Raising and educating special needs children can be challenging. Last Saturday, Dr. Anne Maxwell, a behavioral intervention consultant in special education, spoke with parents and teachers in District 97 about how to deal with some of those challenges.

The well-attended morning lecture on Behavior Management Strategies for Children with Special Needs took place at Holmes Elementary School, 501 N. Kenilworth Ave., sponsored by Dist. 97’s special education department.

Maxwell, whose primary work is with autistic children, has consulted with Dist. 97 in the area of behavior prevention for the last three years.

Maxwell has usually given such talks to teachers and staff, but her presentation Saturday included many parents.

Before going into her talk, Maxwell first defined what “behavioral problems” are in special needs children. Any behavior that is dangerous or destructive to the child, other people or to property is considered a problem. Or, if the behavior interferes with the child’s existing or learned skills. Parents in particular, she noted, sometimes struggle with understanding why their special needs child behaves a certain way or does certain things.

Maxwell said the goal isn’t to identify a behavioral problem and get the child to stop it. The goal, instead, is to replace certain behaviors with other adaptive skills. Behavior management, she insisted, needs to be linked with a skill instruction program for children.

“If you’re proposing to take non-adaptive behaviors away from a student, you need to have a plan to replace those,” Maxwell said. “It’s not as simple as ‘OK, let’s find a behavior to substitute.’ In a broader sense, we should always be thinking about what other skills do we need to provide for this student?”

Throughout her roughly one-hour talk, which included a Power Point presentation, Maxwell answered questions and listened to examples of behavioral challenges from parents. She pointed out that some behaviors could be a sign of something else, like the child wanting attention.

She shared a situation involving an autistic child she once worked with. One of the things the child liked to do was talk about Paul Newman’s salad dressing.

The child was fascinated with that and would ask everyone, “Do you like Paul Newman salad dressing?” If the person said yes, he’d ask, “What kind?, and if no, he’d ask, “Well, why not?”

This, she said, is an example of perseveration, or a fixation on something to the point of obsessing on it. It could be verbal, like a child asking the same question over and over again, or physical, like a child wanting to carry or hold a specific item.

Maxwell said this particular child was fascinated with the label, which typically has the actor’s face on it, sometimes wearing different costumes. What the child really wanted, she said, was to engage with people.

Instead of suppressing a behavior, parents and adults should teach children better ways of connecting, she suggested. Parents can, for example, set aside or schedule a time for the child to talk about their interest, but keep it reasonably limited.

Maxwell added that adults shouldn’t miss those opportunities to learn why special needs children do the things they do.

“We came to learn that he wanted so much to gain attention from somebody and to have an exchange, and that’s a positive thing,” Maxwell said of the child. “If we had missed the reason why he was doing it and didn’t teach him better ways of connection, we would have done him a huge disservice.”

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