Happiness, being happy, is a subjective state. What is “happy” for one person might not be for another one. But for the sake of this discussion I think we can agree that when we are happy we feel good, we are more in control of our behaviors, and we enjoy ourselves. Most people know how to be happy for the most part because they know what makes them happy. An activity they enjoy doing, a favorite restaurant, time with loved ones, success at work, the satisfaction of fulfilling responsibilities, etc. In behavioral terms, most people know how to meet natural contingencies of reinforcement, or how to obtain rewards.
For kids with special needs this doesn’t come naturally. They often live in a state of confusion and anxiety. Not only is it difficult for them to understand what’s going on around, they don’t know how to meet natural contingencies of reinforcement. In plain English, they don’t know how to achieve positive experiences. The chaotic organization of their behaviors can make them feel in a constant state of discontent. This can cause frustration, anger, disappointment to the people around them who then react with aversive methods of discipline. Which then feeds the cycle.
Therefore, it is our job as teachers and parents to rescue them. We need to teach them how to be happy. In the process, we can also manage their behaviors.
How do we do this?
As explained in my blog post titled “What’s your talent?” we do so by exposing them to experiences where they can feel a sense of success and achievement:
1. Contrived rewards and praise have to be built into their daily schedule of activities, at home and at school. Instead of waiting for them to fail to reprimand them, let’s create the environment and provide them with the necessary support to succeed.
2. Catch them being good. Even during challenging situations make an effort to praise them for something. Do not focus exclusively on the “bad.”
3. As we discussed in a previous blog (See “Fun can change behaviors”), something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behavior for the better. For example, if a child is resisting brushing teeth, going into the bathroom together and singing a funny song may be motivation enough. If getting dressed is a struggle, initiate a game of tickle, act silly and turn getting dressed into something fun. Instead of demanding that a child clean up the toys, turn on some music, dance around and turn it into a game. Make it fun and you will make it easier.
4. Another way to help them be happy is to teach the child a more effective and appropriate way to get her needs met. If your child is having a hard time doing homework, for example, teach her to ask for breaks, or help.
Disciplining our kids is part of our job description as a parents and teachers. I know I’m doing my job right when I make them laugh/smile. I do that best when I’m enjoying my time with them. You need to have “fun” in your toolbox because fun is one of the most powerful tools of discipline.
Daniel Adatto, BCBA