Thursday, July 13, 2017

Asking for Help

Asking for help is one of the first functional communication skills we teach, especially to students who exhibit challenging behavior due to frustration (at not being able to accomplish something independently) which is a lot of our students. It's also one of the skills we're least successful at teaching. I don't mean the kids don't learn it. They learn the sign/word/picture. What most of them don't learn is when and how to use it. They either never ask and we end up saying "ask for help if you need it" when we see them struggle, or they're constantly asking and we find ourselves in a never-ending cycle of "try it yourself first ..." It's clearly not a skill we're teaching very effectively.

It's something I've been aware of for a while now, and I've been trying to make an effort to model it in the classroom. But there's a qualitative difference between "Do you know where the stapler went?" and "Please help me tie my shoes." And, for obvious reasons, the more urgent situations in the classroom are not appropriate times for modeling.

As I see it there are 2 key skills that need to be taught along with requesting help. 
  1. Making an effort to do it on your own first. This means we need to make sure we are paying attention to partial successes (and failed efforts) as important and successful steps toward the larger goal.
  2. Multiple solutions to the problem. I believe that problem solving is, quite possibly, the most important skill that we can teach students, and this is a key part of it. Students need to have an understading that there is more than one approach to chose from and the mental flexibility to try a different approach if the first one is unsuccessful.

We do talk in my classroom a lot about how "help" doesn't mean I'm going to do it for you. But isn't that exactly what adults usually mean when we ask for help? Sometimes, certainly. If I ask for help because I can't get the glue open, I don't expect you to put your hand over mine and that we're going to push it open together. No, I expect to hand the glue to you, and you will open it for me. Because the expectation is that I have already tried and found my skills lacking, so now I'm asking you to give it a go. But sometimes that's exactly what I mean. When I helped my coworker email an attachment for the first time I sat down next to her and verbally walked her through each step. If I'd taken the mouse from her and done it myself, it wouldn't have helped either of us. I'm not sure, though, how one knows (except by social experience/nonverbal context) what kind of help is appropriate/expected in a given situation. And so I'm asking for your help. What is the distinction? And, more importantly, how can we teach it to our kids?


  1. Half baked thoughts in two areas:

    1) Parsing "help"

    Because sometimes "help" means

    Teach me how to do it (so maybe I can do it next time)
    Show me where the thing is (so I learn)
    Do it with me (move something large together, or split the chore)
    Do it for me because I can't

    So I know it's a challenge when vocabulary is at a premium, but maybe substitute "teach me" for "help me"? when appropriate, or "do together"? and etc

    My other thought, which is not popular in presumecompetenceland is

    Sometimes I shouldn't have to try and fail. At least, not every time. If I can't tie my shoes, should I really have to try and fail every single time before someone will tie them for me? At some point, isn't this a waste of everyone's time and spoons that could be spent on more proximate goals?

    1. I've been working on formalizing my teaching of key verbs (because in my experience our students don't learn enough verbs. Nouns - oh yes. Core words - we're starting to get pretty good at teaching those. Verbs and adjective - um...) "do" and "show" are already high on my list. (Do is, of course, also a core word.) This just highlights the importance (and another context in which to teach it!)

      I think your second point is a key part of the self-advocacy that people don't get. Being able to tell someone else to do something I don't have the skill or spoons to do for myself. And validating using that skill when I have the skill or spoons to do it at another time. And when I don't.

      This self-advocacy curriculum is actually starting to write itself....

  2. I wish I remember who wrote the great blog post titled something like "'I can't' is self-advocacy." Because someone did, and well.

    Because knowing your limits (whether fixed or variable) and asserting them is. . . well it should be advocacy 001. But instead we tell people not to use the word "can't" and that they can do anything and. . . we need a space for people to grow and learn and develop and stretch, while simultaneously being allowed to not be able to do things. Because being told you can do things you can't (at this moment at least) do is gaslighting. It teaches people to ignore their own body and mind signals. It's a form of compliance training, really.

    I had this conversation a bit ago with a dance friend who is an EI PT of many years experience. She said the usual "I don't let them say 'can't'" I asked what happens if they truly - can't? (A sentiment she understands well enough when spoken by adults in dance class.) She told me awhile later she was changing "you can" to "let's try."

    There's also the thing where the possibility of failure allows for people to try things and sometimes succeed. I know I've experienced this. I am much more willing to try new things if I am not accosted with the attitude that success is guaranteed.

    More rambling. An important topic.

  3. Also does this help?

    1. Definitely had that post in mind when I wrote this one. Thanks for the updated link!