Children with special emotional, mental or psychological needs often have environmental triggers and cues parents can understand to guide behavior.

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Understanding Triggers and Cues in Children with Special Needs


(FEBRUARY 2014) It is common for children with special needs to have their own set of individual behavior triggers. These can be noises, places, sounds, emotions, that jeopardize personal feelings of security, and signal an episode of uncooperative behavior is near. Generally these triggers are easy to become familiar with and likely stem from past experiences.

Practice paying close attention to your child, and make note of certain cues. Your child’s cues may come in the form of “facial expressions or nervous tics, changes in speech patterns, sweating, feeling ill, becoming quiet or withdrawn, complaining or getting irritable, exhibiting a fear or avoidance response, etc.” according to

After close observation you will be able to anticipate your child’s triggers, and can respond without a negative reaction. Understanding your child in this respect will be a huge advantage in helping you avoid future triggers resulting in misbehavior.

Communicating these cues to teachers and other caregivers around your child helps ensure constancy in all environments. Discuss specific cues and triggers, as well as appropriate responses to them and have your child where a medical ID bracelet as a reminder to adults that he has special needs.

After an episode, parents and others who work with the child should discuss specific ideas regarding how to best respond to the child’s distress in the current situation. Make note of what strategies are effective in calming your child and apply them in future situations.

Give your child the opportunity to obtain the feeling of accomplishment after an episode. Parents often monitor their special needs children so closely that they forget to enable them to learn from their own mistakes. This is empowering for the child and is important for the child’s development toward becoming more self-aware.          

With this in mind, when your child has an episode, be careful to not give a level of attention they only get when they act out. The overall level of attention and love has to be consistent when the child is cooperating and when he or she is acting out. The influx of attention a parent may naturally put on the child after a trigger could encourage them to be more uncooperative in the future. For the child, negative attention may be better than no attention at all.

If you struggle with these styles of “active listening,” consider reaching out to parent-to-parent programs where veteran parents of special needs children offer support. Getting advice and guidance will reassure you of your methods, and enable you to feel more confident in your daily routine with your child.

Whether you are at home, or in public, patience and support is the key to making the best of the child’s trigger or cue. Balance is crucial in this regard. Respond to uncooperative behaviors calmly and consistently. Remind the child of the expectations and rules of appropriate behavior, and that they can rely on love and encouragement from their supportive environment.