Fostering Flexibility

When I was re-jigging my website recently I came across this ancient blog post from 2014, which was called ‘Fostering Flexibility’. I wrote it way before I ever starting thinking about autism in relation to either Alex or myself, but it was very interesting to look back on with this new information, and has been interesting to read again today, in light of my earlier post!

Here it is in it’s entirety:

“In Alex’s school at the moment they are having a ‘Reading Challenge’. The rules of this challenge are: read to an adult, get the adult to sign your Reading Record, and when you have a signed record you are allowed to put a tick on the chart in the classroom. If you get a certain number of ticks in a week you get some extra playtime on Friday.

Alex reads a *lot*, so on the surface of it this challenge shouldn’t present a problem; as a minimum they usually read to themselves for at least half an hour every day before they go to bed.

However, I found out that my sweet little child has been denying themselves ticks on the chart (and therefore extra playtime), because their understanding of the rules is that you only tick if you have a signed diary; it has taken any amount of persuasion from me (and two conversations with the class teacher) to convince them otherwise. As a grown up, obviously I can understand that there is some flexibility inherent within the rules of the challenge; however Alex strongly identifies with ‘being good’ and takes pride with doing as they’ve been asked.

There’s one particular Teaching Assistant in Alex’s class who seems to get quite frustrated when following instructions to the letter means children don’t quite do what everyone else is expecting. What this TA is completely failing to understand is that (in our case especially) they are often so utterly determined to get it *right* that they won’t allow themselves to deviate from the instructions unless given explicit permission, even for their own benefit. In Alex’s eyes, they hadn’t completed steps 2 and 3 of the Reading Challenge (signing the Reading Record), therefore couldn’t progress to stage 4 (the all important tick). The TA will say “Well of course you can have the tick, you’ve done the reading!” and Alex will be utterly baffled, because it was very clear that first you get the record signed, and *then* you can get the tick.

I spent most of the drive to work this morning mulling over this situation, and how it has arisen. Are we as educators so focused on teaching to targets that even at age 6 we are giving children a specific set of instructions for *every* task, and rewarding them for following instructions rather than thinking for themselves?

Yes, there needs to be an element of ‘I’m going to show you how to complete a piece of formal writing’ or ‘This is how you work out a maths problem’. However alongside this, don’t we need to teach our children when they should apply rules and when they can be flexible? When they are learning a skill and when they can think for themselves?

I worry that our schools are churning out children who are encouraged to follow instructions without thinking about whether there is room for flexibility; children who we frequently then berate for not taking the initiative or for doing something without thinking about the consequences. Perhaps we need to take more responsibility for balancing out the need for explicit teaching of skills with encouraging children to think for themselves and develop the flexibility to be resilient as they go through life.”