Bo Hejlskov Elvén

Low Arousal Approach

The Low Arousal Approach is based on the notion that people with behaviours of concern often have trouble regulating affect. They often react to other’s affects by experiencin and expressing the same affect. Affect is always contagious, but most people learn to differentiate between own and other’s affects early in life. Some people don’t. They don’t know if an affect they feel is their own or somebody else’s. That can result in anger if somebody else is angry and telling off the one who tells you off.

We also know that challenging behavior often occurs when the someone experinces a high intensity of affect. Nobody fights when they are relaxed and easy-going. Calm and self-control is connected, and we want the person to be in control of him- or herself, so that they can coorporate with us.

We need to use this knowledge in monitoring our own affect levels. We need to be calm ourselves, but also be aware of the risk of affect contagion from the adult with special needs or the child. We must use methods that protects the person with special needs or child and ourselves from an increase in affect intensity, both in the way we talk to and relate to the child or person with special needs and in our methods concerning challenging and even violent or self-harming behavior.

Low arousal approach is about creating a caring environment charactericed by calm and positive expectations aiming to decrease stress and challenging behavior. The methods load heavily on changing staff and parents´s thoughts and conceptions and on body language, physical distance and conflict evaluation.


Low arousal approach is based on developmental neuropsychology and affect theory, but not only that. There is also an ethical and a philosophical base, that can be described as two principles, the principles of responsibility and control, and a basic assumption about humanity. The philosophical base is:

  1. You need to feel responsible if you want to change things. 
    This means that if you want to be able to make an positive change in the lives of apespel with special needs or children in general you need to decide that nothing ever goes wrong because of the adult or child. It is always your fault. It can never be the person´s fault, just like it can never be anybody else´s fault if you have a problem. The reason that this is important is that it is only if it is my fault that it is possible for me to make changes. This means that we do not have unmotivated people with special needs, we only have staff and parents who are not very good at motivating. And there are no naughty or oppositional kids or adults, only staff and parents who are not very good at getting a yes. By adapting this principle in everyday life we are able to improve the lives of people with special needs and families in general.
  2. You need to be in control of yourself in order to entrust yourself to somebody else. 
    As staff or parents we often believe that we need to control people with special needs and our children. We are afraid to loose control. Often we try to gain control over the child or adult, sometimes even using force. The problem is that both we and the child or adult looses some control in situations characterised by dominance, discipline or force. Only if the child or adult has full self-control she is able to do what’s expected of her. This mens that every school or care service, and even family, must work towards maximising the self-control of people with special needs.
  3. People who can behave, do.
    The principle is not mine, but Ross W. Greene´s. What it means is that if we believe that people do not want to behave, we have a hard time taking on the responsibility we need to to gain influence. If we on the other hand believe that if somebody doesn’t behave she probably doesn’t have the necessary abilities in order to do what we expected we are suddenly able to gain influence on the behavior. By adjusting our demands, expectations and surroundings we are able to make a positive change. In the fields of care and special education we already know that the people we work with don´t have the same abilities as other people. This view on behavior and will should be easy to grasp in these fields.

All of my methods are based on this philosophical assumptions. The means that I don´t work in a treatment frame. My work is based on the ethical assumption that people with special needs have a right to exist as they are, and that it is the responsibility of staff and parents to secure that right by changing their methods and approach towards them. And this has proven to be very effective. We can significantly decrease and often eliminate violence and self harm by changing the way we work.

The ethical base of my methods I describe as Everyone has the right to say no. The task of the staff is to make the person say yes voluntarily. Every time members of staff or parents tell or ask the child or adult with special needs to do do something, they need to see it as their responsibility that the child or adult says yes, without the use of force or simply demanding. Only by accepting everybody’s right to say no we can get a real and honest yes. The methods we use to get a yes spans from simple uses of language as saying “Let’s go” instead of “Get going” to complex methods as structuring by pictograms and the use of activities with a clear finish right before difficult tasks.

Both the ethical base and the philosophical principles aim towards maintaining the basic rights of people with special needs. Everybody have the right to a good life, all life long.