Living With Special Needs Children

By Dr. Noel Swanson

Following are questions asked by parents of special needs children:

1. How do special needs children understand cause and effect and also rewards versus punishments? Do they understand the same as other children?

The fact is that this is not an issue. No matter what type of living being you are we akk have an interest in reward versus punishment to some level. Think about the bottom of the food chain such as a cockroach. Cockroaches despise the light and live to move around in the dark hours of the night. They associate good feelings with dark and bad feelings with light. They might not think about it, but rather just feel it based on experience and instinct.

If you turn on the lights you will see roaches scrambling towards darkness under a couch or a crack in the wall. They sense the light and know that a feeling of punishment is headed their way. They understand if they head towards darkness they are going towards a reward. This repeated reward makes them head for the darkness right away.

Roaches don't have a memory and can't be trained like humans can. Canines can be instructed because they have a great memory. They know, for example, if they hear the word "sit" they will sit down in order to receive a treat or reward.

The higher you go up on the food chain, the better their memory can be. Interest in time and the improvement of analytical skills appears. When these attributes increase, you need to vary the intensity of the rewards and punishments to have any effect.

What reward and punishments should you dole out? Easy. Try first by experimenting with different rewards and punishments based on your own experience. Have a system of rewards and punishments that will affect your child's behavior. Make sure that you are consistent. If their behavior changes then you have accomplished your goal. If it does not then take these two things into consideration:

a) either the rewards/punishments were not sufficiently motivating (again, see the book for details) or

b) they were unable to make a connection between the behavior and the consequent reward or punishment. For example, if the time interval between behavior and consequence is too long, then the younger or less able child may not be able to connect the two.

If your system doesn't seem to be effective then you need to stop and evaluate what you are doing. Make improvements and modifications. Try the system another time. Keep changing the system until you find one that works. If you are unable to find a system that works then think about the following:

2. What do you do when all your best efforts to change a behavior have failed? Richard (the Dad) has been struggling with his child, Tim, who has PDD. Tim is supposed to do a few hours of physical therapy each day. But guess what? Much of the time he is not too keen on the idea!

You try everything you can think of and read the book thoroughly. You try different reward and punishment systems to no avail. You have struggled to make physical therapy appear like a fun time. No matter what you do, you are not accomplishing the physical therapy session every day.

So what is one to do? Well you have two options here:

a. You could become all upset and flustered about it. You get mad at yourself for your apparent failure. You feel like you are no service to your child. You want to find the magic trick that will make your child want to do his physical therapy session.

b. He can step back, look at the situation, and take a calmer, more pragmatic approach, accepting that maybe 50% of the time is all he is going to get, and that that is better than the 30% that Tim was doing a year ago.

Is (a.) or (b.) the more productive option?

The downfall of (a.) is that you will amp up your stress level which affects everyone negatively. You are not having a good time and your results won't improve this way.

Sometimes you just have to understand the fact that your child may never be fully motivated to complete the physical therapy. It's sad, but true. It is better to work with what you have then cry about not achieving perfection.

Is it not better to dial back the expectations and the striving, and aim to achieve the best that you can GIVEN THE LIMITATIONS YOU FIND YOURSELF UNDER? And, surprisingly, often when the stress is relieved, and the fun returns, then performance improves. But even if it doesn't, which would you rather have: a) 50% performance and everyone is miserable or, b) 50% performance and everyone is happy?

Don't try to fight battles you cannot win! - 30540

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