When Behavior Becomes an Issue: Tips for Parents with Kids with Special Needs Can Use

Consistency and contingency.

These two words are crucial to remember for parents struggling to correct behavioral problems with children whose special developmental needs create unacceptable disobedience issues. Reacting with short-term punishment should come secondary to teaching new coping skills, therapists say.

“Consequences do not teach the child, therefore I don’t feel punish- ment is usually effective,” says Jessi- ca Schultz, a behavior specialist with Easterseals DuPage and Fox Valley. “I encourage parents to think about what they need to teach. Behavior problems are often the result of a missing skill or skills.”

Parents also need to learn new skills, specifically by refocusing their “lens of understanding” about their child’s frustrations that often lead to social outbursts or repeated misbehavior in the home. “Although this takes time, learning a skill that can lead to more effective behavioral responses is worth it in the long run,” Schultz says.

Redirection plays a key role in the daily balance between rewards and consequences, according to Carrie Krawiec, a licensed marriage and family therapist who received her training at Northwestern University. The mom of two young children is trained in a behavior management model called Parent Management Training – Oregon, or PMTO.

“Studies show that serious consequences do not yield the behavioral results that parents believe will come about,” she says. “Instead, focus on small rewards for small adaptive behaviors that can build on larger rewards. Many kids with special needs internalize a shout but not the words behind the shout, so it puts them on edge before any new skill can be learned. Science supports this.”

Here’s how redirection works: Rather than repeatedly scream to an obviously hyper child, “Stop jumping on your bed!,” give him or her a bouncy ball to burn off that energy. Also, be specific, not vague, with your directions: “Pick up these markers from the floor and put them in the drawer, please.” Amplify your message without becoming a broken record that a child stops hearing.

“If a parent is dysregulated, their child will certainly learn this inappropriate behavior,” says Krawiec, whose PMTO techniques are especially useful in dealing with kids who have special needs. “Modeling is so important, especially for special needs children. They often don’t understand the concept of, ‘do as I say, not as I do.’”

Parents also should stay in close proximity to a child when discipline is used, rather than shouting from another room. Use eye contact and a firm yet gentle touch. A parental reward for, say, brushing teeth can be as simple as a beaming smile. A consequence for a clenched fist can be as simple as firmly shaking out a child’s hand.

“Use ‘to do’ language, as opposed to telling the child what not to do,” Krawiec says.

New coping skills could include turning negative responses into positive approaches, and showing a child how to identify and express his or her feelings through verbal language, not physical aggression. The key is to teach these new skills when a child is calm, not agitated, and throughout the day, not only after an outburst.

Schultz guides clients through the process of learning – and then teaching to their child – relaxation strategies such as deep breathing, taking a break, or simply walking away. This helps a child learn how to self-regulate and self-soothe. With practice, over time, learning these skills can allow a child to capably express emotions and to calm down without repeated confrontations, she says.

The role COVID is playing on behavior

Experts agree there are times when a parent needs a “timeout” from a particular situation as much as their child needs one. Step back, take a breath (or four), and determine the smartest way to redirect a child toward more appropriate actions.

“Emotions can get heightened and become overwhelming for children who are experiencing behavioral issues,” says Chelsea Sudderth, a therapist who works with parents through her firm, Integrative Mind Therapy. “Many of the parents I’m working with these days are experiencing even more heightened emotions due to COVID and related social problems.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has lingered much longer than many parents figured or feared. Its social restrictions have especially jolted the lives of families with children with special needs. School routines have been stopped or radically changed. Social services have been delayed or curbed. Worse yet, daily schedules that were built upon years of rehearsed routines have been dramatically altered.

“I would look at this as an opportunity to teach a better way to ex- press frustration through improved communication,” Schultz says.

Arianna Esposito, director of lifespan services and supports for Autism Speaks, suggests seeking professional support at this point in the pandemic. Social restrictions have been lifted enough to resume visitations with families, or appointments with therapists in your community.

“They often can help by working in collaboration with you on effective on effective“ strategies,” she says. “Successful tactics will vary from child to child. It’s more important to focus on what the needs of the child are versus comparing to other children.”

Kelli Elmokadem, a mom of four whose 19-year-old son, Muhammad, was born with Down syndrome, purposely attempted to discipline him the same as she did her three daughters. “If you set the bar too low, you’ll never want them to achieve anything beyond your lowest expectations,” Elmokadem says.

As a boy, Muhammad would sometimes use his Down syndrome as a convenient crutch to misbehave, get out of having to do some- thing, or an excuse for a lackluster effort. His mother wouldn’t allow it. As a younger parent, she wasn’t aware she was using “redirection” to address her son’s behavioral problems.

“I focused his attention on things he did well, or more appropriate behavior,” she says.

Schultz says, “If we look at behavior from a missing skill lens, then teaching the skill would be more beneficial than punishment or consequences. We want to teach the behavior we want to see.”

She educates parents about “perspective” talking skills, so they can in turn educate their child. For instance, learning that other people have thoughts and feelings that might be different from that of the child. Timing matters as well, de- pending on a child’s developmental age versus actual age. “It’s import- ant to understand that behavioral change takes time and consistency,” Schultz says.

“And also to have contingency plans,” Krawiec adds.


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This article was featured in Chicago Parent’s March/April 2021 magazine

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