Wednesday, March 1, 2017

How do I discipline my special-needs child

I had a set of experiences recently that made me think hard about how I discipline my 3.5-year-old son, Oliver, who has cerebral palsy and speaks only a handful of words.

His preschool recently had an event where parents could come to the school for 45 minutes late one morning and learn about technology used in the classroom. There were several stations set up: a couple of tables with iPads, where the students could take photos of themselves; an area on the floor where students could play with a Code-a-pillarTM; and another area on the floor, out in the lobby, where students could play with a Bee-Bot.
Code-a-pillar (photo from Fisher Price)
Bee-Bot (photo from

My son chose to go to the iPad station first. I fiddled with an iPad for a couple of minutes, trying unsuccessfully to access the camera program. A teaching assistant came over to help us, but by that point, my son was restless and fussing.
“He’s been fine all morning. I don’t know what’s wrong,” she said, concerned.

"I think he needs a nap today," I said.

Oliver and I moved on to the front of the room, where the head teacher was kneeling on the floor with the Code-a-pillarTM. We sat down, and more fussing ensued. I tried to calm Oliver down by placing him on my lap, but as I recall, he continued to fuss.

The teacher asked individual students to add a new segment of “caterpillar thorax" to the back of the Code-a-pillar. When it was Oliver’s turn, she helped him connect the new segment and then asked him to press the button on the Code-a-pillar to make it “go.” He enjoyed this and remained engaged with the toy for a few minutes, even following it around a bit before returning to me and fussing some more.

“Guh,” he said to me. That means he wants to “go,” i.e., walk.

We walked out into the lobby and, along with several other kids and their parents, sat down in front of the BeeBot toy. His personal aide began to demonstrate how it works.

That’s when Oliver’s crankiness escalated.

As I held him, he arched his back and screamed. He bent backwards with such force that he almost hit his head on the floor and I had to struggle to hold onto him.

This was embarrassing and a part of me wanted to leave, but school wasn’t yet finished for the day. I was thinking What should I do? when his aide turned to me and said kindly, “Michelle, you can take him over to the library to help him calm down.”

I did that, and sat down with him and tried to read him a book. The sitting-down part seemed to help, but he wanted nothing to do with the book and soon stood up and said “Guh.”

“Okay, fine, we’ll go.”

He was calmer now, so we walked hand-in-hand around an unoccupied area of the lobby for a bit before returning to the Bee-Bot. Yet again, he began to fuss and cry, and nothing I, nor the teaching assistant who was now there, did could make him happy.

Finally I decided we needed to just go home. I carried him to just outside of the classroom door to gather his things when he screamed at me and, in a fit of rage, yanked my glasses off of my face. It was at that moment that his teacher appeared.

I was embarrassed that she had probably just witnessed this awful moment, and without looking her in the eye, I said defeatedly, “We’re going home.”

“Let me help,” she said calmly. She bent down and faced Oliver, who was now standing on the floor, and said calmly, “Oliver, we need to put your coat on, and then you can go.” She helped him into his coat, and she asked me if I was okay.

I said “yes.” 

But we weren’t out of the school long before I was fighting back tears.


When I dropped Oliver off at school the next morning, his teacher asked to speak with me. Usually she and I will just have a little chat right outside the classroom, within easy hearing distance of other parents, but this time she led me upstairs to a private room and closed the door.

“What was going on with Oliver yesterday?” she asked, concerned. “We just don’t see that kind of behavior from him when you’re not at school.”

As much as I hate to admit it, this wasn’t the first time he had thrown a tantrum in front of me at school. He’s typically in a good mood at school drop-off and pick-up, but when I go to school for special events such as the recent parents’ morning, there’s a pattern of him acting out, I was beginning to recognize.

I speculated out loud whether maybe when Oliver sees me at these infrequent special events, he assumes it’s time to go home, since when he sees me at school, it usually is in fact time to go home. Or maybe he finds the events to be overwhelming, with all the people and the break from his routine.

His teacher agreed that these could be possibilities but also wondered out loud, “Does he act like that with you because he knows he can get away with it?”

This was a difficult question for me to hear, and I left the meeting feeling like a bad parent. Also, I felt angry with his teacher for insinuating that he was acting out with me not simply because I’m his mother but because I was doing something wrong. A part of me said it wasn’t her place to question how I deal with Oliver’s tantrums when they’re not affecting his learning at school. Plus, as a special-needs parent, didn’t I already have enough to worry about as it was?

But then I spent the next few days thinking a lot about Oliver’s tantrums and talking with my husband about them, and I came to realize (although I think I subconsciously already knew it) that we’re softies with him. 

And that we're that way in large part because of his special needs.

Oliver has difficulty using his left hand due to an early brain injury. My husband and I used to jokingly say, “He’s allowed to do anything he wants, as long as he does it with his left hand.”

Oliver’s had 6 surgeries, 7 if you count a major heart catheterization procedure that he had. After all he’s been through, we felt we couldn’t be strict with him.

A little over a year ago, it wasn’t clear how much language Oliver understood. How could we discipline a child who we weren’t sure understood what we were saying to him? I didn’t think we could.

Furthermore, until a few months ago, Oliver couldn’t walk without holding onto something (or someone, as he preferred), so we were used to constantly being near him and, since we were so physically close to him, to attending to most of his grievances, however small.

But now that his understanding of language and his gross motor skills have vastly improved, it’s time for my husband and me to change our approach to tantrums, and I’m now thankful, rather than angry, that Oliver’s teacher has brought this to our attention.

At home we’ve started focusing more on our reactions to Oliver’s tantrums as they come, and asking ourselves, “Can we ignore this one?”

This past weekend Oliver threw a tantrum when I carried him downstairs. He wanted to keep opening and closing doors upstairs, and now he stood at the bottom of the stairs crying and screaming. I had already calmly told him that we needed to be downstairs, and I was about to attend to him again when my husband quietly said to me, “I think we should just ignore this one.”

Of course, there are some tantrums that we can’t ignore. Since Oliver’s ability to communicate is limited, we must attend to any tantrum that doesn’t have a clear-cut reason. By trial and error, we have to figure out if he’s thirsty, hungry, tired, or in pain. It’s especially critical to know if he’s in pain since that can be a sign that his shunt for hydrocephalus is malfunctioning, which would require emergency surgery on his head.

It’s complex, figuring out how to discipline our special-needs child. 

But we’re working on it.

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