There’s something about spit that’s really disgusting to most people, the texture, the thought of germs, the smell…it’s just…YUCK! Unfortunately, as a special education teacher, sooner or later you will end up having to work with a student who either spits or plays with their spit. These are behaviors that need to be addressed and hopefully extinguished as quickly as possible.
It was pretty early on in my career working in a self-contained classroom that I met my first student that spit. It didn’t take long to figure out that he was doing it for attention and that he enjoyed the reaction he got when he spit at someone (almost always right in the face). I had no clue how to cope with this behavior but I got lots of advice and after much trial and error he did stop spitting. I’m writing this blog to help those of you who are struggling with a student that exhibits this behavior. I’ll break it down between those who spit and those who play with their spit.
Before you can address any behavior issue, it’s critical to determine why they are doing it. The easiest way is to conduct a functional behavior assessment using an ABC chart. Click here for a simple one, free for you to download.
Here’s a list of possible reasons for spitting:
1) Showing displeasure/anger
2) Seeking attention
3) Enjoying Reaction
4) Task avoidance
5) Excessive saliva
Here is a list of possible reasons for playing with spit:
1) Enjoying the visual and/or tactile sensations
2) Task avoidance
Remember these critical points before you begin your behavior modification:
1) Behavior will almost certainly increase before it decreases.
2) Everyone needs to be onboard and know how to implement the strategy. Best case scenario is for the parents to follow through at home as well.
3) Be consistent! No matter how tired you get implementing the strategy, stick to the plan, do not waver.
4) Make sure the student understands that a given behavior needs to change, why it needs to change and what they can replace the behavior with. Let them know what to expect if they exhibit the behavior and what to expect when they use the replacement behavior. See blog post, replacement behaviors.
Okay, so here are strategies to extinguish spitting behavior:
1) Ignore the behavior. This is the toughest one, because it’s so unpleasant to be spat at. Don’t flinch, don’t make eye contact, nothing. You can keep tissues in your pocket to wipe the spit off, but don’t react to the spitting itself.
2) Over correct the behavior. When the student spits, bring him to the sink, trashcan, toilet or give him a cup to spit into. Have the student continue to spit until he’s “done”. Repeat the over correction each time he spits.
3) Brush the teeth. Tell the student that spitting is only allowed after brushing teeth. When the student spits, have him go to the sink and brush his teeth. This strategy can back-fire if your student enjoys brushing his teeth or consumes the toothpaste.
4) Use a social story. This strategy works best with students who want to please or are invested in having friendships. It can be used effectively in combination with strategies 1-3. (Check out my blog post on writing social stories here.)
Because students play with their spit primarily for the sensory input, extinguishing the behavior works best if you can provide a similar sensory experience. Here are strategies to extinguish playing with spit:
1) Slime, either store bought or homemade (here’s a recipe-makes a fun classroom activity, too http://tinkingtechy.com/how-to-make-slime/)
2) Time at a water table or if you don’t have one, playing at the sink with the water running at a dribble (no pun intended).
3) Tape. Though it doesn’t have the same tactile sensation, strips of masking tape are an excellent tactile distraction.
4) Add one drop of water to a small amount of liquid dish soap. This “liquid” is supposed to have a very similar feel to spit. I read this on a question/answer site, and I’m adding it here if you’d like to give it a try. If the student puts his hands to his eyes or in his mouth this could be a problem. I’m including the strategy, but please use with caution if you decide to try it. Be sure to monitor the student during use.
5) Social story explaining that spit should stay in the mouth, etc. (See link above on how to write a social story.)
I hope one of these strategies works for you. If one doesn’t work, try a different one and tweak as necessary to make the strategy fit your student.
And by the way, the behavior strategy that worked best for me, (and for the student mentioned above), was ignoring. It “only” took about two weeks, but it was miserable, and I and only those assistants who could “handle it” took on the responsibility of working with this student until the behavior was extinguished. His behavior did increase before it decreased but after the two weeks he never spat at anyone again. HURRAY!!
Here’s wishing you similar success!