'Positive Discipline for Children With Special Needs': Author Q&A

Filed under: Special Needs, Books for Parents

positive discipline Children with special needs need discipline, just like every other kid on the planet. How else are they going to learn about limits and boundaries, right from wrong and the basics of socially acceptable behavior?

According to the authors of the new book "Positive Discipline for Children with Special Needs," there's "a huge temptation for many parents of children with special needs" to pamper their kids.

But, they say, that only does the child a disservice. All children, including those with special needs, deserve the chance to feel capable, important and self-possessed, all of which can be learned using the tools in "Positive Discipline."

ParentDish recently spoke with two of the book's three authors, Steven Foster, L.C.S.W., and Arlene Raphael, M.S. An edited version of the conversation follows.

ParentDish: What makes this book different and useful for parents of children with special needs?
Steven Foster:
In all the "Positive Discipline" books, which essentially deal with helping children who are behaving in ways that parents and teachers wish they wouldn't, we're trying to figure out what a child's mistaken belief about belonging and significance is, in order to help them express their need differently. In this book, we arrived at a concept we call "innocent behavior."

author steven foster

Author Steven Foster

PD: What's that?
There are lots of conditions that drive kids to behave in particular ways. For example, kids with attention deficit disorder are often going to be impulsive or unable to focus. When kids are behaving in ways dictated by their conditions, they really are behaving innocently. In other words, they're not doing it to make us mad. One of the big thrusts of the book is to be able to differentiate between a behavior driven by a particular condition (innocent behavior) and a behavior that is reflective of mistaken goals about belonging and significance.

PD: What's a "mistaken goal"?
Here's an example: If I'm leading a (preschool) circle time and I have a child who is interrupting me because she really wants to tell me something. I at first say, "Nope, not now. I need to first finish what I am saying and then I will listen." She might stop for a minute or two, but then feel compelled to start interrupting again. That is a mistaken goal called "undue attention," which means in that moment, what that child believes about belonging and being important, involves being the center of attention.

PD: How can you tell the difference between innocent behavior and mistaken goals?
There are clues to mistaken goal behavior. For undue attention, often, the first clue is the adult being annoyed. And then a behavioral clue would be, "Am I intervening with a child who might stop briefly, but then might start up again?"

PD: Seems difficult to do, especially in the heat of the moment.
We will misinterpret things and it then becomes our job to mend fences. ... It's really OK for parents to make mistakes. In the long run, kids aren't going to learn to fix mistakes unless they see us making them and making a point of fixing them.

PD: If we can't tell, how do we know what methods to use?
The range of "Positive Discipline" tools will be helpful, whether or not you know if the behavior is innocent or mistaken.

author arlene raphael

Author Arlene Raphael

PD: A lot of parents of kids with special needs make concessions. Any advice?
Arlene Raphael:
In the book, we talk about how to create an environment that teaches children behaviors that are socially useful. (Parents should) try to shift away from, "Oh, my poor child has a special needs condition, we have to help him out" to "What can we teach? What can we focus on?" That shifts the focus of feeling guilty about the child's problem to being proactive and focusing on the child's strengths.

PD: Ah, guilt. The all-powerful parental guilt.
Parents with kids of severe special needs or highly impacted children often feel guilty. Many feel their child is getting a raw deal in the world, and they want to make it better. That's a very universal impulse.

PD: So how do we assuage the guilt but not make concessions?
In special ed terms, accommodations are things we do to help children be capable; things we can put in place so that the playing field for the child is roughly equivalent to the playing field for a child without special needs. Things like special chairs, rearranging furniture, visual symbols to help children remember things. Allowances are things like, "We need to let him take toys because he doesn't know how to ask for a turn yet." Allowances aren't all that helpful.

PD: When you put it that way, it sounds obvious.
Kids with special needs have a right to struggle. That can be counter-intuitive since they're already struggling, but when we make things too easy for them, we are not helping them develop the belief about themselves that they are capable and they can learn to solve problems. And those, we believe, are universal human needs.

PD: As a parent, it's hard to deal with a child who has additional obstacles on top of the normal frustrations of being a kid.
Help your child be frustrated and find ways to deal with frustration. Notice that I said, "find a way to be frustrated." We're not ever going to be able to -- nor would it be desirable -- to create worlds in which the children we raise or teach are not angry, are not disappointed, are not frustrated. We look at those sorts of things as muscles, and if you don't learn to flex them in socially appropriate ways, they don't develop. People really do need to learn how to be angry effectively and how to be frustrated or disappointed effectively.

PD: What's the main message of your book?
The overwhelming need to be connected to other people in a positive way, and the overwhelming need to feel significant and capable, is equally true for children with special needs as it is for children without them. Your kids really aren't that different.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.