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Encouraging Social and Behavioral Development in Children with Special Needs

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Young, smiling woman giving a special needs girl a piggyback ride in a park
Raising your child with special needs well is a marathon, not a sprint. Teaching social and behavioral skills will take time and energy.

Social and behavioral skills are essential for lifelong success. Unfortunately, children with special needs often struggle with these skills. For example, some kids with certain special needs have difficulty greeting others properly. That skill deficit could later translate into occupational challenges. Other children have trouble interpreting and using facial expressions and gestures, which interferes with communication.

Then, of course, there are cognitive delays that will impede the child. And while motor deficits don’t necessarily result in behavioral and social problems, the bullying and feelings of being isolated or different these children experience certainly can.

Special Needs and Wonderful Works

Regardless of a child’s abilities or disabilities, God’s word teaches that each of us is incredibly valuable. As we learn from Psalm 139:14: “…I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well” (NIV). This is just as true of children with special needs.

The term “special needs” represents a beautiful canvas of life. It’s a broad category, which requires us to approach it in broad terms. I can address this with confidence not only because I’m a pediatrician, but because I have cerebral palsy. While I may now be described as an adult with a disability, I once belonged to this amazing group of kids with special needs.

Understanding Your Child with Special Needs

Identify Their Needs and Strengths

The vital first step in addressing social and behavioral deficits is to identify them. It’s critical for parents to recognize these so they can realistically approach the limitations their child faces. At the same time, the primary focus shouldn’t be what a child can’t do but what he or she can do. Find their strengths and play to them!

Of course, your son or daughter has limitations — but so do typical children. As you would with any other child, emphasize your “atypical” child’s strengths and maximize them. It is important that we not limit children by their disabilities or challenges. Instead, we need to give them the freedom to achieve whatever successes and accomplishments they can in life. Do not let the disability define your child; allow your child to define his disability.

Once you identify your child’s strengths, allow her to explore what brings her joy. It will also bring you joy and contentment. Is she creative? Buy her some paints and paintbrushes, or consider enrolling her in an art class. Is your son into music? Think about an instrument he might enjoy. Pinpoint their strengths and they will benefit tremendously as you help them learn to be adaptable and problem solve. Make their victories and times of growth occasions to celebrate.

Establish Appropriate Expectations

One of the traps parents of children with special needs can fall into is the notion that their child’s limitations mean that not much should be expected of them. On the contrary, all children should be given goals to strive for. You should set certain expectations for your son or daughter (and help your child to hold those expectations for themselves). To the extent that something is possible for your child to achieve, stick with the mantra, there’s no such thing as can’t.

While you should set expectations for your child, it’s important to avoid unrealistic ones that they can never meet. Few things are as discouraging as when the bar is raised to an impossible height.

Shape your expectations to your child’s capabilities. I was fortunate that while my physical disabilities were significant, I had no cognitive disabilities. I was able to achieve academically. Sadly, some disabilities are so profound that a child might never go to school, hold a job, or live independently. He or she may spend extended periods of time in the hospital, or need adaptive technologies, special services, or physical therapy. Grieve those things as you need to, but don’t let them rob your child of the benefits of having goals and expectations.

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Encourage Your Child to Dream

Beyond just having expectations, children with special needs should be prompted to stretch themselves and dream as big as possible. As I mentioned above, unrealistic expectations aren’t helpful (and can be harmful). But parents need to drop any assumptions that a disability will necessarily keep their child from reaching far. Encourage your child to do and be his absolute best.

Your Outlook Is Contagious

The way you handle adversity will affect your child’s approach to life. I don’t diminish the pain and difficulties faced by many families of children with special needs, but how you respond to your child’s problems really matters. When you face life with a “poor me” attitude, your kids will likely do the same. If you face problems head-on with God’s help, your kids will learn to do the same.

Encouraging Social and Behavioral Development in Children with Special Needs

With these thoughts in mind, here are some specific ideas to help your child grow socially and developmentally.

Stick With a Routine

Children with special needs often benefit from regular routines. For instance, children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) often do not cope well with change and need particular behavioral routines. We know, though, that life is full of changes. It may not be easy, but parents and family can work together to help the child adjust to specific alterations in routine.

Engage in Your Child’s Treatments

Interventions where parents are involved generate positive outcomes.

Regardless of the therapy (applied behavior analysis for ASD, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy), success is amplified when parents are actively engaged.

Additional Ideas for Social and Behavioral Development

  • Recognize that every interaction (a smile, a nod) is your child expressing himself. Respond with interest and excitement.
  • Regularly show affection with hugs and kisses. If your child has a sensory processing disorder that makes this kind of physical contact uncomfortable, look for other ways (including physical ones) to express love.
  • Talk with your child regularly throughout the day, and pay attention when they are talking to you.
  • Use positive reinforcement — catch your child doing the right things and offer a word of praise or recognition.
  • Give your son or daughter opportunities to interact with other children. Playdates are great occasions for young ones to learn social skills like sharing or taking turns. For school age kids, organized clubs, band, choir, or similar groups can allow social skills to be honed while participating in activities that draw on a child’s interests and strengths.
  • Model social and behavioral skills for your child. Let them see you expressing genuine emotions appropriately. Be an example of patience, kindness, and grace. Help them talk about how they are feeling.
  • Let them see what positive relationships look like in the way you relate to others.

For Parents: Ways to Alleviate Stress

Research shows that parents of children with disabilities experience more stress than parents of typically developing children. This is something moms and dads don’t need scientific studies to know. Teaching social and behavioral skills will take time and energy. Raising your kids well is a marathon, not a sprint. The following tips can help you and your family in the long run.

1. Dive Deep into Parenting Resources

Parenting doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and even those who feel like pros often find there is something new to learn. Take advantage of the wealth of resources and programs designed to help build parenting skills. For information about specific parenting programs, contact your child’s health care team.

2. Invest in Spiritual Growth

While your son or daughter may not be able to participate in certain physical or academic pursuits, they can thrive in the most important arena of life — that of the spirit. No matter your child’s physical or cognitive disabilities, he can still experience wholeness of spirit and a vital, vibrant spiritual life. Teach your child about God, read the Bible with him and pray with him. And be sure to nurture your own spiritual life as well.

3. Rely on Your Child’s Care Team

In the best circumstances, your child will have a multidisciplinary team including therapists along with teachers who can help implement an individual education plan (IEP) if needed. Keep in contact with them, especially if you have questions or run into problems that you’re not sure how to handle.

4. Rely on Your Social Network

This can be a grueling journey. You were not designed to go it alone. Lean on your friends for support. If possible, identify others who have experience with raising kids with special needs and draw them into your support network

5. Keep a Sense of Humor

The old observation that “laughter is the best medicine” is great wisdom. My family relied on humor a lot. Laughter releases anxiety and tension and can lift a lot of weight from your shoulders. For instance, your autistic child may repeat a particular phrase over and over or he may be watching the same cartoon for the millionth time. You can choose frustration or you can look for the humor in it. When you are taking your daughter to the hospital for the fifth time in 2 weeks you can hang on to that feeling of hopelessness or you can joke about how they should start giving you private parking or a room with your name on it. As they say, 10 percent of life is what happens to you, 90 percent is how you react to it.

Each of us was created in God’s image, and we were designed to live in community as social beings. This means we all need to develop good social and behavioral skills. While helping a child with special needs develop those skills may be challenging at times, support, resources and tools are available. If you or a family member have questions or could use some additional direction, get in touch with the Christian Counselors Network or call 1-800-A-FAMILY. If you need assistance or guidance reach out for it. And never give up on your child or yourself.

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There Is Still Hope for Your Marriage

You may feel that there is no hope for your marriage and the hurt is too deep to restore the relationship and love that you once had. The truth is, your life and marriage can be better and stronger than it was before. In fact, thousands of marriages, situations as complex and painful as yours, have been transformed with the help of professionals who understand where you are right now and care deeply about you and your spouse’s future. You can restore and rebuild your marriage through a personalized, faith-based, intimate program called, Hope Restored.

There Is Still Hope for Your Marriage

You may feel that there is no hope for your marriage and the hurt is too deep to restore the relationship and love that you once had. The truth is, your life and marriage can be better and stronger than it was before. In fact, thousands of marriages, situations as complex and painful as yours, have been transformed with the help of professionals who understand where you are right now and care deeply about you and your spouse’s future. You can restore and rebuild your marriage through a personalized, faith-based, intimate program called, Hope Restored.

There Is Still Hope for Your Marriage

You may feel that there is no hope for your marriage and the hurt is too deep to restore the relationship and love that you once had. The truth is, your life and marriage can be better and stronger than it was before. In fact, thousands of marriages, situations as complex and painful as yours, have been transformed with the help of professionals who understand where you are right now and care deeply about you and your spouse’s future. You can restore and rebuild your marriage through a personalized, faith-based, intimate program called, Hope Restored.
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Understand How to Respect and Love your Son Well

Why doesn’t my son listen to me? Have you ever asked that question? The truth is, how you see your son and talk to him has a significant effect on how he thinks and acts. That’s why we want to help you. In fact, we’ve created a free five-part video series called “Recognizing Your Son’s Need for Respect” that will help you understand how showing respect, rather than shaming and badgering, will serve to motivate and guide your son.

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Next Steps: Marriage Assessment

We want your marriage to be thriving and healthy. Take the free Marriage Assessment from Focus on the Family to learn how to strengthen your bond with your spouse and get the tools to help you need to grow closer together. 

Next Steps: Fruit of the Spirit Devotionals for Couples

The Fruit of the Spirit Devotional is a free series of nine short videos to get you into God’s Word and inspire you to seek the Holy Spirit’s help in loving your spouse.

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