Parents, listen, raising a child with special needs is not easy. I just read a desperate post from a mom. She may be a good mom. She may be a bad mom. She may have just been seeking attention. I don’t know and I don’t care. She went on and on about how her child wouldn’t do this or that and how he was so difficult and challenging. She shared that he was awful in public which limited her interactions with family and friends and she felt isolated. She said she was living in Hell. Hell. That’s a strong statement. I sent her a virtual hug and some positive words because regardless of the reason, she needed them. You don’t dim your light by lighting another’s candle, right? I hope the positive words of encouragement she was receiving from so many helped her a little.
Listen, moms, dads, grandparents, siblings, caregivers, guardians…you are not failing! This is a hard job. It’s a hard job for which you’ve probably had absolutely no training and are part of the “learn on the job” program. I believe in my heart of hearts that God led me to become a special education teacher. I believe this because I was not that kid who always wanted to be a teacher. Nope, I wanted to be Dolly Parton. I wanted to sing on the Grand Ole Opry. Perhaps that’s also the reason God gave me the voice he did because singing was NOT in his plan. From the day after my son was born, I have thanked God for the path he set me on because I don’t know how people do this who haven’t been trained in special ed. My goodness! Even after training after training, I’m still not successful all that often!
I remember having days where I wanted to lock the door and never leave home again and frankly, there were days that I didn’t care which side of the door my son was on! HARD! Parents, there are days that you should pat yourself on the back just because everyone made it through the day and are fed.
Stop putting so much pressure on yourselves and understand that this is hard and it’s a-okay to admit that.
One day a few months ago, I decided to run into WalMart. My son, 20, was with me and because it was gonna be quick, I decided to attempt going into the store without his wheelchair. We use a wheelchair for safety and compliance, not for mobility. He is quite capable of moving and can run circles around me, literally. This proved to be one of those “what the hell was I thinking moments”. We grabbed 3 items and headed to the register. My child, who is the most impatient person alive, decided that the ONE customer in front of us in the 10 items or less lane, was taking entirely too long. He promptly laid down, IN THE FLOOR, in the checkout lane. Fortunately, no one was behind us, until…a woman walked up. I saw her shoes as I was desperately trying to get my 20 year old man-child to stand up. I looked up from the floor to see my daughter’s elementary school principal. She was a gruff woman, from the day I met her, tough, but fair. She remembered me. God bless this woman. She looked at me, hair a mess, purse and its contents tumbling out, sitting on the floor, half in tears and she said with a voice of a really frightening angel, “Jaxon! Stand up right now!” and my child stopped, thought for a second, gave me his hand to help him up and stood up. He hadn’t seen that woman for at least 10 years. Why did he listen to her? Why did HER voice impact him? (Honestly, I would have gotten up too, she was kinda intimidating…)
Our kids OFTEN listen to other people better than they do us! It’s not uncommon. I’m mom…not a teacher. He knows I’m soft!
Schools have structure, routine and clear consequences for a child’s behavior. They have been trained, often for many, many years on how to deal with challenging behavior. They have years of experience. And still, often, behavior can still be challenging.
Remember that teachers come together and discuss behavior challenges and create a plan to address these challenges. Sometimes at those meetings there will be a teacher, special ed teacher, psychologist, social worker, administrator and even a behavior specialist. Most have master’s degrees and an average of 12 years experience…that’s 72 years of experience and 12 college degrees…in one room, all with the purpose of figuring out how to address YOUR child’s challenging behavior. And still, the ideas often fail and the group is back at the table 4-6 weeks later to come up with other ideas.
Parents…please be kind to yourself. Be gentle. Here’s what I suggest to parents struggling with challenging behavior.
- Understand that behavior is communication. Try to figure out WHAT your child is communicating. Throwing a fit in the store? Is it because of the store? Is he/she bored? Is he/she experiencing sensory overload? Is he/she hungry? Is he/she use to getting a toy at the store and hasn’t gotten it yet? If your child is non-verbal, this may take some detective work. My son hates WalMart. I don’t know why. He’s even become better at going to craft stores, but he does not like WalMart. It may be the lights. It may be the acoustics. Heck, it may even be that he knows I shop longer at WalMart than I do at other stores. I have no clue. But, I experimented. I talked to school and when they go shopping, they give him a list on a clipboard. He has purpose. So I tried it. I put his favorites. I put bananas, yogurt, raisins, then put a few things he didn’t like and then at the end, I put TV’s…because he loves televisions. He was SO much better! Not great, but tolerable and after doing this a few times, I was able to add more time in the store. What is your child trying to tell you?
- Understand that your child can read your mood. I know, you may not believe this but it’s truth. Your child feels your emotions. If you are angry, uptight and just plain stressed, your child feels it. Sadly, that doesn’t mean your little angel is going to turn their behavior around and make you dinner and get you a glass of wine. Oftentimes, your anxiety and stress actually increases theirs. So stop. When things feel out of control. Stop. Take a few deep breaths. As long as everyone is safe, just step away for a minute. Try to think about what is happening and why it’s happening. In that moment, just try to figure out how to get through the day. THEN you can come up with a plan.
- Take data. YES, YOU, PARENT…take data. Schools make decisions using data and so should you. Do you notice that every time little Mary gets a D on her spelling test, she is difficult to get along with for the next week? Does little Peter struggle with sleep every time dad goes out of town on business? Does little Ryan meltdown every time you are running late and are rushed to catch the bus? Does little Susie lose all her points every time there is a substitute teacher at school? Does little Jack lose his mind when he has to stop wearing sandals and start wearing socks and shoes? You get the point. Look for trends. Try to see if there are any commonalities between the events of the child’s day and unexpected behavior.
- Create a plan. I hate to say that to be successful at home, you need to run it like a school, but sometimes that’s the answer. Once you figure out the cause of the behavior, then you can figure out how to help the child. Write the plan down. Maybe for little Peter, who hates when dad leaves on business, you create a social story and start prepping him. Maybe you come up with a plan that little Peter can Facetime with dad each night at 8pm. If you are unsure of how to address the behavior, call the school and ask for help. There is NO SHAME in seeking support.
- Ask for help. Most teachers are HAPPY to help you come up with a plan or figure out behavior. Remember, when this happens at school, there’s a team of people trying to figure it out. Sometimes parents are there, sometimes they are not. Ask your child’s special ed teacher if you can talk to them and bounce ideas off of them. Our goal as parents and educators is to help this little human develop into a successful adult. We are all on the same team with the same goal.
- Be consistent and follow through. If you tell your child they can’t have their iPad until they’ve finished their homework…do not give your child their iPad until they’ve finished their homework. I don’t care if they scream. Do not give in! This is a good reminder to you…don’t make threats you aren’t prepared to follow through with. State your expectation and consequence without emotion. No yelling. No pleading. It’s very matter of fact. “Michael, there is no screaming. Use your words. If you use your words you get your iPad. No words, no iPad.” Will it work? Sometimes! But, at the very least you are teaching your child that you will follow through on both positive and negative consequences. This is very important.
- Self Care. You’ve heard the phrase…you can’t pour from an empty cup, it is true. Take a few moments for yourself every day. I know that’s hard. I live it too. But, I try to find at least 10 or 15 minutes a day. When my son was little, that meant I stayed in the bathroom for a few extra minutes, closed my eyes and just breathed in and out. As he became less needy with immediate things, I tried to pick up a good fiction book that allowed me to step away from reality a bit. At lunch, I’d take a walk around the building. You’d be surprised how even a few moments of “you” time can make a difference.
As parents, we think we should have all of the answers. The truth is, we don’t. We have some of the answers. We know many things. But, it’s important to step back and breathe, assess the situation and come up with a plan. Without a plan, you will continue to deal with challenging behavior. Reach out to experts or other parents and brainstorm ideas.
You are not failing, you are successfully trying and trying over and over again!
Sending you so much peace!