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Christian Families Homeschooling Special Needs Children

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Rewards and Motivation

By Tom and Sherry Bushnell


    The concept of rewarding a job well done is Biblical. We could take up the entire space in this article giving examples, but perhaps it is better that we look in the Word ourselves if we have any doubts!

     Salvation is a gift from God, but life has it’s rewards for doing right, and consequences for doing wrong. Some folks have trouble with the idea of tangible rewards in training children. We’ll agree, the ideal is that all children would have the mental capacity to understand that they should be doing what they are asked, from a desire to please Dad and Mom. The fact is some children are so mentally delayed, that they cannot comprehend this concept.

     The secret to successful therapy is a child’s inner motivation. Mechanically taking a child through paces, or just moving legs up and down, has not proven to be as successful as having children work their muscles. Success itself is often enough reward! So what do we do about a child that is unmotivated, mad unresponsive, recoils, rebels acts uninterested, or pouts?

Here are some important areas we need to look at before motivated, successful therapy can take place.


    1. A child must respect the person asking them to do a skill harder that they want to do.

      Before a parent takes on the project of getting a child moving toward goals, obedience and respect must be in place. "This is attitude therapy." A parent cannot get their child to obey, or even sit still, is in no place to start therapy session with their child. There are many good resources teaching parents how to bring about desired communication and respect with their child.


    2. Along with respect comes trust. A child must know that the person will not cause them peril (or what they perceive as peril), as a result of what they are asked to do


    3. Interest. Do you have your child’s interest, or is something distracting them? Is the television or radio going? Are there brothers and sisters coaxing them in an opposite direction? Making an effort to follow brothers and sister can be therapy itself, but a fit of the giggles won’t help, if you are needing to get your child to concentrate.


    4. Is your child tired, hungry or not feeling well? These are legitimate questions to answer before therapy starts, not in the middle of a bad session underway. Has your child gobbled down breakfast played happily and generally been him or herself all morning? Is it close to meal or naptime?


    5. How good are you at observing? This one skill all parents should fine tune. What are we observing?

      A. Is your child trying?

      B. Is your child successful in maneuvers or skills that should preclude the skill you

      C. Are asking them to perform?

      D. Is there an easier, more efficient, or


    6. Is the therapy program beneficial for the entire family?   

     As a family, we can learn to make adjustments or give a delayed child more time and attention, but not at the expense of the others. Biblically, a wife or husband should put each other first, then children. A therapy or homeschool program that requires a wife to sink all her emotions, skills and time working toward reaching a goal with a child or children, would not be beneficial for the entire family. Many marriages suffer because the priorities of either husband or wife become focused on the wrong family member. God’s way ALWAYS works best.

Healthier way for your child to perform the same skill?


     After these issues have been addressed, the next question might be "how" do we motivate a child. After observing a situation, parents can usually assess whether attitude adjustments need to be made logically where to start moving forward. If parents are at loss and feel they need a beginning point, hiring a therapist on a consultation basis would be a good idea. I think all parents who are implementing therapy with their child, have been at the point of needing to either back up or frustrated on which direction to move forward in. This is a good spot. All good beginnings start somewhere!

     Here we will give a few examples of what parents have done to start in their particular situation.

     We’ll start with us, the Bushnell's. We adopted our first daughter from India. She was 21 months old when we brought her home, and born blind. Malnourished, she spent her first month home curled up in the fetal position on her side. She would not respond to anyone taking her hand and gently showing her anything. She had horrendous feeding problems that involved retching, pinching and scratching the feeder, and clenched jaws. Yet she refused to feed herself.

     The first step we knew we had to overcome was the feeding issue. She had to eat to survive. Very quickly we were getting weary of the fights, mess and wondering if we were getting enough food into her for recovery.

     Observation. We noticed that she had picked up some cold cereal off the floor and eaten it by herself in a flash, with no retching or trouble. Obviously this whole business was behavior. So we quit feeding her.

     Respect. We seated her at the table with the family in a high chair and placed her food on a plate or tray and left her alone. The first few meals she left untouched, in spite of our prompting. We knew that she knew it was there. We gave her water and no in between meal snacks. When she threw her plate in our direction, we disciplined her. By the third meal, she was touching and exploring her food. By the end of the fourth meal, her plate was cleaned spick and span. Not only did she get everything down the hatch, but had seconds.

     This was our first victory. For the next three years, no one could feed her anything, but she would do a great job herself. By not allowing unwanted behavior and setting boundaries, she was able to explore her tray and satisfy her great motivation…hunger.

     Our next big concern was getting her to explore her environment. It was almost comical to watch her take those first few tentative attempts to look at some Tupperware that her brother was playing with next to her. Her little hand would reach out, touch the plastic, jerk it back in as if it had bitten her. After 10 minutes of tentative touches, she felt secure enough to bring the lid under herself, rolling up on her knees and head, touching or "looking" at this object.

     Our second daughter adopted form India, and 14 months old, was in an even more emotionally recoiled state upon arrival. She had been diagnosed in India as blind and deaf, but when we saw her at the airport, it was immediately obvious that she had moderate if not severe cerebral palsy. Her vision and hearing turned out normal. She hated us and was mad at her world. She resented change of any kind. She also had feeding problems and was still loosing weight. We almost gave up after a year and a half. She was still not meshing well with the family. After learning more about autism, we finally had some light shed on her frustrating behaviors.

     Our biggest success was getting her to explore her surroundings and be motivated enough to try something on her own. She had been so sheltered in the orphanage, that she was cushioned before she ever tipped over when she was attempting to sit up! Her first real shock was that no one was going to stop her from toppling over, if she sat herself up. We have refrained from cushioning her environment, mainly because she expected it, and we knew this alone would hamper her from moving forward any more.

     For her, this has been the secret of getting herself motivated when she tasted success, she was thrilled. Her feeding issues were resolved finally, after 2 years, much the same as our first daughters. Except it took more time and we worked with her pediatrician and dietician to make sure she was getting ample calories. Getting her moving and exploring on her own took patience. We built an "active learning environment" complete with resonance board. We then just let her be. We did not pick up her hand to show her anything. We simply placed things within her reach. (and later out of her reach). Within a few months she was rolling around the carpet. Now at the age of 5 she is very active scooting, and will even venture outside in the sand on a warm day.

     We combined this hands off approach, with Biblical child training. Setting up boundaries was not easy with her, as she got confused easily, and would withdraw when corrected. We have been careful to be loving, consistent and firm, working with one behavior problem at a time, in spite of her "fears." She has blossomed into a happy, confident, little girl, willing to try just about anything!

     Another NATHHAN family we know of had spent several frustrating years in the public school system, waiting for the professionals to make some progress with their severely brain injured little boy. He was what they term a floor child, completely unresponsive. He spent most of his waking hours lying prone rolling his head back and forth, moaning. He did not use his hands, walk or sit unsupported. When this family brought their son home to educate him, the first thing they did was work on getting him aware of his body. They would rub him down with various textures. They put him in the middle of their activities. They placed a dab of something tasty on his right hand (the one that worked), helping him find it occasionally until he readily found it himself. Then working with a really positive therapist with the MOVE program, he was eventually able to learn to sit unsupported. They are still really positive about their son’s future.

     There have been hundreds of families with ADHD and hyperactivity, who have chosen to learn how to motivate their child. After working through the respect issues and observing what area were the most troublesome, parents are finding interesting ways to motivate their children.

     Some of their secrets have been:


  1. Scheduling the day and evening, so that tasks are performed the same time each day, eliminates argument. Communication is the key.

  2. Backing up in curriculum until child is successful. Plugging all holes is basic understanding of reading and math. Parents are taking the time to be sure their child understands everything from long "e" to sentence structure, before moving forward. This takes patience and repetition.

  3. Surprisingly enough, successful parents did not spend a lot of money on exciting reading programs, curriculums or equipment. The same old basic information was made more interesting by delving into each subject in detail. Using library books, videos, and hands on projects, even nouns can be made fun.

  4. Find hands-on projects that children are interested in. A subject that fascinates a child will motivate them to push themselves to read at higher levels, use math skill, and produce further interests in off shoot areas. These areas can be a springboard for future motivations. How to find a child’s interests? Give them building materials and safe, age appropriate, tools, picture books, drawing and art supplies, lots of outdoor time and teach them household skills.

Allow time in the schedule to work on personal projects. For the more severely delayed, instant gratification is very important. Any delay produces confusion. For those children with no delays, learning to work toward a common family goal in the future, or several good stickers towards an awaited prize can be used. We love using Biblical child training principles for disobedience and reward good behavior with kind words and fun privileges. Consistency has been very important.

In our child’s best interest, we firmly discourage all self-stimulating behavior, angry out bursts, and "selective hearing." Selective hearing is not responding to someone (usually a parent instructing a child) by pretending deafness. Quite often we hear parents making the statement, "My child has impaired nerve endings, hampering them from responding to spankings, so we don’t use physical punishment." We would like to challenge this thought.

Does your child jerk away in discomfort when he or she gets pinched by a brother or sister, or otherwise feels pain? Then your special needs child will respond to chastisement done consistently in love, as punishment for wrong. As parents we often need only look in the mirror when a child’s behavior is irritating us. Even children who have severe delays pick up on our attitudes and body language. A parent who responds with gentleness to stress, will see this attitude reflected in ever their severely brain injured child.

Children are great proven motivators for parents to become consistently better in their behavior. Do you see anger in how your child responds to situations? Are you getting tired of whining or pouting? Are you dealing with rebellion in an older child? What kind of example have we been as parents?


Our reward for doing a good job as parents are many. Here are some examples:

Children who love the Lord and serve Him with all their hearts.

Children who rise up and call Mom blessed.

Children who openly admire and compliment Dad.

Terrific communication between older teens and parents.

A special needs child that is grateful for food, love and toys.

A family that loves spending time together, naturally choosing activities to do

Together instead of "checking out."

Look around at this crazy world. The all too common falling-apart-family should

Be enough motivation for Christian parents to work hard at the Biblical



Positive, Permanent, Lasting Changes in Our Lives


Do you find yourself slipping back into old problems and attitudes? Apart from the grace of Jesus Christ, we will not succeed in instituting lasting changes in Our hearts. Here are some steps that will begin our road to problem eradication!

      1. Realize: Through our sin, we are separated from God and others. We must realize this in order to begin a change in our hearts.

      2. Repent: This literally means to turn. It is more than just "I’m sorry," there is always action with true repentance.

      3. Receive Forgiveness: Through God’s grace (gift) we can accept forgiveness for the wrong we have been doing. No matter how awful we have been or how terrible we feel. God promises in His Word to forgive.

Amen- Pray for God’s grace to catch ourselves before we do wrong.

Bible – We don’t just read it, we apply it to our lives. Consistent reading of small amounts, applied to our lives, will be more effective than large chapters read and forgotten.

Church – Fellowshipping with other believers is an important part of the encouragement plan of God.

Discipleship – Accountability with someone, spouse, friend, pastor will help us through those times of temptation.

Evangelism – 2nd Corinthians 1:3-4:Looking to the needs of others, instead of dwelling on our problems and struggles, gives us the ideal opportunity to do better.