Learn Your Special Education Laws, Special Education Rights, and Share IEP Goal Ideas

May 01
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by Doug Goldberg

It is common parenting practice that when a child misbehaves, a consequence is likely to follow.  From natural consequences like cleaning up a mess to discipline like removing privileges, misbehavior and consequences go hand in hand.  However, what happens when the behavior is not in the child’s control?  For parents of children with special needs, it can be confusing to know when and how to consequence which behaviors.  What is in my child’s control?  Is it fair to consequence a behavior that isn’t in my child’s control?  Will it make any difference, anyway? 

What is in my child’s control?

The whole question of whether or not a behavior is under a person’s control is a tricky one.  Being in control of one’s behaviors suggests both ability and a choice in the matter.  However, throw in variables like difficult emotions (anger, shame, frustration, disappointment, anxiety) or physical stress (tiredness, hunger, pain) both skills and choice can go right out the window.  An adult with problem solving skills who typically chooses good coping strategies may curse and shout at some insignificant difficulty.  We may say he could have controlled the behavior.  Yet, under these circumstances, he feels out of control.  Someone who knows a candy bar for breakfast isn’t a good idea and is fully in control of what she puts in her mouth may feel completely out of control when eating the candy bar.  Determining control over a behavior is not straight forward. 

Instead of trying to identify whether or not a behavior is in your child’s control, it can be helpful to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does your child have the necessary skill(s) for the situation?
  • Can your child independently perform the necessary skill(s) or does your child need prompts, reminders, modeling, etc.?
  • Does your child have the ability to stop, think, and plan before acting?
  • What compounding variables (emotions or physical stress) make it more likely your child will struggle?
  • Under what situations does the behavior occur?  Under what situations does the behavior not occur? 

These questions will help you to determine underlying reasons (both internal and external) for the behavior.  They will also help you choose the appropriate type of consequence. 

Is it fair to consequence a behavior that isn’t in my child’s control?   

Special needs or not, all children act out at times as a result of not having the skills, emotional where-with-all, or matured brain regions to do otherwise.  For example, all children initially lack the frontal lobe maturation necessary for inhibiting their behaviors.  They also lack the knowledge and practice of communication, problem solving, and conflict resolution necessary to inhibit misbehaving.  Even if they know what is expected of them (which some may not) we can say the behavior is not in their control.  Yet, it is still appropriate that we consequence them when they scream, kick, throw, grab, or hit. 

Children rely on us to set limits, offer consequences, and explain alternatives for more successful outcomes.  Consequences are not punishment, and they should never be punitive.  Just like behavior is a way for the child to communicate, consequences are a way for parents to communicate lessons about the situation.  As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.  If a child with learning disabilities is told it is important to finish his essay, but is permitted to watch television all evening because his writing difficulties “are not in his control,” he will not get the intended message about the importance of hard work.  A child who is told it’s not okay to grab, but gets to play with a toy after grabbing it from another because “she can’t control her impulses,” will not get the message about how to respect others. 

Not only is it fair to consequence a behavior that isn’t in your child’s control; it is important.  Because consequences are communication, however, how you consequence your child is of the utmost importance. 

Will it make any difference, anyway? 

When a child cannot “control” a certain behavior, consequences are not only an effective way to encourage control over the behavior but they also send an important message about responsibility.  Giving consequences is not about controlling your child’s behavior.  It’s also not about making the consequence so punitive that the child doesn’t want to engage in the misbehavior again.  Indeed, most children don’t have the memory, impulse control, or forethought to stop long enough to remember that last time they got a punishment.  Rather, consequences are about communicating a lesson.  For consequences to be meaningful (that is, effective) they need to be proportionate to the situation, fitting, and consistent.  If consequences fit these guidelines, along with repetition, they can make a difference in your child’s behavior. 

Natural consequences are the go-to consequences when responding to behaviors that are “not in your child’s control”.  Natural consequences are those events that naturally result from the action..  If you throw things, you pick them up.  If you haven’t finished your homework, the television and computer stays off.  If you grab a toy, you may no longer play in that area.  The focus is not on being punished.  Rather the message is about taking responsibility by fixing what was ruined (as in the case of throwing), teaching that certain conditions are required for optimal performance (as in the case of doing homework), or that social situations require following certain social rules (as in the case of not grabbing toys).  Over time, your child will begin to understand and incorporate responsibility taking, how to control their environment for their own optimal performance, and how to modulate their internal state in order to follow social rules which help with developing and maintaining friendships. 

It is impossible to know when your child may begin to have control over a behavior.  Not only this, but it may also be hard to recognize it when it actually happens!  A child who has never received consequences for a behavior may develop the capacity to control a behavior over time, but may persist with the behavior simply because it is working for him, or because she doesn’t know another way of being.  Not only this, but it would certainly be surprising if we were never told our behavior was out of the norm until suddenly one day we were told we were behaving inappropriately and then consequenced for it!  Even if the behavior was not in your control, you would want to know what was expected of you from the start. 

Providing proportionate, fitting, and consistent consequences from the beginning introduces the possibility of a different way of being.  Over time, as skills are learned and brain regions are exercised and mature, your child will gain more self control to choose a different behavior.  In the meant time, you are sending the message, “This is not expected behavior.  I know you need help right now to do the expected behavior.  I can help you.” 

Bio note: Erica Curtis is a therapist, frequent lecturer, and avid writer on parenting topics.  A licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Board Certified Art Therapist, Erica works with children, parents, adults, and families in her practice in Santa Monica, California.  For more information go to: www.TherapyWithErica.com

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