Disciplining a Special Needs Child.

Several years ago, I was in Juvenile Court with a teen client. I was her IEP advocate, but on this day I was there for moral support. The grandmother had asked me to speak to the judge about her educational programming (or lack thereof, as it was). This teen had been dealt life’s worst. Her parents were in and out of jail and rehab. They let their friends abuse and molest her. The worst of the worst, this girl lived it. And, like her parents, she made lots of bad choices.

It was like a clichĂ© out of a movie. The 60-something, white-haired, male judge looked at this young, black female, wagged his finger and said, “Young lady, you need to make better choices.”

When it was my turn to speak, I said, “Sir, with all due respect, you asked her to make better choices. That is like asking me to go build a house right now. I do not have the resources nor the tools in my tool kit to go build a house. She does not have the tools and resources to make better choices.”

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And I meant it. There is a contingency of people out there who think that advocates like me want our kids to just “get away with everything.” But when you really look closely at the situation, you can see that what I said was truth.

how to discipline a special needs child

Discipline, Schools, Prisons.

You’ve heard of the school to prison pipeline, right? I can tell you it is alive and well, all over the country. And there are extra seats reserved for kids with disabilities! Despite making up only about 20% of the population, kids with IEPs make up about 75% of the kids who are arrested or suspended from school.

Want our kids to get away with everything? Nothing could be farther from the truth. Most parents like me are painfully aware of our own mortality. I am hyper-aware that I will not be around forever. That I will not be here to shield my child when he makes bad choices, because he does not have the skill set to make the right choices. And as an adult who is developmentally delayed, society will be less patient with him. Our society is not kind to grown men who do not act like grown men.

But how do we do this? How do we hold children accountable for their behaviors when they have a disability? How do we find that balance, between offering supports yet not making excuses?

I remember six years ago, a mom from the “best” school district in Pennsylvania called me. Her kindergartner was suspended from school and the school was threatening to call police. Kin-der-gar-ten. It is no longer shocking for me to hear about 5 or 7-year-olds being arrested or at least handcuffed.

We have to take behaviors seriously, as the schools are fed up and don’t have the resources and they are giving up on our kids. Society is giving up on them, we can’t give up on them. Desirable behaviors must be taught early and consistently.

Disciplining a Disabled Child

  1. Remember to think “can’t” before “won’t“. Our kids take longer to learn everything. They may not learn things inherently from watching others. They have to be direct taught. They often do not have the skills to self-evaluate and self-correct, they have to be taught. So in those stressful moments, allow this to come to your mind–that you are doing this for the long term. And it may take a long time for your child to learn this.
  2. Identify and document their complete skills set. You might need professional help for this, but your child needs a complete functional assessment. It would be cruel for me to punish Kevin for spilling food while he eats. His motor planning and OT skills are such that he still cannot eat without making some mess. If the skill is beyond your child’s skill set, you teach the skill, not punish them for not having the skill.
  3. Everyone must be on same page with skills. My husband and I disagree with some of Kevin’s skill sets. But in order for consistency, we must agree on what he is going to be held accountable for. Any behaviorist will tell you, you must be consistent. This goes for your school team too. The IEP team must agree upon what skills the child possesses. Remember, they may not be able to apply all skills across all environments, so that must be noted. If your child has some skill discrepancies, then you should develop a plan so that they emerge in all environments. Of course our end goal is desirable behaviors across all environments!
  4. Support your child’s team if they are following the agreed upon plan. Our kids are able to use certain discipline procedures built into IDEA. But, if your child has a behavior plan and IEP that is being implemented and is being held accountable for behaviors within their skill set….then they need to be held accountable. Look, I know many of you are rolling your eyes at the thought of your child’s IEP being implemented consistently…but c’mon, it is implemented, at least some of the time. While I’ll be the first to admit there is room for improvement, not every IEP is completely ignored all day, every day. Communicate with your team. Let them know that you want to work with them, that you want your child to learn personal responsibility…but without a consistently implemented IEP, it’s very difficult to do that. Anyway, my main point is….the whole Manifestation Determination process is not meant to be a “get out of jail free” card. And when it is used as such, it’s not helping anyone.
  5. Find what motivates your child. We all have behaviors that we change with positive reinforcement. When behavior change starts to be problematic is not allowing a child autonomy in decision making, ignoring their interoception, or expecting a skill set they do not have.
  6. Don’t Over Think It! Start small and start simple.
  7. Remember that not everything they do is related to their disability. We forget this sometimes. Not every undesirable behavior that our kids do stems from their disability. Sometimes it is age appropriate, but undesirable behavior. Skills have to be learned by all kids, not just those with disabilities. What we have to extract out is if our child will be or should be expected to take longer to master this skill, and what supports they will need in mastery.

Final Thoughts

There are a lot of great books out there. Positive parenting, no yelling parenting, optimistic parenting, and many of the Ross Greene books. Take time to really understand your child. This might seem condescending advice, but I have worked with many families who really did not grasp some of the behaviors associated with the lack of a skill set.

It’s important to really know what is going on inside your child’s head, because it often is very different from ours. Be a good role model to your kids and talk about your own mistakes, even if they do not learn without direct teaching. We all make bad choices and mistakes, it’s important that we learn from them.

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