Strategies for Managing Behaviours

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Children with special needs often have challenges in communicating their thoughts and feelings. Because of this, challenging behaviours such as a meltdown, intense crying, throwing things, shouting, flooring, or even aggressively hitting out can happen in response to not being able to communicate. Here are some general strategies that can help you the next time you get into a stressful situation with your child:

1. Stay Calm

The most effective strategy for managing challenging behaviours is to stay calm. It helps us to evaluate and assess the situation and gives us time to think of solutions. It also allows our children to have time to respond to our interventions. 

Our children imitate us in ways we least expect them to. If we are mindful about controlling our emotions well, it becomes a positive example for our children to follow. Likely, if we lash out in anger frequently, they will learn from that too. Responding to a high-anxiety situation with anger and frustration often intensifies the situation further, escalating our children’s intense crying or meltdown.  

2. Talk Less, Slow Down, and Show More

Children with special needs are often single modal; they are often focused on a single type of sense when processing incoming stimuli. To illustrate, a child who is typically triggered by loud noises can be singularly focused on playing with a slime toy that he walks past a construction site without melting down.

As such, when a child is upset and experiencing a meltdown, using repeated verbal instructions can add stress to their sense of hearing. This is because they hear your voice, repeatedly, on top of their own crying sounds and other noises from their immediate environment. Therefore, during a meltdown or any intense situation with crying, shouting, or hitting out, it is important to talk less and reduce verbal demands. If staying completely quiet is not possible, another strategy is to slow down your speech.

Talking less is not enough, as you still need to tell your child what to do. You may want your child to get up from the floor, or at least move to a safer area. These messages can be communicated by showing your child a photo or a visual of what is expected. In doing so, you are teaching your child to process stimuli and information using other senses (sight) instead of the sense which is stressed out (hearing).

Left: Photo of a child sitting on a chair; Right: Visual of a child sitting on a chair

3. Counting Down

Finally, counting down is an excellent strategy for disengaging from an activity, including a meltdown or tantrum. The count down method seemingly slows things down, as counting together encourages joint attention on the decreasing numbers and a distraction from the meltdown at hand. Your child will understand that when the number reaches 1, the activity or meltdown should come to an end. The count-down method gives your child predictability in a concrete manner.

Counting down is a strategy that needs practice and reinforcement. If used often and consistently enough, your child will soon be able to learn this as a routine, reducing the need for long and tiresome persuasions.

Practice, Practice, Practice

It takes time for us to be successful at applying positive behavioural management strategies. The key is to consistently practice them, evaluate, and reflect on the effectiveness of each strategy with your child. It may take many attempts before consistent, successful results are observed. Stay positive, and do not give up!