Have you ever played Charades? One person is acting out a scene or a word and another person tries to guess what the word/scene is based on what they are acting out. Well, sometimes I feel like when trying to figure out a child’s behavior is the most difficult game of Charades, but with some rules changed.
Researchers and psychologists tell us all behavior is a form of communication and something we learn in infancy. Babies cry in order to signal their needs and wants. Us adults become the “crying experts” to learn what each cry means based on how it sounds — from needing a diaper change, to hunger, and even pain. But as our children get older, why is their behavior different and less easy to predict and understand?
We tend to shift our mindset and perspective as our children mature and we begin to see their negative behavior as a form of disrespect, defiance, and disobedience. But if the child, or even adult child, has a disability and non-verbal communication, parents tend to excuse the behavior entirely. What do I mean by excusing? Parents tend to believe that the behavior cannot be shaped, retaught, or eliminated due to the complexity of their child’s disability. [ I should place a big fat disclaimer following the previous sentence: The behavior of a child with a disability is not the fault of the parent or guardian. Behaviors in your child does not mean you are failing or even doing a bad job. This post is just to help you change your mindset and approach your child’s behavior differently. ]
Here are some direct actions parents can take in order to start examining the behavior of their child with a disability differently in order to start shaping a more desired outcome:
- Chart/Journal the Behavior: Be as detailed as you can with the behavior — time of day, what happened right before it started, what did the behavior look like, what was your response. Specialists call this ABC documentation (Google that for more extensive research). Sometimes you’re “in” the behavior and in survival mode that you might not be seeing patterns to the behavior. Charting this information will allow you to start your investigation to the source of the behavior. This may not always be a perfect solution, but it’s your starting point.
- Rule Out a Medical Reason: Ask yourself questions to rule out any medically-related illnesses (even as a simple headache). This is the hardest to detect, but again charting all undesirable behaviors could allow you to discover patterns and pinpoint sources.
- Know Your Response: Believe it or not, your response to the behavior could have an effect on the duration and how often the behavior occurs in the future. No response is the best — from facial expression to body language — but that is extremely hard to achieve. Your response needs to remain neutral and consistent.
- Understand Common Communication through Behavior: Escaping something they don’t want to do (escape), motivation to obtain a desired item (tangible), overstimulated by environment or even thoughts (sensory), seeking attention whether it’s negative or positive (attention).
In my experience, the most common mistake of dealing with undesirable behavior is not being consistent each time with your response. This usually comes when parents are in survival mode or don’t know how to respond to behavior so they end up “winging it” each time. Believe it or not, this can cause the behavior to occur at higher frequencies and take longer for the child to return to a calm state. No child wants to act out. Remember it’s a form of communication. When they are having those impulse, “out of control” behaviors, it’s important they find calmness within your consistent approach and they feel your “calm,” confident control of the situation.
Behavior in a child with a disability is complex and ever-changing. I hope this brief article can help you think about behavior differently and start forming your approach differently. Behaviors in your child can be exhausting and leave you feeling defeated. I get it. Take a deep breath and know you are the expert because you have something no other professional has — a level of trust from your child from the beginning.
Did you know I had podcast? The intention of the podcast is to share “pieces of me” in the hopes it impacts others’ journeys. Everything from growing up with a brother with a disability, teaching individuals with disabilities, empowering women, learning to lead, coaching, being a mom (especially a boy mom), to fighting through the thoughts of self-doubt. Each will be a piece of me intended to create a better piece within you.
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