Friday, August 7, 2009

How do you punish a kid with special needs who doesn't quite get it?

Last night, both kids had meltdowns at bedtime. If you count me, that's three of us.

Sabrina hit Max.
Max hit Sabrina.
Sabrina stuck out her tongue at Max and me.
Sabrina kicked Max.
Max pulled Sabrina's hair.
Max whacked me.
Sabrina hit Max.

And so on and so on. (Surprise! Max may look like an angel but, trust me, like any kid he has his demons.)

I told Sabrina I was taking away her new Ariel doll till Saturday.

I gave Max a time out.

What bugged me is that while both kids were acting up, the punishments weren't exactly equal. Thing is, Max doesn't yet understand consequences. I can't say to him, "I'm going to take away your favorite truck till Saturday" because he wouldn't know what I was talking about.

I'd like to figure out a more significant response for when Max misbehaves.

The tar-and-feathers thing is probably a little too much, though.

Special Needs Supernanny, where are you?

Photo by Tomacco/istock


  1. I understand where you are coming from here. We don't discipline Connor very often because there's so little he can do to act up (he can't get to anything we don't put directly within his reach, and he can't pick most of it up anyway due to the non-functional opposable thumbs) but he does get the occasional time out. I'm not sure he really understands the concept, though he does get the word "no" and will usually stop the behavior, especially if I accompany it with something like "that is making mommy sad" and then make an exaggerated sad face. Or I just redirect him to something else.

    Anyway, as he gets older (and hopefully more mobile so therefore more likely to get into trouble) we'll probably have to change our strategy. We'll have to wait and see!


  2. We punish my girls completely differently. We have no choice because certain punishments work with one child and don't work with others. I don't really think it has much to do with Regan having cerebral palsy, but she does lash out physically and verbally and we are quick to set her in her place and let her know it was inappropriate.

    A lot of it is setting certain limits and being consistant. She has always been quick to temper and takes a while to calm down and process. She is also very remorseful when she finally does.

    Most of the punishments for her these days involve taking away email/facebook/and computer because we have found what she loves the most and is willing to behave for.

    Good Luck it is a long road

  3. Ellen,
    Oh, gosh, I know what you mean. With Faith, I just try to do quick concrete disciple and still tell her what she did wrong. Like she is going through a stage where she won't let you change her- clothes, diaper, etc. So if you do get a hold of her she will use her tone to kick out and refuse to bend, ANYTHING! So usually I will ask her to stop but if she won't I will thump her finger and tell her that's naughty, she should mind mom. It usually gets her attention and distracts her off of the stiffening thing. Then I always say... Tell mom you'r sorry... and usually she will offer up a hug as her way of apologizing. I just try not to have alot of emotion when I do it. I will act disappointed, though. I don't know if she understands but it's the best way I know to at least try to make her to. I can't imagine dealing with it from two kids, though! We have tried time out w/ Faith but she just thinks that she is getting to sit in a chair by herself! LOL!

  4. We have the same problem sometimes. T's younger brother understands consequences and his punishment most of the time, yet T does not. But we feel we have to punish him and let him know that he can't do certain things, even if he doesn't get it yet. We expect certain things out of T, just like we do his younger brother. I think as he gets older, he will understand more or at least I hope so. So we will just continue doing what we are doing, praying that his understanding will progress.
    I sometimes feel bad because so much is expected from our younger son (who is only 26 months old), but he does understand that his brother doesn't talk and doesn't understand as much as he does. What's great is that JD treats T like every other kid.
    It's good to know other parents grapple with the same things. Makes me feel less alone!
    Great post as usual !!
    Kristen P

  5. I'm not SuperNanny, but I was trained to be a Special Ed teacher... One thing that was drilled into our heads, which I think is appropriate to your situation, was this:

    "Fair" isn't giving everyone the same thing, it's giving each child what s/he needs.

    If one of your kids was choking, you wouldn't give them both the Heimlich to be "fair," right? Same thing.

    I think you did fine, provided that your daughter understands why there were different consequences. She might grow to resent Max if he "gets off easy" all the time. But if you explain it to her, she'll be fine.

    And the fact that you're worried about it at all shows me that you're a thoughtful parent, which is half the battle!

  6. Coming from Behaviourist world we tend to think in terms of what suits the individual, because kids with autism and ADD will often find a so called punishment rewarding (such as telling them off or giving a time out) and repeat a behaviour as a result.

    I would make the punishment fit the crime. If there is hitting involved you need to withdraw attention and whatever they enjoy immediately and then return it when everyone has cooled off saying - this is for being nice to your sister. Taking it for more than an hour is pointless as they get over it and lose the connection to whatever behaviour you were trying to prevent. Plus, if they repeat the behaviour during the punishment - you are screwed! as you don't have any ammunition left.

    Turning off a video, sending them to the naughty step or to their bedroom - should only take minutes with you monitoring it the whole time. If both parties are hitting, it can be hard to intervene. But if one is hitting the other, giving positive attention to the victim in full view of the aggressor is a good way to reduce it too. I used to put Boo out on the back porch and hug Bratty while he watched through the glass doors. He soon learned that biting her was not going to get him anywhere.

    When they both fight I tend to step back and let them work it out, as long as one isn't going too far.

    The best behavioural supports for consistently inappropriate behaviours are positive. A star chart for rewarding the right behaviour, with incremental rewards. That way if they only earn one star, they still get a consolation prize, with a bigger prize available for getting all their stars for the day.

    That way if they do play up, there is still the incentive for trying harder to be good, in order to get some kind of reward. Leave them with zero and they will have nothing to lose! Create opportunities to earn stars and get small rewards in order to build a taste for it, and remove them when they transgress. It works!


  7. Oh, this post is exactly what I need right now! I struggle with this daily! Riley, who has mild CP but who understands actions and consequences like a typical three year old, responds well to time outs and to having a favorite toy taken away for a short time. However, Ross, who has CP but who also has PDD, on the autism spectrum, doesn't get it at all! So, not only do I need to be creative and find ways to come up with consequences that are meaningful to him, but I need to help Riley (his TWIN!) understand why it appears that the rules are different for each of them. I try to help him see that the rules are the same, but the consequences are different, but honestly, what three year old will see that? All Riley sees is that I am not taking away Ross' toys and he feels like I am playing favorites. It's a really tough battle to give them each what they need, especially when one is so clearly aware of the fact that there is a difference between the consequences.

    Geez.....this Mommy gig is tough!!!

    Thanks for another great post!

  8. As a former teacher and total lover of all things related to behavior, I love this post. I think that the most important thing is that each child is warned in advance what the consequences will be. Maybe Max doesn't understand when you say you're going to take something away, but he'll never learn the concept if you don't start somewhere. My MIL, an early childhood person, says this about discipline: you start when they have no idea what you're talking about and really aren't even capable of much fore-thought. BUT you are laying a groundwork so that one day the words make sense and the consequences are easily imagined.

    So, what I'm saying is, I don't think they NEED the same punishment, but if you want to start taking Max in that direction, just start and you'll be amazed at how far he can go.

  9. We deal with this all the time. We try to punish each kid in an appropriate way, but when my autistic son and my other son each do basically the same thing and get vastly different punishments, other son gets very upset. This is especially true because often autistic son's misdeed is at regular son's expense, like intrusion into his room and messing up his stuff. Regular son does not understand the different punishments, because autistic son functions well enough to seem to understand, even though he's not capable of consistent compliance.

    We're dealing with these and other issues by starting up a Sibshop program in our area. It's a support/fun program for siblings of special needs kids.

  10. Tough one.

    Have you considered trying to use compic images or some similar pictorial display with Max (maybe even his Dynovox?).

    I'd be focusing more on the emotions experienced by others due to his actions rather than focusing on consequences as much - i.e. using images to show him that his actions made you and Sabrina sad and were not very nice (even though reading back I can see that 'she started it'!).

    But I think your punishments were fine. You're a super mum and you know your kids best, so you know what will work most effectively.

    I'd add that it's probably as important to start talking with Sabrina about different consequences too. It'd add to your woes if she develops any bitterness at what she sees as unfair consequences.

  11. ever since LilB turned two, he's been throwing tantrums. Some therapist tell me to act how I would with any 2 year old because we're still not sure how far he is cognitivly, but I've argued with them about this; first, I've never had a two year old and second, I'm pretty sure I can't stick him in the corner and make him apologize afterwards for his poor behavior.
    (I wish there was a special needs Supernanny, lol. I love that show!)

    I've really been at my wits end, lately. When he starts throwing tantrums, I walk away (granted he's in a safe area) He's kind of started a head banging thing, but it hasn't become too bad. I can't decide if I should ignore it or tell him NO. I've been telling him no but (perhaps like a 2 year old?) he giggles.

    I'm so glad you blog about this stuff, Ellen! it's hard to talk about this stuff with other people when they don't really understand.


Thanks for sharing!