How Do You Discipline A Child With Special Needs?

“It’s not fair!” wails my 7-year-old, Sabrina. “Max never gets punishments!”

I’ve just told her that as a punishment for talking back to me, she won’t be having a playdate with a friend on the weekend. I don’t have this problem with Max, who’s 9. He doesn’t talk back to me and if he did, I’d do cartwheels. He has cerebral palsy and he has a lot of trouble speaking.

Sabrina’s right on both counts: Max doesn’t get punishments. And it’s not fair. And it’s not good. And I know it.

Typically, Max is typically a well-behaved child who does as he’s asked. On the rare occasion when he he doesn’t listen to me—say, I’ve told him that he needs to quit watching YouTube clips of Cars 2 and he refuses—I’ll take his iPad away from him. Sometimes he’ll proceed to act out, swiping a pile of papers off a table. Usually I’ll repeatedly say “Max, that’s not OK!” But punishment? No.

Thing is, Max isn’t yet at the cognitive point where he understands concepts such as being denied treats or activities for doing wrong. When he was younger and misbehaved, I’d try a time out but he’d refuse to sit on the chair and I’d have to forcefully hold him there which made him hysterical, and then I’d just end up holding and consoling him.

I know, of course, what you’re thinking. It’s the same thing I’m thinking: All children need discipline.

Yet this is something that stumps me, doling out discipline to a child who does not necessarily understand punishment. I’m sure a therapist would tell me that I also feel guilty punishing Max because of all that he’s been through. Heck, I don’t need a shrink to tell me that, because it’s true.

I can push past those feelings but then, figuring out how to discipline Max in a meaningful way eludes me.

If you have a kid with special needs, how do you handle discipline?


From my other blog

Image of little girl sitting in time out chair via Shutterstock

Add a Comment
Back To To The Max
  1. by MarfMom

    On February 28, 2012 at 8:43 am

    We punish M, but he doesn’t care. So, this is something I struggle with and so far none of the behaviorists we’ve had have come up with a good solution. He’s aggressive, but there’s nothing he cares about enough to have it make more than a fleeting impact. We do try to connect the punishment with an immediate and relevant reward though. For example, if M is refusing to cooperate during his bed time routine, he loses his story. If he hits his brother over a toy, he loses that toy for a few minutes or if it’s out of the blue, he gets 3 minutes of time out (b/c he’s 3 years old). Yes, sometimes he thrashes and screams and I have to sit by him or hold him, but it’s not for comfort: I don’t look at him or talk to him during this time. Once his 3 minutes are up I give him a hug and suggest a fun activity.

    Discipline is hard, and I think more hard for our kids who have cognitive issues, but I also think it’s an area where we can end up not giving them enough credit for what they can understand/learn from it. Kids NEED boundaries to feel safe, special needs or not.

  2. by Sunday Stilwell

    On February 28, 2012 at 9:28 am

    I’m in the exact same boat with Sam and Noah. If they misbehave we take away their iPads or the wii or whatever it is that is most motivating to them at the moment. The result is always a meltdown of mammoth proportions but I don’t give in and they don’t give up.

    I would certainly be interested in hearing about how others discipline their cognitively delayed children because right now it feels more like I am the one being punished.

  3. by Julie C

    On February 28, 2012 at 9:35 am

    Ellen, our boys are so alike! Cars and anything McQueen and Mater are his treats. With my daughter we put her things on top of the refrigerator for a week. We have started doing that for a few days with Kyle’s DVD player and videos. He gets mad, cries and when we’ve heard enough he gets put in his room. Since he’s in a wheelchair he can’t go anywhere. He is starting to understand we are not kidding when we tell him not to do something.

  4. by Texan

    On February 28, 2012 at 9:38 am

    My boys are both in intensive ABA therapy and we use those methods. We use a lot of positive reinforcement. We make a big deal about giving attention when they are doing good and ignoring attention seeking behavior. It really works well for my children. My kids seldom act out for me because they know I respond to appropriate and good behavior but not bad. They will act out with hubby because he is more old school and things children need to be disciplined by traditional methods of stern voice, time out etc. They also act out more at their public preschool because I think they LIKE time out and know if they misbehave they will get time out. They act much much better at ABA school and with me because we employ those principles.

  5. by Texan

    On February 28, 2012 at 9:42 am

    Also… I have learned that the problem with some discipline methods is that sometimes parents fail to praise good behavior and only give attention (any attention is sought by many kids, good or bad) to the bad or problematic behavior. They also don’t redirect to good behavior. For many kids, especially those with special needs, the good behavior must be taught. Instead of saying, “Don’t hit the dog! If you hit the dog you will be in time out! Stop hitting the dog I said!” over and over, I will go over and gently take my son’s hand and say, “We pet a dog like this” and show him. Then when he softly pets the dog I say, “Awww, see how she loves that? You are awesome at petting a dog! Good job, Buddy!”. Etc., etc. :)

  6. by Elise Ronan (@RaisingASDKids)

    On February 28, 2012 at 10:16 am

    Understanding the consequences is the biggest part of punishment. It has to be understandingly appropriate.

    Both of boys have autism spectrum disorders. However, luckily cognition is not one of their issues.However, on the other hand, what is required of them needs to be spelled out step by step. You can not assume they understand any part of what they are required to do.That is why I always, even to this day have them tell me what it is they need to do.

    We have used time outs. They have lost game play time and they have gone to bed early. I never use food for good or punishment, since that is too often a weapon of self-destruction used by children.

    When my oldest was 5 he took something from a store. I knew that he did not know that that was stealing. I took him back to the store told the manager and the manager had a talk with him. That was sufficient.

    Now when my youngest lied to me as an adolescent, about chatting on the internet with strangers, he lost the computer for a week and the XBox microphone forever. (And yes I secretly did a little jig out of earshot)

    the upshot is that as they aged and they truly understood completely right from wrong, their obligations and the consequences of their actions their punishments increased with age.

    BTW it is not only among neurotypical and nonneurotypical children that they whine about some form of punishment unfairness. I hear it all the time from both boys about the other one when they get in trouble. It is a sibling issues, not necessarily a special needs issue.

  7. by Alisa Rock

    On February 28, 2012 at 11:07 am

    I’d say taking the iPad away is a good consequence. So what if he swipes papers off the table? As long as it doesn’t get him the iPad back, seems like something to easily ignore. I wouldn’t even bother saying “no”! Of course, I’ve got an ASD kid and do a ton of ignoring because he likes some of the attention.

    Fair doesn’t mean equal! :-)

  8. by dderbydave

    On February 28, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    I’d go with positive reinforcement.
    Ashley gets a big buzz about being a ‘good boy’ and rarely does bad things.
    I think the key is not trying to apply what works on kids without challenges. Like everything else in their lives we have tailor, modify, tinker until we find a way that works.
    Good luck.

  9. by Amy

    On February 28, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    I’d agree with Alisa, take the iPad away if that’s the appropriate consequence and ignore the paper swiping (I guess you can work on him not doing that later!). Maybe get a little timer and tell him when it goes off he’ll get the iPad back – that way he’ll know it’s the timer saying when he gets it back, and doesn’t associate his paper swiping with its return (I’m not sure if he is cognitively able to understand that, but from what I read on your blog I think he could?)

    My daughter is 3 and can’t sit unassisted, so if she gets a timeout I have to lay her on her stomach, facing a corner. Which seems mean, but what else can I do, other than strap her in her high chair, which seems meaner (she does get time outs in her chair, but that’s when she throws her food at meals, so she’s already strapped in).

  10. by still learning

    On February 28, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    Reading all of these responses just brought tears to my eyes. My son is three, doesn’t understand a whole lot and doesn’t speak at all. He doesn’t really care about anything, if you take a toy or a favorite movie, he’ll just get another one. He doesn’t understand punishment, just thinks we’re being mean and seems to forget why he was punished and go right back to doing it a short time later. The biggest issues are with throwing things, banging on the tv, and putting things in his mouth, and when he’s upset it’s hitting. I’m at such a loss with what to do, having three other children, younger and older, they all like to try and test my patience at the same time. And I agree, it’s not fair that they are all disciplined in ways that seem far more harsh than him.

  11. by Rick

    On February 29, 2012 at 6:16 am

    Is taking the iPad away a proper punishment? I disagree. Remember, in Max’s case, his iPad is his voice. I have always considered taking a kids assistive talking device tantamount to gagging a kid that can talk. Yes, I certainly agree with the “go sit quietly in the corner” punishment, having earned it myself many times, but I would never agree with physically preventing a person from speaking.

    The flip side is that the iPad, unlike earlier communication devices is a multi purpose device. While, for example, a dynavox is only capable of speaking, the iPad has all kinds of available games and applications for it. Instead of taking the iPad away, I would say if Max needs to be redirected, drop the iPads network connection at the router… This will stop distractions such as YouTube, and still allow Max’s communication app to work.

  12. by Rose

    On February 29, 2012 at 7:41 am

    Interesting…I’ve just come home from a parenting course session where we have been discussing this exact topic – Tripe P Positive Parenting, Stepping Stones (for parents of children with disabilities).We’ve spent the first half (4 weeks) of the course going through all the many strategies you can undertake to encourage positive behaviour – setting a good example, using physical guidance, teaching backwards, providing engaging activities, activity/visual schedules etc. Tonight we started on the subject of managing problem behaviours – planned ignoring, clear , calm instructions, logical consequences etc. So they are providing us with two sets of complimentary strategies (encouraging good/managing bad). I’m seeing some good progress with my 5yo boy with autism who has been quite aggressive that last few months.

  13. by Melody

    On March 1, 2012 at 11:58 am

    Maybe it will help if you remember that discipline is just teaching. Even though it might take a child with special needs longer to learn to read/walk/talk, you still do it. It’s hard sometimes, it takes extra work, time, creativity, patience. But self-discipline is a skill that every child should be encouraged to develop, to the best of their abilities.