skill. When in others’ personal space, draw Todd’s and other children’s attention to where they are standing or sitting in relation to others and to the relevant visual prompt on the good choices chart.
- Use palm-down-hands slowly moving down or up in front of you when requesting the use of an inside voice. A child can quickly get into the habit of speaking too loudly and will require your patience to change.
- Monitor the volume of your own speaking voice, and get into the habit of naming your own inside and outside voice. Explain that sometimes a teacher needs to briefly use an outside voice inside to gain everyone’s attention, when the noise level is too loud in the classroom. Point out that a quieter inside voice is used when things return to normal.
- The use of drawn pictures of characters with a speech bubble may help to reinforce the use of speaking with an inside voice. Talk to Todd and the class about inside and outside voices and remind them that we are in the same room, and to use an inside voice rather than loud outside voices.
- Use reasoning to reduce calling out behaviour. For example, as Todd frequently calls out the answers in class when it is not appropriate, which is irritating for the teacher and peers, talk privately with Todd about his behaviour. Praise him for knowing the answers but inform Todd he should not say the answer aloud unless the teacher asks or suggests he can provide the answer only once each day. Explain that by calling out the answers Todd is not giving children a chance to have a turn which is annoying to his peers and may lead others to feeling sad or upset. Drawing thinking bubbles can help to reinforce the idea that the answer can be kept in your head rather than having to constantly speak answers out loud.
- Alternatively, remind Todd and others to count on their fingers to 10 and to wait their turn. Children like Todd are not good at being patient, so a secret hand signal can help to let the child know you can see that you are wanted, and you will attend to him soon. A rule that emphasises waiting patiently can attract an immediate reward when adhered to.
- Implement a short-term immediate reward system for Todd, and others for when they put up their hand appropriately, e.g. marbles in a jar to be exchanged for free time, or other approved and desired activity.
Other ways to encourage co-operative behaviour in the classroom
- Children like Todd might need to be seated at a table closest to the teacher’s usual teaching position. Children will usually concentrate better if they are facing the teacher (that is, they don’t have to swivel to see or hear) and when they have their back to the classroom door and high traffic areas.
- Have all students in the class practice looking towards you when you are giving instructions or teaching. Explain that this is how we show we have good manners. It lets people know that you’re listening. Many children can only follow one or two new instructions at this age. Monitor how many instructions you give to the grade – is it a string of instructions or is it one or two, which is appropriate for the short-term memory and developmental ability of 5- and 6-year-olds? Routines and consistency are important.
- After recess or lunch breaks have a short calm time such as a story read or told by you, a deep breathing exercise such as ‘Hand on tummy. Take 4 big breaths’. Explain why this will be helpful. See Relaxation – Deep abdominal breathing in the Member’s Area of the Psych4Schools website under the heading ‘For the classroom’.
- Provide rewards/incentives/First/If, then . . . if you finish this (insert task) properly/carefully/quietly then you can have four or five minutes (insert incentive). See the Psych4Schools Student self-monitoring time on task chart (10min/4min) in the Member’s Area of the website, under the heading ‘For the classroom’.
- Use regular ‘brain breaks’ to assist all students, but particularly those who have difficulty attending and processing information, including those with learning disabilities and those who experience sensory overload. See the Psych4Schools blog The importance of taking a break.
- Use visual timetables to show what must be done before reward time. At first rewards may need to be immediate, frequent and consistent.
For additional strategies to assist students like Todd, such as writing social stories see the Psych4Schools ebooklet Working with children diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Please note that many of the practical strategies in this ebooklet first published in 2011 are still relevant for students like Todd. Since the more recent publication of the new DSM-5 the DSM-IV diagnosis of autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, or pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified are now given the diagnosis of ASD by the assessing practitioner(s).  It is planned that the forthcoming publication Working with children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder will be released later this year.
At this time of the year most learning, behaviour or wellbeing issues will have become apparent to you. For example, do you have children who are disengaged and unmotivated? Unfortunately, up to 20 percent of students in any year level are described as disengaged. Check out our website for practical strategies and advice, from the Psych4Schools ebooklet Working with children who are disengaged and unmotivated in the classroom.
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Murray Evely, Psych4Schools Psychologist/ Guidance Officer
 Goodall, E., (2018) Understanding and facilitating the achievement of autistic potential: How to effectively support children on the Autistic Spectrum, Trove, South Australia. https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-637176994
 Angus, M., McDonald, T., Ormond, C., Rybarcyk, R., Taylor, A., & Winterton, A. (2009). Trajectories of classroom behaviour and academic progress: A study of student engagement with learning. Mount Lawley. Western Australia: Edith Cowan University. Australian Education Union. (2008). New Educators Survey 2008. Results and Report.