Mom Psych

Education: Special Needs


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Special Needs Digest


unstructured structureUnstructured Structure:
Accomplishing Daily Routines

by Jack Taulbee, Ed.M., M.A.

Growing up with the diagnosis of ADHD, OCD and Tourette syndrome I constantly struggled with issues of control and excessive activity levels. I sought out structure from others because I felt that I could not structure myself, but then rebelled at the idea of structure because it felt too confining to me. 

What I found over the years was that I needed an unstructured-structure approach to my life. One that would give me the liberty to make choices and experience a sense of freedom, while keeping me directed towards the goals and objectives needed to pursue my dreams.

Special needs children who suffer from various neurological disorders can often benefit when the adults in their world offer them an unstructured-structure approach.

Think of unstructured structure as setting up the foundation and framework of a house, then letting the new owners choose how the home will be finished. They would have the choices of carpet or hardwood floors, appliances, countertops, color schemes, sound systems, etc. The same principle applies here. As the adult, you set up the foundation and framework; you then have the child become involved in completing the work, which allows her to incorporate her own personal choices.

In other words, unstructured structure does not allow for completely random and uncontrolled freedom for a child with disorders, but instead creates a “buy-in” where the child takes personal responsibility for her thoughts and actions while being able to receive proper guidance and advice.

It also teaches her how to fit into society without giving up who she is as a person.

A simple example might be when you’re helping a child wake up in time to get ready for school.  Some positive options might include:

Let your child choose which option suits her best and implement them. Eventually you should find things that work consistently and may even notice patterns of rewards that work better for the child than others. Do not be surprised if that reward is nothing more than the choice itself.

Once a few goals are in place and working well, move on to a few more. Be careful of attempting too many at once, even if it is going successfully. Too much could be overbearing: it may push the child into feeling controlled, which will cause her to instinctually rebel against the whole plan.

Options for other areas may include:

Allow the child the freedom to experiment so she can get a feel of what works and what does not work. Children with disorders need to see for themselves before they will buy into most ideas.

This will begin to provide structure in a way that allows the child to feel more control. By having choices instead of directives, the child can accept the regulation without feeling too confined.

As the child matures, areas of responsibility may increase, such as staying out later and having a curfew. Although it may take negotiation and creativity, it can still be accomplished using the unstructured-structure approach through the appeal of mutually shared options. 

Unstructured structure is nothing more than an open-minded perspective with optimistic compromises.


February 1, 2013


Jack Taulbee is the author of Understanding Children of Special Needs: What Every Parent Needs to Know.  To contact Jack or order his book, see his Web site.


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