Does behaviour management work with teenagers with intellectual disability?


Question: “As a professional working in a disability service, I am concerned as to how some parents with a teenager with a intellectual disability apply  behaviour management principles, many of whom have attended a Parent Plus Programme. One such example is where a parent of a teen with intellectual disabilities who is non verbal is being encouraged to ignore negative behaviour and to find opportunities to praise and encourage positive behaviour. While this is sound advice it can cause problems when the child with intellectual disabilities who is non verbal is using their behaviour as a means of communicating when something is wrong with them, when they may have a sensory overload etc.. I feel the Parent Plus Programme is an excellent source of support for families and I am just wondering if you have any particular adaptation of the programmes designed for families where there is a child / teen with intellectual disabilities?”


Answer: We encourage facilitators to adapt the Parents Plus Programmes to the needs of the families they are working with, and this is certainly the case in disability settings where families need some more targeted support. The example you give (of a parent ignoring the behaviour of a non-verbal teenager), however, strikes me as a misunderstanding of the principles of the Parents Plus Programmes and this parent would need more specific support in applying them. The principle of ‘tuning in’ and ‘listening’ to your child’s needs is a primary one in Parents Plus and key before choosing a behavioural plan of action.

In a Parents Plus group it would be very important to support the parent to first understand what underpins her son’s behaviour and what he might be trying to to communicate, before she makes a plan. In addition, prevention is always emphasised in Parents Plus. For example, if the boy is suffering from sensory overload, then changing the environment or his routine is key to preventing the problem behaivour. Once the child’s communication is understood then sometimes the praise-ignore principle might be appropriate. For example, if he is using an anti-social way of communicating his needs then it might be important to reduce the attention this behaviour is getting and to increase the attention a more pro-social communication receives.The main point of the praise-ignore principle is to help parents reduce the ineffective negative attention they provide to problem behaviours and to respond in calmer, warmer and more encouraging ways.

Of course, applying these skills when you have a child with special needs often does require special support and attending a Parents Plus group in a community or universal setting may not be enough to achieve this. This is why we often recommend that disability settings like yourself run the Parents Plus Programmes in more intensive ways for these families ( including individual sessions and plenty of time to sort out individual plans). We also recognise there are many additional elements that need to be added to a Parents Plus Programme in  disability setting, such as helping parents manage the different track to independence for their child, as well as the specific challenges presented by the individual disability itself (and we encourage professionals to add these in). I hope these comments are useful to you and I encourage you to attend a training to deliver the programme in your setting.

We also offer special disability network meetings for trained Parents Plus facilitators running groups in disability settings and we encourage facilitators to develop and share relevant materials The next meeting is on the 11th June in Dublin.

John Sharry, Parents Plus Co-Founder