communicating expectations

January 29, 2011


Years ago, when I was working with children with severe autism, I learnt fairly quickly that the best way to avoid a child going into meltdown in the community, was to talk with the child about what we were going to do and expectations (mine and society’s) of behaviour. Sometimes I supplemented with stories, sign language, or pictures from a programme called Boardmaker. Kids with autism have difficulty controlling the flood of sensory information they pay attention to, and it overwhelms them. They often have also had limited experience of the outside world, limited by their behaviour and people’s reaction to it. It was my job to support them to integrate themselves with their experiences and achieve increasing levels of competence and confidence. It didn’t always work out perfectly, they were kids with complex needs, but it helped.

When I had my own kids, I figured that little kids are pretty much the same. They have limited experience of the world. They don’t know what a vaccination at the doctor’s office means, or a dental examination, or how to control themselves in aisle 3 at the supermarket (you know the one). Trying to talk them through it when they in situ and overwhelmed is not going to cut it.

So, I did with my kids what I did when I worked with kids with autism. I communicated expectations. I talked them through what was going to happen. Less anxiety creates happier times. If it’s going to hurt, or be boring, or if it’s scary, acknowledge the feelings and talk about ways you can get through it. Little kids appreciate honesty, it builds trust. I anticipated hunger, thirst, tiredness, and boredom, and packed a bag of food, water, comfort items, and small but interesting activities. Being able to meet kids needs when they arise builds trust.

So far so good. Late last year, my youngest boy came down with a severe but short-term illness. We rushed him to the hospital. He needed a canula in his hand to administer the drugs. It was scary but he didn’t balk because I was talking him through it.

I communicate expectations around the house too. “Ten minutes till dinner, wind up your game.” “After dinner, you will need to pack away those toys.” Life is just simpler that way. As they get older, the boys have grown in competence, and I don’t have to talk as much as I once did.

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About hakea

groupworker, parent educator, therapist, mother of three boys.

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11 Comments on “communicating expectations”

  1. kloppenmum Says:

    Yes, again! I do the same with the timing, actually we have got to the point where I can just hold up 10,5,or 2 fingers and they know that’s how much longer they have. I also talk our children through expectations: I can’t stand it when adults tell children something isn’t going to hurt, when clearly it will. And if we’ve seen braty behaviour in other children, I also explain, immediately afterwards, why that behaviour wasn’t OK and how the other adults around were interpreting it.


    • hakea Says:

      My husband says that the kids shouldn’t need a warning, they should just do as I say when I say it. I remind him that it’s a family, not the army. It’s difficult for the kids to be jolted out of play when they are in the middle of recreating the Napoleonic wars, or playing out a court scene in Ancient Rome. Except for in emergency or dangerous situations, it’s ok to take a moment to reorientate. Come to think of it, I’ll have to start giving him warnings, we are always waiting on him to start dinner.

      I don’t like my kids jumping to conclusions, and making false assumptions, about other people’s behaviour. I see too much judgement in the work I do, and it limits people’s potential. I like my kids to come up with lots of different reasons for why everyone in the situation is behaving as they are. I like them to look at the perceptions and misunderstandings. All behaviour happens for a reason.


  2. janekatch Says:

    I agree with you– I think it’s just respectful to give them a warning. If I’m in the middle of writing, I expect someone to give me time to finish my sentence or my thought before expecting me to change to a new activity!
    Thanks for connecting to my blog!


  3. kloppenmum Says:

    I think many adults forget, or don’t realise, how differently children think compared to adults. I agree, children who are in the moment need to be brought into consciousness before instructions or change.
    I hear what you are saying about assumptions about others, and I like the idea of asking children to think of many reasons behind or around the behaviour. I also want our children to recognise how unpleasant some behaviours are, eg. tantruming over not getting a certain item. When they do it, it is rare and they are in the moment: they don’t really see how it affects those around them – by drawing their attention to the behaviour and the reactions of the adults around them, I intend that they learn that what they do affects others, in a more conscious way.


  4. Santo Says:

    Such wise advice!


  5. asta199 Says:

    I have found this to be very effective with my kindergarten class. Although I have only been doing this for about a month I can see the difference in the kids now that I sit them down each day and tell them what will be happening and then reinforce that throughout the day compared to my first week when I had no clue what to do. The children are much more settled and happy when they know what the day has in store and what is expected of them. Btw, love the new layout of your blog- it makes it very easy to find everything!


    • hakea Says:

      excellent angie. kids love certainty, they feel much safer. i do a lot of group work and although it’s a pain we always set the group rules at the start. makes it easier when someone is getting off track to remind them of the group rules.

      do you do a recap at the end of the day too – to remind kids about what they have done, what they have learnt, and generate discussion?


  6. lifewithgoblins Says:

    Thanks for this topic! I really relate to the material. Prior to having my first child almost 3 years ago I knew nothing about kids, and I use this approach often, almost intuitively. Recently, when I took my son in for vaccines, I told him step by step what to expect starting the day before. So when we arrived at the Dr’s he was fully prepared, and when they gave him the shots he said “Ouch! Can I have a sticker now, please?”
    I’m happy to know other people use this technique too!


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