As a parent of a child with a disability or special health care needs, you spend a lot of time making sure the important things are taken care of: food, clothing, school, doctor’s appointments, therapy, and even a daily care routine.
Getting your child’s help on the important things (or even the small everyday things) isn’t always easy. Some days, it’s hard to get your child to help pick out their socks or shirt, and even harder to get their help with a medical decision. Understanding what your child wants and needs can help things go more smoothly and help your child feel less stress or conflict.
Person-centered thinking is a way to approach the things that are important in your child’s life in a way that works better for them. It can be used for choosing medical treatments, making decisions at school, setting up a care routine, or even finding an activity they like.
Usually, once you’re using person-centered thinking, you’ll also be part of making a person-centered plan. But the best person-centered plans start with thinking in a person-centered way.
Person-centered thinking puts your child’s needs front and center when it comes to decisions or plans that affect them. It’s a way of supporting your child so they have as much power as they can to decide things for themselves. This is called self-determination.
Person-centered thinking has 3 parts:
Things that are important TO your child make them feel happy or fulfilled in their life. These might be:
Things that are important FOR your child keep them happy and safe. Here are some examples:
Often, when your child starts acting out or refuses to do something important, it means that the “important to” and “important for” are out of balance.
For example, maybe your child just won’t eat vegetables. You know it’s important for them to have a healthy diet. But it might be really important to them to avoid the taste or texture of veggies. It could set off their gag reflex or hit another sensory button. Trying to force it might cause a conflict, and giving in might not keep them healthy.
When you look at balancing the “important to” and “important for,” you have options. You might give your child supplements to make up for missing nutrients, change the way you make vegetables so your child can handle the taste or texture, let your child fix their own vegetables how they like them, or see if your child can work with an occupational therapist, speech therapist, or other professional on a plan to eat more foods.
These approaches all balance out what’s important to and important for your child.
It might be easy for you to figure out some of the things that matter to your child. Maybe they like to play with animals, maybe they draw a lot, or maybe they seem happiest when they’re around family.
It’s not always easy to figure out everything that’s important to your child. They may not be able to explain it to you in words, but they can tell you through their behavior.
For children who are nonverbal, behavior might be the only way that they can tell you when something is wrong. And many children with verbal skills might get upset but not understand why.
There are a few exercises you can use to find out what’s important to your child.
One is an exercise called Good Day/Bad Day.
After a good day, ask yourself:
After a bad day, ask yourself:
You can also ask your child why they had a good or a bad day to better understand their point of view. The answers to all of these questions give you a lot of clues about what’s important to your child.
For example, if your child has a good day at school on the days that they have gym or music class, but not on days they have art, that’s something to think about. Maybe you explore more and learn that they get to dance in music class and move a lot in gym class, but in art they have to spend a lot of time being still. These answers might tell you that it’s important to your child to have chances to be active.
You can see our blog on understanding positive behavioral support to get more tips on learning how to read and understand what your child’s behavior tells you.
When you’re working to understand what’s important to your child, what’s important for your child, and what their behavior is telling you, you’re using person-centered thinking.
There are also some tools to support your child that you might create using person-centered thinking:
Person-centered thinking might be a new way for you to look at things in your child’s life. It’s an important tool to help your child be happy and safe. By taking the time to go through person-centered exercises and learning what’s important to and for your child, you can help them with care plans, job decisions, school choices, and more.
Here are some places where you can learn more about person-centered thinking: