Behavioural challenges like autism are better understood today than in years past, but collaboration among educators and parents must be encouraged to best respond to children’s needs in the classroom and at home, says a former NWT teacher who specialized in student behaviour.
The diagnoses for autism have become very broad, resulting in many students being classified as “on the spectrum,” Sheila Kindred acknowledges. Some of these children bang their heads, communicate in non-verbal ways to convey that they’re bored or hungry, strongly resist changes in routine or fixate on certain objects, among many possible traits.
“No two kids are alike with autism. They’re so unique. They’re lovely children to work with. Some of them are very challenging,” says Kindred, who attained a masters in science in 2014, specializing in autism spectrum disorder and developmental disabilities. “It’s not the label that matters though because even if you use strategies for an autistic child the strategies still work for a fetal alcohol syndrome child or some of the behavioural challenges that we have. So it’s well-rounded programming that you can do for all these kids.”
Some of the common approaches that can be helpful to students with behaviour challenges include using scales from one to five to gauge how they’re feeling, altered numeracy and literacy strategies to include more visual and hands-on stimulation and introducing social stories – visually-oriented tools to break down desired behaviour into basic steps, such as taking turns or respecting personal space.
It’s also important that educators are consistent in using these techniques, according to Kindred, who became the South Slave’s regional inclusive school coordinator in 2009.
“We have to find appropriate ways to help those kids be successful in school, no matter how long it takes… whatever programs have to be used, you just keep with it,” she advises.
But she comes back to the need for teamwork.
“Collaboration is so key,” she says, but she adds that keeping speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists positions filled has proven to be difficult for the GNWT.
Filling these positions through temporary contracts results in regions competing for time and a lack of consistency, she adds.
Kindred took it upon herself to get additional help for the South Slave, applying for and being granted $50,000 over two years through Autism Speaks Canada. She used that money to offer workshop training to parents and classroom support assistants in the region so they could better understand behavioural disorders.
“It was so great because they didn’t feel alone after that,” she recalls. “You really have to reach out and help people. Parents need to know these (support) networks and how to access them. Parents really need to be aware of what their rights are for their kids so they can get what they need. Families really need that support for complex needs because it’s stressful.”
Kindred recalls occasionally receiving emails from mothers or fathers who confessed to feeling guilty because they couldn’t persuade their child to attend school that day.
“I’m like, that’s A-OK. People say that kids need to go to school consistently, consistently so they continue with the strategies. That’s fine and dandy, but we need mental health days ourselves,” she says. “We need to make it as easy as possible for (parents).”
She and other educators also learn a great deal by listening to moms and dads.
“We kind of had to take a step back and say, parents are really the experts on their kids, so we have to take what they’re guiding us through. We don’t know what it’s like at home. We only have (the students) for six hours a day.”
‘Some great mentors’
Kindred didn’t begin her teaching career until she was 30 years old, having studied speech and language pathology, psychology and special education beforehand. Among the courses she took was sign language.
For a number of reasons, it took her a decade to achieve her bachelor of arts degree. Her story of perseverance is something she has shared with others numerous times.
“I think it’s important. That really helped me when I was talking to youth and when people were saying, ‘I don’t know what to do with my life. I should just quit school, it’s so hard.’ I would always tell them it took me 10 years to get my bachelor of arts degree,” she recalls. “Even to other people that were thinking of going back to school and saying, ‘Well maybe I’m too old to do that.’ No, you’re not too old. Go for it. If it’s something you want, do it.”
Kindred’s first teaching job was in Taloyoak, where she worked for five years.
“I loved it… I only had like 12 kids in my class,” she says of her kindergarten to Grade 6 students, adding that she gradually learned about the Inuit culture.
She then moved into a program support role before moving to Manitoba for a year, Lutsel K’e for a year and then on to Fort Smith for almost two decades.
“I feel that program support teachers are so important. They really need to be knowledgeable and to share the knowledge that they get,” she says, noting that the Department of Education, Culture and Employment used to provide a wealth of training on student behaviour and teaching strategies.
“Now I think program support teachers are kind of left on their own to do their own PD (professional development,” she says. “I think that’s a little bit sad.”
She retired to Manitoba in 2020 after 25 years as an education professional and an induction into the NWT Education Hall of Fame in 2019.
“It was awesome,” she says of the distinction. “Getting minister’s choice was also very good. It all just came together for me. I was happy about that. I had some great mentors along the way.”
Although her colleagues miss her, she’s happy for the new generation teachers that’s emerging.
“Now we’ve got new blood coming through, which is good too… You can’t just reiterate the same things you says year after year after year.”