10 Ways to Improve Your Child's Behavior

Children with types of special needs that affect behavior and development rarely respond to the same disciplinary strategies used for typical children. The 10 strategies here may go against what you've been led to believe (or have read) about child-rearing—but then, exceptional children require exceptional ingenuity.


Think Like a Detective

Father confronting son

Jamie Grill / Getty Images

Think of bad behavior as a mystery, a complex whodunit with clues and motives and red herrings galore. Who's responsible? What did they do? When, where, and why did it happen?

Jumping to the same conclusions every time your child misbehaves is like arresting the butler any time there's a murder to be solved. 


Use a Behavior Chart

Think your child won't understand or comply with a behavior chart? If you're thinking about a traditional chore-for-reward system, you may be right. But with a little creativity, you should be able to come up with a chart or similar motivational scheme that will give your child a reason to please you. Tailor one to your own challenging child's needs and wants.


Choose Your Battles

"Why does everything have to be such a fight?" That's something you may have asked your child a time or 10, but it's a question worth asking yourself, too: Why does everything have to be such a fight? Is every battle you choose worth picking? Focusing on the things that matter will lessen stress for all concerned.

Think about which behaviors you can really commit to changing.


Count to 10

The "one-two-three" method may work for some kids, but children with behavioral challenges may require extra time to collect themselves. Forcing the issue with a quick three-count will most likely backfire. Try a technique that gives everybody a little breathing room.


Keep a Big "Bag of Tricks"

A little distraction is often all it takes to head off bad behavior. Having a constant, and constantly updated, supply of items and ideas to divert your child can make the difference between a whiny, fussy, tantrum-y time and a fun, funny, contented one.

Start filling your purse or diaper bag with items that reliably captivate or motivate your child.


Set Realistic Goals

It's not bad to be ambitious for your child​ to have high hopes. But if you're setting the bar higher on a regular basis than your child can possibly reach, you're creating a constant experience of failure.

Breaking big goals into little ones helps you build on success.


Keep Track of Transitions

Transitions are tricky for children with special needs—and for their parents too. Better to think through how you'll manage changes of activity beforehand rather than risk a meltdown after a mismanaged one. Think about allowing extra time, warnings, and compassion as you move your child through his or her day.


Say What You Mean

You know your child doesn't always understand figures of speech, the tone of voice, or sarcasm, and you've probably advocated for others to be clear when communicating. But when it comes to laying down the law at home, do you sometimes forget the rules? Clear communication is important to everyone.​ ​

Make sure your expectations are as obvious to your child as they are to you.


Scout Time-Out Spots

Time-out can be an effective tool for kids with special needs, but sending a child to his room if his room is where he wants to be is counterproductive, and not so helpful when you're at the mall, the store, or the park. As with everything else, you'll need to be creative and scout out the location before a time out is necessary. Pick one that works for your child or inspires you to brainstorm your own.


Keep Looking for a Better Way

If you've found a tactic that works for your child, great! Enjoy the feeling of parenting competence while it lasts, because each new developmental change will likely require a new approach. Reading parenting books that deal specifically with special-needs behaviors can bring you a constant supply of fresh ideas and strategies. 

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  1. Gadsden VL, Ford M, Breiner H. Parenting Matters: Supporting Parents of Children Ages 0-8. Washington, District of Columbia: The National Academies Press; 2016.