Discipline is one of the most challenging and daunting tasks for many parents, and it can be especially intimidating for parents with special needs children.
But it's important to look at discipline as teaching and guiding children to be the best they can be. It's not about punishment. It's about correcting kids' action and showing them what's acceptable and what's not. Children need their parents to provide boundaries and structure, and how a parent does this with a special needs child isn't all that different than with a typically developing child.
As you are with any interactions with your child, the key is to be loving and kind. Children will learn so much deeper from loving interactions than from stern, mean-spirited or harsh reprimands. Teach respect by giving it.
The Love & Logic method offers positive parenting solutions that can benefit all parents. You can learn more about these strategies at loveandlogic.com. But the overall philosophy uses inclusion, structure, control and affection and focuses on allowing children to grow through their mistakes.
This model puts the ownership of behavior on the child and protects the relationship of the family. Parents should be their child's champion, the person who's always in their corner (no matter what their behavior). They should also be the people that teach them acceptable ways to behave at home, school and in public.
Special needs children need consistency — as do all children. They need to know what will happen every time they do an undesirable action.
For example, every time I throw my food, I am removed from the table. That means parents and caregivers need to be clear on boundaries and behavior expectations. We need to act on those behaviors every time — no matter how tired or worn out we are. This is where team work helps.
Most importantly, we need to understand our children's strengths and weaknesses. We need to have high expectations for all the things they can handle. We need to appreciate when they are trying so hard to do things that aren't easy. We need to laugh and celebrate all the things that make them who they are. We need to love them to the limit all the time.
But we also need to understand where their limitations are and set up their world so they won't be expected to fail at things they can't handle.
For example, a child that is anxious around people may act out when faced with those situations. Don't take him to gatherings where there will be lots of people that will overwhelm him. That would be setting him up for a meltdown. Know your child and give him lots of opportunities to be successful rather than challenging his limits too severely. Celebrate what he can handle! Take tiny steps forward from there, and let him make small mistakes to learn from.
This is discipline! It's teaching children to be successful. Teach them that choices lead to consequences (sometime good, sometimes bad). It's teaching children to get their needs met in appropriate ways. It's teaching children how to manage their strengths and challenges. It's about teaching children to respect themselves and others around them. It's about being the best they can be. Isn't that what we want for our children anyway? Never underestimate the power of love to heal and bring hope.■
Jeanne Labana of Milwaukee has been an educator for more than 25 years.