A child with a severe behavioral handicap exhibits behavior that interferes with
his or her school work and also has extreme difficulty getting along with others.
Over the years severe behavioral problems have also been referred to as emotional
handicaps or disturbances, social maladjusted delinquency, behavior disorders,
conduct disorder or psychological disturbance. Most people agree that these terms
describe behavior that is significantly different from what is expected of
someone at a particular age. According to the Ohio Department of Education Blue
Book, there is an estimated 2 percent incidence rate of children with severe
emotional and behavioral problems requiring special intervention.
To date the cause(s) of severe behavior problems have not been adequately
determined. Factors such as hereditary, brain disorder, diet, stress and family
functioning have been suggested as possible causes but research has not found any
of these factors to be the direct cause of behavior problems.
Some characteristics and behaviors observed of children with a severe behavioral
handicap include: hyperactivity (short attention-span), aggressive/self-injurious
behavior (acting out/fighting), delinquency, withdrawal (failure to initiate
interaction with others, difficulty maintaining friendships, excessive fear,
severe school phobia, truancy), immaturity (temper tantrums, poor coping skills,
inappropriate crying), and learning problems (deficits in academic achievement).
At various times throughout development, most children display some of these
behaviors. However, for a child who is identified as having a severe behavioral
handicap, these behaviors continue over long periods of time.
What Can Parents Do?
The most important thing parents can do for a child with a severe behavior
problem is be consistent and follow through. Parents need to establish a set
schedule allowing for very few changes to be made. A child with a severe behavior
problem tends to function best in a well structured environment. Like all
children, a child with a severe behavior handicap needs to be rewarded for his or
her accomplishments and positive behavior. Parents may find that they focus
solely on the child’s problem behavior, forgetting to notice the positive
behaviors or not rewarding the child for doing something “good.”
When disciplining a child with a severe behavior problem, parents need to
establish a plan with clear ideas of how they are going to address the problem
behavior. Parents should use very few words and do very little talking or
discussion about the situation with the child. State clearly the concern about
the inappropriate behavior with as few words as possible, then discipline the
child appropriately for the situation or behavior observed.
Behavior management is one of the most widely used approaches to teaching
children with behavioral/emotional disorders. The purpose of this approach is to
increase appropriate behaviors and decrease inappropriate behaviors by using
various strategies. These strategies include rewarding appropriate behavior,
token systems, shaping and modeling behavior, and contracting. When using
behavior management strategies, it is most important to be very consistent and
follow through with the strategy used. Behavior expectations need to be clearly
defined for children with a severe behavioral handicap. Using behavior management
requires careful thinking and commitment over a period of time. Behaviors are not
changed over night–it requires patience and time. In addition, parents must
realize that there will be relapses.
Children respond differently to various discipline strategies or techniques.
Parents may need to try more than one approach to determine the most effective
one for their child. Refer to the Behavior Management Cards for additional
information on appropriate discipline techniques for children with severe
In addition to helping these children develop social skills and increase self
control, they need to learn basic self-care skills and to participate in
vocational programming during adolescence.