Discipline is an important teaching strategy for every child. They learn boundaries, security, love and guidance along with respect and increased self-esteem if the discipline system used is concise, consistent, reasonable and realistic. Now, let's discuss discipline for children with special needs.
Although it may sound scary, in reality, the basics for effective discipline are the same across the board for all children: clear expectations, consistency, a reward system, re-directing, ignoring some behaviors, and dealing with more severe behaviors. The implementation and the length of time required to ensure the understanding of why behaviors will result in specific actions for children with learning disabilities becomes the primary focus. Actions and consequences are not so evident, so patience, consistency – (there's that word …. again!) -And a good plan of action are important.
That word – consistency – is the key that unlocks that 'actions equal consequences' equation. Everyone that works with the child should understand what behaviors should be rewarded, which ones need redirected or ignored, and how negative actions will be addressed. Remembering that discipline is a teaching technique, state the ACTION that is not acceptable . Known as a Stated Demand (SD) or Stated Direction, as I prefer. The statement of "NO throwing sand!" is far more clear than, "Don't do that!". State the point – firmly. Never be afraid to let the child know you mean business.
Most children prefer to please those around them – so if there is any indication of relenting in the sand throwing – reward the "stopping" of the negative behavior immediately. Rewarding, known as a positive re-enforcer, should be given immediately for following an SD. "GREAT JOB not throwing sand! So proud !!!!" Showing exaggerated happiness conveys the consequences of the positive choice. Re-enforcing positive choices and acceptable behavior with positive, energetic feedback is essential in building trust, respect, self-esteem and enthusiasm. Rewards can be anything from high-fives, to ten-minute game or computer time, or favorite treats (1 M&M will usually suffice, so leave the bag in the kitchen!) Keep in the mind the bigger the accomplishment – the more valued and positive the reward should be. Your child's favorite pastimes, toys or games are great motivators and rewarding tools. Use them!
Re-directing can be used when a child begins to exhibit a negative behavior, but can be diverted into a positive action. An example of this might be at bath time. A child may not want to get in the bath tub and start to act out, but by putting colored shaving cream on the side of the tub (or anything positive that changes the focus from bath (undesired) to play (desired) activity is re -directing. Again – rewarding is critical.
Ignoring certain behaviors can be a very effective tool, especially if the behavior is demanding in nature. Tantrums are excellent examples. Depending on the age, a very firm SD of "Fits are NOT ok!" and walking away, then re-affirming the statement within 2-3 minute increments can be effective. However, as a side note: tantrumming is often an indication of inconsistent discipline. Be consistent and stand firm. Backing down only re-enforces the negative behavior, and it's the positive choices that should be rewarded. NEVER reward with the initial demand – it is counterproductive. Re-direction and rewarding will definitely be deserved, by both child and parent, for successfully moving through this tough behavior challenge!
And finally, silent sittings – similar to time-outs, can be effective if used sparingly. Consistent refusal to follow SD's for more aggressive behaviors may require time away so that interaction with others is halted. Make sure that the child is given a clear SD of why they must sit quietly for X amount of minutes. "NO HITTING" coupled with silent alone time should establish an understanding that hitting will result in total isolation for 1-10 minutes. Always use a timer, so that the child knows when the discipline is over, and the incremented time used will depend upon the level of understanding of the child. A good rule of thumb is to never exceed the age of the child intellectually. What three year old will remember why they are sitting in a silent seat after 10 minutes? Again, successful completion requires a reward!
The ability to effectively and concisely give SD's that increase a child's understanding of what is or is not allowed, providing instant feedback through consequences and rewards, establishing workable re-directing ideas and using silent sittings only for extreme cases, should help you create boundaries where your child understands what is expected of them at all times. A happy, contented and less frustrated child should emerge. As a parent or caregiver, learning and teaching becomes more rewarding for both of you, because less time is spent in the battle of wills.
* Illness, exhaustion, weather and temperature changes, stress, anxiety, medicine, general health and other outside factors can affect moods and behaviors. It is vital that all elements that might trigger or agitate aggressive behavior be eliminated.
** The above disciplinary methods described are loosely translated ideas that are often used within the Applied Behavioral Analysis field, recommended by many counselors, consultants and psychologist for autistic children. For more thorough information regarding the practices and procedures of ABA, visit your local library.