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Managing Behaviors of Children with Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities While Home Schooling

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare — September 4, 2020 — 4 min read
COVID-19 has done it! It has frayed every nerve, thrown our lives in chaos and worn us out.

That’s how the average person may feel. But what if you have a child with an intellectual and/or developmental disability (IDD) who is now essentially home schooled (or, at best, virtually taught at home), requires intense supervision, and demonstrates challenging behaviors to boot?

“Traditional” school provides children with many of their social and learning needs. There are, of course, many benefits of traditional school. School provides structure and routine in a relatively controlled environment with predictable rules. Predictability and familiarity provide comfort for children, especially children with special needs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been disruptive to all lives. This has led to massive changes and causes many people high levels of stress. Stress also often increases negative behaviors in children. Parents already dealing with work, house, other kids, finances, etc., find themselves overwhelmed and not well equipped to handle increased behaviors 24/7. The good news is that parents can take action to help manage these behaviors.

First, make sure you’re covering the basics, which can help students of all abilities

Keep the school week routine going as best you can. Make sure the usual bedtimes and wake up routines are followed.

Establish written or visual rules for school at home. Your child should know the schedule for the entire school day. That includes:
  • When to eat
  • When to rest or take a break
  • What subjects covered and when
  • When to do other school and non-school activities
Set up a “school” space in the home that is free from distractions. Certain noises or sounds can “trigger” behaviors. Try to identify and prevent the triggers before they happen.

You may need to take frequent breaks. How long depends on your child’s tolerance for sitting or standing in one place. Incorporate stretch and exercise breaks.

When challenging behaviors happen, try these tips for managing them

First, take a deep breath and remember that no matter how hard a parent or caregiver has worked to maintain a routine and promote a calm, focused learning environment at home, frustration can still happen.

Remember that some degree of frustration is normal for any child

Even if mild levels of frustration trigger behaviors, make sure your child has a safe place to calm down. Low levels of frustration often fade if a child is given space and some time.

Interrupt and redirect when challenging behaviors occur

When children engage in challenging behavior, interrupt and redirect your child to the appropriate alternative behavior. Use minimal attention, discussion, and emotion.

Behaviors don’t just “disappear” on their own. They must be replaced with a different, more positive behavior. If your child shows aggressive behaviors, ensure that the environment is safe. Move sharp objects or items that can be damaged out of reach.

Keep interactions minimal during challenging behavior

While ensuring your child’s safety, provide minimal attention to the challenging behavior. The two most likely reasons for a challenging behavior are attempts to:
  1. Get attention, or
  2. Avoid or escape a non-preferred or undesired activity
Sometimes if we attend to children during this time, we are reinforcing their inappropriate behavior. 

Track specific behaviors

Track specific unwanted behaviors on a form or chart that includes columns for the following:
  • Triggers
  • The behaviors that occur
  • Consequences for the behavior
  • Duration of the behavior
  • Intensity of the behavior
This will help you and your healthcare team determine the best interventions.

Use immediate positive reinforcement to promote positive behaviors

If your child has been sitting quietly for five or even 10 minutes and this is a success for them, reward them. You can either give them something they desire or allow them to do something fun.

Make sure that the reinforcement is not so distracting that you can’t get back to school work!

This can be as simple as giving a child a desired sticker for appropriate behaviors. If they are able to earn five stickers per day (as an example), they receive some treat or reward at the end of the day.

Make sure your child gets some exercise

Don’t forget the importance of exercise and activity every day for every child.


About the Author
Patricia Babin, Ph.D., PharmD, serves as Cardinal Innovations Healthcare’s IDD Clinical Director and Lead Psychologist. She shares her expert advice for addressing challenging behaviors at home.
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