Fiona and grabbing food

Fiona was a cute little girl with huge brown eyes and a big smile. She was the new girl in the classroom coming late in the school year.

The little girl had been moving a lot over the last several years and her classroom attendance had not been the best. When she entered Room 623, the teacher discovered quickly that the girl did not know her boundaries. She would run and grab whatever she wanted in the classroom. Fiona also was nonverbal and had no comprehension of what letters or numbers even meant.

Plus, Fiona had food allergies and was on a strict diet.

From the very first moment in the room, Fiona was a challenge to both the children and the staff. Because the child was unable to talk either verbally or in pictures, she was becoming easily frustrated. Food became an immediate problem. At breakfast or lunch, Fiona would get a special food tray. More often than not, she didn’t like the food that she was getting from the cafeteria.

That posed a lot of problems.

Fiona’s frustration started in the early morning hours. When the girl finished eating her breakfast, she tried grabbing the other children’s food. If her neighbor was already done eating his food, she would run to another section of the table. Lunch time proved to be even more challenging. During her first days at school, she surprised everyone in the cafeteria by taking a quick run for the kitchen. She began to grab everything in sight that she liked.

That behavior had to stop immediately. The child needed to learn boundaries and to respect other people’s space.

She also had to stay on her strict diet.

The first thing the child required was a way to communicate her wants and needs. The teacher decided to buy a new set of two inch picture icons quickly. So she ordered from Picture Exchange Communication System the most common word icons for Fiona. The icons were made with thick laminating film which would last for a long time.

The teacher wanted to begin working with some of the typical high preference icons like soda, cookie, squishy toy or candy. So she asked the parents which foods were acceptable for the girl to have. They gave permission for certain types of candies and soda but no cookies.

Squishy toys were also highly encouraged for the child to ask for too.

While first learning to communicate, Fiona would start to cry when the teacher didn’t just give her the preferred foods. Because Fiona’s desire for food was so great, she had a powerful motivator to learn what those little pictures meant. She learned quickly that asking for something instead of crying could get her what she wanted.

But not always. When the girl did grab another child’s food, she was immediately removed from the table. Fiona learned that it was better to wait for a reward for good behavior than to be taken away from what she wanted most. In fact, the teacher was surprised on how quickly Fiona grasped that picture icons could be used to her communicate her wants and needs.

Fiona also learned boundaries at the same time, too.

Pamela Gross Downing, a special education teacher can be reached at