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Education: Special Needs


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Is It Really Bad Behavior? Finding the Positives through Reframing

by Jack Taulbee, Ed.M., M.A.

The obstruction for most special needs children is that they, and the people around them, are so focused on the weaknesses caused by the disorder that the child’s good qualities are overlooked. The challenge for adults is to avoid the predictable path of looking at the disorder’s symptoms pessimistically and to begin instead down a new road—that of focusing on the positive aspects of a child’s actions. This is called reframing.

For example we can use reframing to change behavioral descriptions like “obstinate” into “determined or persistent.” In this way we can help others open their mind to a child’s strengths, which are often detrimentally masked by the symptoms of the disorder.

For instance, when a well-meaning person says, “Your child is so insensitive with her words!”  you might reply, “She’s always been very honest, maybe more so than needed, but she is honest.” This does not make an excuse for impulsive insensitivity, but it does advocate a positive quality in the child. This is important for the child to hear and is more constructive than the pervasive feeling of shame that results from hearing disapproving comments on a regular basis.

How many personal success stories from history and business contain elements of an extremely obsessive-compulsive nature? We’ve all read about those who could not let go until they made that all-important and seemingly impossible breakthrough leading to success.  Afterward, historical writers praise such individuals as great people who strove for high ideals against tremendous odds; yet people who personally experienced their overbearing obsessions might not offer such an optimistic description.

It is all a matter of perspective!  Difficult behaviors may well offer clues to the child’s most valuable strength.

I see special needs children every day who are continually berated for negative behaviors, which causes them to retreat further into a destructive state of mind about themselves. This only leads to additional acting out: we are what we think we are.

What children truly need are caring and kind adults who will show them acceptance, give them positive feedback, and engage in novel ways of viewing their behaviors through reframing.

Following are a few practice examples illustrating negative to positive reframing:

The skill of focusing on the positive is nothing less than practicing the art of reframing. Break out that thesaurus!


February 18, 2013

Jack Taulbee is the author of Understanding Children of Special Needs: What Every Parent Needs to Know.  To contact Jack or order his book, see his Web site.

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