THE POWER OF ATTITUDE in Reaching Children with Special Needs

By Wertz, Steven R.; Wertz, Kaitryn | The Exceptional Parent, February 2000 | Go to article overview

THE POWER OF ATTITUDE in Reaching Children with Special Needs


Wertz, Steven R., Wertz, Kaitryn, The Exceptional Parent


Attitudes, thoughts, and feelings are important when we parent a child, and have a greater impact on our effectiveness than techniques or strategies. Parents who examine and change their own thoughts and feelings become more effective in virtually every circumstance. By understanding the role of our attitudes, we become less likely to reinforce and teach unwanted behaviors in our children. We also become more capable of inspiring our children to develop self-confidence, the desire to learn, and the strength to overcome difficulties.

This principle is especially important in extreme situations. I have worked with parents whose children break glass, throw food, smear feces, bite, kick and spit. Why do children do these things?

I have found, from my experience working with parents and teachers, that the most powerful and effective approach with children who have special needs is a marriage of mind and heart, science and attitude. We can meet the challenge by strengthening both. Consider Kevin, 12, who has autism, and his father, Joe. Joe was very concerned about Kevin's aggressive behavior. Kevin often hit, kicked, scratched, or bit people. The only way Joe could stop him was to restrain him, or, if all else failed, hit him. But Kevin's aggression was escalating, and Joe was at his wit's end.

When Joe and I later discussed his reactions, Joe revealed his fear that Kevin's behavior was a reflection of poor parenting. He felt inadequate to handle Kevin. As he explored his feelings, he began to change his outlook. He decided that Kevin's behavior was not a reflection of bad parenting, but an indication that "normal" parenting was occurring where extraordinary parenting was necessary. Joe realized that he could use Kevin's outbursts as opportunities to find the extraordinary within himself. Instead of focusing on how to stop Kevin, Joe now wanted to help Kevin learn to interact gently.

The next session was very different. When Kevin kicked Joe, Joe said softly, "Kevin, no matter what you do, I'm never going to hit you again." Kevin grew more agitated and tried to kick his dad again. Joe moved out of the way and repeated his statement. Kevin started to cry. He said, "I'm supposed to kick you and you're supposed to hit me. That's how we do it."

For Kevin, the violent interaction was a ritual. It was consistent and predictable, and it provided him with attention. Joe had unintentionally reinforced Kevin's behavior with his angry reactions.

Attitudinal training helps parents become comfortable with the challenging behaviors of their children. When parents change their feelings about such behaviors, both the frequency and intensity of the incidents diminishes.

As was the case with Joe and Kevin, when we are uncomfortable, we are likely to react in ways that reinforce the very behavior we do not want. When we become comfortable with the same behavior, we are able to shape our responses in order to elicit the behavior we want.

We can also use attitude as a powerful educational tool. When encouraging the development of new skills, our primary job is not to focus on a particular subject, but to teach a love of that subject or skill. For example, 3-year-old Sarah babbled, but she never imitated sounds or spoke words. Sarah had one great love in her life: Cheerios. In this particular instance, she sat on a stool with a bowl of Cheerios on a nearby shelf. She was babbling and disengaged. In the middle of random sounds, she made a noise vaguely like "O". Her teacher said, "O's?" He jumped theatrically, ran, grabbed Cheerio's, and thrust them into Sarah's hand--repeatedly saying, "O's!"

Sarah looked at the cereal and softly said, "O." She laughed, beginning a game in which she periodically called out "O's" and the teacher raced for the cereal. Her typical blank expression was replaced with a huge grin. Sarah was not just making a sound. She was delighting in the power of sound. …

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