At Ramapo for Children, our work is grounded in the conviction that children of all abilities seek the same things: to learn, have friends, feel valued, and experience success. When the demands of a child’s environment are misaligned with his or her social and emotional skills, frustrating and disruptive behaviors occur. To help children succeed—whether they are on the spectrum, have a learning disability, or simply don’t yet have the tools to control their outbursts—the adults in their lives need to help children align their behaviors with their aspirations.
With 90 years of experience, Ramapo for Children has developed a unique ability to create inclusive environments that promote positive behavioral change, foster skill development, and help support learning and personal growth. As we have honed our expertise in working on behalf of children who face obstacles to learning, we have seen that personal relationships are frequently the catalyst for motivating behavioral change and, therefore, a key component of good teaching at home and in the classroom. Once rapport is developed, a budding relationship between an adult and child becomes as reinforcing as any tangible reward used to manage behaviors and teach new skills.
The value of strengthening relationships with children with special needs goes beyond skill building. It also forms the basis for better communication and significantly impacts how effectively adults manage difficult behaviors. Though relationship building may seem like an imprecise art, there are specific, concrete steps that caregivers and educators can take immediately to improve relationships. Here are a few tools to keep in mind that Ramapo for Children uses and teaches to facilitate relationship building:
- Use your child’s interests to reinforce positive behavior. Recognizing what interests your child and integrating engaging topics in other activities is critical to nurturing a relationship and, ultimately, to building valuable skills.
No two children with special needs are the same, and adults need to take the time to understand a child’s uniqueness and interests. Once you can engage with children and their preferred topics, utilize elements of these interests to help them engage in structured, productive activities. Does your child focus on fairies and fairy tales? Deliver his or her daily schedule by “fairy mail” to make it more engaging. Does he or she love trains? Offer more “train time” with a playmate when your child meets behavioral expectations, with clear guidelines of how they can reach their goals. Gradually decrease the role and frequency of your child’s interest when engaging in other activities, and the skills gained will continue to stick.
- Build a positive self-image. Recognize the unique skills of your child and connect these to tasks. This will allow them to use their strengths and talents to add value to the community. As a result, they’re more likely to feel confident and take initiative.
Every child has strengths, whether they are immediately obvious or take time to discover. They can be anything from an affinity for organization to a wealth of knowledge on a particular topic like the weather or a particular movie. Anything that makes your child feel proud can be used as a starting point and can be turned into a moment of celebration or special responsibility in your home. This allows him or her to feel good about his or her contribution to your family, and enables him or her to see that they receive more attention for positive behavior. Tell your child, for example, “You’re so good at alphabetizing. Would you help me alphabetize the library so it’s easier for everyone to use?” Or, “You’re great with animals. Will you be in charge of walking and feeding the dog?” When your child feels valued, he or she gains confidence that can lead to gaining even more skills.
- Establish limits, act firmly, and follow through. Being firm in your words and actions allows children to borrow your strength and determination.
Working with children with special needs can be disorienting and unpredictable at times, and adults may not always feel confident in their ability to handle situations. However, it is vitally important that they make every effort to appear in control, because the absence of confidence in adults leads to great anxiety in children with special needs. Adults must be prepared to establish clear boundaries, explain the reasons these boundaries have been established, and consistently enforce the boundaries so children know what to expect.
Over the past 90 years, Ramapo for Children has developed a unique ability to create environments that help children of all abilities align their behaviors with their aspirations, and in recent years has exported that approach to over 300 schools and youth agencies throughout the New York metropolitan area via training programs. Those experiences on- and off-campus have made evident the fact that relationships are the cornerstone of behavioral change; without that connection, children have no motivation to increase their social and emotional skills. Though building a positive, mutual relationship with a child with special needs may seem daunting, the process consists of a set of skills and activities that can be taught. When the adults in a child’s life stop acting as passive or reluctant receptors of autistic behaviors, and instead feel comfortable intervening and shaping interactions, the adult-child bond becomes richer for both parties.
About Ramapo for Children
Ramapo for Children helps youth align their behaviors with their aspirations through four distinct program areas: Ramapo Training, which provides parents, educators, and youth workers with practical tools for managing difficult behaviors and fostering environments that support success; Ramapo Retreats, year-round adventure-based experiences for youth and adults that provide strategies for successful communication, teamwork, and leadership; Camp Ramapo, a residential summer camp that serves over 550 children ages 6 to 16 who are affected by social emotional, or learning challenges; and the Staff Assistant Experience, a transition-to-independence program for young adults who are on the cusp of self-sufficiency. For more information about Ramapo for Children, please visit www.ramapoforchildren.org or contact Elissa Harel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 212.754.7003.