by Chelsea Burgoyne
When a child receives a behavioral diagnosis, there are often therapy programs designed to help that child manage symptoms or make progress in development. Sometimes, however, the results seen in the controlled therapy setting are not the same behaviors seen at home in “real life” settings. Therapy can (and should) be adapted to fit all environments of a child’s life.
When a child is being treated for behavior management, this discrepancy between therapist and parent—or center and home— can be drastic. Oftentimes, parents are left feeling overwhelmed or discouraged that their child is regressing or not making consistent progress.
Every child and diagnosis presents a different set of abilities, behaviors, and struggles, and each child responds uniquely to different techniques. For this reason, it’s not possible to provide a “one size fits all” solution to behavioral management. However, there are some things I have learned through my studies, experiences as a parent, and in my six years of working in alternative schools for children with severe behavioral diagnoses. Many of the parents and children I worked closely with have experienced success with some or all of these techniques, and have also found they help reduce tension in the home for all family members.
As a mother of three children under seven, the oldest having ADHD and a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) diagnosis, I’ve implemented these seven strategies in my own home in order to manage behavioral difficulties, promote cooperative interactions, and reduce our overall level of stress.
1. Set clear boundaries and expectations
This one may seem obvious, and many parents roll their eyes when they hear me say this. However, it’s important to understand that what we may think is a “clear” instruction to us may not translate to a clear expectation for our children.
In the early stages of my son’s diagnosis, I could not understand why it seemed he would do the very thing I asked him not to do, or completely disregard a task he was given. I soon realized he was struggling to understand my expectations, and if my expectation was too vague, he failed to process the request at all. Now, instead of giving broad instructions, such as “get ready for school,” I break it down into specific, concrete tasks for him to accomplish (brush your teeth, make your lunch, put your shoes on), and use visuals to assist him when possible. I replaced phrases like “be nice to your sister” with “keep your hands to yourself and use a respectful voice.”
2. Follow through with appropriate consequences
It’s important at an early age to help children understand that their actions have consequences. This can be especially difficult with a child who has a behavioral diagnosis, or one who has previously dealt with medical needs that have disrupted daily life and typical social interactions during the early years.
Once you’ve set clear expectations, establish clear consequences for not following these rules. I found that using a 3-strike model works well for most behaviors, with the exception of behavior that is dangerous or purposefully injuring others or themselves, which receives a consequence after the first offense.
- 1st warning: Model or explain expected behavior. Tell the child what consequence will happen on the 3rd offense.
- 2nd warning: Model or explain expected behavior. Tell child what consequence will occur if the behavior happens again.
- 3rd offense. Provide the consequence from previous warning and explain to child that the consequence is the result of the undesired behavior that continued.
It may seem repetitive, but this repetition is needed to help children understand acceptable behavior. Once the consequence is finished, I take the opportunity to go over the situation with the child and come up with a plan on what he or she could do differently next time.
3. Do not allow the diagnosis to become an excuse or a crutch
While we know that those with developmental diagnoses may not fully understand socially-appropriate behavior, and that a child with physical limitations may not be able to complete certain tasks unassisted, it’s important not to allow these factors to cause them to be excused from maintaining capable behaviors. Too often, I meet with newly-enrolled students and their parents, only to be given a long list of tasks and behaviors their child isn’t capable of exhibiting. More often than not, within a few weeks, many of my students were doing the very tasks they were told they were incapable of doing.
I, myself, was guilty of doing this with my own children. I would say, “I don’t think he can handle this activity; it requires too much focus,” or, “she can’t be expected to help with this chore; she’s too young.” When I allowed myself to step back and gave them a chance, I was often pleasantly surprised.
It’s okay to let them struggle sometimes. While we should always make sure our children have the necessary adaptations and accommodations they need to be successful, like any other individual, they deserve the opportunity to learn new tasks, and part of this learning process is to struggle sometimes. It is our job to support them and encourage them to try again, not set limitations on their capabilities.
4. Give space
The world is a busy, loud, overwhelming place for many adults on a typical day. For a child, this is even more true. For a child with specialized developmental, behavioral, or medical needs, the world can be downright scary.
Oftentimes, children with ADHD and other behavioral disorders, as well as children on the Autism spectrum, also deal with sensory processing difficulties and poor understanding of boundaries. Now, place this child in an environment that is very much beyond his control, with loud noises, excessive stimuli, people, and expectations for maintaining proper behavior, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Every child is different, but it’s important to provide this child with a safe space away from the chaos. Although we may not realize it, everyday noises can be deafening, colors and lights too bright, smells too strong, temperatures too hot or cold, and people too close. Read your child’s cues and note tantrums and behavioral problems, along with the activities and environments that precede the event. Keep a journal, if necessary, to better understand what triggers your child.
Let your child choose his or her space, if possible, and let him or her decide what needs to be in that space (or take from their cues). Show them that you and other members of your family respect that space and their belongings in it, as well as their time in that space. Provide cues and suggestions to your child when he or she seems overwhelmed, but never force a child to go to this space. It should never be seen as a punishment or unwanted place.
5. Let go of normal (pick your battles)
Many parents I’ve worked with described their expectations for their child in terms of “normal” behavior and development. As parents of children with unique needs and abilities, we know that normal is nothing more than a washer setting. Yet, we still find ourselves comparing and fighting for “normal” on a daily basis.
When you learn to let go of the mundane and accept that your “normal” is different than my “normal” and that normal may not even exist, you can then focus that energy on the important things and the quality of time spent with your child. You may be amazed at the amount of stress you can reduce in both your life and your child’s. Now, instead of fighting over how he is sitting in his chair at the dinner table, I converse about his day and ignore the fact that he is practically standing, with one cheek barely resting on the chair. I’ve learn to let go of mismatched socks and sandwiches that need to be deconstructed before being eaten so that they taste “just right.”
When you have a child who struggles with behavioral difficulties, it can be easy to focus all of your energy on the negative. Unfortunately, your child will also begin to do the same. I had a teacher tell my son he was “just a bad kid” once. For weeks, his behavior worsened and he seemed to give up on our progress at home. I realized her words had a strong impact on him and he began to believe what she had said. Needless to say, she wasn’t involved in his education after this.
Take time throughout the day to praise your children. Be enthusiastic (but still genuine) when they do something without asking or when they display appropriate behaviors. A little praise goes a long way to brighten spirits and strengthen your bond with your child.
When raising a child who is complex, we are often overwhelmed with therapies and resources intended to help our children and educate us. We attend appointments and meetings and fight for their needs to be met and voices to be heard.
You know your child better than anyone else. You care for him or her like no other. It’s not always easy (heck, its rarely easy), but at the end of the day, every step you take towards educating yourself and helping your child develop the skills he or she needs to thrive in this world is a step towards success and happiness.
Sometimes, you just need to hear that you are doing a good job…and you are.