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Guest Blog: Behavioral Plans for Children with Autism

By: L. Mae Wilkinson
This article is reprinted with the explicit permission of the author, as it appeared in her blog, Autism is Not Boss
Do you remember getting presents or special privileges for making good grades in school? If so, do you remember how proud you were when your hard work paid off? Me, too, which is why I was so excited when Connor’s teachers suggested we implement a behavioral incentive plan at school. And, since I am no stranger to incentive plans (considering I’ve spent most of my career working on points-based rewards programs for airlines, hotel chains. telecommunications firms and credit card companies), I was delighted that I could contribute to the discussion.
But school behavioral plans are quite different than any other incentive program I’ve ever encountered. Some examples I saw reminded me of what a warden would implement for prison inmates, not what loving parents and nurturing educators would develop for elementary school students. Fortunately, the school staff and I worked together, and we eventually came up with a program that has helped Connor make progress on a key goal of working more independently. Here are a few general rules that I would encourage all parents and educators apply when designing a behavioral plan:
– Remember that a behavioral plan is a rewardsprogram. Negative reinforcers are not helpful, whether they be frowny-faces, ’strikes,’ or lack of privileges. Progress reports should be private — placing ’scores’ on the student’s desk for all to see is a negative reinforcer. Rewards and communications should also be age-appropriate – happy faces may signal to a 4th grader that he is still being viewed as a kindergartner. A rewards program is, by definition, a positive reinforcement for performing a set of desired behaviors. Negative rewards create fear and shame.
– Ask the individual to participate in measuring his own performance. Another tenet of rewards programs is choice. Having a teacher looking over the student’s shoulder and judging him takes away his ability to provide feedback to himself, which is a key component of self-correction. After all, we choose to fly one airline over another to receive miles toward a free trip. The same is true for students – the child must be actively engaged in the program to make the conscious choice to behave one way over another.
– Do not ask the student to do what he cannot do. The requirements to earn a reward should be attainable, not impossible. The idea is to motivate incrementally better behavior. That doesn’t mean bribing the child to do what he already feels comfortable doing. Instead, the goals should be based upon improvements that may be challenging, but are still withinreach. Asking a student to complete double-digit division problems when he is still learning his multiplication tables is unreasonable. Be aware that a student may need extra training and accommodations to be able to make the necessary changes. Modeling the appropriate behavior (we used the Model Me Kids Model Me Organization and Motivation social skills training DVD), preferred seating and assistive technology are examples of enablers that can help the child do his or her best.
– Make sure the plan goals and rules are simple, clear, and match those as stated in the IEP. For example, executive functioning objectives, such as turning in homework, completing seatwork, checking work, etc., can be translated into a behavioral plan goal, such as ”complete each task assigned (or ask for help) per each school day period with fewer than two prompts.”
– Rewards should be immediate and allocated based upon the magnitude of change. It is no fun to do what you are supposed to do only to have to wait two weeks to receive your prize. So, daily rewards, such as receiving a favorite treat or privilege (e.g., computer time) can help maintain confidence while reaching toward some of the higher goals. For example, if Connor can go an entire day doing what he is supposed to do without prompts, he receives some small gift – ice cream, a cookie or a song download. This keeps him engaged in the plan, similar to the membership benefits adults receives from a frequent shopper program. But the first time he accomplishes something extremely difficult, he receives a HUGE prize, or at least hugely important to him. These milestone awards should correspond with the child’s interests; for example, a new Lego set, an MP3 player, tickets to a baseball game, or the least expensive, but probably most special thing in the world, a special outing with mom and/or dad. In the adult world, this would be reaching sufficient points to earn a free airline ticket.
Above all, respect the dignity and the effort of the students. They are working very hard to please you. A behavioral plan may be tracked at school, but must supported with rewards and encouragement at home.
Featured Guest Blogger: L. Mae Wilkinson and Autism is not the Boss
L.Mae Wilkinson is a reluctant housewife, moderate mom, volunteer parent mentor and quiet advocate for people with disabilities. She has a son with a PDD-NOS diagnosis who is fully mainstreamed at his school and within his community. From Mae’s website: “I am a huge fan of all families who have children with autism; I am pro inclusion and self-determination. I like just about any organization that brings understanding/resources/research about autism. I am neutral on vaccines/supplements/diets/gene debates. I started Autism is Not the Boss in order to gather and share practical parenting tips to prepare children with ASD for a life filled with good relationships, good options and great futures, and that means raising confident and happy kiddos”
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