Disciplining Your Child With Special Needs
From the moment you heard the diagnosis, you knew life would be more challenging for your child than for most. So when you ask him to do something and it’s not done, you let it go. Does he really need you to point out his limitations? Or maybe you fear that what you’d like him to do, or not do, is impossible for him to achieve?
But here’s the truth: If you feel that your son or daughter doesn’t deserve discipline, it’s like telling your child, “I don’t believe you can learn.” And if you don’t believe it, how will your child?
What experts call “behavior management” is not about punishing or demoralizing your child. Instead, it’s a way to set boundaries and communicate expectations in a nurturing, loving way. Correcting kids’ actions, showing them what’s right and wrong, what’s acceptable and what’s not, is one of the most important ways that all parents can show their kids that they love and care.
Here are some strategies to help parents discipline a child who has special needs.
The benefits of discipline are the same whether kids have special needs or not. In fact, kids who have trouble learning respond very well to discipline and structure. But for this to work, parents have to make discipline a priority and be consistent.
Correcting kids is about establishing standards — whether that’s setting a morning routine or dinnertime manners — and then teaching them how to meet those expectations. All kids, regardless of their needs and abilities, crave this consistency. When they can predict what will happen next in their day, they feel confident and safe.
Yes, they will test these boundaries — all kids do. But it’s up to you to affirm that these standards are important and let your child know that you believe he or she can meet them.
Learn About Your Child’s Condition
To understand your child’s behavior, you have to understand the factors that affect it — including his or her condition. So no matter what challenge your child is facing, try to learn as much about the unique medical, behavioral, and psychological factors that affect his or her development.
Read up on the condition and ask the doctor about anything you don’t understand. Also talk to members of your child’s care team and other parents (especially those with kids who have similar issues) to help determine if your child’s challenging behavior is typical or related to his or her individual challenges. For example, can another parent relate to the trouble you have getting your 5-year-old dressed each morning? Sharing experiences will give you a yardstick by which to measure your expectations and determine which behaviors are related to your child’s diagnosis and which are purely developmental.
If you’re having trouble finding parents of kids with similar challenges, consider joining an online support or advocacy group for families of kids with special needs. Once you know what is typical behavior for your child’s age and health challenges, you can set realistic behavioral expectations.
Establishing rules and discipline are a challenge for any parent. So keep your behavior plan simple and work on one challenge at a time. And as your child meets one behavioral goal, he or she can strive for the next one.
Here are some pointers.
Use Rewards and Consequences
Work within a system that includes rewards (positive reinforcement) for good behavior and natural consequences for bad behavior. Natural consequences are punishments that are directly related to the behavior. For example, if your child is throwing food, you would take away the plate.
But not every kid responds to natural consequences, so you might have to match the consequence to your child’s values. For instance, a child with autism who may like to be alone might consider a traditional “time out” rewarding — instead, take away a favorite toy or video game for a period of time.
After correcting your child for doing something wrong, offer a substitute behavior. So if your child is talking too loudly or hitting you to get your attention, work on replacing that with an appropriate behavior such as saying or signaling “help me” or getting your attention in appropriate ways such as tapping your shoulder. Active ignoring is a good consequence for misbehavior meant to get your attention. This means not rewarding bad behavior with your attention (even if it’s negative attention, like scolding or yelling).
Use Clear and Simple Messages
Communicate your expectations to your child in a simple way. For kids with special needs, this may require more than just telling them. You may need to use pictures, role playing, or gestures to be sure your child knows what he or she is working toward.
Keep verbal and visual language simple, clear, and consistent. Explain as simply as possible what behaviors you want to see. Since consistency is key, make sure grandparents, babysitters, siblings, and teachers are all on board with your messages.
Encourage accomplishment by reminding your child about what he or she can earn for meeting the goals you’ve set, whether it’s getting stickers, screen time, or listening to a favorite song. And be sure to praise and reward your child for effort as well as success. So a child who refuses to poop in the toilet may be rewarded for using a potty near the toilet.
Another strategy: practice “time-in” — when you catch your child doing something right, praise him or her for it. In certain cases, time-in can be more effective than punishment, because kids naturally want to please their parents. So, by getting credit for doing something right, they’ll likely want to do it again.
If your efforts don’t result in changes after a week or two, ask a social worker or other developmental professional for some help. He or she can help you reevaluate your behavior plan, identify triggers, develop a rewards system, or come up with consequences for behaviors you want to eliminate.
Establish a Routine
Children with certain conditions, like autism and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), respond particularly well to discipline that’s based on knowing exactly what will happen next. So try to stick to the same routine every day. For example: If your child tends to melt down in the afternoon after school, set a schedule for free time. Maybe he or she needs to have a snack first and then do homework before playtime.
Charts can be helpful. If your child is non-verbal or pre-verbal, draw pictures or use stickers to indicate what comes next. Set a schedule that’s realistic and encourage input from your child where appropriate.
Believe in Your Child
If, after taking his first few steps, your little one kept falling down, would you get him some crutches or a wheelchair? No. So don’t do the same with a child with special needs. Maybe your child can’t put on his or her shoes the first time, or 10th time, but keeps trying. Encourage that!
When you believe your child can do something, you empower him or her to reach that goal. The same is true for behavior. For example, if your child is too aggressive when playing with other kids, don’t stop the play altogether. Instead, work with your child to limit the physicality of the play. Use discipline where necessary in the form of time-outs, enforced turn-taking, and rules like “no touching” — and provide rewards when your wishes are met.
Whatever you do, don’t give up on your child when the going gets tough. Bad behavior that’s ignored in the early years can become unbearable, even dangerous, in the teen years and adulthood. Be patient and take the time to work with your child to help reach his or her best potential. Your vote of confidence is sometimes all your child needs to succeed.
Have Confidence in Your Abilities
Discipline is an exhausting undertaking. There will be good days when you’re amazed by your child’s progress, bad days when it seems like all your hard work was forgotten, and plateaus where it seems like further progress is impossible. But remember this: Behavior management is a challenge for all parents, even those of kids who are typically developing. So don’t give up!
If you set an expectation in line with your child’s abilities, and you believe he or she can accomplish it, odds are it will happen. In the meantime, use whatever online, personal, and professional resources you have to help reach your goals.
Reviewed by: Michelle New, PhD
Date reviewed: October 2012