Why the whiteboard works

Yesterday was Field Day. An insane, chaotic, wonderfully fun day. During lunch, when people were yelling and kids were playing and things were busy, I asked one of my kiddos if he needed the bathroom. He didn’t respond. I asked him again. No response. I took out my whiteboard and wrote “bathroom? Yes/No” and handed him the dry erase marker. In less than three seconds he circled “no”, then crossed it out and wrote “ok”. I gave him a thumbs up and pointed to the bathroom. Off he went.

It’s fairly intuitive for me, now, to use the whiteboard to communicate with our kids. And it amazes me each time how well it works. So, let’s share the wisdom.

Imagine you have just been in a car accident. You are shaken up, scared, anxious, you are trying to figure out who to call, what to say, there are policemen and spectators trying to talk to you. You know people are talking but you can’t understand what they’re saying. It sounds like white noise to you.

That ^ is how our kids feel. A lot. Except for them, it takes a lot less for them to get to that point. There are a few factors at play. Sensory processing is one. Many of our kids have sensory processing difficulties, which means that they might feel, see, smell, and hear things more intensely than we do. And it’s harder for them to screen out irrelevant stimuli. Which means that, when we hear a bird chirping we may notice it, but without even thinking about it, we push it to the back of our awareness so we can focus on whatever we are doing: listening, driving, putting our shoes on. But imagine that you are trying to put your shoes on, and you hear a bird chirping, and every bit of your attentions shifts to that noise. You can’t keep putting your shoes on, because your entire being is attending to the chirp.

Next up is language processing. Many of our kids have already established language disorders or difficulties. Which can mean that on a regular basis it takes their brains longer to take in spoken words, interpret them, figure out how to respond, and then respond. So when they are then upset, overwhelmed, distracted? It will take even longer for them to process. Can you think of a time, maybe a time like the car accident example, when you know that someone is talking to you but you just can’t coordinate your brain and your mouth and your body to properly respond?

Think about a computer. If you’re impatient like I am sometimes, you may be tempted to disregard the mouse cursor that shows you “loading” and continue clicking on Google Chrome to get into the internet. Because you think, and you hope, that clicking again will make it load faster. But it does the opposite, right? Rather than speed up the process, it just makes your computer lock up more. It takes even longer to load that original window. And it might result in a shutdown and a necessary reboot. Now take that example to our kids, whose brains work in a similar fashion. You give a direction. They don’t respond so you give it again. They still don’t respond so you give it a third time. You are essentially locking up their systems more. Making it harder, rather than easier for them to process and act. Making it more likely that they will shut down.

Our kids are dealing with magnified sensory experiences, decreased language processing, often attention and emotional regulation difficulties, and inability to screen out irrelevant or unimportant stimuli. The solution? Simplify your language. If you need to give a direction to an already escalated or distracted kiddo, make it simple. Instead of, “you need to put your shoes on because it is time to go and you can’t go barefoot”, try “shoes on.” See how much quicker they respond. You can give the explanation when the task is complete.

Better yet, don’t speak at all. Turn to the whiteboard. If you write “shoes on” and show them those words, you are effectively communicating your direction without adding the additional processing that they otherwise would’ve had to deal with.

If you work with one of our kids and they seemingly are ignoring you, or not following your directions, it can be frustrating. So, try writing down your direction on the white board (“shoes on”). Or show them a picture (a visual of a kid putting his shoes on). And then give them a few seconds. And chances are fairly good that you will see a response.

The kid who won’t sit down even when the teacher keeps telling him to; the kid who looks like he is ignoring the direction to take out his pencil; the kid who is staring out the window constantly during class and ignoring the lesson: these might all be our kids. And in that case, none of them have intent, malice, or belligerence. It’s their systems. It’s their wirings. They can’t change their neurology, but we can change our delivery.

I remind myself on a daily basis: kids are doing the best best they can with what they have. (and we are, too!)


Speech-Language Pathologist. Nature-loving, book-reading, coffee-drinking, mismatched-socks-wearing, Autism-Awesomeness-finder, sensitive-soul Bostonian.

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