Special Needs Children

Discipline special needs children can be tricky and controversial.

I am NOT going to give you the one and only way to discipline but I WILL give you tips on how to adjust your current techniques to fit the language needs of your child. 

Visuals, Visuals, Visuals

Visuals are THE MOST IMPORTANT component and I cannot stress this enough! If children have trouble understanding language or expressing themselves, this difficulty will be exacerbated when emotions are running high. However, visuals can help dramatically!!

What do I mean by visuals you ask?

Well, that is a very good question. You have a few options and this will depend on the specific needs of your child. 

One example would be to have visuals of the unwanted behavior. This could be as simple as a quick drawing or pictures printed off the internet.

These might not be the best visuals but you get the point. When your child gets in trouble, you can point to the wrong behavior to explain what he/she did wrong during a timeout or whatever you use!

Stop-Light System

This visual system can be effective. Have a picture of a stop light or just color a red, yellow, and green circle. When children are making good choices, they stay on green. You can signify this by a paper clip next to the green circle. If they are making some bad choices, they can move to yellow. If they made a very bad choice, they would be placed on red. 

Positive Reinforcement

If you want to shape good behavior, you can reward your child will a token such as a marble. With every good choice, give your child a marble to put in a jar and keep the jar in a very visual spot! You can reward your child for earning so many marbles such as 10 marbles means an extra 10 minutes at the park, etc....

Immediate & Relevant Consequences

Discipline can be quite tricky for a child with special needs because language always plays a part in the process and language skills may be impaired. 

Therefore, this must be considered during the whole process.

For example, let's say a child pushes his brother and takes a toy. The discipline for this action must be immediate and relevant. A good idea would be to remove the child from the playing and explain "no playing when you make unsafe choices." He can go back to playing when he is ready to play nice and safe. A BAD idea, would be to ignore it, shout "share," or not let the child have dessert at dinner later because he didn't play nice while his brother gets dessert.

Besides being cruel, the consequence has nothing to do with the choices made during playing. The child will not understand and not learn a thing.

Use Simple Language

This I can't stress enough!!!!!!!!!! As a speech therapist, I am always aware of the grammar structures and level of vocabulary (frequent vs non-frequent words) when talking with others. 

After pointing this out to my husband, I realize all adults don't do this, ha!

So, let's review what simple language really means.

The language necessary for your child will depend on his level of understanding. If your child is non-verbal, you can always use visuals to describe reactions and help them communicate emotions. 

If your child is speaking, make sure you match your child's language abilities during a time of heightened emotions.


  • Get down to her level and make eye contact
  • Don't shout!
  • Match his language level 

This means...if your child is speaking using 1-2 words at a time, you do the same.

You might say:

  • "no push" 
  • "unsafe choice" 
  • "mommy sad."

DON'T say:

  • "I am very upset that you pushed your brother. You could have hurt your brother. Mommy is very sad because I have told you this a million times." 

In the "DON'T say" version, the child might not understand anything and therefore all learning was lost. The sentences are complex with difficult grammatical structures (i.e., could have) and full of high-level vocabulary (i.e., million).

Keep it simple and remember you are shaping behavior and not language!

If you want practical and easy ways to help improve your child's language abilities, we have LOADS of that! Check out some of our help guides:

Discipline Special Needs Children: Example Techniques

My favorite disciple technique is.......NOTHING! I use different techniques depending on the situation.

  • I may use a timeout as a last resort if my child is being unsafe and can't calm down. I don't call it a timeout but a time to rest and think about choices.
  • I may use a positive reinforcer to shape one behavior such as cleaning up a room.
  • I ALWAYS get down to the level of my child and use a calm voice. I explain that I understand this is hard and upsetting but an unsafe choice is not an option.
  • I may take a toy away if he is not being safe with it (i.e., smacking his brother in the head) and he can have it back when he is ready to make safe choices.

Techniques will depend on the child's age, behaviors, cognition, and language abilities.

Always remember:

  • Visuals
  • Immediate and relevant consequences
  • SIMPLE language!
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