How to Discipline a Special Needs Child (When He Doesn’t Understand)

Disciplining a child with special needs is more challenging than disciplining a typically developing child. That said, it is just as important,how to discipline a special needs child if not more so, to encourage appropriate behavior for your child. It is essential to hold special needs children to the same expectations as their typically developing peers as often as possible.
Discipline is not a punishment. It is a tool to be used to promote positive behaviors and decrease negative behaviors. It should be used as a means to encourage progress of the child across all aspects of their development. And while all children are different and demonstrate different behaviors as they grow, there are a few discipline techniques that are applicable for all special needs children.

Discipline Strategies for Special Needs Children:

1. Praise good behaviors, ignore bad behaviors (if possible). Cause and effect is one of the earliest concepts a child learns. If he learns that you give attention (even if it is to reprimand or physically stop him) when he reacts inappropriately, he will continue the poor behavior seeking the negative attention. Rather, it is beneficial to teach him that the good behaviors will result in the attention and praise he seeks.
2. If possible, determine the underlying cause for the behaviors and address it. It can be extremely frustrating to not be able to effectively communicate to meet wants and needs. Before you react, assess the situation and give as much assistance as you can to help him communicate with you. Then, validate his emotions and give your command. For example, “I can see that Kyle taking your toys is making you mad, but it is not okay to hit him. Hands are not for hitting.”
3. Avoid punishments. Research supports that positive discipline and behavior management are more effective than corporal punishment.
4. Model appropriate behaviors yourself. Children with special needs will not understand, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Children will imitate what they observe in their environments. Pay attention to when and how you raise your voice or when you demonstrate listening skills for your child.
5. Give countdowns. It can be hard to suddenly stop a fun activity. Give warnings like, “5 more minutes before it’s time to clean up…2 more minutes…10 more seconds…” For some children with special needs, a visual or auditory aid may be more useful.  For example, “You can play until the timer goes off.” or, “When the red is gone from the clock, we’ll be all done with bath time.”
6. If you’re having trouble, give choices. If you tell your child to do something, he must complete the requested action, however, you can give him choices on how he completes the activity. If it is time to clean up and put on pajamas, he can chose where the trains can sleep for the night, whether he hops like a bunny or craws like a bear down the hall, and which pajamas he wants to wear to bed. This is a great strategy for giving some control back to the child without backing down.
7. Consequences should be related to the behavior. Timeouts, while great for calming down, may not be effective to decrease the behavior if the child does not understand that the consequence is related to the behavior. If your child throws a toy, he must stop his activity and go retrieve the toy (with your help if necessary). If he refuses to complete an activity, he cannot complete any other activity until the original request is completed (with your help if necessary).
8. Consistency, consistency, consistency. For many children with special needs, learning new things can be a slower, more difficult process. Remember…if you give a command, it must be followed through, with or without help from you. Having consistent expectations across environments and across caregivers is critical to ensuring effectiveness of the discipline on the behavior.
Some defiant behaviors and limit testing is a normal part of development for all children. It is a way of learning more about their roles and a way of exerting independence. It can be embarrassing and hard to deal with public meltdowns and screaming unhappy children, but remember, ALL parents have been there.

Click here to view our Applied Behavior Analysis Infographic.  To read more about rewarding your child for good behavior, click here.

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