Discipline and the Child with Special Needs
Discipline is often thought of in a negative way; a punishment for doing something wrong. However, discipline is so much more than that. Disciplining your disabled children is how they grow, gain character, and learn to follow rules. Parents set expectations as well as consequences when those expectations are broken.
Each child is unique and children with additional needs may require a different form of discipline than other kids sometimes. The expectations and consequences for your child with special needs may look a little different than those for other children in your family.
When setting expectations and consequences for your child with disabilities, you need to understand their challenges and figure out how to best work with those unique challenges.
Discipline for Every Child
Many guidelines for discipline apply to all children, not just those with disabilities.
When dealing with each child, no matter the age, you need to exercise a lot of patience. What the child needs from you is the reassurance of unconditional love, even when they make a mistake.
Remember that your child is likely experiencing high emotions and is stressed out from anticipating your reaction. Take a deep breath and calm yourself first.
Get down on their level and with a soft and quiet voice begin to deal with the issue at hand. If you are angry, it is okay to step away and get your emotions in control before you discipline your child.
Make the expectations simple. One rule about acting respectfully can be used in many situations. “I expect you to act respectfully to adults, so when you yelled at mommy that was not being respectful.” The expectation about being respectful to adults can apply to how they interact with their teachers, therapists, grandma, and other adults. It is much easier than having a list of rules about not arguing with mom, following their teacher’s instructions, or throwing a fit when mom says it’s time for bed.
Be Consistent With Consequences
Try not to make a rule or a consequence out of haste or frustration. Avoid the use of “never” when possible, “Never touch my things again!” yelled after your child took your good pen off your desk, then lost it.
A deep breath and a slight shift of focus can make an expectation and consequence that is realistic.
“The supplies on my desk are mine to use, and it is important that they are always put back. Since you lost one of my things, now you may only use them with permission and when I’m with you.”
This not only sets a clear expectation but also ties in an appropriate consequence to their actions.
Use Positive Reinforcement
Kids respond well to praise. Whenever they do something good, let them know with verbal encouragement. “I loved how well you listened to Mommy while in the grocery store,” “You did an awesome job of staying in control at the doctor’s office today when they drew blood.”
Reward them now and then if they do something the right way, just be careful to not do that too often. We want our children to learn to follow the rules because they want to, not to get something they want.
Let’s be realistic though, as moms, sometimes we really need our children to behave in certain situations. I always get my kids a milk shake after a big or scary doctor appointment. That started as a little reward for me after I had to hold down my oldest son to get blood drawn. I needed that Oreo milkshake just as much as he did.
I may reward myself after a really hard task with an hour of Netflix or going out to eat instead of cooking dinner. It’s okay to occasionally do this for our children as well, just save rewards for the really important things.
Disciplining A Child with Special Needs
Make sure that your expectations for your special needs child are realistic to your family, as well as their development and abilities. Do not expect your kid to learn and follow a long list of rules you have set for them at once.
It is good to move one step at a time, and to break down these rules slowly and present them in a way that they understand. When your kids know and understand what is expected, it is easier for them to meet your expectations.
Developmental Age Expectations
My child with special needs is 18, but developmentally, he is more like an eight year old. The expectations I have for him are most similar to those of an elementary aged child because essentially, that is what he is.
Look at your disabled child’s developmental level, not their age.
This is hard for normally developing siblings to understand. One key is to make sure that you have expectations for each child that are appropriate for them. Help your other children understand that their sibling with special needs does has rules and consequences, but they may look a little different.
Create and Maintain a Routine
A good routine works great for everyone in the family but is essential for many children with special needs. A child with attention deficit disorder (ADHD) may find it hard to concentrate and when they do not have a routine, they can be on edge never knowing what to expect.
A child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may have a meltdown when his routine changes unexpectedly. When we keep a consistent routine for our kids, this helps keep their life in perspective and easier to meet our expectations.
Once Upon A Special Needs Life has additional tips for disciplining autistic children.
Give Your Child Choices
Everyone wants to have control in their life. Our children do as well. When you ask your child to do a certain task, give them options when possible. For instance, you can let them choose between two outfits. For breakfast you can offer their choice of cereal or toast.
Limit the options so that they are not overwhelmed. Two or three choices are enough for their brains to handle.
I can get overwhelmed at the grocery story just looking at all the options for a loaf of bread, seriously, it covers an entire aisle! Just imagine how our kids can feel when given too many items to choose from.
What Motivates Your Child?
We all have different levels and sources of motivation, and what makes you tick may not work for your child.
Time outs are a common consequence for children. For many children with special needs this tool can be used but often needs to be adapted. Putting a child who enjoys being alone in time out won’t be very effective.
I have found that time away has worked better than time out. Time away can be from a situation, or time away from something that they love.
My son loves his iPad, maybe even obsessed with it. He has learned that certain behaviors will cause his iPad to be taken away for a few hours or a few days, depending on what he did to deserve that consequence.
Give Them a Voice
Give a voice to your child’s behavior. I often find myself with a gut reaction of assigning consequences to my son when he refuses to comply to a request and then exhibits inappropriate behavior.
Our kids with special needs have a hard time understanding, let alone expressing what is wrong and what they are feeling. This frustration can often cause them to act out.
When you see inappropriate behavior or an inappropriate reaction, describe what you see.
“I see that your hands are clinched up and your voice is very loud right now. It looks like you are upset with something. Let’s take a deep breath and see if we can figure out how to make this situation better.”
Be careful not to make assumptions and tell them what you think is wrong. Instead tell them what you are observing. Think back and see if you can figure out what might have caused the reaction and ask questions. Take your time to calmly talk it through and see if you can figure out a cause.
Not every refusal to follow a rule is because they are choosing to break a rule. Sometimes there is something else that is going on that we can control to help our children be successful.
Avoid a Meltdown
Does your child need extra warning before stopping an activity to switch gears? Mine sure does.
If I suddenly interrupt my son doing a puzzle and say it’s time to get his shoes on and leave the house I can guarantee he’ll have a bad attitude. I’m speaking from experience.
I know that if I prepare him ahead of time for what is coming up, he can make the adjustment and do it without any behavioral issues.
We sometimes forget, or things do pop up and we have no control over and we have to deal with the aftermath.
This morning, I forgot the “warning” that we were going to physical therapy, so he had a rough time with his attitude at therapy.
I did not give him consequences because I knew that part of what caused the poor behavior was my forgetting to give him enough warning.
I apologized for not giving him enough time to finish what he was doing before suddenly asking him to get his shoes on. I also explained to him that he was still in control of his behavior, and I asked him to let me help him turn things around. Was he still grumpy and have a hard time following instructions? Yes, but he showed effort at trying harder when we worked together.
Control the Situation and Change Routines
Sometimes we find things that are a consistent struggle with our children. My son started getting up at the night to watch Netflix on his iPad instead of sleeping. I took his iPad for two days.
After this happened a couple of times, I realized I needed to figure out what was going on. He just couldn’t control the urge to play on his iPad when he needed to be sleeping.
Now his iPad lives in my room every night from bedtime until after breakfast. He didn’t like it at first, but he now has a routine of putting his iPad away before bed and there are no complaints and no temptations.
Monitor Their Medications and Side Effects
Many children with special needs are taking prescription medications. Monitor the effects these medicines may have on their behavior.
Some drugs may trigger hyperactivity, anger, or depression. If you suspect that a medication is triggering negative behavior, consult your child’s doctor to see if there are other options.
Several years ago my son was prescribed a medication that caused him to become extremely angry and and effected his impulse control. It nearly caused us to be in a car accident. I knew that this was not who my child was.
Getting him off that medication and finding another that worked just as well got me my child back.
As we are raising our children, discipline is a fact of life. We can give them a firm foundation by setting appropriate expectations and consequences for them as they are children that will benefit from them their entire life.
Here are more articles about special needs parenting that you might find helpful.
Finding Ways To Get a Break
Should I Send My Special Needs Child To Camp?
Do I Need Respite Care?