When it comes to getting kids to do what they're told, three seems to be the magic number. The success of books like 1-2-3 Magic -- and maybe the success of our own parents in telling us we had a three-count to hop to -- makes us assume that if our kids don't get moving in a similar time frame, they're being disobedient. But for children with special needs, three may be a very unrealistic number. Think about what you're asking your child to do when you give an order and start counting. He or she must 1) figure out what you want done; 2) figure out how to do it; and 3) do it. Can your child negotiate those three steps in three seconds? Don't be too quick to say yes. Consider these possible problems:
Auditory processing. If your child has trouble processing language, it may take more than a count of three for him or her to figure out what you want done, much less how to do it.
Motor planning. For some children, figuring out how to physically do something -- even something as obvious as stopping what they're already doing -- can be a multi-step process. Planning and sequencing that activity may be a bigger job than a count of three will allow.
Stress management. Some people find deadlines energizing, but others can become paralyzed by them. Anxiety caused by deadline pressure can take over your child and cause him or her to be unable to focus on the task at hand.
Frustration tolerance. If your child feels unable to obey for any reason, it may seem easier to invite punishment than to do what's called for. A count of three gives your child very little time to work through other possibilities.
If any of these are problems for your child, you may find you will have more success if you extend that "count of three" to a "count of 10." Counting to 10 gives your child adequate time to either process your request or ask for clarification; to transition from what he or she is doing to a different activity; and to deal with frustration without becoming overly stressed. You may find that your child sometimes needs less than 10, at which point you can provide praise and encouragement. And if 10 is reached and the behavior hasn't changed, you can still provide your consequence.
Giving your child more time to do what you ask may seem like a sign of parenting weakness, but if you have reason to believe that your child can't comply in short order, it's not only merciful but practical to extend the deadline. Your goal, after all, is to have your directions followed. In the end, it's far more efficient to spend seven extra seconds and get what you want than spend minutes and hours dealing with the consequences of disobedience. Patience, after all, is a virtue.
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