Behavior Charts for Children With Special Needs

Gold star stickers
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Behavior charts—on which doing chores, behaving, and handling self-care tasks are rewarded with points—can be effective ways of getting children to do what parents want.

Parents of children with special needs sometimes find that their kids don't respond to point charts—the concept may be too abstract or the gratification too delayed.

How to Make Your Behavior Chart Work

Adjusting and simplifying the chart to your child's needs and abilities can help. Here are some tips on how to do it.

Accentuate the Positive

You want the chart to be about rewarding positive behavior, not penalizing "bad" behavior or negative outcomes. You want to be excited about putting points up or checking items off without placing blame for any items not checked.

It helps if you and your child think of the chart is an opportunity to get extra credit for things done right.

Make Success Easy

Don't load the chart with big challenging things you'd like your child to do. A couple are fine, but make sure that there are some things your child is already doing on a regular basis as well as a few very easy things that will always earn them points or check marks.

You can also add a "miscellaneous" category that rewards random acts of good behavior.

Celebrate Good School Behavior

Ask your child's teacher to send home a behavior report every day. If necessary, you can send in an easy form that can be quickly checked off. Then you can review the report and award points based on your child's performance.

You want to make a big deal of putting points on the chart, but don't make a big deal out of not adding them if your child has a bad day.

Avoid Abstract Variations

If your child just doesn't "get" a chart with points or checkmarks, try putting happy faces or stickers on the chart for successful results. You can also skip the chart and put pennies in a jar any time you like something your child is doing.

Try adding beads to a string, Legos to a Lego tower, rubber bands to a rubber-band ball— anything that involves adding on to something will work.

Review Your Chart Nightly

Taking stock of your chart gives you the opportunity to provide positive feedback for jobs well done. If your child responds best to short-term rewards, something like a small sticker could be used as a reward for the minimum points earned.

Use a digital camera and photo editor to create fake money with your child's picture on it. Then you can have a daily pay-off and let your child cash the "money" in at the end of the week for bigger rewards. You can also let your child budget their funds to "buy" things throughout the week.

Regularly Fine Tune Your Chart

As your child's abilities and family's needs change, your chart should change too. If possible, you'll want to make adjustments in collaboration with your child.

You can add new tasks as your child's abilities increase and eliminate the things they are not as likely to be successful at.

Keep brainstorming new rewards and new methods of earning them. Make sure that your child is always able to earn and is excited about doing so (this is the true secret to a good behavior chart).

Choose Motivating Rewards

Some kids are highly motivated by an allowance, and for them, the point pay-off at the end of the week should be in cash. Establish the amount in advance and put it on the chart.

If money isn't motivating for your child, find something that is—maybe a small toy, a fast-food lunch, video game time, a special lunchbox item, pennies, or a "get out of time-out free" card.

Be creative! Look for the things your child really craves (which may not be the things that would make sense to you).

Give Variable Points

If your child is not always able to do the items on the chart without help, you can increase the number of points available for the task and award them according to your child's effort.

For example, if your child has trouble getting dressed in the mornings, you might award three points if they do it themselves, two if you just have to help a little, and one if you have to get them dressed but they cooperates.

Using this strategy, you're able to make a positive experience out of almost any outcome.

Scale Rewards

If you have a child whose spirit is willing but flesh is weak, make sure he or she always gets some sort of reward. The idea here is to be positive about successes, not negative and condemning.

Offer a descending scale of rewards for points attained—smaller amounts of money, if that's the reward or smaller classes of motivating items. If your child can work with you on this, set up the rewards together and agree on them. Put the possibilities on the chart.

Be Practical About Rewards

Don't offer anything you can't deliver. Big trips or large toys are trouble; losing them will be a negative experience for your child if he or she doesn't succeed in earning enough points, and they may be hard for you to deliver reliably.

If your child earns an allowance, be sure to put the money aside early in the week so you'll be able to make "payday."

Other Tips to Try

Coupons for desired activities (or for the avoidance of undesired ones) make good tangible rewards for behavior-chart goals. You can use pre-made printable coupons or draw up some of your own.

If you prefer a pre-made chart to one you design yourself, check out the selections offered by Victoria Chart Company. They were created by the mother of a child with cerebral palsy who first started making charts to motivate her son to walk.

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