Masking, Behaviour, and Learning Needs.

A Discussion on Children Masking at School and Home.

This is a record of the #SENexchange discussion from 2nd February 2022 about children who mask. We based the chat on the article: The tip of the iceberg: SEND, masking and multiple needs written by regular discussion contributor Sara Alston. I have edited some responses for clarity.

What is Masking?

To Mask, or Autistic masking refers to behaviours or actions that autistic children employ to try to minimise or “mask” their autistic traits and tendency toward stimming and repetitive behaviours. Some key things to know about autistic masking in children include:

  • Masking involves mimicking neurotypical behaviors despite finding social interactions stressful or confusing. It’s an effort to fit in.
  • Common masking behaviors include making excessive eye contact, suppressing stimming behaviors, pretending to understand social cues, and altering tone/volume of voice.
  • Masking takes immense cognitive and emotional energy, which can cause internalised distress, anxiety, depression, meltdowns and social exhaustion over time.
  • Masking may start as young as toddler or pre-school age as autistic children receive messaging that their natural behaviors are “wrong” or “weird.”
  • Parents and teachers often misinterpret masking behaviors as signs the child is “higher functioning” when it just means they are under immense stress to conform.
  • Masking makes autism less visible to outsiders but does not change the child’s underlying autistic nervous system and sensitivities.
  • Unmasking and accepting natural behaviors is important for self-esteem, well-being and avoiding unnecessary trauma or internalization of ableism.

Basically behaviours autistic children use to try and hide their autism under social pressure, which can negatively impact their mental health if not recognised and addressed supportively.

How can schools engage with parents in the identification of a child’s SEN when the child presents differently at home and at school?

Behaviour masking and learning needs SEND special education discussion. How can schools engage with parents in the identification of a child’s SEN when the child presents differently at home and at school?

Listen to the parents and be open to understanding that children will let it all out in their safe space (home). Children quickly learn to mask behaviour that is seen to be unacceptable at school and internalise the stress and anxiety.

To ensure that all needs are identified it’s our job to listen to every person involved in the child’s life. This informs Person Centred Planning and is central to the building of a support package that will facilitate growth for the child and upskilling of all those involved.

Ask parents to describe what they living through, ask how differs during weekend/school holidays, ask if some days worse than others & analyse if this links to particular activities in school. Don’t make them feel like rubbish parents, respect their views.

Be clear about the purpose of identification to yourself.

Accept that perspectives about a child (at home and school) can differ. Respect the parents/caregivers. They have the most insight into their own children. Children don’t operate in a vacuum, see the whole picture, make active changes and review.

Believe parents. Listen to what they are saying and empathise, rather than dismissing what they say by talking about the lack of apparent concern in school. There could be various demands and stressors in school which are impacting on a child’s wellbeing.

This is a problem we hear parents mention all the time in our Facebook parenting group. Our kids hold it together all day long, then come home and just can’t do it any more.

Listen to parents. Acknowledge that lots of children at school mask. Don’t presume that difficulties are due to ‘poor parenting’.

Be open, honest and commit to co-working/ production: nothing worse than coming out with that old chestnut when a parent raises concerns, viz. ‘well we don’t see that at school’. It closes things down, but it’s still regularly trotted out!

Just because we don’t see, it doesn’t mean that it is not evident in a different setting or context

Does a focus on behaviour difficulties mean that we miss learning, language and communication difficulties?

These are really good charts on different presentations of autism, to give parents to use highlighter on and mark-up the characteristics they see.

annotated ASD attributes linked to Masking
Does a focus on behaviour difficulties mean that we miss learning, language and communication difficulties?

A deficit-based focus is inherently negative. We need to be curious. Refusing to follow instructions or a speech and language need? Distracted/Disruptive or a sensory need? Attention-seeking or wanting to be remembered following experiences of trauma and loss?

My experience as a parent is yes. The child is “choosing to be naughty”. Yet when the right support is in place the behaviour reduces/disappears. An additional challenge is where support wasn’t in place at key data points. Then expectations for attainment are based on inaccurate data. If a child’s needs aren’t recognised & learning isn’t on track the child is underachieving significantly which isn’t recognised

Children who are confused can only take so long of continuously being excluded by language they can’t access. Eventually their avoid/escape behaviours kick in.

It doesn’t help. There’s such a widespread culture of focusing on behaviour, that otherwise ‘well behaved’ CYP may be exhibiting difficulties, but because they’re ticking along academically and not causing problems they may be overlooked.

It was often the case for my AP students. SEMH needs are often missed too.

Look at communication and interaction, specific learning difficulties, SEMH needs, just look at the data on Youth offending or exclusions

Dig deeper and be curious. Only by identifying those underlying needs can we make progress.

How do we support school staff to consider the whole child, not just their most prominent issue?

How do we support school staff to consider the whole child, not just their most prominent issue?

If we refer to a child as the child with ASD or the refugee in Y8, this becomes a barrier to us seeing them as person with a range of strength as well as difficulties.

  • What are the young person’s strengths, interests, motivators, preferences, hopes & worries?
  • Is there anything they want staff to know?
  • What would they like help with?
  • Are there exceptions to a problem and what factors make it easier?
  • What works well at home and elsewhere?

Talk to parents/people who love and care for the child. Start conversations with parents by asking what their child’s strengths are. Get them to find something to connect with the child over.

Support inclusion in activities and raise their profile so they are invited on play dates.

Some of this starts with self-care. A very busy, possibly overworked, and potentially frazzled teacher may have less emotional energy and general headspace to notice subtleties of behaviour in one of many children in their care. The general culture of a school is also key: what’s needed across the board is a culture of acceptance of each and every child, with the requisite attention paid, however hard that may be to realise.

Maybe ask them to undertake an individual SWOT type analysis of their interactions and understanding of that child, try to bring out or nurture the reflective practitioner in them.

Give them TIME to work with individuals, so they can really get to know them. It is REALLY important for the TEACHER to spend time with individuals, not only TAs.

Always focus on values. What would you want as a member of staff, for you or a loved one?

How we support children who mask and do not fit the ‘stereotypical’ presentation of a particular diagnosis?

How we support children who do not fit the ‘stereotypical’ presentation of a particular diagnosis?

Listen to the child and or parents when they ask for help and advice. Or suggest that the child’s needs should be investigated. Be open to suggestions, advice, requests for reasonable adjustments from parents/child/other professionals involved. Everyone wants or should want the child to meet potential and removing barriers, however small, will help. Remember to look for equity of access.

Assume that none do from the outset, because none do perfectly.

Training, awareness, constant CPD (in many different forms), stereotypes should be well out of the window by now. Again school culture and values.

CPD! Get on top of the latest thinking and research. Don’t rely on ‘received wisdom’. And a student may fit into a broad diagnostic category, but they are unique, with their own individual needs, and should be prized as such. Applies to every child, actually.

The Children and Families act 2014. Part 3, sections 20 and 21

The Children and Families act 2014. Part 3, sections 20 and 21

How and why might a child mask (or attempt to mask) their needs at school?

How and why might a child mask (or attempt to mask) their needs at school?

9 Reasons Children may Mask at School & How they may Do it

A child use answers and behaviours that are reinforced I.e. ‘If I say I’m fine no-one will make language demands of me about what is wrong, and if I say I understand, the TA won’t come over and make me look not clever to the class!’

Being quiet/distracting/disruptive, avoidance tactics because they are embarrassed or feel “stupid” asking for help, as help hasn’t been forthcoming in an appropriate manner in the past.

Assimilating, imitating, following, copying, giving the answer they feel are wanted, flying under the radar, distracting from underlying need through other means.

They may simply feel that nobody truly understands them and be emotionally withdrawn. This will also impact on their ability to engage fully with the learning.

Looking busy, engaging, smiling while not understanding or accessing learning. The language of zero tolerance adds to this pressure and expectation. Read our blog on Differentiation in Discipline for more on this. The child is expected to fit the intervention because they have a diagnosis, rather than considering the needs of the child which might be different to the stereotype.

Doing anything and everything to conform, fit in, go unnoticed, etc. Don’t all kids mask to a degree? So much pressure to conform in society. Such a cloying ‘fit in or else’ culture in schools coming from the top.

There may be a fear of rejection, bullying or breaking rules. Imagine if we spent time really learning about each other and welcoming differences? Accepting that everyone has different ways of processing, conversing, playing, learning & regulating sensory input

Because they were trained in Zones of Regulation but not asked if they want to use it or find it helpful!?

To fit in and be accepted among their peers, not wanting to look different, to fly under the radar (no attention and good attention) from the teacher, lack of confidence and they could be juggling too many things in their life outside of school.

Thank you to the collaborators on this article about why children mask at school.

Nicki Sinclair @fieldofdaisies1

Ms Barnsley @devschsenco

Lisa Farley @LisaFar34706367

SEA Inclusion & Safeguarding @seainclusion

Dr Chris Moore @DrChrisMooreEP

Mark Williams @markwilliamsa1

Nicole White @NicoleW_sped

StarlightMcKenzie  @StarlightMcKenz

Masking, Behaviour, and Learning Needs.
Why Do Children Mask?

2 thoughts on “Masking, Behaviour, and Learning Needs.”

  1. Pingback: Understanding Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder

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