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How to Deal with the Needs of your Special Child

Jun 2, 2008
Listed below are concerns from parents of special needs children:

1. How do special needs children understand cause and effect and also rewards versus punishments? Do they understand the same as other children?

Strangely enough, it doesn't matter! Every living creature has an awareness of reward and punishment at some level. Take as lowly a creature as a cockroach. Roaches hate light and love darkness. Being in light is unpleasant, being in darkness is pleasant. Of course they don't use words like that - they are probably not even "conscious" of liking or not liking. But the result is the same:

If you turn on the lights you will see roaches scrambling towards darkness under a couch or a crack in the wall. They sense the light and know that a feeling of punishment is headed their way. They understand if they head towards darkness they are going towards a reward. This repeated reward makes them head for the darkness right away.

Roaches don't have a memory and can't be instructed like we can. Canines can be instructed because they have a wonderful memory. They know, for example, if they hear the word "stay" they will stay in place in order to receive a treat or reward.

The more you go up on the ladder of life creatures, the higher memory functioning. Improvement of awareness and analytical skills surfaces. When these attributes increase, you need to vary the intensity of the rewards and punishments to have any effect.

How do you know what you can use? Simple. You start with a good guess, and then experiment. You implement a system of rewards and or punishments to modify a behavior (exact details of how to do this are in the book), and see what happens. If the behavior changes, the carry on! If it does not, then one of two things applies:

a) your rewards and punishments systems did not have large enough effct in your child's life or

b) your child could not create a link between the behavior and the reward or punishment. If you wait too long to respond to a behavior then your reward or punishment may have little or no meaning. This is especially true when dealing with younger children.

If your plan doesn't seem to work at all then you need to stop and look at what you are doing. Make improvements and modifications. Try the system another time. Keep changing the system until you find one that works. If you are unable to find a system that works then think about the following:

You have tried all of the tips you can think of and your child's behavior hasn't changed. For example, maybe your child had PDD. You are required to complete a few hours of physical therapy with your child eacy day. However, your child doesn't want to do the physical therapy.

Richard has read the book. He has experimented with just about every reward, punishment, incentive scheme he can think of. He has tried to make the therapy more exciting and fun. But despite all of these efforts, half the time the therapy just does not get done.

So what is one to do? Well you have two options here:

a. You could become all upset and flustered about it. You get mad at yourself for your apparent failure. You feel like you are no service to your child. You want to find the magic trick that will make your child want to do his physical therapy session.

b. He can step back, look at the situation, and take a calmer, more pragmatic approach, accepting that maybe 50% of the time is all he is going to get, and that that is better than the 30% that Tim was doing a year ago.

Is (a.) or (b.) the more productive option?

The problem with (a) is that it produces STRESS. And stress is unhealthy and unproductive. It means you are less effective, more irritable, and less fun. But it doesn't produce any better results!

The reality is that there is, perhaps, nothing on Earth that would motivate Tim to do those exercise 100% of the time. Sorry. But we live in an imperfect world, and maybe the child in the wheelchair really will never walk. We would all wish it were different. But if that is how it is, then that is how it is.

It is critical that you pay attention to your child's specific needs. Strive to define success off of what you are provided with and not an ideal. When you do this, you will ward off stress and the results you want will occur. If things still don't improve would you want to have: a) limited performance and we are all angry? b) limited performance and we are all happy?

Don't try to fight battles you cannot win!
About the Author
Worried about your child's performance in school? Concerned about special educational needs? Read more of Dr. Noel Swanson's helpful articles, and get a FREE gift, at his parenting advice website, and check out his book and free newsletter.
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