Living with Special Needs Children

By: Dr. Noel Swanson

Listed below are concerns from parents of special needs children:

Do children with special needs have the same understanding of cause and effect, reward and punishment, as other children?

The fact is that this is not an issue. No matter what type of living being you are we all 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.

Turn on the lights and the roach goes scuttling for darkness. In a very basic sense, light = punishment and darkness = reward. The behavior of escaping from light to dark is rewarded, and so is repeated.

Roaches don’t have a memory and can’t be instructed like we can. Canines can be instructed because they have a wonderful memory. They know, for example, if they hear the word “stay” they will stay in place 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.

How do you know what you can use? Simple. You start with a good guess, and then experiment. You implement a system of rewards and or punishments to modify a behavior (exact details of how to do this are in the book), and see what happens. If the behavior changes, the carry on! If it does not, then one of two things applies:

a) your rewards and punishments systems did not have big enough meaning in your child’s life 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.

So, when you see that your system is not working. You step back, have a think about it, modify it, and then try again. Ultimately you will either succeed in changing the behavior, or you won’t. Which leads to the second question:

You have tried all of the things you can think of and your child’s behavior hasn’t budged. What do you do? For example, let’s say your child had PDD. You are required to complete a few hours of physical therapy with your child each day. However, your child doesn’t want to do the physical therapy.

Richard has read the book. He has experimented with just about every reward, punishment, incentive scheme he can think of. He has tried to make the therapy more exciting and fun. But despite all of these efforts, half the time the therapy just does not get done.

What can you do about this? You have two choices including:

a. Richard could get stressed and worried about this. He can berate himself for failing to get his child to do the therapy he needs, and he can continue the search for some magic wand that will somehow motivate Tim to do those exercises. Or,

b. You stop and evaluate your situation. You take a deep breath and look at things practically and logically. You are okay with the fact that half the time the physical therapy session may not happen, but this is still an improvement from how much physical therapy your child was accomplishing last year.

Which is better?

The problem with (a) is that it produces STRESS. And stress is unhealthy and unproductive. It means you are less effective, more irritable, and less fun. But it doesn’t produce any better results!

Sometimes you just have to learn to live with the fact that your child may never be totally motivated to do the physical therapy. It’s sad, but true. It is better to work with what you have then cry about not achieving perfection.
Therefore, you should pay attention to your child’s specific needs. Strive to define success off of what you are provided with and not an ideal. When you do this, you will alleviate stress and the results you want will happen. If things still don’t improve would you want to have: a) 1/2 performance and we are all upset? b) 1/2 performance and we are all feeling good?
The key point is to not try to compete to an ideal level when it might not be a realistic goal.

About The Author
Do your kids play you up? Then you should really take a look at Dr. Noel Swanson’s excellent website packed full of parenting advice There are also articles on children’s special educational needs that are worth checking out.

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