Television gets a bad rap. Everywhere you look, there are reports saying that kids watch too much, and it makes them violent, or sexualized, or fat, or shallow. And indeed, letting your child view unaccompanied and unsupervised is undoubtedly unwise. But TV can also be a force for good if controlled thoughtfully by a parent. For children with special needs in particular, it can provide a lesson-filled window on the outside world, and offer an "in" for parents eager for a motivational foothold. Here are five ways to use TV for good, not evil, in expanding your child's horizons and comfort zones.
Rope reluctant readers with TV tie-in books.Children with learning disabilities, ADHD, or any special needs that impair focus, concentration and attention may be extremely reluctant readers and require extra motivation to sit down and enjoy (or even tolerate) a book. If your child's entertainment of choice is the tube, you may be able to find books based on a beloved program -- whether it's Franklin or That's So Raven or 7th Heaven -- that will give them the desire to read and see what happens to favorite characters. Many of these books are just adaptations of episodes, which may make it easier for children with reading comprehension troubles to follow along and enjoy what they read. Never mind if these quickie tie-ins aren't your idea of literature; getting your child to read is an "anything goes" proposition, and the prospect of learning more about cherished characters may be the motivation that works. More help for reluctant readers:
Use shows as seminars on emotions, body language, tone of voice.Children with autism, Asperger syndrome, or Nonverbal Learning Disabilities often have trouble understanding emotions and the subtle uses of language to convey mood and meaning. For this, television can be a useful textbook -- in fact, some researchers have recommended soap opera viewing for autistic children for just this purpose. Watch TV with your child and ask how characters are feeling; if your equipment is set up for it, you may even be able to freeze-frame on certain faces and discuss how you can tell. Point out the way characters communicate without words, and have conversations with your child about what the person meant and why he or she didn't just come out and say so. More help on emotions and language:
Hold a social skills workshop.The sorts of social skills that come effortlessly to typically developing kids can be a puzzlement to children with developmental, learning, or behavioral disabilities, or for those who have been out of the social swing due to long hospitalization or illness. You're not with your child at school to teach appropriate social skills and point out how other kids handle situations well or poorly, but TV can give you an opportunity to do the next best thing. Most kids' programs -- and adult ones, too, for that matter -- focus on people demonstrating good and bad ways to interact with one another, and watching with your child can give you lots of chances to ask questions about what a character should do, and point out successful and unsuccessful choices. Then, if you see your child faced with similar choices, you can draw on those televised examples. More help for children with poor social skills:
Make TV time something to earn.Finding something deeply motivating but easily accessible is one of the hardest parts of putting together a behavior chart or plan for a child with ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, or other behavioral disabilities. If TV is something your child's desperate for, use that enthusiasm. You can set certain tasks that must be done before the TV goes on; reward a little bit of work with a little bit of tube; give coupons for extra TV time as a privilege in exchange for good behavior or chores completed; or schedule tomorrow's TV time based on points earned today. More motivational help:
View together to promote snuggling and sharing.Normal touch and affection from parents can be hard to take for children with Sensory Integration Dysfunction, Reactive Attachment Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and other disabilities that strain the bond between parent and child. Instead of forcing hugs and caresses, try sneaking them up on your chlid while watching TV. Sit close to your child while viewing together; the show may be enough of a distraction for you to work on some comforting touch like a back rub or playing with hair or gently tickling an arm. If your child is very small, try placing your child in front of you during viewing and give a hug from behind. In addition to making kids more comfortable with touch, TV can offer an opportunity to touch on issues of emotional sensitivity. Take advantage of that sitting-down and staying-put time to have a laugh or a cry together, and talk afterward about what you each thought and felt about what you saw. TV watching can be isolating, but it can also be a genuine community activity, and the springboard for connection and contact. More help for children with sensory problems:
For more good ways to use TV, read TV Can Be Good for Kids! by Carey Bryson, About.com's guide to Kids' Movies and TV.