(*A version of this post was originally published on 3/2/15 and contains affiliate links.)
Most children engage in undesirable behaviors from time to time and children with special needs are no exception to that rule!
My daughter, Bethany had a life threatening brain tumor, stroke, and brain injury, when she was two years old.
She also has moderate autism.
As a result, she has lifelong disabilities, including: a language processing delay, and an uncontrollable seizure disorder.
Her disabilities have sentenced her to living life as a perpetual two year old.
It has also caused her to have problems with explosive behavior.
In other words, Bethany is a teenager who functions in her everyday life as a toddler who could have a seizure at any moment!
She still has the occasional “terrible twos” temper tantrum, but her tantrums happen to be jumbo sized!
Bethany also has great difficulty understanding lengthy and complicated strings of spoken language, and has an extremely limited vocabulary.
Every once in a while she engages in undesirable or negative behaviors which can be super annoying!
Sometimes it’s difficult to know how to handle or discipline Bethany’s less than stellar behaviors so my husband and I have developed of system of analyzing them!
When Bethany is acting in an intolerable manner, we try to remember to ask ourselves the following questions before dealing with her undesirable behavior.
- Is her misbehavior actually an innocent behavior characteristic of her disabilities? It’s unfair to expect Bethany to behave in a way that is physically and emotionally impossible for her to achieve. It is a must for parents to educate themselves extensively on their child’s own unique conditions to make an accurate decision on whether or not the behavior is deliberate or a symptom of their disability.
- Could her behavior actually be a side effect of one of her medications? It is crucial that parents know every little side effect, both common and rare, of their child’s medications. Expecting a child to fight the negative side effect of a medication is also asking them to do the impossible.
- Are we expecting Bethany to behave as her actual age which is nineteen, rather than her functioning age which is two? It’s unfair to expect Bethany to act as her typical same age peers would in a similar situation.
- Is Bethany’s misbehavior actually her way of attempting to communicate something of importance to us? Is she hungry, thirsty, feeling ill, hurt, sad, or scared and unable to let us know in a more typically appropriate way? I recall the time when we wanted Bethany to go bowling, but she refused to get ready to go. She kept pointing to her neck and saying she was waiting for it to go away! We thought she was just being uncooperative, but the next day her neck was horribly swollen. It turned out that she had an infected lymph node but with her limited vocabulary she was unable to tell us that she felt ill and that her neck hurt.
- Is Bethany acting in a less than acceptable way because she needs attention? Some children crave attention so much that they even enjoy receiving negative attention.
- Is Bethany acting out because we are exerting too much control over her? Bethany is an adult, now. She is entitled to have some measure of control over her own life.
If after asking ourselves the above questions and analyzing the results, we determine that a disciplinary action is in order, we attempt to change Bethany’s misbehavior with the following standard positive parenting principals.
- We set a consistent standard of behavior for Bethany in a way the she can understand. I always see the greatest success when I use social stories with photos or realistic drawings in communicating concepts to her.
- We teach her in small, incremental, baby steps how to meet our standard of behavior. We don’t expect perfection immediately. We work slowly and steadily toward our goal behavior.
- We model the standard of behavior by behaving in the way we desire for her to behave. There is absolutely no room for the, “Do as I say, not as I do” philosophy here!
- We allow her some control in decision making. Examples: “You must eat your lunch, but you can choose a sandwich or pizza.” “You must get dressed, but you can choose whether you wear pants or shorts.”
- We ensure that Bethany is receiving an appropriate amount of positive attention. We play games with her, have conversations with her, read her stories, or engage in some other type of fun activity with her periodically throughout our day.
- We Praise desirable behaviors. When we notice her behaving pleasantly and appropriately, we call attention to it and praise her for it.
We have seen a measure of success in implementing these positive parenting principals ourselves and I believe they are a good first step for extinguishing negative behaviors in children with special needs.