Disability Doesn’t Excuse Behavioural Problems
By Jo Chopra
Shilpi is an absolutely impossible child. If she doesn’t like the food she is served, she hurls it against the wall. Bath time is a daily screaming match, and no one is allowed to brush her teeth. To avoid tantrums while shopping, her parents buy her whatever she demands. In fact, the entire family dances around her behavioural problems.
Shilpi’s family attributes all her bad behaviour to her Down Syndrome. Poor thing, her grandfather says, she can’t understand.
I say: A brat is a brat, with or without special needs.
Children with disabilities are children first. They can be funny, naughty, entertaining and infuriating — often in the space of ten minutes. Like other children, they will test their boundaries and work the system like any seasoned politician.
One mistake often made by families with special needs kids is treating all misbehavior as part and parcel of the disability. The almost inevitable result is a spoiled brat like Shilpi.
Acceptable behaviour is learned. Often, for a child with a language or communication difficulty, the difficulty lies not in their ability to grasp appropriate from inappropriate, but in their struggle to understand the instructions that communicate what behaviour is expected. To prevent behavioural problems, often the first step is learning to be extra clear and super consistent.
Easier said than done, I know. But most kids will act up when they are confused about what they are supposed to do. Kids with disabilities are even more likely to do so. A parent can prevent many behavioural problems by confirming that the child understands what is expected or requested.
Tips for Addressing Behavioural Problems
- Break down instructions and be specific (make them step-by-step or simplified, e.g., “Don’t pull the dog’s tail; pat him gently on the head.”)
- Confirm the child has understood (e.g., ask her to repeat what you’ve said or point to the object you are discussing)
- Allow extra time for your child to process instructions, formulate ideas, and start a task
- Allow extra time for your child to perform a task she doesn’t want to do (like putting her toys away) or tackle something new (like putting on his own shoes)
- Use visual cues (e.g., pictures, gestures, facial expressions, diagrams)
- Relate new learning to the child’s previous knowledge and experience (e.g., “Remember that day when we got caught in the rain and your books were ruined? That’s why we want to keep them in your book bag.”)
- Demonstrate (provide examples)
If the child is still having behavioural problems, try making an ABC Chart to help you understand the reason and figure out your best response. In an ABC chart, you: log the time of the challenging behaviour, identify Antecedents (what came before the behaviour), describe the Behaviour, and record the Consequence of the behaviour (what happened because of it).
By recording everything, you’ll begin to see patterns, triggers and unhelpful responses, which you can use to better prevent and address the misbehaviour. For example, you’ll probably notice that a lot of tantrums occur when a child is hungry or sleepy. Making sure your child has had a nutritious snack before you ask him to sit quietly may nip that meltdown before it starts. Or, you may notice you inadvertently reward bad behaviour by giving into her demands after a tantrum.
Often, behavioural problems are a way for the child to communicate his feelings when he doesn’t have the language to do so. It may also be the result of a sensory difficulty, like the child who freaks out every time you try to make him wear a particular sweater or eat a particular food.
Other helpful tips to remember include:
- If your child has difficulty answering a question, give a choice of answers (e.g., “Is it X or Y?”)
- If your child doesn’t use spoken words, encourage him to point to the picture or object he wants
- Model and extend what your child says. He says: “I wa bikkie.” You say: “Oh, you’d like to eat a biscuit! Do you want a chocolate or a plain one?”
- Keep reminding the child about rules and expectations (pictures help)
- Make turn-taking very clear (“It’s Lakshmi’s turn to ride the cycle now. Your turn is when the bell rings. Now it’s your turn! It will be Laksmi’s turn again when the bell rings.”)
- Use Social Stories to teach acceptable behaviour. Many children with autism (and often typically developing children, too) simply don’t understand what is expected of them
- Be clear (to yourself and your child) about what you are praising: Not “Good boy,” but “Good sitting,” or “Nice manners.”
Read more about bad behaviour on The Swaddle
If things go wrong:
- Tell your child what she has done and communicate what she is expected to do (e.g., “You grabbed the toy away from Meenu. You have to wait till it’s your turn. That will be when the timer goes off.”)
- Focus on what you want to see more of. Notice and pay attention to your child when he is behaving, not only when he’s misbehaving.
- Show rewards visually—make a sticker chart with good behaviour rewarded with stars and other fun visuals. Ten stars could equal a treat.
And finally, the ultimate rule: Don’t set your child up.
So often, we blame children for behavioural problems we have created. I was at a restaurant a few weeks ago near a group of young couples. There was only one child, about 3 years old. His parents noticed him only to scold him for his totally normal-for-a-three-year-old behaviour. It was 10 pm, he hadn’t had dinner, he was bored and it was way past his bedtime. Any one of these factors could have caused difficulties – all four were a recipe for a disaster. When it came (the poor kid yanked at the tablecloth; luckily only one glass was broken), it was definitely not his fault.
With observation, patience and dedication, parents can help kids become active and well-behaved members of the family. Children with disability have enough to contend with in making their way in the world. Let’s make sure they go out there with winning personalities and pleasing manners.