Managing behavior is one of the toughest challenges a parent of a unique learner faces. You constantly question yourself. You aren’t sure if your child is taking advantage of their disability or if the behavior is something they really can’t help. It often looks exactly the same.

Knowing when to stand firm, knowing when to back off. You do the best you can moment to moment but are never certain you chose right.

There are things that you know they can’t help, but you try to make them stop anyway because you know how cruel the world can be. Sometimes, these moments dissolve into less than stellar parenting moments when you just want them to stop. You lose your cool, or worse, try to suppress who they are.

Sometimes the behavior is just annoying, or even embarrassing. But sometimes it can involve hitting or aggressive behavior toward you or toward their siblings.

So how can you manage behavior in a calm and consistent manner?

Implement These Suggestions for Behavior Management

Always get your child’s attention before giving any instructions or requests
  • If your child is across the room expect them to look and pay attention before giving them direction.
  • If your child is close, get eye contact before giving direction. (You may need to squat at child’s level – face to face or gently hold child’s face with two hands to initiate eye contact at first).
  • If your child initiates conversation or a request, either verbally or with a gesture, expect eye contact before responding.

Note: If your child avoids eye contact take face/chin gently in hands and turn face toward you before giving instruction. Get your face down to child’s level in attempting to initiate eye contact. Give positive reinforcement for even fleeting eye contact at the beginning and raise your criteria with time and progress.

How to eliminate unwanted behaviors
  • General Rule: If possible, avert your head, make no eye contact or verbalization. As soon as your child stops the unwanted behavior, re-direct and involve your child in an activity. Reinforce first positive move. Reestablish eye contact.

Running in the hall or store

  • If your child stops when reminded to “walk” reinforce the behavior i.e. “good walking”. If your child keeps running don’t chase him – walk after him, take him gently but firmly by the wrist or upper arm and walk back to starting point and start again.

Not complying with requests

  • Give gentle physical assistance to complete (hand over hand – see explanation at the end of this article). If your child still resists he may have to be removed to a different area.

Inappropriate use of equipment or other’s property

  • Explain limit and proper use. Physically redirect your child if needed. If your child persists with inappropriate behavior, remove material from the child and/or child from the area.


  • As in the first and second points above. Warn them once only “don’t throw sand (blocks, etc.)”. If your child persists in throwing, without comment remove firmly. Take earliest opportunity to demonstrate constructive play.
  • If your child throws because he has no skills for constructive play, provide with toys fastened to surface and develop a plan for teaching these skills.
  • If your child throws in anger, request ‘pick it up’ and insist firmly but gently that he follow through with hand over hand help if necessary.
  • If your child throws as attention-getting behavior, a specific strategy is probably indicated. You may need assistance from a behavior therapist.

Withdrawn behavior

  • Insist on your child’s presence at some group activities for limited periods of time. May require gentle physical restraint.

Disruptive behavior (banging, yelling, interrupting, etc.)

  • Ignore if possible without verbal or eye contact. If your child persists, turn his chair away from table/group. As soon as they are quiet, redirect or re-involve and reinforce their first positive move. If all else fails, isolate your child to chair/room area.

Tantrums, excessive whining

  • Ignore if possible (as above). If your child is likely to hurt himself remove to a safe area and ignore. If the behavior persists, a specific program for a time-out may be indicated.

Note: Expect escalation of behavior following intervention before behavior starts to decrease.


  • With an adult: Ignore, turn away and if the aggression persists, move away and follow the procedure for withdrawn and disruptive behavior.
  • With children: Remove aggressor firmly but not punitively. No verbalization (don’t say anything nor make any disapproving noises).
  • Seat your child on a chair turned away from the group and stand close to contact your child physically if needed. Comment positively to the other child and comfort ‘victim’ if possible while ignoring your child (the aggressor).
  • Note: If not sure who was the aggressor put both children on chairs or the floor (separated).
  • Leave your child on the chair no longer than 2 minutes. redirect to activity and reinforce the first non-negative behavior.

Other forms of unwanted behavior such as self-abuse, self-stimulation, hyperactivity, etc. will probably require individual behavior management programs.

These strategies for improving behavior are based on the conviction that the child is good, even when you don’t like the behavior. Successful implementation is accomplished when the negative behaviors diminish significantly and the positive behaviors increase. As mentioned above, it is normal that the unwanted behavior will increase or get worse before it gets better. Though this process takes persistent effort on your part, it is well worth it in the end.

Note: Hand-over-hand (h/h) assistance – Place your hands over your child’s hands so that your child follows through to complete each step of a task. As your child is able to complete the last step of a task (reverse-chain) withdraw hand over hand for this final step and begin to decrease, fade the degree of help i.e. slight pressure on the back of the hand – then the lower arm – then the upper arm until no further physical cues are needed.

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Suzanne Cresswell Administrator
Suzanne Cresswell is an occupational and physical therapist who has worked with unique learners for over three decades. Suzanne works to educate and provide proven solutions and strategies to those that parent, instruct and work with unique learners. By creating an understanding of unique learners and their learning behavior, she helps parents, teachers and the students themselves find the ability in learning disability.
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