Teaching Kids How to Act In Public

Breaches of etiquette can be a tough (and uncomfortable for some) subject to broach with a student or parent. However, these all important learned skills in the areas of dress, personal hygiene, appearance, and conduct are essential, if students are to present well to others in social settings. From appearance to conduct there are age appropriate social norms for children, youth and young adults. Abiding by these norms may be conforming but one positive outcome of conformity is acceptance. To not master basic etiquette skills is to risk the very real possibility of rejection or ostracism in social settings.

All too often children with special needs are excused from acting appropriately because of their disability or delays. No excuses are needed when a child is developmentally mature enough and socially aware of the need for self care and the importance of conducting themselves appropriately around others.

The teaching should start in the preschool years, as habits are tough to break, but students at any age can increase their awareness of social norms, especially with respect to private vs public behavior. Some students may always need reminders or assistance from adults in their life but they too can develop an appreciation of why it is important to look your best and act your best in public. After all, if you look good, you feel good.

Social norms are learned and children with special needs benefit from the same teaching typical peers receive about etiquette. A disservice is done when students, just because of their disability, are allowed to be the exception to the rules at home or in the classroom. As children enter the higher grades, a lack of teaching becomes more and more evident as they increasingly stand out from peers. A student’s lack of awareness of personal hygiene and etiquette can become a huge barrier to acceptance at school and in the community. The problem can be largely avoided, if the proper teaching occurs at home and is reinforced at school.

It is okay for educators to discuss concerns with parents because they may not notice what has become commonplace at home. Parents in particular need to know when certain habits (e.g., thumb sucking, hands in pants, hugging) are drawing negative attention such as teasing or causing other students to shy away from the child. Most parents will thank you for your concern and caring for their child. After all you wouldn’t have brought it up for any other reason. The talk with parents may lead to proactive problem solving and goal setting that will result in new student learning at home and school.

Even older students who have not yet developed self awareness can learn self care rituals that are imbedded in daily routines. They become comfortable with the routines and with those helping them because good hygiene makes them feel good. It is important for those assisting students to respect the privacy of the individual and to not do things in public that are better taken care of in private (e.g., excuse the student and E.A. to go to the bathroom to adjust clothing or assist with face washing). A good rule to follow is treat the student with the same respect and dignity you would expect others to treat your own child.

The most important area of teaching is around personal boundaries. By junior high students must learn about respecting others personal space and not touching others inappropriately or without permission. Teaching your student these rules also encourages them to speak up and say “NO”. If students don’t know the rules, they don’t know what is wrong. When people hug them without permission, they learn to hug others without asking first for permission. Due to lack of teaching many students with special needs are at high risk for sexual offences. Inappropriate hugging or touching can get them into serious trouble at school. The need for teaching is ongoing in school because well meaning adults often model that hugging students with special needs is the “nice” thing to do. It is a tough topic to broach with people who obviously care about children but the lesson to be taught is that students with special needs are “safer” when boundaries are learned by everyone. It is a conversation that must be had in order to safeguard students from others who would take advantage of their disability.

Teachers can only do so much in the busy classroom. The onus is on parents to teach their child skills at home. A ongoing conversation between home and school opens lines of communication that will result in the student learning independence skills appropriate for his or her developmental level. If a student is not able to be independent the conversation needs to include a discussion of the supports in the classroom that will be needed to maintain his dignity (e.g., assistance with toileting, wiping nose). There are many excellent resources in the library to guide your team in brainstorming ideas.

It is highly recommended that parents and teachers have a frank conversation in June before the summer holidays. Parents then have two months to work on important etiquette and self care skills at home. Remember, parents may not be aware that there is a problem at school and will appreciate a “heads up” that could save their child from ridicule or embarrassment.

The Basics

Let the 5 Wh questions guide you in teaching students the how to’s of:

  • Washing hands
  • Using Kleenex
  • Private vs public behavior

Sensory Issues At Play

There are some students who, despite repeated teaching and stern consequences, cannot resist the urge to chew on their hands or hair or place their hands inappropriately. The issue can easily become one of hygiene.

These students may have sensory needs that require monitoring or further assessment by an occupational therapist.

Setting Personal Boundaries

The biggest disservice to a student with special needs is when others treat him or her as a small child because of stature or lack of language. There is indeed a “hug confusion” created when children, who have been taught to hug for years, are suddenly asked to stop because now their peers are uncomfortable.

Step 1 – Set the expectations in your class, teach respectful boundaries.

Step 2 – Role play appropriate interactions and students will follow your lead:

  • model appropriate social greetings (e.g., high 5, handshake)
  • teach others (classmates or staff) to say “stop”
  • focus on the positive, giving lots of praise for positive interactions
  • talk to the parent and identify goals
  • inform other staff (e.g., music, library) so they can follow through
    Step 3 – Follow through with consequences.

Use a simple choice making model to help students understand that, “When you choose to ___________, then __________. ” Obviously the “then” has to be a meaningful consequence – positive for positive behavior (e.g., you chose to greet everyone with a high 5 today, then you get to be first to share news) and losing a privilege for inappropriate behavior (e.g., you chose to hug E. without permission then you have to move your chair away from her).

Children learn what they are taught and in our fast paced society teaching social manners and etiquette is often overlooked. Give your student an advantage by teaching him the importance of self care, appropriate conduct, and good manners in social settings

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