Disciplining Students with Special Needs
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
Disciplining students with special needs can present challenging issues for teachers. In choosing how to respond when students with disabilities present behavioral difficulties, teachers need to consider what underlies their behavior. The behavioral problems presented by these students often result from feelings of discouragement, frustration and inadequacy.
The student who is ridiculed by classmates because of a physical disability may act out in a misguided effort to gain their approval. The student with a learning disability may misbehave because he feels discouraged by his academic difficulties and wants to deflect attention from his academic problems. The student with a reading disability may lash out in anger due to his mounting frustration with his inability to decode words. If you can identify what lies beneath the student’s overt behavior, you can provide him with the appropriate support and guidance.
What You Can Do
- Become familiar with the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). If the student is classified as eligible for special education, he will have an IEP. This document, required for all special-education students, should include a comprehensive description of his educational strengths and weaknesses. It may also contain management strategies as well as modifications of the school disciplinary code for this student.
- Model respectful behavior toward the student. Your class will look to you for cues about how to interact with the student. Demonstrate by treating him in a kind, sensitive and patient manner, but do not talk down to him. Also use language that is suitable for his age and places him on an equal level with his peers. For example, in asking a classmate to go with the student to the library, it is more sensitive to say “I’d like the two of you to go” than “Take him with you.”
- Find opportunities to praise the student. He may be frustrated by his deficiencies and in need of emotional support. In an honest and sincere manner, praise him for these gains in the presence of classmates (or privately if you sense he will be embarrassed by public recognition). Keep in mind that his accomplishments may not take the same form as those of others students. Small steps may represent giant leaps for the child with special needs.
- Discipline the student when he knowingly misbehaves. While you may feel sympathetic to the student, he should not be exempt from discipline because of his disability unless his misbehavior is a direct result of his disability. Students with disabilities need to know when their behavior is inappropriate as well as receive reasonable consequences for this behavior. Bear in mind, however, that the ultimate purpose of discipline is to teach, not to punish or humiliate.
- Make accommodations for the student to lessen his frustration or difficulties. His behavioral difficulties, which can run the gamut from withdrawal to crying to lashing out at classmates, may result from his frustrations in school related to his special needs. Here are some examples:
- Ease up on the amount of writing required of a student with a handwriting problem.
- Provide alternatives to reading aloud for the student with a reading disability.
- Prepare the autistic child for changes in school routine.
- Give the student with an auditory processing problem extra time to process information presented orally.
- Provide short, simple and clear directions to the student who is a slow learner or cognitively impaired.
- Talk with your class about the student. If you find that his classmates are ridiculing him, find a time when he is out of class to talk with them. Tell them you expect them to be kind to the student and include him in their activities. Help them understand that he has the same feelings and sensitivities as other students. If his behavior is unusual, help them understand why he may behave that way, but emphasize his similarities with them more than his differences. Also avoid using labels or disability language that sets him apart from other students.
- Help the student blend in with other students. Because the student with special needs may stand out in a regular class, it is important to help give him a sense of belonging by treating him as much like his classmates as possible. Give him the same privileges or items that you give to other students, make sure to involve him in your class routines, and expect him to comply with the same rules as other students as long as they are within his ability.