Children's Mental Health Week - part three: Using the low demand approach in your practice

In this part of this series for Children’s Mental Health Week, we move on from the low arousal approach and look at the low demand approach. We will discuss what the approach is, the benefits of adopting it and how you can implement it within your own practice.
Children's Mental Health Week - part three: Using the low demand approach in your practice

In this part of this series for Children’s Mental Health Week, we move on from the low arousal approach and look at the low demand approach. We will discuss what the approach is, the benefits of adopting it and how you can implement it within your own practice.

What is the low demand approach?

The low demand approach is most often discussed within the context of supporting neurodivergent children, particularly those with a Pathological Demand Avoidance profile (PDA). However, the approach can be beneficial to all children, especially when implemented into an educational context. The aim of the low demand approach is to minimise a child’s anxiety and stress by reducing the demands and expectations that are placed upon them. It encourages you to think about aspects of your own practice such as the language that you use and the strategies you implement to reward, praise or sanction behaviour. By minimising a child’s anxiety and stress, you can make a positive impact upon the overall mental health and wellbeing of young children. When children are relaxed, feel safe, secure, and have a more equal power relationship with adults in a classroom, they are more receptive to learning opportunities and activities.

How to implement it into your practice?

There are many ways you can create a low demand environment. Some suggestions could include thinking about the following things:

Communication and language:

A key technique of implementing a low demand approach is through your communication style. By adapting what we say, and how we say it can reduce the demand and expectations directly placed upon a child and can help to alleviate their anxiety, reduce their dysregulation and avoid making them feel overwhelmed. It is important to use indirect communication, declarative language and depersonalise requests.  For example, instead of saying:

  • “You need to go outside to play” say “maybe we can all go outside to play”.
  • “Jennifer you must put your coat on” say “maybe we could put our coats on”.
  • “Can you tidy up the book corner” say “who can help me to pick up the books?”
  • “You need to clean up the mess you made on the table” say “The table needs to be clean and tidy”.

Also try to avoid instructions where you are telling a child that they cannot do something. Although children do need to understand and accept boundaries, this can be tricky for some children. Telling a child “no” or “you can’t” can be seen as a demand and can cause an escalation in reactive behaviour. Therefore, in these situations use alternative phrases such as “the messy play is closed, we could paint a picture instead” or give them a choice of two things so that they feel in more control of the situation, while at the same time not being overwhelmed.

Be cautious of rewards and praise:

Some children enjoy the attention that rewards and praise can bring. It can give them a sense of pride and boost their self-confidence and self-esteem. However, for some children, this type of attention is too overwhelming and can be a huge trigger for anxiety, stress, and dysregulation. Alternatively, you can use indirect praise such as putting the focus on the object/outcome rather than directly on the child. For example, if a child has made a painting, you could say “what a lovely painting, I like all the different colours”. Or if the child can accept praise from a third party you could say to a child next to them; “Peter, look at this lovely painting that Jennifer has made”.

Be aware of this during events such as assemblies, as often we use these times to praise individual children and award them with a certificate. Not only is the child asked to unexpectedly stand up, walk to the front of a hall full of children and teachers to accept a certificate while everyone is clapping. Just imagine how frightening that could be for a child who does not like to be praised! I am sure we would feel uncomfortable as adults to sit in a meeting and then suddenly have our name called and told to come up to the front and accept an award. Therefore, reflect upon parts of your daily routines where unexpected demands may arise and try to plan ahead to either avoid them or replace them with a suitable alternative. 

Negotiate, collaborate, and adapt:

Sometimes you need to manage and adjust your own expectations that you place upon a child and be flexible. Classroom rules can be difficult for some children to follow, nevertheless they are an important part of helping children to understand what is expected of them. However, classroom rules can be reframed, negotiated and written in collaboration with the children. Instead of calling them rules, you could reframe them as “our classroom guide”. Use indirect and declarative language when writing them with the children. For example, if you want to write “no running inside” you could rephrase it and state “we all walk inside”.

Also, pick your ‘battles’, if you expect a child to tidy up the toys that they have been playing with but they are dis-regulated, the importance should be placed upon helping them to regulate and not to tidy up on this occasion. This is not to say you do not ever expect the child to tidy up, but pick the best time to encourage them to do this and know when not to. This also applies to daily routines, if something on your schedule is not working, it is okay to adapt or change it. Just because you may have a timetable that states that you should be doing something at a particular time of the day, it does not mean that it cannot be changed to meet the needs of the children in the moment.

The suggestions outlined above are not a definitive list, but instead are intended to be a starting place for you to think about simple changes that you can make. Also, all these suggestions take time to practice and you will not always get it ‘right’ to begin with. It can be challenging in a classroom environment to change your approach to meet the individual needs of each child. I have an autistic child who needs very direct instructions, such as “go and clean your teeth in the bathroom”. I also have a child with PDA (Pathological demand avoidance), who would have a meltdown if I gave her that instruction. Alternatively, I would say to her “who can come and clean their teeth with me in the bathroom?” Sometimes, especially when I am busy, I can say the instruction in the ‘wrong’ format to each child (que meltdown). When this type of situation happens, remain calm, give the child time to co- or self-regulate and try again. It is important to get to know each child within your practice and discover what works for them. 


The next part of this series is the final instalment. We will have a brief recap on both the low arousal and low demand approach and bring them together to discuss the benefits of implementing them within your own practice.

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