Autism Help:  Disciplinary Techniques also Effective in Regular Education

autism help

Introduction autism help

When my oldest son came home from school one day, he bemoaned the fact that the students in his class were so unruly that learning was a challenge. Certainly the kids who were acting up weren’t learning much--they were too busy acting up.

But, other kids like my son weren’t able to hear or think because of all the noise and activity around them. 

Behavior problems can sometimes be bad enough in a regular education classroom like my son’s class. But, when we’re working with children with special needs, sometimes such problems are magnified to the level of temper tantrums and the throwing of desks. Such situations require taking more dramatic measures. 

Fortunately, I learned about a powerful system of behavior management at a special needs school where I completed my student teaching. This system is highly effective when implemented on a school-wide basis. But, even if your entire school isn’t using this system, you can still use these techniques in your own classroom. 

This system works well in a special needs classroom, but it can also be effective in a regular classroom where behavior is a serious problem. 

Continuous Rewards

I was teaching elementary-aged children at my school, and we had a chart on the wall with each student’s name posted. 

Next to each name, I would award a “face” to reflect how the child had behaved during that period. Good behavior earned a happy face, so-so behavior earned a straight face, and bad behavior earned a sad face. 

At the end of the day, we tallied up the number of happy, straight and sad faces each child had earned during each session that day. 

Based on this, each child received a happy face, straight face or sad face for the day. A happy face earned 10 points, a straight face earned 5 points, and a sad face earned zero points. 

Here’s where this became exciting for the students. 

At the end of the week, all the kids would visit the school “store” where they could exchange their points for something they wanted. Obviously, the kids who behaved the best that week and earned the most points were able to “buy” the best toys or games. 

Should you decide to implement this system and there is no room in the budget for such items, you could allow kids to earn time doing activities they enjoy. Whatever prizes you choose, just make sure they really are rewarding to your students. 

And, if your students are older, or if you prefer not to use “faces”, you could use stars, checkmarks, or any other appropriate tokens. 

The beauty of this system is that it gives special needs students the constant positive and negative feedback they so often desperately need. Receiving immediate consequences for their actions can go a long way toward improving their behavior. 

Dealing with Severe Behavior

When students have severe behavior problems, they automatically earn a sad face for the period, but that really isn’t enough to solve the problem. 

For these situations, our school had what they called an Alternative Room with a school employee assigned full time to manage it. The Alternative Room was complete with a padded room for the most severe cases. 

It’s nice when a school has such accommodations, but most schools don’t have this type of arrangement. 

In such cases, I would have an area for the student to spend in Time Out. Here the student must sit quietly until he or she can “cool down.” 

Time Out should usually last for a few minutes. Set a timer for 3 to 5 minutes and allow the child to see the timer. 

If bad behavior persists, even during Time Out, go to the child privately and calmly inform her that she must spend 3 to 5 more minutes in Time Out until her behavior improves, and reset the timer. Repeat this procedure until her behavior improves. 

Once her time has passed and she is now well-behaved, calmly remind her of what her behavior must be like to participate in class and to earn a happy face. Then allow her to rejoin the rest of the class. 

If she leaves Time Out illegally, calmly bring her back to Time Out and increase her time again by 3-5 minutes, explaining why you are increasing her time. Repeat this procedure until she stops “escaping.” 

Top 8 Tips for Good Discipline

1. Post the rules where everyone can see them. 

Make sure all the students know them and that they know exactly what is expected of them. autism help

2. Be sure offending students know what they’ve done wrong. autism help

Too often, adults assume that kids know how they’ve erred. But, in some cases they may have no idea unless you tell them. 

If a student is unaware of her trespass and it’s the first time she has committed that particular offense, you may want to give her a second chance before delivering any consequences. 

3. Stay calm. autism help

If you have a hard time controlling your temper, try to find a way to cool down before trying to deal with the problem. Most importantly, don’t act in anger. Yelling only creates a seriously negative environment. 

4. Be consistent. autism help

Try to discipline for every instance of bad behavior. For best results, don’t ignore an infraction on Tuesday and discipline for the same misdeed on Friday. 

If you are implementing the token/point system described above, you could give students a checkmark for each offense. Students should know how many checkmarks will result in a straight face or a sad face.

5. Refrain from issuing threats that you would hesitate to carry out. 

When a teacher constantly warns and fails to fulfill her promises, students quickly learn that what she says means nothing. This only encourages chaos in the classroom. 

6. Praise in public. autism help

This encourages all the students toward good behavior. When you say something like, “I like the way Johnny is sitting so quietly, ready for the next lesson,” see how many other students take notice and imitate what Johnny’s doing. 

7. Critique in private. autism help

Catherine the Great once said, “I praise loudly. I blame softly.” If Billy is acting up, calling the class’s attention to it will either reward his bad behavior with the wrong kind of attention he wants or make him feel ostracized. Having a private talk with him would be far better. 

8. Learn to recognize when a student’s bad behavior isn’t her fault. 

Some special needs children, including many with autism, have some form of Sensory Processing Disorder that makes it difficult for them to function and to cope with their environment. This may be spelled out in the student's Individualized Education Program. 

Talk to an occupational therapist if you have a child in your class who might fit this description. She can help you to understand the special needs child and to recognize the difference between sensory difficulties and truly bad behavior. The therapist can also teach you how to help the child manage these issues. 

For example, sometimes all a child needs is to get out and run around, spend time on a swing, or listen to music from a headset. 


When behavior problems are serious in a classroom, taking the time to develop a system for managing these challenges can go a long way toward creating a peaceful, successful learning environment for students. 

Hopefully, the ideas and principles in this article will be helpful for teachers who wish to reach this attainable goal. 

About the Author

Kay Donato earned her Bachelor’s degree in Exceptional Child Education at the University of Central Florida. 

She has many years of experience raising and teaching her own son with autism. Her website, Discover Autism Help, is a teacher's and parent’s source of ideas and techniques for giving children with autism the help they need to reach their potential.

Return to Teaching Strategies: The Guest Authors' Toolbox Contents from Autism Help: Disciplining Special Education Students

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