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. But often parents of children with special needs find that their kids don't respond to point charts; the concept is too abstract or the gratification too delayed. Adjusting and simplifying the chart idea to your child's particular needs and abilities can help. Here's how to do it.

How to Make Your Behavior Chart Work

  1. Accentuate the positive. Make the chart all about rewarding positive behavior, not penalizing negative. Make a big exciting deal about putting points up or checking items off. Don't apply blame for items not checked. The chart is an opportunity to get extra credit for things done right.
  2. Make success easy. Don't load up the chart with big challenging things you'd like your child to do. A couple of these is fine, but make sure there are some things he or she is already doing on a regular basis and a couple of very easy things that will always earn some points or check marks. Add one "miscellaneous" category for rewarding random acts of good behavior.
  3. Give variable points. If your child is not always able to do the items on the chart without help, then increase the number of points available for that task, and award them according to effort. For example, if your child has trouble getting dressed in the mornings, you might award three points if he does it himself, two if you just have to help a little, and one if you have to get him dressed but he cooperates. That way, you're able to make a positive experience out of almost any outcome.
  4. Reward good school behavior. Ask your child's teacher to send home a behavior report every day; if necessary, send in an easy form that can be checked off quickly. Award points based on performance. Make a big deal of putting those on the chart, but if your child has a bad day, don't make a big deal of not adding them. Better luck tomorrow.
  5. Try less 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. Or skip the chart and put pennies in a jar any time you like something your child is doing. Add 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.
  6. Review the chart every night. This gives you another opportunity to provide positive feedback for jobs well done. If your child responds best to short-term rewards, you might give something like a sticker for a minimum of points earned. Or use a digital camera photo to make up some fake money with your child's picture on it, and have a daily pay-off; cash the "money" in at the end of the week for bigger rewards, or let your child use it to "buy" things throughout the week.
  7. Make rewards motivating. 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, find something that is—a small toy? a fast-food lunch? video game time? some special lunchbox item? pennies? a "get out of time-out free" card? Be creative, and look at things your child really craves, not things that would make sense to you.
  8. Make rewards available. 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.
  9. Make rewards practical. 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 is earning an allowance, put the money aside early in the week so you'll be sure to make that payday.
  10. Fine tune the chart on a regular basis. Your child's abilities and your family's needs change, and the chart should change too. Do this in collaboration with your child if possible. Add new chores as your child's abilities increase, and eliminate things he or she is rarely successful at. Keep brainstorming new rewards and new methods of earning them. Making sure your child is always able to earn and excited about doing so is the true secret to a good behavior chart.


  1. Coupons for desired activities, or for the avoidance of undesired ones, can serve as a good tangible reward for behavior-chart goals. Try pre-made printable coupons, or draw up some of your own.
  2. If you prefer a pre-made chart to the 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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