Discipline in the world of special needs

I once heard that discipline for children, in essence. is the fear of removal of love!! Quite a scary thought. Discipline is a complex matter in all families, let alone families with children who have difficulties. No one is an expert when it comes to discipline, even the so-called experts that know all the “rules” and what to do, also get it wrong. I am no discipline expert but for me the important thing about discipline is recognising when I am getting it wrong and changing what I am doing. I believe a negative behaviour or pattern can be changed – it just may take longer than expected and consistency is key.

I have included much information from the “experts” in this post and have tried to divide the content into sections.

Structuring discipline tenets is a bit like building a house:

The Foundation – What is Discipline?

  • Discipline is not punishment.
  • Discipline is supposed to teach children how to act.
  • It should make sense to a child.
  • It should give a child the chance to make mistakes and correct their mistakes, take action and responsibility.
  • It is one of the many tools in a parent’s armada to give children the ability to solve future problems.
  • It is different from punishment, which is punitive and does not teach children how to behave and which usually makes a child feel that they are bad. Punishment is mostly used to gain some kind of control or in a power-play situation.

The Structure – Some Discipline Basics

In order for discipline to be effective there needs to be a structure in place; these are the rules and boundaries. Without rules and boundaries in place a child will not know what is expected of them.

In all homes some rules are tacit and other explicit. In some homes, especially where there is a child with difficulties, these tacit rules may not always be apparent and therefore these rules may need to be explained and talked about.

It is fundamental that parents are unified in the rules otherwise children will play parents off against each other, making discipline impossible.

The Walls – Discipline Techniques

  • Discipline techniques are essentially the consequences of behaviour.
    We all know about the word consequences and many of us may have had the experience our own parents, laughing at our new age parenting approach. but consequences are all about teaching a child cause and effect; every action has a reaction.
  • There are positive consequences – these encourage the repetition of a sought after behaviour. For example: The first time a baby walks and the parent claps – this encourages the behaviour again.
  • There are negative consequences – this is used in times of discouraging a negative behaviour. Negative consequences should be time sensitive and make sense. These are often involve a time-out or the removal of something.
  • There are logical consequences – best described by the new age adage “the consequence should fit the crime.” For example if a child refuses to eat their supper, the logical consequence may be to remove the privilege of a treat, not their television time
  • Lastly there are natural consequences – this is to help teach children to make safe choices. This would entail not intervening when a child does something so they can learn the lesson of their behaviour. For example if a child does not want to wear their shin pads when playing soccer, they may get mildly hurt and will learn the consequences of not wearing the pads. Natural consequences are not appropriate for small children who do not understand the rules of cause and effect and even for some children with difficulties. Make sure these lessons are safe, for example do not let your child go play cricket, without wearing a box – rather have the fight.

The Roof – The More Complex Details

With discipline one is trying to create positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement motivates behaviour and is done through positive consequences already spoken about. It is important to make children feel good through positive reinforcement. This does not always have to be done by giving them treats, or buying them things. Making children feel special can also be achieved through; attention, praise and spending quality time together. Yet, not all-positive behaviour needs to be rewarded, as this could lead to other issues. But it is important for a child to know their good behaviour is seen, noticed, approved of, and praised.

Unfortunately positive behaviour often goes unnoticed and this can lead to negative attention seeking behaviour which is often reinforced. As parents it is so easy to reinforce negative behaviours – this is negative reinforcement. For example; nagging a picky eater, spending hours of time with them at supper, reinforces the behaviour. Negative reinforcement often comes from a good place but as parents we should rather try ignore this behaviour. This can be hard as parents want to empower their children and often the negative behaviour is given attention because of our worry or concern for our children. Fortunately as soon as a parent becomes aware of reinforcing negative behaviour and the fact they are promoting the behaviour, it can be changed.

Lastly, a consequence plan in any home should be balanced. Practising all types of consequences leads to a balanced discipline approach and balanced children.

The finishing touches– How to give consequences

  • Try not yell! – Be calm before handing out consequences. This is sometimes easier said than done.
  • Consequences should be immediate.
  • Consequences should be age, context, situation and personality appropriate. Different children in the same family may need different rules. For example my middle son has very strict rules and time limits when it comes to screen time as he often watches too much tv or plays too long on the computer. I am less strict on my other two as I know if they have too much on one day, for them it is normally a once off.
  • Some children need a warning so as to remind them of the rule.
  • Don’t make idle threats or consequences you cannot stick to. For example if your child pushes someone in the pool on holiday, don’t say if I see you do that again you will not swim for the rest of the holiday.
  • Choose your battles. This makes parenting and disciplining less exhausting.
  • The golden rule – be consistent. No is no! A personal strategy I use sometimes if I am not yet sure but learning towards no, is I ask my children to give me some time to think about the request.
  • Do not only address negative behaviours some of the time. If it is a behaviour you have chosen to address then you need to be consistent otherwise children will take chances.
  • It is important for children to also understand different families have different rules and so does school. My kids often ask why other children can drink fizzy coldrinks – I let them know that that family’s rules are different to ours.
  • Once again make sure you as parents are unified in your discipline plan.

In conclusion – what have we built?

If we look at the opening statement, that discipline for children in essence is the fear of removal of love, the basics of discipline discussed here is not scary or punitive or unloving. If discipline is about teaching a set of behaviours to make children more functional then it can in fact make a child feel loved.

What I think is hard for many parents with children that have difficulties is often there are many behaviours that need to be addressed. By picking the top 3 and first dealing with these, the task is less overwhelming for all and often the other behaviours start improving as a result of a modelling or positive carry-over.

For some children, their behaviours are a symptom or manifestation of their condition. With this comes a certain amount of guilt perhaps in addressing the behaviour. In this case and based on my own personal experience, I do still think the behaviour can be addressed and should be.

It is unfair for a child to feel so different and then also not know how to behave or how to control their behaviour. I think the techniques above can still be used. In such situations though, family rules may need to be modified, as well as a parent’s or family’s expectation. It also may take longer to achieve the desired behaviour.

Our son used to battle to sit and eat. We had to implement many strategies at home like some ABA principles and visual schedules. We had to modify our rules and started off expecting him to sit for only10 minutes and slowly build up to a full meal time We have had to change our expectations and dinners out occur very seldom and only if we have pre-ordered.

Lastly I think it gets confusing what is normal and what is manipulative. It is challenging to know yet encouraging knowing that our children can be manipulative. Challenging, as it is a hard thing to deal with manipulative behaviour and, encouraging because is shows cognitive strengths. Manipulative behaviours are often negatively reinforced by parents, but remember once you recognise this – it can be changed.

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