Claire LaZebnik and Dana Commandatore: What would you do if you found out your son was locked in a cellar for five hours and was denied any access to a restroom, all because he didn't want his hair brushed? How would you react if your daughter came home from school with marks on her wrists and back because she refused to complete an assignment? Sadly, over-the-top and sometimes even abusive discipline of kids with special needs is common practice in public schools throughout the country, as a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has shown.
As two mothers of boys with autism, this is an issue that takes our breath away. We owe it to the safety of our children to bring as much attention to this issue as possible. Children have died while being restrained. Others have committed suicide in an isolation room. These restraint and isolation techniques are theoretically used to control bad behaviors.
Since many of these kids have little or no speech, they often try to communicate through behaviors that are misunderstood and perceived as "disruptive." They're then punished for them. They need structured programs and positive behavior supports written by highly qualified school staff, not restraint and seclusion.
Here's a crash course in positive behavioral interventions: reward good behaviors. Reduce bad behaviors by NOT rewarding them.
Research has shown over and over again that this approach gets results, whereas physical punishment is both ineffective and inhumane.
Too often, kids with special needs are expected to "behave" but no one takes the time to teach them the right classroom behaviors. Instead, they get pulled out of the classroom for disruptive behaviors they can't control, a tactic which is often inadvertently rewarding (it means they get to escape from doing any work) and which doesn't teach them anything at all. The child's disruptive behaviors will only escalate in this situation, leading to a similar escalation in punishment.
If a student is having trouble in the classroom, the teacher or aide needs to make it very clear what behaviors they want to see -- e.g., sitting at his desk quietly working -- and once he understands that, immediately start to reward him for successfully maintaining that behavior for a period of time. Depending on the child's age and functioning level, his reward could be a piece of candy after just one minute of working quietly, or a gold star after ten minutes (and maybe ten gold stars gets him something he really wants, like a few minutes free to play with a favorite toy). Gradually, the length of time can be increased. So long as bad behaviors aren't getting him out of doing the work or allowing him to escape from the classroom, the child will quickly learn that sitting still and doing the work is ultimately far more rewarding than being disruptive.
In the two books Claire has co-authored with Dr. Lynn Kern Koegel, Overcoming Autism and Growing Up on the Spectrum, we offer many more strategies for teaching and rewarding the classroom behaviors we want to see while decreasing the disruptive ones.
Every educator and parent needs to know that positive behavioral interventions work and punishment doesn't. Restraints and isolation are neither humane nor successful strategies. Unfortunately, as it stands now, adults have more protection against abuse on the streets than children do in our schools. It's vitally important we extend the protections of the Developmental Disabilities Bill of Rights Act to include everyone regardless of age or location. Let's hope Congress hears this call and something is done to stop the abuse.
|Claire LaZebnik is the co-author, with Dr. Lynn Koegel, of Overcoming Autism: Finding the Answers, Strategies, and Hope That Can Transform a Child's Life and Growing Up on the Spectrum: A Guide to Life, Love, and Learning for Teens and Young Adults with Autism and Asperger's. She lives in Pacific Palisades with her husband and four kids.|