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Emotion Coaching Non-verbal Pupils

Updated: Oct 24, 2022

This is a moving reflection on how to connect with children who don't use words to communicate.

'Surya' was completing an Educational Health and Care Plan assessment to support a 'Eleni', a pupil on the Autism Spectrum, who had recently moved from the Middle East.

The staff had only known Eleni for four days, and seemed anxious about approaching and communicating with her.

Surya was confused about why the staff were not interacting with Eleni. Surya's focus for the visit was to observe, but the staff seemed to be expecting answers from her.

Surya felt calm as she had read about Eleni and spoken to Eleni's mum, so felt that she knew Eleni better than the staff did at this point. At the same time, Surya was also experiencing some anxiety that her attempted interaction might upset Eleni.

Eleni was sitting still, rocking and humming as she did at home. Surya thought she might be anxious about being in a new place, a new country, and with new people.

Surya's first approach to Eleni was through 'Intensive Interaction' - making use of the mirroring system and the attunement this can offer - copying what she was doing. Surya got on Eleni's level, sat next to her, and made the same noises and gestures that Eleni was making. Then Surya introduced touch, gently touching Eleni's hand.

Surya then wondered aloud (as it wss not clear how much Eleni understood verbal communication) whether she might be scared about being in the new place and even the new country. Surya validated the emotion by saying, if it were her, she would feel scared in this situation, and that it's okay to be scared.

Surya continued to reassure Eleni verbally and through her actions, conveying that the people around her were here to help and that they all wanted to get to know her.

The aspects of Emotion Coaching that were used in the interaction were 'STAR' (Stop/Think/Attune/Reflect). Surya consciously stopped to think about what Eleni might be feeling and tried to attune to what she was thinking and feeling.

So...what did Eleni do?

Eleni allowed Surya to touch her hand and then, amazingly, she smiled. The staff had not seen Eleni smile before. Eleni withdrew her hand, but later offered it to Surya again.

After some time, Surya held Eleni's hand and said: "Come on. Let's go to your ball." Eleni got up and moved for the first time since she'd been there.

Surya reflected that Emotion Coaching can be used even in a non-verbal situation and that even if the language may not be understood verbally, the non-verbal language she communicated to Eleni (body movements, tone of voice, facial expressions) could be understood as safe and soothing.

Surya felt no harm was done and it may have helped to keep the one-off assessment situation calm and under control.

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