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How to Handle Behaviors with Your Child with Special Needs

Some children with special needs may not have the cognitive or verbal skills to communicate with parents or caretakers when they’re unhappy with a situation. Instead, negative behaviors such as hitting, kicking, spitting, tantrums or meltdowns become a form of communication leading to frustration for both of parents and children.

“Kids learn through consistency and routine,” commented Tina Overturf, Senior Manager of Summit DD’s Children’s Services department. “Staying consistent is both an organizational tool for parents and caretakers and comforting to children.”

Just as important as consistency and routine is understanding and working within the confines of the child’s developmental level.

Overturf suggests first identifying a routine that is both possible for parents to maintain and for kids to understand. When children know what is coming, there is less chance for them to become upset at not getting what they want. And for parents and caretakers, routine ensures that the day stays consistent and that there is play time or other fun activities built into each day.

Using tools like picture flash cards or apps can help ease through transitions like a switch from cleaning up after play time to meal time. Children can look to the visual cues to see what has already happened and what to expect next. This helps a child identify where the rewards are located within the day.

This tool is particularly suited for children with ADHD or those who can become overwhelmed with too many verbal prompts or steps at once.

Likewise, setting and using a timer will help kids understand that one activity is ending and another is beginning.

And during tantrums small details like maintaining eye contact and being on the same level as the child helps immeasurably in turning the situation around sooner.

Overturf also suggests parents and caretakers model and encourage positive behaviors often such as sharing and turn taking. “When playing with a parent or grandparent, it is easy to get what they want. But placed in social situations where sharing and taking turns is required, the child will have no idea how to adapt if they haven’t already practiced at home and have come to understand that a block isn’t being taken away forever, but for a period of time for someone else to play with it.”

Even with consistent routines and positive behavior modeling, there will be relapses and breakdowns in communication. “It’s part of the growing process,” comments Overturf. “You can’t get discouraged at occasional set backs in progress.”

When that time comes, it’s important to revisit the schedule and tools you are using. And it might also be time to revisit the child’s capabilities.

Sometimes negative behaviors are born from not allowing the child to have decisions in the day.

“We all enjoy a certain amount of independence,” suggests Overturf. “If you are making all the decisions of what happens throughout the day for your child, they can become frustrated that they aren’t part of the process. And truly, our job as parents and caretakers is both to meet the child’s needs in love and support but also to encourage growth and independence.”

Again, picture flashcards are often enormously helpful in helping a child communicate as to what their wishes are and allows them buy in to the daily process.

How Summit DD can help you conquer negative behaviors with your child

If you suspect your child’s behavior is tied to a disability, we encourage you to take the free Ages and Stages Questionnaire, 3rd edition, or ASQ-3.

A Social and Emotional Screening, ASQ: SE is also valuable in helping parents determine if there is a potential delay in your child’s emotional or social development. We encourage you to make an appointment with your pediatrician or contact us for help in navigating assistance or support.

If your child is three years or younger, we will get you in touch with an Ohio Early Intervention Service Coordinator. If your child is older than three years old, we can help you discuss concerns and options with your school district.

Take the ASQ-3 now

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