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As humans there are a lot of things that we do throughout the day which might not necessarily be the most rewarding or motivating for us. However in the larger scheme of things, we find our own ways of coping and finding ways of motivating ourselves. For adults this could entail monthly salaries, going on occasional vacations, spending time with our family or finding time for hobbies. These are all things that keep us going. We know we will receive a paycheck at the end of the month, and that motivates us. Even though one can really love one’s work, there is no doubt that these external motivations are important and necessary when used in the appropriate way. 

This is no different from our children and students. Everyday of their school life revolves around learning new skills and content that ultimately serves them in the future. School systems often implement different approaches to rewards and at home too, parental approaches to rewarding their child vary according to individual principles and belief systems. However, more or less, there remains a consensus that rewards are important and can be incorporated to boost motivation and morale. 

The scientific literature base suggests that children with SEN and children on the spectrum particularly benefit from reward systems to help them learn new skills in different areas of their life. This is especially when this is communicated to them in an explicit manner. There are multiple benefits when reward systems are incorporated into the learning program of students with SEN:

  • It reduces anticipation and anxiety that a child might experience over waiting. Sometimes verbally telling them they can earn a reward is not enough because it might ultimately cause more stress than is intended. Instead, making it visually clear removes the surprise factor, helping them to concentrate on the work they are expected to do. 
  • It creates a more structured environment, and breaks down their time into shorter pieces which is great to maintain their concentration and motivation. 
  • Depending on the type of reward system you choose, even something as simple as earning stickers in itself can be a motivation for the child. 
  • When we as adults go the extra mile to understand student interests and incorporate the same into their reward choices, it helps to build a stronger bond with them and bring joy into the classroom.  

In the rest of this article, I will be sharing an evidence-based strategy that can be implemented in numerous ways to introduce reward systems into your child’s routine at home or at school. I would highly recommend reading my previous blog titled,  “First-Then boards” to help you get a better context of the strategy you are about to read. 

The strategy that I will share today is called, “I am working for…” boards/charts. This falls under the category of token reward systems. First, let’s begin by taking a look at what this chart looks like. Here are examples of different ways that I have used this tool. 

As the name suggests, “I am working for…” boards are reward systems that are composed of two main things. One, it visually depicts something that the child will choose they are working towards. The second part of this board consists of different squares depicting the different “tokens” that they will have to earn in order to have access to their preferred reward. I generally find four tokens to be a good number, but there is no right or wrong answer to how many tokens you choose to incorporate. Additionally, depending on the goal for the day, I have used this chart only for one lesson especially if there is a new skill being taught. Other times, I will designate each of the squares to represent one class, with the student being able to earn one token for each of the classes in the first half of the day. At home, you might implement this system when practising multi-step daily living skills such as getting dressed in the morning or packing up their school bag. Truly, the way you choose to implement this system is truly up to you ! Any amount of tokens where the child is not earning their rewards too quickly or too slowly, is a good number. 

You might also notice that in the above images I have used stars as tokens in some places and in other places, I have used internet images of Disney characters that some of my students really enjoy. This also is up to you! Without spending a lot of money, you can make use of what you know about the child and incorporate this special interest in a small way into their learning program. I have seen this to make learning more fun for the child, and shows them that we as adults know their interests and preferences! 

However there are some things to keep in mind when implementing this strategy. First, don’t start off by showing too many options to the child in the choice board, it might overwhelm and cause anxiety. Start by showing two or three and working your way up to four or five but not more than that. 

I have found the use of food to be quite confusing to implement. Although different people have different opinions about using food as rewards, through trial and error I have found food to be very motivating for the child and have started giving it as reward options in my class. However with that being said, I am very careful to do the following things:

  • I never give the child an entire packet of a certain item. I always make it very clear to them that they can only have a very specific number of chips or crisps such as five or two pieces of chocolate. If they keep asking for more, I remove the option from their choices as a consequence. If they have already selected a food item during the day, I remove that option so that the child does not receive too much exposure to food outside of meal times. Instead they can choose other items that they enjoy.  
  • I always check with the parent to know about the child’s food preferences and only use what they already have access to at home. This includes asking the parents about food allergies. 
  • Lastly, and most importantly I never make the child work for their meal times. Food is a basic right that they are entitled to and this will never be confused with the pieces of food they receive as a part of their reward system. 

Apart from the consideration of food items, I am also careful to use timers in my classroom that show the children how long they have access to their reward item. Kids are kids, and it can be very tempting to continue playing on the ipad as this is inherently fun for them. Instead of verbally communicating this, I find visual timers to be extremely helpful. Although it might take some time, eventually the kids will understand that when the timer goes off, it is time to start working again. Here are examples of how I have used visual timers in my classroom. Please feel free to customise!  

Another great way to use this tool is by combining it with first-then boards as shown in the image below. As we know, making the environment structured really supports students on the autism spectrum. Hence “first-then” boards are a great tool to communicate to the child their immediate schedule, reduce the anxiety associated with uncertainty and help them focus on their current tasks. I have found both these tools to work well together. It also helps to have a designated tray or bin to put your child’s finished work. More than anything it helps to further structure the environment and makes things very clear for the child. 

However don’t worry if you are not able to print or laminate everything. You can simply take a pen and paper and show this in writing to the child and it should work for the most part ! Here is an example of how I improvised when I did not have the opportunity to print and laminate.

At this point you might feel like a lot of information overload, and possibly might have some ideas to incorporate the same in your practice. In that case, I would encourage you to take a minute to jot down all the ideas running in your head before reading the concluding thoughts of this blog ! 

Here are some final considerations when using “I am working for…” reward charts with your child or student. 

  • Special interests– feel free to get creative and incorporate your child’s favourite cartoon or movie characters as stickers. It could also be images of cars, toys, or literally anything that the child enjoys! 
  • Materials- Although I personally use Widgit software to make some of my teaching resources, please know that you do not have to buy this to get started with this tool. You can find images from the internet and this should work perfectly fine as well ! Use the blank reward chart provided in this blog as a start to using this tool and later on use a word processor to customise it to your needs. 
  • Behaviour Support: Children with SEN particularly benefit from visual representations of behaviour and it is very useful to have reminders kept very visible to them. Hence, I have incorporated behaviour expectations into this chart, and make it a point to go over these expectations with the child before starting to work. 

  • Lastly, as parents and teachers you know your child the best ! Feel free to adapt this however way you want to.

  • As with everything, remember it is the effort and intention that counts. Not every strategy might work with every child in the same way. What is important is that you tried. If you feel this strategy has not worked for you, take a deep breath and pat yourself on the back. When you feel ready, start exploring the wealth of resources and evidence based practices that are available for you to try out at your leisure.