by David Stein, Psy.D.
I came across this book purely by chance when I saw a friend post a photo of it on Instagram. The title struck me, and I immediately ordered a copy from Amazon.
I’ll start by saying that we have dealt with behavior issues with Finn, our 8-year old son with Ds, for a long time. Without going into a lot of detail, because this probably isn’t the best forum for that, I will say that the negative behaviors he often exhibits range from mildly annoying to disruptive and obnoxious, to sometimes harmful, and they’ve impacted our family in various big and small ways. As time has gone on, I have found myself more and more frustrated and disheartened. I’ve also felt pretty isolated, as it’s difficult to talk openly about your child’s behavior challenges in what is a climate of competitive and judgmental parenting, and when there is already stigma attached to your child because he or she is disabled, it’s even more difficult to talk about. I have felt isolated even among other parents of kids with Ds or other disabilities who only seem to talk about their kids’ achievements and sunny dispositions. What’s wrong with my kid that he’s so obnoxious and uncooperative so much of the time? What’s wrong with me as a parent? These questions play on a loop in my head.
Supporting Positive Behavior in Children and Teens with Down Syndrome has managed to allay some of the feelings of isolation, and it’s helped me to understand where Finn’s negative behaviors come from, and how to effectively minimize them. It boils down to one basic, common sense fact, and that is that the more attention that is given in reaction to a behavior, the more that behavior will likely be reinforced. The key is to determine which behaviors are harmful or destructive, and respond to those swiftly but unemotionally, and ignore the rest. This doesn’t mean “letting them get away with it”; it means, taking away the motivation (most often, attention seeking) to engage in those behaviors. Other important strategies outlined by Dr. Stein include the use of “token economies,” picture charts of expected behaviors (because kids with Ds are typically a lot stronger visual learners than verbal), and social stories – in other words, building incentives and motivation (like positive attention) into behaviors we want to see more of.
Of course, none of this is really brand new stuff, and to some degree, it’s effective behavior management for all kids, neurotypical or not. I’ve always known on some level that reacting strongly to negative behavior in any of my kids doesn’t tend to do much good – it just lets me blow off steam. But seeing all of this written out in a logical and compassionate way has been very eye-opening. And it’s also helped to read that the behaviors Finn exhibits are extremely common in kids with Ds – so I’m not alone.
As I was reading this book – which at just over 130 pages isn’t long or overwhelming – we had a few family pow-wows to talk about strategies we can all use to encourage more positive behavior from Finn. Finn’s siblings are totally on board, and we’ve all been making a great deal of effort to see Finn’s behaviors in a different light and respond to them more thoughtfully. We are already seeing changes. Finn in some ways seems to be onto us; he’s not getting the strong reactions he’s used to, so he’s upping the ante in some ways by behaving even more obnoxiously in an effort to get a reaction. However, these episodes seem to be petering out a lot quicker without our reactions to fuel them.
I wish I had had this book a long time ago (although it was only published in 2016). I wish Finn’s “team” had had this book when he was still in school. I encourage anyone who is a parent, teacher, or caregiver to a child with Down syndrome to read this book.