About this episode
We talk about the importance of keeping conversation flowing between home and school, and how your child’s teaching assistant (TA) is their biggest support at school – there for all the highs and lows, celebrating progress and wins, and really getting to know your child as an individual. Maria Asnaghi is Reena’s son Evy’s former TA, and she shares some of the methods she used to help him regulate and understand his emotions, how she became aware of his unique flashpoints, and what helped to diffuse difficult situations in the playground. She also discusses what parents can do to ensure that their child’s day goes as smoothly as possible, right from the start.
Hi everyone, thanks for joining today’s podcast. I am delighted to be having this conversation today with a wonderful lady called Maria Asnaghi, and I will be talking a bit about why she’s been so impactful in my relationship with Evy and in Evy’s development at school.
Bit about Maria. She’s from Argentina. She came to the UK when she was 21. She’s married with three children. She’s extremely fit. I always see her rollerblading around locally and she loves to exercise and she’s an incredible artist. I only learned this recently about her and it just deepened my immense respect that I already have for her, but she used to foster children and in particular teenage mothers and their babies. Yeah, I was really touched to read that actually, and it makes sense when I think about how much love that she’s given to Evy, that actually there is so much love within her. She also has a degree in sports science and coaching studies, and in 2010 she started to volunteer at our local school. She used to support two children and then became full time in around 2017 and has continued to support children on a one-to-one basis, which is how I got to know her and how she formed a relationship with Evy.
So, over those years Maria has done lots of training and worked with agencies, language therapists, autism trainers and experts. And as if that wasn’t enough, she has now also started her own dog grooming business, and which I’m pleased to say is going really well and is able to kind of tailor her hours around her daughter’s schooling.
So the reason I’ve got Maria on today is because she was Evy’s TA, and I passionately believe in having effective triangulation between school and home. For our children to really thrive, if children – for Evy certainly – if he was given a different message at school than he was getting at home, that would just cause confusion and a lot of upset for him. And a key part of that effective triangulation was the interventions and the support that he received from Maria. And what I really noticed was that there was like a whole other level of interest and love that she had for him and she brought out incredible talents and gifts within him.
You know, I was in my own head a lot of the time. Really anxious, really stressed in the early days and I learnt from Maria techniques about how to help Evy regulate, manage his emotions – things that she would do to him when he was having a meltdown because she was quite critically involved at the earlier stages of his autism diagnosis when he really struggled socially, really struggled to manage his anger and his feelings.
I learnt how to do pressure massage because she told me she was doing it for Evy, and I started doing it, and so, you know, probably the key critical reason I wanted to bring her on today is because from what I can see, people like Maria are supporting our children day in, day out on a one-to-one basis. Evy’s got an EHCP – an Education Health and Care Plan – which allows for one-to-one support, and so it seemed so obvious to me to have her involved in key decisions around him, how he was, what he would be doing at school – and it really made me wonder when I saw that that wasn’t happening. So, everything I would find out – like the touch point – was the teacher, but not the TA. But the TA – the teaching assistant – is the person who is always with your child. So, it really made no sense to me, and so I’ve brought Maria on today, firstly to share her experience of the support she has given to Evy – to help any parents out there who might be thinking about what more they could do – but also the importance of nurturing that relationship with your child’s TA and also feeling empowered to ask the teachers to involve your child’s TA in really key decisions and meetings. Because in my mind, in that space in terms of social and emotional regulation, they are the expert. So – that’s my kind of intro and welcome Maria, and thank you very much for giving me your time today.
Thank you Reena for having me.
And yeah, I’d love to hear from you. Firstly, what is it about working with children with additional needs that really inspires you? And what is it that you love about that?
Maria: [5: 19]
Oh, when I started working with Evy, I found very interesting – his behaviour and everything – and challenging. And I do like a challenge. So I just wanted to get to know this child. How can I stop that behaviour? You know, what can I do? So the first thing I did was digging into his interests – like gymnastics for example. So if he was a bit hyper I would say okay, let’s just do a little bit of gymnastics and I do like gymnastics…so I will be on his level, basically, doing roly-polies on the floor. Of course, I’m not asking other TAs to do that. But I felt that I was connecting with this child. I was doing exactly the same and he will be turning to me…’Okay. Now you do it’. It could be art as well. I found that sitting next to a child with needs that loves art and expressing whatever he feels on a piece of paper… then I will sit next to each child and I will start drawing, and that’s my other passion: art. So I will try to draw anything – copying from a book… And I find that they engage and they start talking to you and they calm down, and so you really need to find what the key is that will connect you with this child. And I think I found it with Evy many times. Obviously, what works today might not work tomorrow. But it was the challenge of like, ‘OK, this is a great experience. I want to really help. What can I do?’
Reena: [7: 17]
That’s so powerful, yeah, that question. I want to help. ‘What can I do today?’ and knowing that it might not help tomorrow.
Yeah, definitely we had this so many times. But you need to think out of the box if you’ve got that on you. It’s very important that when you are working with a child, first of all that you’ve got support…not only from the school but from the parent, because sometimes the parent is not in sync with you as well. So, I’m not talking about you, but we found that with other parents that maybe they don’t really understand that their child has these needs, and they are in denial. That’s one problem. The other problem is if you really need a break, or you really need support – getting that support. Most of the time you get it. But you might not, because working in school is really, really, really busy. But it’s really important to find what is going to help this child and help you to, you know, to flourish him?
Reena: [8: 46]
I think that’s it. That’s a really important point. I remember being in that denial phase in the very early days because…it was all fear based for me. Like the denial was all…it came from a space of ‘what’s going to happen to him?’ ‘I don’t have any experience. I don’t even know what autism is’ and I suppose I can see how maybe some parents might struggle to open their minds and their hearts to accepting the interventions that you’re doing. [Maria] Yes [Reena] Because they’re not in that space, maybe. [Maria] Exactly. [Reena] The child needs that.
I had experiences with the other children and parents and I would tell the parents ‘this and this happened today’. ‘Oh, my child doesn’t do that at home’, and I’m like ‘But this is school’. Or I would say ‘oh, your child did this today…you know I’m so proud’. ‘Well at home he does it all the time’. But you know, I haven’t seen that behaviour in two months at school, and he’s done it – it’s a massive step – but then the parent wasn’t…You know we weren’t in sync, so it’s just that brings you a little bit (down)…You are looking after this child, you think ‘Oh my god, we’ve made progress’ and then you get that answer from the parents, so… You know, you need to man up I guess and just look forward because you’re – you know – you’re just getting yourself against the wall every time. So you get that kind of behaviour from a parent and I just feel sad for the child because the child needs help and it will be good if some of these parents will agree and say ‘Oh yeah, okay yeah, that’s great’. If he doesn’t do this at school and now he’s doing it, that’s amazing, isn’t it?
Celebrating the small wins.
Yes. I understand that this child does it at home everyday, but it’s such a different environment. You know. So yeah, little things like that – not everybody is like Reena!
Gosh, I’m on a journey. I’m very much on a journey too.
And that is, well, you know, why Evy has done so well. We started really roughly, and slowly we got to a great point right now, and my colleagues are so amazing with him. And this is the other thing – you need consistency. So, staff have to be there for him always, and changing staff doesn’t work – is really not the way to work with children with any kind of needs. So at the moment Evy has amazing support at school and I know he’s doing great. But I know that the TAs are really, really caring and involved with him like I was.
Reena: [12: 02]
Yeah. And I think…You know, I guess I can’t labour that point enough that it’s not easy for you because you may have parents who are not in sync with you. And then, what I did notice early on, was that all the key meetings involving Evy – which looked at setting the targets around his pupil plan, what we should be working towards for that term, and how his social and emotional needs are being met – all of those kind of key meetings and decisions – like, you weren’t there. You wanted to be there, but there seems to be – and it’s not just this school, it’s everywhere that I’ve seen and parents I’ve spoken to – that you might be asked for your input by a teacher. But it’s all second hand, right? So you might have to sit and tell the teacher how Evy’s getting on, and the teacher will then write it up and put it into a report. And I’ve never really understood that, because the person who’s with him day in, day out, managing the meltdowns, helping him regulate his feelings is you. So I guess…I mean, have you have you seen that as well? Do you feel like there’s some kind of invisible hierarchy of who’s allowed to speak?
I don’t know if I want to call it a hierarchy – I can’t say that word! [laughter] but it must be something that is set. Like they follow to a ‘T’. This is what we do; this is how it’s done. All throughout schools and this is what I’m thinking – I’ve got no idea – and we are just there just to fill a form. Because I do remember reading his plan, and so we do read his plan because I have done it and so have my colleagues… and we do change things around and say ‘do you agree?’ and then the teacher will be dealing with that plan. And I mean personally I would like to be there, and not to write a plan or anything, but just to…if there is any question from the parent…to answer it you know, but I think they’re following the procedure more than ‘she’s doing it because she’s the teacher’ or ‘he’s there because he’s the headmaster’. That’s my personal understanding…and I think this is what happening, so maybe it will be nice to say, ‘Okay, let’s change this, and maybe invite the TAs’.
Yeah, yeah… I mean, I just remember when you were his TA that I would get the update on how he’s doing academically from the teacher, but then I would always hang back until you were free and ask you how his day had actually gone – like the actual detail – because you were the one who knew all that. And what I realised with Evy as well, that for him to do well academically or to concentrate in class – and by well I don’t mean like really high marks, I just mean sitting down and doing the work that the class needed to do – getting through that without getting too upset, he had to be in a good place emotionally and mentally and all of that background work you were doing with him is what enabled him to be able to do what he needed to do classwork wise. So yeah, I think for me, like once I’d got that, because I think also there’s sometimes… I’ve seen this from other parents as well. They’re like, ‘oh, but they’re not reading as fast’. ‘Oh, but they’re not doing this’ and they’re like really focusing on what their child isn’t doing and comparing them to a child who doesn’t have those same needs. Instead of asking the questions like: ‘Is my child feeling emotionally safe, psychologically safe?’ ‘Are they feeling comfortable?’ ‘Do they feel happy in themselves?’ And I just think that’s a really important part
Maria: [16: 20]
Yes, and I can add to that. This is for every child at school; every child has to be in the right frame of mind to learn. Sometimes they come with any problems from home, a little brother has upset them or things like that, from any kind of child, so can you imagine it if your child, has any needs? Also, it’s not in the right frame of mind, it’s not going to last. So, you need to address that first…you know to just sit down and take in anything that’s happening around you. So I would normally at the beginning of the day I wouldn’t sit with him and wait for the teacher. I would probably do some movement, some stretching or climbing or something like that just to change the mood – if there was any mood. But also I knew if he was – say he came in a bad mood – because you told me, which is great. But sometimes the parents drop their child and they leave so you don’t have that: ‘Oh we started really badly this morning’. We don’t have that from every parent, so I guess it also depends on the parents – are they interested in getting really involved? Do they really want to tell what’s happened at the beginning of the morning to the TA, you know?
So I feel it was quite helpful because you knew that he needed to calm down before anything…and it could be anything from like he had, you know, a row at the playground two days ago and he’s still dragging this from two days ago. So like sorting that out. And then he would just sit down and learn. Obviously sometimes it doesn’t last long – you know doesn’t last the full hour, but he will be able to do his work, so definitely it helps. It helps to know, from parents. Yeah, even the child.
I think it’s a really important point actually. I still do actually, but it’s perhaps less so now. But in those days when you were his TA, I would have to tell you, ‘Okay, this morning he had a meltdown about this’. It was always a ‘Today this is the issue’. ‘Today he didn’t want to wear this’. ‘Today his brother upset him because he called him a name’ or ‘His brother broke his Lego model’. ‘He’s really unhappy because, you know, I lost my temper with him because he was taking so long to get his shoes on’. And I think that for parents…it’s really hard, because as a parent you always feel like you’re being judged, and you have to get into this place of ‘I’ve messed up’. I know that; I own that and I’m just going to share with you that this happened this morning, and it’s coming at it from a place of – going back to the question you asked earlier – ‘what’s going to serve my child today?’ Me not telling you is not going to serve him. Just because I want to protect my ego is not going to serve him. I think for parents we put way too much pressure on ourselves to be perfect. Whatever ‘perfect’ is because I don’t think it actually exists. And if we can just put that aside and just ask that question of, ‘What can I do for my child today?’ that will help them get off to the best possible start. And that might mean admitting that I shouted at them.
You know, it happens in every house. This is it. It happens. Like, this morning, I’m doing my daughter’s hair. And I’m using pins and I just put a pin, maybe too hard. Oh and it’s the drama. ‘Oh you did it on purpose…waah’. No, and I have to deal with that all the way to school. You know – how do I break that? So, before we left ‘OK we are going on the scooter today’ and changing things. She forgets about that I tried to stab her with a pin, and this is how we need to talk to school. And it’s a big drama, so I am sure it happens in every household. But people don’t go to school and say ‘Listen, this happened this morning’. I’ve done it. Maybe a few times that she was crying. But I am always very honest and I probably talk too much as well. But other people don’t. They just don’t tell you what’s going on. [Reena] Yeah, yeah. [Maria] You don’t really know.
Yeah I agree. I think you know we just sometimes get so caught up in maintaining a persona and actually it’s so much effort to do that. Just be. Just be!
Yes, yes, I mean…I’m so…you can tell my emotions! [laughter] Every time I go to school, and to work, and if I’ve got a long face people will ask ‘Oh you okay?’ And I’ll say ‘No, rah rah rah’. Other people might say ‘Yes, I’m fine’, and they’re not fine.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
So, you talked a bit about some of the stuff you’ve done with Evy. You talked about starting his day with movement, doing the roly-polies with him, which is just incredible. And some of the artwork you would do with him. Do you remember any other kind of techniques that you also used to help him regulate?
What I found really useful was one session that I had with this lady – I don’t remember her name – she came from Harrow, and she’s an expert, and she just told me, ‘Listen, when he’s really angry and something’s happened – say on the playground or in the classroom – we need to draw it. We need to map it so he can see exactly what went wrong. Because sometimes they don’t see it. But maybe when you draw it… you know you don’t need to be an artist to do this, that’s totally fine. But you just use, like 3 colours: red, yellow and green. And you draw the people involved and their behaviour, and then you ask the child, ‘How did you feel?’. And we’ll draw step by step what happened. Who was there? Sad faces, happy faces, you know, neutral faces and then he will open up and say, ‘Oh yes I remember that’. ‘Oh I know why I did that’. Many times he snatched the piece of paper if he could see why he’d done that and he was unhappy. But it was so powerful for everyone because it did work. And I would keep it there to show you sometimes. And also, you know, sometimes we map out a good day, not just a bad episode but like ‘Oh, amazing. You know, this day’s been great, today you’ve been amazing. In the playground you were able to play with so and so, you didn’t boss them around and you were actually playing with them’. [Reena] Yeah. [Maria] Definitely mapping out any behaviour you think you need to. Very powerful. It works.
And that was like a comic strip, wasn’t it? That was like with stick people – so you know, you didn’t have to be like, a Gaudi.
No this is what I’m saying. You don’t need to be an artist, just three sticks. If it was a girl just draw a skirt. So these three people, not even names, just the initials of the people involved, and you can even do bubbles saying sad, happy, angry or anything very simple. But the fact that he could see it there. It worked so well. So well. It will take you five minutes to do that, no more than that, and it might sort out your whole afternoon. He would be calm for the rest of the day. Now if you don’t do anything about it, things will escalate, and that’s what I found with him. He was unsettled. And so it was really important to sort it there and then. And this is the other thing, like playground issues. You have to sort them out there and then. If you can. Obviously, in the playground… because there is no structure there, and there is no one-to-one following you. [Reena] Yeah [Maria] You are quite free there. And a lot of children find the playground really challenging because they don’t know what to do. They don’t know what to do and when they get in trouble or they do something, or somebody’s not playing with them, or they’re not invited to a game, or they tell them no, they get really frustrated. And that can happen to any child. So when this happens to a child with needs, like it escalates to a level that you need to sort it out as soon as possible.
Yeah. And I think we found that with Evy too, didn’t we? That he was most dysregulated at play times, but that would…like you said, if it wasn’t dealt with, would completely derail his afternoon and he couldn’t engage in any work and he would be really angry. And I could see it from his face the minute I would pick him up; he would have this face like thunder. And I agree, the comic strip conversations were just excellent for that.
They worked for him, definitely.
It’s a strategy that I would recommend. You know, it wouldn’t take too long to teach that, if you go to school and do a workshop, but it should definitely be there.
Yeah, and I think just for the parents who might be wondering: ‘Okay, so what were the challenges Evy was having socially at play times?’ What were some of those problems?
So mainly, Evy has amazing talent. So he would like things perfect. If for example, we choose some people to do a play, he will write the script – which is like mind blowing – and then he will give the script to every child there, and they have to learn it, and they have to do it the way he says that they have to do it. So, can you imagine for the other children, they just want to go and run around, play ‘It’. So, after a while, you know that if they don’t join in and do their part he will get really angry. Really angry.
So yeah, that was our challenge, we had to stop that because he wasn’t getting anything back from these children. If he did, it wasn’t perfect; they didn’t know the script. And same with dance, he will do a dance routine and he will be like, practicing; he’s amazing at routines, making up routines. I mean, he’s got so much talent, but obviously when you’re a 7-year-old and you have to follow this talented child, and after a while you’re just like ‘Oh no, I want to play something else’, and you run off – he couldn’t take that.
Yeah. He really struggled, didn’t he? With people who, I guess on the things that he was interested in, couldn’t keep up.
Maria: [29: 25]
They couldn’t keep up with him and he found that really challenging. So we had many, many issues at play… and you know, even if you follow him, because I don’t know if it still happens, but we did have to be shadowing him quite a lot. It would still happen because he was not happy with us following him. [Reena] Yeah. [Maria] You know, you have a teacher there all the time, and he’s like ‘Don’t follow me. I know you’re watching me.’ You know, it’s a bit upsetting for him because I didn’t feel comfortable following him all the time.
In a way I had to because other children were getting upset. And it was just to make sure that we break that before it happens. And I just wanted him to just enjoy the playtime rather than feel like he was followed. I think the best thing for him was to match him with another child that was running around, and he found that in one of the girls there and I think he was quite happy to play with these children. And also these children were easy to manage for him, they wouldn’t challenge him.
Yeah, he doesn’t like people who question his authority.
So anybody who’d like challenge him, like ‘Oh no I don’t wanna do that’, Or ‘I could do it better’ he would not like that. And he would focus more on ‘okay I can manage these children; they will follow me’. So he would try to play with them because he knew they wouldn’t challenge him.
Yeah, it’s always kind of what he wants to do, so if someone would be like, ‘OK, we’ll do your thing. But maybe then we could do my thing’. He’d be like, ‘No, we’re only doing my thing’ and if you sign up, you’re signing up for life. This is a lifelong commitment. You don’t break that contract. For him, it’s like black and white. All or nothing. Best friend or foe.
He might agree ‘We play your game’ but halfway, he would be like ‘OK now, I’m telling you the rules are like this.’ Halfway he tries to make it his way and then there would be a fight there and then. Like ‘No, you’re supposed to be playing our game’. That was the main issue in the playground with Evy.
Yeah, and he takes it personally, doesn’t he? So if someone says ‘No’ to him or they’ve started playing and then they’re not, then for him, that’s like, ‘Aaaghh’ you know. ‘You’ve like, really hurt my feelings. You promised you would play with me; you promised you’d be part…’
The end of the world. Yeah, I did notice some different behaviour during the lockdown when he was coming to school, and he was playing football with the boys, which we’d never seen that before. We realised that the players weren’t the good players, they were like, you know, children that can play football, but they weren’t the ones that are really competitive, like they want to win all the time, play football every weekend… [Reena] Yeah, yeah [Maria] So he was happy to play with those children because it wasn’t challenging. They weren’t telling him ‘Oh yeah, you must score…’ – there was no pressure. There was no pressure to be a superstar and I couldn’t believe it. You know, I’ve been with him for three years and that was like a breakthrough.
Obviously when the lockdown ended, we went back to square one because all the good players came and dominated the football. But you could see how the behaviour can change when you’ve got other children. You know? The strong footballers weren’t there, but yeah, so it’s just like the whole dynamic was changing; amazing to see how everything changes with the little pockets.
Reena: [33: 54]
He has really exacting standards for himself. Like, for him you can’t operate at 70, 80 %. You’re either 100 % or nothing, and that’s still one of the things that we’re working on the most, because like with art, when he’d do artwork, if there’d be a mark somewhere and you’d be like ‘but actually that whole picture [Maria] Amazing yeah?’ [Reena] But for him, he just focuses so much on what’s wrong and not all the amazing stuff, you know, and we’re really conscious about praising the effort he puts into stuff rather than the end result.
Maria: [34: 37]
It’s a shame, but you know – you will get there. I think he’s growing and every year he will get these tools to manage, you know, like ‘Actually I need to see the bright side. You know, I’m actually great’.
Yeah, getting into practice of saying it and I’m kind of saying to him ‘You don’t have to believe it. Just say it to yourself because if you say it to yourself enough you will start to believe it’. You know we need to change that mental narrative that’s going on in your head that says ‘I’m not good enough’. But yeah, it’s a journey right?
It is a journey. He will get there, but you know, it’s just time, and also growing up. He will grow up and he will have all these tools by then and he will definitely know. ‘Ok, yes/no. I need to think, okay. No, it’s actually good’.
So you talked a bit about the kind of stuff you appreciate from parents, so the honesty in terms of how that child has been that morning or any issues that maybe the TA should be aware of so they can help – preempt, I guess – how the child might be feeling that day. And you know, you talked about being in sync with them, on that level of celebrating – just not looking for the big massive milestones but celebrating every kind of micro bit of progress that happens that day. Because it’s all of those little micro steps that will become milestones in the future. Is there anything else you would want to say to parents listening to this podcast? What would be your message to parents listening today?
So, first of all, you know we are there to support your child, and that obviously you know sometimes the child might run off, you know…we are not chaining your child to us and I found that sometimes parents are like ‘Oh, why you weren’t there?’ but we are 100 % there looking after your child and so are all my colleagues, and you know the school is amazing and they have to be, but we are there to look after the child.
I would say, connect with us; tell us what’s happening. It’s really good to have a home link book. So, you could say what’s happened at home that your child has come to school not happy. Sometimes the parent works. So you don’t see the parent. You know, even at pick up or drop off, you don’t see the parents, so maybe a book would be good. I had that with many children. And also, you know, don’t be shy, ask. Ask questions, you know. Ask what happened today. Was she good? Was she proud? What did she do? You know, like ‘what was great today?’ Anything. I do prefer to talk everyday about what happened. Not a month later. Any concerns? Anything? Write. Write an email if you can’t see a teacher or a TA, or if you’re not there. Definitely keep in contact with the school. But we have all these things to do the best for your child to flourish. I don’t know what else to add.
Reena: [38: 32]
I think that’s loads. I think that’s amazing. I think it’s a perfect place to end and you know, I think I hope that parents listening to this episode will feel empowered to do that – to ask for what they need. And that if you don’t ask, you’ll never know the answer. And yeah, that the TAs – like yourself – are just so dedicated and work with so much love. So thank you so much for giving me your time today and a really personal thank you always. I mean I say it to you, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop saying it, that I credit so much of Evy’s development to the fact that you didn’t just watch him or look after him. You were like, right in there with him. You know, right in there unearthing those issues, really getting in there.
Powerful, it’s very powerful to get to the core of that child, as much as you can. Thank you, it’s always a pleasure and we always see each other on Fridays in the park. And you never know, I might meet him again in the future. On my one day a week (at school).
I’m sure he would absolutely love to have you back, I know, in a heartbeat, but I think it helps him to know that you’re really local as well. And Evy’s very… like he doesn’t express his emotions. That’s just one of his facets, I guess of his autism, that I know who he really loves, but he’s not that kind of, ‘Oh hi! I love you so much!’ and hugging and kissing. If anything, he actually thinks kissing people is like the most unhygienic thing you could ever do. Like even this morning, I kissed my finger and touched it on his nose and he was like, ‘Why are you putting your saliva on me?’ But I know he loves you. [Maria] Aaah. [Reena] It takes a particular type of person to get into his heart, so… yeah.
That’s so lovely, definitely, and I love him back. Always nice to see him and you know, it’s lovely, lovely, lovely to see him every morning, I wave at him. He makes me smile.
Well, thank you for having me, Reena.