Living With Special Needs Children
Living With Special Needs Children
Some questions I have been asked by readers of my newsletter:
1. Do children with special needs have the same understanding of cause and effect, reward and punishment, as other children?
Strangely enough, it doesn't matter!
Every living creature has an awareness of reward and punishment at some level. Take as lowly a creature as a cockroach. Roaches hate light and love darkness. Being in light is unpleasant, being in darkness is pleasant.
Of course they don't use words like that - they are probably not even "conscious" of liking or not liking. But the result is the same: 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. But roaches are not trainable.
To be trainable, you also need a memory. Dogs have a memory. They can remember that if they hear the word "sit" and they do so, they normally get a reward (a treat or praise).
The more sophisticated the creature, the better their memory and analytical skills, and the greater their awareness of time (i.e. that future events will happen) then the more complex the varieties of reward and punishment that can be used.
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) 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. 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: ======
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! 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.
So what is one to do?
Well you have two options here:
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.
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.
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! The reality is that there is, perhaps, nothing on Earth that would motivate Tim to do those exercise 100% of the time. Sorry. But we live in an imperfect world, and maybe the child in the wheelchair really will never walk.
We would all wish it were different. But if that is how it is, then that is how it is. 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
author of Living With Special Needs Children is Dr Noel Swanson MD
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