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The 10 Essentials to Keep in Mind When Working with Children with LD

Rick Lavoie’s essential 10-point philosophy for understanding and managing the behavior of children with learning disabilities.

In order to effectively understand, manage, and control the behavior of children with learning disabilities, the parent or professional must develop and subscribe to a philosophy. This belief system must be one that you trust and believe in fully. Only with such a philosophy can one develop and implement effective behavior management strategies. Consider: A behavior management philosophy is akin to a religious faith. It would be pointless to develop and nurture a strong religious faith … only to abandon or discard it when you face a crisis in your life. In point of fact, a person develops such a faith for the purpose of utilizing it when crises occur. So it is with a management philosophy. You should develop a personal philosophy, nurture it, and believe in it. Thus, it will enable you to make sound instantaneous decisions when you face a crisis situation with a child.

1. You don’t work with learning disabled children … rather you work with children with learning disabilities.

This statement goes well beyond a bit of simple wordplay or an attempt at political correctness. Rather, it states forcefully that our students are — first and foremost — children. They have the same rights, responsibilities, feelings, needs, and fears of all children. As a professional or as a parent, you would do well to be ever-mindful of this tenet.

All too often, we expect the child to sacrifice his childhood or his adolescence at the altar of his disability. Tutoring replaces Little League. The caregivers must do all in their power to ensure that the child has as typical a childhood experience as possible.

2. Any child would prefer to be viewed as bad rather than dumb.

This tenet is particularly true and applicable when dealing with adolescents. When faced with a choice, most children would prefer to be viewed as disruptive, disobedient, and disrespectful than be viewed as incompetent or incapable. The key to effective behavior management, therefore, is to avoid placing the child in the position of “looking dumb.”

Suppose a basketball coach is overseeing her team’s practice session. She asks a player to come to enter court to assist in the demonstration of a new or unfamiliar drill. On her way to the court, the player pushes a teammate without provocation. The coach should instantly recognize that the child’s behavior was probably precipitated by the player’s fear that she would not be able to successfully complete the drill and she would be embarrassed in front of her peers. When given the choice, the player would prefer to deal with the anger of her coach rather than face humiliation in front of her teammates.

3. Special needs kids are distinguished by their regrettable ability to elicit from others exactly the opposite of what they need.

So often a child who needs comforting and empathy will manifest this need by being disruptive (e.g., whining, demanding attention, etc.). It is important to remain mindful of this and adjust your responses accordingly.

Children with learning disabilities often do not understand or possess effective strategies to get attention and assistance. As a result, they use inappropriate — and often disruptive — strategies in an attempt to earn the attention from others.

4. The hurt that troubled kids cause is never greater than the pain they feel.

Children who are experiencing trouble at home or at school often feel powerless and hurt. Their response to these feelings is often inappropriate … they become disruptive and disrespectful. The parent and professional must remain mindful that this behavior is rooted in the pain of rejection, isolation, and fear that they are experiencing.

Therefore, the most effective strategy is to attempt to eliminate the causes of these feelings … not to attempt to simply modify the behavior.

5. In regular education, the system dictates the curriculum. In special education, the child dictates the curriculum.

This concept was initially posited by educational consultant Laurence Lieberman. Parents and professionals dealing with special needs children must consistently recognize that their methods, strategies, and approaches must be child-oriented. It is the needs of the students that should determine the curriculum … it is not the responsibility of the child to adapt to the curriculum. If kids can’t learn the way that we teach … we must teach the way that they learn.

6. Positive feedback changes behavior; negative feedback only stops behavior.

Parents and professionals often design behavior plans that consist of lists of unacceptable behaviors and the parallel consequences for each. This emphasis upon punishment is an ineffective and counter-indicated approach.

For example, if an English teacher consistently punishes a child for leaning back in his chair in class, the slouching will eventually cease … during English class. But the behavior is very likely to occur in other classes. Negative feedback does modify a child’s behavior, but the new behavior does not generalize to other settings.

Children should be praised, reinforced, and rewarded for positive and appropriate behavior. Only by using this approach will the child’s behavior change, improve, and generalize to a variety of settings.

7. Reward direction, not perfection.

It is important to remain mindful of the concept of successive approximations. Reflect for a moment upon the way in which a child learns his native language. The adults in the child’s environment continually reinforce, praise, recognize, and reward every new word that is uttered! This encouragement causes the child’s vocabulary to increase and grammar to improve. We do not wait until the child is fluent in language before we reinforce the progress … we acknowledge every little step in the process. This concept is equally necessary and effective when we are attempting to change a child’s behavior.

Once you have selected a target behavior (e.g., hanging up his clothes), you must be prepared and willing to recognize and reinforce every minor improvement in the behavior (e.g., hanging up some of the clothes). Only through this process of successive approximation will the final goal be realized.

8. It is the squeaky wheel that needs the grease.

When a child demands attention from an adult by disrupting the classroom or the evening meal, the caregiver must be aware that the child needs your attention at that time. You can ignore the behavior … but you cannot ignore the need.

9. A child’s only competition should be against her own performance — recognize and reward “personal best.”

A child can control the behavior of only one person — herself! Therefore, the caregiver should focus attention upon the child’s personal performance and improvements. Avoid using “comparisons” in our attempt to motivate (e.g., “Why can’t you put your things away like Michael does?”). Competitive activities and approaches are generally ineffective with special needs children and create the dynamic wherein some students are eager to see other students fail!

10. There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals.

Parents and teachers must realize that, in order to be fair to their children, they must treat each child differently. We must recognize their unique patterns of strengths and needs. In the life of the family, there will be times when the needs of one family member become paramount. In order to be fair, the parent must react to those needs by investing a disproportionate amount of time, energy, and resources in that child. Parents should not become guilt-ridden about this situation but allot their energies based upon the children’s needs. Parents should feel secure in the fact that the “offended” siblings will, at some time in the future, also require some extra effort in order to meet their unique needs. In summary, parents who go to great lengths to see that they give each of their children the identical amount of energy, time, and resources are probably being unfair to all of them. Let us celebrate the unique strengths, goals, needs, and personalities of each of our children.

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