My Bright Grandson Struggles in the Classroom

My 6-year-old grandson has autism and struggles in school. He isn’t doing is work in the classroom but can play spelling and math games on his iPad. He has a very sharp memory but just can’t seem to focus at school. Any suggestions?

— Barb

My Bright Grandson Struggles in the Classroom

Hey Barb, your grandson sounds like so many children I have worked with. He’s a kiddo who can complete math problems and word games when it’s fun and entertaining, but within the context of a classroom, he feels unmotivated. My first two questions would be:

  • Does he have an IEP (Individualized Education Program)?
  • Does the IEP allow for one-on-one assistance?

If he has an IEP, his parents can call an emergency meeting at any time to address these concerns. Depending on what the school is willing to do, a one-on-one aide could possibly be assigned to him to help him stay on track and complete his work. The benefit of a one-on-one aide is that he/she can also be the one to deliver reinforcement to keep him motivated.

Without one-on-one assistance, it may be more difficult to help him stay on task in class. There are, however, several things the teacher and his parents can do to help.

Token systems:

Tokens are a great way to keep him motivated throughout the day by letting him earn rewards for doing the right thing. It can be ANYTHING, from stickers to Velcro pictures, to actual coins for a jar or bank.  I have even used a Hangman-style token system where the student had to earn all the letters to fill in the blanks and spell “popsicle” in order to earn his tasty treat at recess time. Whether it’s the teacher or a one-on-one aide, someone can deliver some kind of “token” when your grandson is on task.  And once he collects the goal number of tokens, he can earn a larger reward (break time, a snack, etc).

iPad Breaks:

This could get tricky because no teacher is going to want to give special privileges to one student and face the endless questioning and complaining from all the other children.  Perhaps there is a way, however, the teacher can allow him to have a short iPad break after he finishes his work. Maybe the boy can be at a secluded desk in the back, for example, where he won’t be a distraction to other kids.


Sometimes kids on the spectrum thrive when structure and order are in place. The teacher can make him a checklist of what he needs to do each day so he can follow along and keep track of what’s been done and what still needs to be done. This is kind of like a daily schedule. Depending on his preferences, maybe he can cross off each item when it’s done with a special marker or pen, or even erase it from the board when he’s done.

Behavior charts:

To help the teacher and parents communicate each day, the teacher can send home some kind of chart to show which tasks he completed and which ones he didn’t. Use something cute like happy face stickers, and then allow him to earn a reward at home if he has a certain number of happy faces on his chart at the end of the day. This way his behavior at school is connected to his behavior at home. Note that if he starts out earning ZERO happy faces, set the first benchmark to be something attainable.

For example, two happy faces earn a cookie when he gets home. Then gradually move up to 3, 4 or 5. Here is an example:

Here’s another example that includes much more detail. I would suggest doing this type much later on, once the basics are solid.

To reiterate, communication with the school is key. I encourage the boy’s parents to reach out to the teacher and anyone else involved in his education so they can sit down and create a plan. Your grandson has the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) based on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which means he has the right to accommodations being made for his education. His parents should read up on their rights and come to the meeting prepared with ideas or suggestions as to what may help their son.

Wishing you all the best!

This article was featured in Issue 58 – The Greatest Love of All: Family

Angelina M.

Angelina M., MS, BCBA, LMFT works as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, specializing in assessing and treating children and adolescents with autism, down-syndrome, and other developmental delays. She began her career in Applied Behavior Analysis in 2006, following her youngest brother’s autism diagnosis, and has since worked with dozens of children and families. She also writes a blog about her experiences as both a professional and a big sister. Her brother, Dylan, remains her most powerful inspiration for helping others who face similar challenges.  Learn more about Angelina and her blog, The Autism Onion, at or