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Rewards That Work for Special Needs Children

written by: dawn m. laughlin • edited by: Sarah Malburg • updated: 1/5/2012

There are many different types of rewards systems for students with special needs. As teachers we try some that work the first time and find that others need a little tweaking.

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    You always have that one child in every class. You try so hard to help them pay attention and listen, especially when they are included in the regular education classroom. Just when you are about to give up and feel that you have no other options, you hit upon a reward that they respond to in the classroom.

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    Penny Board

    The good old penny board is usually the first form of defense. Trading up for anything from toys, time out in the OT room, walks in the hallway to slow that engine down, or just time with the aide alone are just some of the examples of rewards. Some children really like this last one as they don't receive much attention at home and love the one on one time at school.

    Depending on the student we might use five to ten pennies. In the beginning we fill them up fast so the student understands the system. Then it gets a little harder and farther between to earn those rewards until eventually the goal is to wean them off the penny board.

    It's also a great positive reinforcer because when there is more than one student in the room you can always encourage the child that is paying attention and tell them that they are doing a great job. This usually helps the other child to remember to get back on track.

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    Avoiding Problems

    The problem with the reward system to help our special students, especially in the primary grades, is that the other students want to know why they don't get a reward. We came up with the idea to get a jar and some marbles. whenever the regular education or the special education children did something positive, a marble went into the jar. When the jar was full the whole class got to pick from a hat. In the hat were various fun things to do that they had made up themselves. We had a sleep in party on half days. The children could bring a pillow and a stuffed animal and pick a spot in the room to go and read with a friend. Extra recess was a very popular pick too.

    The great thing about this is that the special kids always felt so proud when it was them who had helped the rest of the class get those marbles!

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    Persistence Pays Off

    There are always the kids that don't seem to respond to any rewards for some reason. We have found that there is always something they need. Most of these kids really like one on one time with an adult. Even their acting out is often so an adult will pay attention to them, even if it is negative time.

    And then there are the times when you give yourself a pat on the back and think you figured it out. For four days it's working great and you think, " Wow, that was easy!" Then the next day the whole behavior plan means nothing at all. They want nothing to do with it and could care less about any reward. Back to the drawing board.

    And this is why you have to have a good sense of humor to be in this line of work.