Special Needs and Behavior: When the Consequences Aren’t Working

Photo Courtesy mdanys/flickr

Photo Courtesy mdanys/flickr

It’s a fact of life: kids will test you to see how much they can get away with.

It’s natural for them to test limits; every kid does it. As a parent, therapist, teacher, or loved one, you have to set firm boundaries with kids if you don’t want to end up getting run over. And they will run you over….if you let them.

Sometimes I talk to parents who have set boundaries and put consequences in place for their children, but it’s not working, and they don’t understand why. Often the boundaries and consequences they’ve established worked for another child or are similar to the boundaries/consequences they had when they were growing up. It makes sense that it would work again. It’s not that the parent isn’t doing the right things, it’s that it is not the right thing for this particular kid.

Boundaries and consequences are especially difficult for some special needs children.

Often, these sweet, sweet children may not fully comprehend what is said to them. If you are wondering if your consequence is working, look at the child’s reaction to the consequence: Is the child laughing and smiling? Is the child immediately doing the behavior again? Then you may have inadvertently given him exactly what he wanted. It’s frustrating and it can get complicated.

Here’s an example from my own experience as a therapist:

One of my former patients really liked deep pressure. He would throw things across the room; my approach was to guide him over to the item, holding his shoulders, to get him to pick up the item he threw. Instead of correcting his behavior, he smiled, laughed, and threw the object across the room again. Without realizing it, I was reinforcing the behavior I was trying to stop, because he actually liked the pressure on his shoulders.

When I saw his reaction to my consequence, I knew I had to change what I was doing – otherwise he would keep throwing items across the room for the rest of the session. He continued to throw the item across the room for a while to see if I would “reward” him by guiding him over to the item to pick it up, but eventually he figured out that it no longer worked. It also helped that I gave him what he was seeking (the deep pressure) when he did something I approved of like participating in the activity, sitting and working with me, or some other positive behavior I wanted to reinforce.

Another common scenario is when kids yell – often to get your attention. If a kid is yelling to get your attention and you immediately get down on their level and talk to them about it, they don’t care if your words are nice words or words that are designed to reprimand, because they got what they wanted – your attention – and you reinforced the behavior. In situations like these, what do you do?

Figure out if your response is reinforcing the behavior. If it is, ignore it.

Ignoring a negative behavior  is incredibly difficult, because it goes against the grain. You don’t feel that you should ignore it – you need to correct it! The issue is that if the response isn’t correcting the behavior, then you need to respond differently. When a kid is yelling to get my attention, I do not look at them. I ignore them until they stop yelling. When they are no longer yelling, then they get my attention. In this way, I am reinforcing the positive behavior. I also compliment them on getting my attention in an appropriate way.

Behaviors are hard to work with at times, especially when children become dangerous to others or themselves. If you are at a loss of how to extinguish a negative behavior, talk to your therapist – she will give you strategies to use at home. If the strategies are not working, she might recommend a behavioral therapist, but in most cases, changing the consequence is enough.

Jessie Nelson Willis, M.Ed., CCC-SLP

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