Addressing Behavior Issues in Kids with Special Needs

Get tips on addressing behavior issues that parents with children with special needs can use in the moment — and all the rest of the time, too.

Emotional breakdowns were not uncommon for Muhammad Elmokadem.

“Muhammad was no different than many other kids with special needs and social challenges,” says his mother, Kelli Elmokadem, a mom of four in Dearborn.

Muhammad, who’s 19, was never overly aggressive inside their home or out of control outside of their house. Yet he would sometimes use his Down syndrome as a convenient crutch to misbehave, get out of having to do something, or an excuse for a lackluster effort.

His mother wouldn’t allow it.

“If you set the bar too low, you’ll never want them to achieve anything beyond your lowest expectations,” Elmokadem says. “So I focused his attention on things he did well, or more appropriate behavior.”

As a younger parent, Elmokadem wasn’t aware that she was using a successful technique called “redirection” to address her son’s behavioral problems. Redirection plays a role in the daily balance between rewards and consequences, according to Carrie Krawiec, a licensed marriage and family therapist at the Birmingham Maple Clinic in Troy.

“Studies show that serious consequences do not yield the behavioral results that parents believe will come about,” she says. “Instead, focus on small rewards for small adaptive behaviors that can build on larger rewards. Science supports this.”

Krawiec, a mom of two young children, is trained in a behavior management model called Parent Management Training – Oregon, which offers universal parenting techniques but are especially helpful with kids who have special needs.

“Many kids with special needs internalize a shout but not the words behind the shout, so it puts them on edge before any new skill can be learned,” Krawiec says.

Instead of repeatedly screaming to an anxious child, “Stop jumping on your bed!,” give him or her a bouncy ball to burn off that energy. Be specific, not vague. Stay in close proximity, rather than shouting from another room. Use eye contact and a gentle touch. A parental reward for, say, brushing teeth can be as simple as a beaming smile. A consequence for a clenched fist can be as simple as firmly shaking out a child’s hand.

“If a parent is dysregulated, their child will certainly learn this inappropriate behavior,” Krawiec says.

The parental mantra to correct a child’s out-of-control social problems should be “consistency and contingency,” she says. “Modeling is so important, especially for special needs children. They often don’t understand the concept of, ‘do as I say, not as I do.'”

Understanding behavior problems

Struggling parents can learn to refocus their “lens of understanding” on how to teach their child new skills to cope with his or her frustrations, says Jessica Schultz, a behavior specialist with Easterseals.

“I always encourage parents to think about what they need to teach,” she says. “Behavior problems are often the result of a missing skill or skills.”

These skills include: learning more appropriate social communication skills; turning negative responses into positive approaches; and showing how to identify and express feelings with verbal language, not through physical aggression. The key is to teach these skills when a child is calm, not agitated, throughout the day, not only after an outburst.

“Modeling the behavior you would like to see is the most effective approach. Also, using ‘to do’ language, as opposed to telling the child what not to do,” Schultz says.

She guides her clients through the process of learning – and then teaching to their child – relaxation strategies such as deep breathing, taking a break, or walking away. This helps the child learn how to self-regulate and self-soothe. With practice, over time, learning these skills can allow a child to capably express emotions and to calm down without repeated incidents or confrontations.

“If we look at behavior from a missing skill lens, then teaching the skill would be more beneficial than punishment or consequences,” Schultz says. “We want to teach the behavior we want to see.”

Another common suggestion she gives clients is to teach “perspective” talking skills. For instance, learning that other people have thoughts and feelings that might be different from that of the child. Timing matters as well, depending on a child’s developmental age versus actual age. If a kid’s favorite TV show ends in seven minutes, it may be smarter to simply wait seven minutes before teaching or reinforcing a new skill set.

The role COVID is playing on behavior

“Emotions can get heightened and become overwhelming for children who are experiencing behavioral issues,” says Chelsea Sudderth, a therapist who works with parents in the Detroit metro area through her firm, Integrative Mind Therapy. “Many of the parents I’m working with these days are experiencing even more heightened emotions due to COVID and related social problems.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has lingered much longer than many parents figured or feared. Its social restrictions have jolted the lives of families with children with special needs. School routines have been stopped or radically changed. Social services have been delayed or curbed. Worse yet, daily schedules that were built upon years of rehearsed routines have been dramatically altered.

Arianna Esposito, director of lifespan services and supports for Autism Speaks, suggests seeking professional support at this point in the pandemic. Social restrictions have been lifted enough to resume visitations with families, or appointments with therapists in your community.

“They often can help by working in collaboration with you on effective strategies,” she says. “Successful tactics will vary from child to child. It’s more important to focus on what the needs of the child are versus comparing to other children.”

These experts agree that there are times when a parent needs a “timeout” from a particular situation as much as their child needs one. Step back, take a breath (or four), and determine the smartest way to redirect a child toward more appropriate actions.

For Elmokadem, she navigated her Special Olympian son through the motivational currents of competitive swimming, a sport in which he excelled. Muhammad didn’t win every race, or any race, but he found himself while swimming toward a better behavioral attitude. He has since used that outlook to launch his own YouTube channel, “Down Syndrome Vibes,” to share his experiences as a Parkour training enthusiast.

“He has found his stroke in life, and I eventually found mine as a parent,” his mother says.

Was she as confident in her earlier years of parenting a child with special needs? “Absolutely not,” she says with a laugh.

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