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Implementing a Reward System for Children with Special Needs

February 2, 2011

In recent days I’ve worked through two situations where a child was exhibiting challenging conduct inside a church ministry setting.  In both cases, the child’s behavior had become disruptive to typical peers and frustrating to the volunteers.  The reasons for the child’s problematic behavior were similar…the child wanted to escape the current activity, he/she had a sensory need, they were physically tired, or they were over stimulated.   In the conversations with the children’s ministry team members, we talked about giving the child an alternate activity, removing them from a setting, and allowing him/her personal space to recharge.  But one of the main components of the new “behavior plan” would be instilling a reward system.

Oftentimes children behave poorly as a way of communicating a need.  Hitting a neighbor may be a child’s way of expressing a desire for a certain toy or crayon.  Hugging or squeezing a friend may actually be fulfilling a child’s sensory need for exertion or compression.  While the class leader can work to recognize and address the specific needs of the child, creating a reward system for constructive communication may help re-shape the child’s behavior.

I came up with a “Super Star Tracker” as my reward system when I volunteer in kidmin settings.  I use the Super Star Tracker currently in my Awana Sparks class.  On Wednesday nights I lead a room full of 14 Sparks (first grade boys).  My Awana class is a typical children’s ministry environment.  However, as statistics would tell us, we have participants with diagnosed learning disabilities and who exhibit characteristics associated with ADHD.  Because boys are restless after a full day of school and especially in an environment prone to chaos, using this reward system has been an invaluable tool for keeping the class manageable.  I have been thrilled with the success of the Super Star Tracker.  And on nights we don’t use the Super Star Tracker reward system, I hear complaints from ALL the boys!

Star Tracker Reward Ticket

Here’s how it works:

I laminate the template for 6 reward trackers (you can download the “Super Star Tracker Template” from my linked website).  I then cut each tracker out and affix a plastic string to the tracker.  Each student wears the Super Star Tracker throughout the evening.  I wear a “necklace” with an attached  hole-punch.  As I see the boys participating constructively (working on a Bible verse, playing quietly with Lincoln Logs, listening during the Bible presentation), I punch out a star on their tracker.  If a particular child has struggled with destructive means for communication, I may reward him for raising his hand rather than hitting his neighbor.  And when the situation warrants, I can denote “lost stars” as well.  After a child has punched out all the stars on his tracker, he gets to select a reward from my treasure box.  My treasure box is full of very inexpensive toys, stickers, and candy.   I cannot tell you how well this recognition system has worked for managing and motivating our room full of antsy and ornery little boys!

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4 Comments
  1. Pen permalink

    Be careful not to equate what you define as “good behavior” with “being a good boy or girl”. I heard a volunteer at a church tell a boy w/ Asperger’s that he would run in the halls with him (that’s the reward the boy liked) if he was “good”. (I never did understand what the definition of “good” looked like.) The natural thinking leap the kids make when their sensory needs or self-regulation is out of control (often when they’re getting sick and don’t yet know it) is that if they’re not “good”, not a “good boy”, then they must be “BAD”.

    I don’t like reward systems like this one when they emphasize being “good”, because failing to be “good” means they’re “bad”, and the other children notice and can begin to believe those peers are “bad”.

    And we had our share of Sunday School teachers who disapproved of our child’s behavior because it wasn’t the norm, as if my child could help that. The senior citizens were the worst.

    I realize churches are not the place for remediation and that reward systems like you describe can be a compensation that will get you through the hour or two that the kids are there. Just be sure you’re not creating any kind of inference that the child is “good” or, worse, “BAD”, esp when the child has a rough day.

    Borrowing from Dr Ross Greene’s book, “Lost at School”:

    Chapter 2 of “lost at school, Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges Are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them,” by Ross W Greene, Ph.D. is titled, “Kids Do Well If They Can”.

    On page 10, the opening page of Chapter 2, Green explains that, “When the ‘kids do well if they want to’ philosophy is applied to a child who is not doing well, then we believe that the reason he’s not doing well is because he doesn’t want to.”

    A paragraph later, Dr. Green continues, “By contrast, the ‘kids do well if they can’ philosophy carries the assumption that if a kid could do well he would do well. If he’s not doing well, he must be lacking the skills needed to respond to life’s challenges in an adaptive way. …”

  2. Thanks for your comment. I know many readers will benefit from your insight and perspective.

    I intentionally did not use either term “good behavior” or “bad behavior” in this post. Like you share, oftentimes behavior is a means for communication and may indicate a child is “lacking in the skills needed to respond to life’s challenges in an adaptive way.” And a reward system like the one shown here can be an intentional tool used to develop and reinforce those missing skills for a child with communication deficits.

    The reward system I show in this post (the Super Star Tracker) was developed with the help and blessing of a college educator with a PhD in special education. While no one “system” or approach will benefit all children, the system shown here is beneficial for many high functioning children with mild learning differences or communication challenges.

    Regardless of a child’s capabilities or incapabilities, it is the church’s responsibility to ensure the safety of all the participating children. So regardless of what terms we use or don’t use, certain behaviors are unacceptable. On the nights we do not use the Super Star Tracker we notice an increase in unsafe, aggressive, and destructive behavior with some participants. The response of the children being hit and pushed certainly draws negative attention to the child exhibiting these unacceptable behaviors. Conversely, on the nights we DO use the Super Star Tracker, we consistently see a shared respect among the children with virtually no need for singling out any child for negative actions. For the environments I have chosen to use this reward system, it is my opinion that every child has greatly benefited.

    Hopefully this added information helps!

  3. excellent idea!! my son responds beautifully to things like this (he has autism).

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  1. Addressing “Bad” Behavior « The Inclusive Church

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