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Written by: Lakshmi Mahadevan, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Extension Specialist – Special Populations, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

How can parents or guardians best manage the behavior of their child with special needs?

I believe it is important to start with the premise that the home or outside environment can be treated as a classroom and our children need to be “taught” good behavior using a lesson plan.

(1). Start with establishing three to five simple rules. These rules must be easy to state, composed of few words and rote memorized.

  • Set up regular schedules, routines, and follow them consistently.
  • Consider posting a picture schedule. Take photos of different daily activities and post the photos (follow order of a time schedule) on the appropriate room (child’s bedroom, kitchen etc.) wall.
  • Encourage your child to check the pictures so they will know what comes next.
  • Use audible timers to facilitate transition

(2). Teach your child your behavior expectations based on the rules. Deliberately incorporate scenarios where your child can practice obeying the rules – for e.g. while putting toys away, or nighttime and morning routines. Remember – telling is not teaching and being told is not the same as being taught. Additionally, use rationales for children as to why rules are important.

  • Use examples – deliberately under your direction, have your child demonstrate the desirable behavior under a specific rule.
  • Demonstrate non-examples – using role-play demonstrate for your child what an undesirable behavior looks like (for e.g. you as your child throwing toys on the floor, having a temper tantrum etc.)
  • To specifically reinforce your behavior lesson and the child’s learning, demonstrate examples and non-examples during “calm” time.

(3). Be sure and praise your child when they perform the expected behaviors. This will increase the child’s likelihood of repeating desired behaviors. Have a bunch of planned acknowledgments at your disposal. Reinforcers, such as “good job,” are helpful, but praise can be especially effective when it is task-specific (“Really good job – putting all your toys away. Thank you”).

(4). Consider the function of your child’s problem behaviors when determining how to respond. Why is your child misbehaving? Is it for your attention? Are they tired? Are they bored? Analyzing the function will help you identify patterns and determine predictable situations in which your child is likely to misbehave, (for e.g. in a crowded room, just before nap or snack-time, loud noises on television etc.)

(5). To prevent disruptive behaviors, use pre-corrections. The pre-correction is delivered shortly before your child enters the predictable situation in which you have previously determined problem behavior is likely to occur (‘We are about to go into the playground, now remember – don’t run ahead, walk beside me so we can cross the parking lot safely”).

(6). When problem behaviors do occur use,

  • redirection to interrupt undesirable behaviors. A redirection is a statement made right after a problem behavior that entails directing the child’s attention or behavior to another situation (“See how I am putting the dishes in the dishwasher? That is how I would like you put your toys in the toy chest”).
  • correction – verbal response to misbehavior that (a) references the rule with the rationale, (b) specifies what your child should have done instead. Remember you need to “re-teach” the desired behavior (use examples and non-examples if needed) (“ok let’s not play with our toys – I need you to come here and sit down If you are quiet and settle down – we can eat our dinner [rationale]”).

(7). Finally consider pre-planning for behavior management at home by downloading and using our attached “lesson” plan. Use the template for planning rules, rationales, examples, non-examples, acknowledgments, pre-corrections and corrections.

(8). To better determine the “function” of your child’s behavior, download and use the “ABC Analysis Chart.”

Additional credits – Hagan-Burke, Shana, Ph.D.; Saenz, A., Ph.D.; Bardenhagen, R., M.S.