Most of us are familiar with reward or incentive charts. Maybe we first came across them as a child, hoping to receive a star for our chart on the kitchen fridge. Or perhaps we learned about them when studying to be a teacher. Whether you call them sticker charts, star charts, or behavior modification or goal charts, the idea is the same: to nudge behavior in a desirable direction.
While there isn’t one “best” way to modify behavior in a child with autism, positive reinforcement is recognized as a valuable tool. That’s where printable incentive charts come in handy.
The nonprofit organization Association for Comprehensive NeuroTherapy offers hundreds of free printable behavior charts to put a smile on a child’s face when he/she reaches a goal and reward, while also encouraging a significant change in behavior.
Within the autism spectrum, goals will vary widely. One youngster might need help completing homework on a regular basis, while another might need reinforcement for making eye contact, for potty training, or for being gentle with the new baby. Scroll through the charts to find what looks appropriate and appealing. Decide how you would adapt it to your situation—and then just download, click, and print! You can save them in a folder to swap out favorites from time to time.
If you are dealing with a particularly difficult situation, you may want to seek the advice of an expert in Applied Behavioral Analysis to develop a specific plan for using the charts. A school psychologist or other professional in the field should be able to help.
Here are some tips for making your incentive chart efforts a success:
1. Identify the behavior you want to change and phrase it in positive terms. For example, instead of saying: “You have to stop missing the school bus!” say “You need to be ready on time so you can catch the school bus.” Be sure the child understands the goal and how it will be achieved. Role-play if necessary to make sure the required behaviors are understood; doing this also helps establish a future habit.
2. Select a behavior chart that you know will be visually appealing to your child. Avoid a childlike one if a more mature look is needed, and select a fun design for someone with younger interests. Keep in mind that while some kids can delay a reward (they are happy just to see just a check mark or sticker as they aim for a week of completion), others need a daily or even more frequent reward or recognition. To make the desired behaviors clear on the chart, draw pictures to help a non-reader. Put the chart in a visible area for those involved, but be sensitive that an older son or daughter may not want the chart displayed where visitors will see it.
3. Agree on an incentive reward and make the criteria for the reward very clear. Communicate and learn what is most motivating. You might think that being allowed to stay up 30 minutes later on a weekend night would be very appealing, when in fact, the child would be more excited to learn how to make a paper airplane. Keep in mind that an incentive should neither be expensive nor complicated for you to maintain.
4. A key point is to be sure the child achieves success with the chart. Just as an adult does not want expectations at work to be beyond what they can accomplish, you need to avoid setting the goal-reward bar so high that failure results. In fact, it is often good to include items on a chart that the child is already doing. For example, if you have a hygiene chart and brushing his or her teeth is routinely done every day, go ahead and include teeth-brushing on a multiple-task chart so a “gimme” sticker or check mark is easily achieved. Multiple items should not be at a “struggle” level, or frustration will result.
5. Don’t expect perfection! You’ll want to be flexible in setting up the criteria for a reward, depending on the situation. (This does not mean changing the rules midstream). For a weekly chart with 12 boxes, you might decide that 10 out of 12 is acceptable, especially in the beginning. For a young child, you might start out with 4 out of 5 on a daily chart and then aim for completion of 5 of 5. You be the judge. But remember: the more everyone finds it enjoyable to use the chart, the greater the chance of success.
Be prepared to switch one chart out for another one if you think that something fresh is needed. And also, watch for positive signs that indicate when you can wean your child off a chart. Sometimes even a short effort helps to kickstart a new behavior.
Sheila Rogers DeMare, MS, is founder and director of the nonprofit Association for Comprehensive NeuroTherapy and editor of the website Latitudes.org. and StopTicsToday.org. She communicates regularly with physicians, families, and organizations to learn and share new findings on treating neurological conditions with integrative approaches. With a background in school psychology, she has a special focus on the use of behavior charts to assist families, providing them free of charge on the Latitudes.org website. Sheila is author of the bestseller Natural Treatments for Tics and Tourettes: A Patient and Family Guide and co-author of Behavior Charts to the Rescue: A Guide for Parents and Teachers.
This article was featured in Issue 60 – Sensory Tools For The Future