Discipline and Kids With Language Delays

Re-posted from June 2011

When I was pregnant, I figured that two areas of parenting would be easy for me: discipline and language development. After all, I have a strong professional background in both, being certified in emotional impairments and learning disabilities (which are mainly language disorders). My kid would be perfectly behaved and be talking in complete sentences by their first birthday.

Well, there’s an old comedy routine, where Bill Cosby states that God has a sense of humor. While the Bean is fortunate enough to have excellent social-emotional skills, when she does misbehave, it is different.

If you pick up a parenting book–any parenting book–, or if you read any book at all on behavioral theories, you will find language. Talking. And lots of it.

Reality therapy is one of my favorite techniques at work. Once the kid has had the opportunity to calm down, you pull them aside and discuss the incident. What happened? What undesired consequences occurred because of the behavior? What can you do differently next time? Lots and lots of dialogue. Do you think I’ve tried this with Beanie?

It would be hilarious if I did!

So what about behavior modification? That’s how we were raised. If you do something undesired, you get a punishment. If you do something good, you get a reward. Of course, these must first be explained. And they are very symbolic, even abstract at times. Other than very simple rewards and consequences, I have not had much success with this.

All that being said, the Bean is very well-behaved! If the goal of discipline is to teach appropriate behaviors, then we are having a great deal of success.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned, about disciplining a child with a language delay:

–Nip problems before they happen. If you know your kid is prone to grocery store tantrums, for example, pick up an apple as soon as you get to the store. These take a long time to eat and will keep your little one busy. If your kid gets into trouble at other people’s houses, get out the bubbles before they have time to get in trouble!

–Repeated redirection. Beanie loves shopping at antique stores. When we first took her shopping, every time she tried to touch something, we said, “No, not for babies.” (She was a baby then). We said it calmly, and as simply as possible. Using too many words is a problem, if your kid has a language delay. It took a lot of repetition, but now she enjoys going to the shops and just looking.

–Distraction. Kids with SPD, especially, get stuck on things. It takes a new, fun activity–preferably in another room–to get her unstuck sometimes.

–Routines. Beanie loves to clean up. She insists on doing it anytime she has finished an activity. This is because her therapists sing the “Clean Up Song” and start cleaning up on their own. Beanie joins in, and at home she will sing the song herself. If she knows that “this is how it’s done,” she will do it that way.

–Make it fun. If you sit the Bean down and tell her to draw a circle, she’ll get mad and flop on the floor. If you both have a crayon, and you start drawing circles (while excitedly saying “circle!” each time), she will join in.

–If there is a problem, it is a language issue. 99% of the time. If the Bean is misbehaving, it is for one of two reasons. 1. She wants to ask for something but doesn’t know how. 2. She doesn’t understand what’s going on.

–Dealing with tantrums. You can’t reason with any kid who is having a tantrum. Don’t even try! Figure out what calms them down the best. Beanie likes to be alone in her room. We send her there when she gets whiny, but she’ll often go there on her own! Some kids like to have you there. Some kids like to be held. While I would love it if we could talk after the tantrum, that is currently an exercise in futility. She still doesn’t get whatever she was trying to get, which may lead to more tantrums. Kind of a floppy repeated redirection. But she’s never had to go to her room more than twice for the same issue. Here’s how it usually goes: I sing the lunch time song. Beanie walks to the table, and sees that there is not candy, ice cream, or at least berries on her plate. She takes my hand and leads me to the fridge, to seek out these items. I tell her that her food is on her plate. She flops on the floor and cries. I tell her she needs to go to her room to calm down. She goes. 5 minutes later she comes back, sees the plate, and leads me to the fridge. The sequence repeats. Then she comes out of her room, nonchalantly has a seat at the table, and eats her grilled cheese.

–Very simple rewards and punishments. I like to use these sparingly anyway, because they are completely extrinsic. But we stick to clapping if Beanie does something well. As far as punishments go, she gets removed from the activity if she is being whiny. If we’re at the park and she get floppy, we go home.

One thing that I always try to keep in mind is that behavior is communication. There is a reason that a child acts a certain way. Our job is, first, to figure out that reason. Next, we need to teach the child to get their needs met in a more acceptable manner.

With a child who has a language delay, it is more of a challenge, but it can be done!

6 thoughts on “Discipline and Kids With Language Delays

  1. Your thoughts are really appropriate for typically developing children as well. As an early childhood educator I have watched many parents talk their children to death or at least boredom & tune out.

  2. I think it is truly wonderful that you understand your daughter so well. I particularly enjoyed the line: behavior is communication. Fantastic insight!

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