Motivational Strategies for Going Back to School
We talked to Dr. Faye Carter, regional clinical director of ABA services at STAR of CA, and Dr. Vivian Wang of CARE-LA for tips on motivating our kids to tackle each new school day with optimism, not to mention the dreaded task of homework and other undesirable things. Visual schedules, routines, reward systems, and motivational apps top the list!
Getting our kids to tackle undesirable activities can be a herculean task, and a long day of school is likely high on their list of things they aren’t exactly looking forward to (and who can blame them? They’ve been through enough already!). Many kids struggle with sensory and focus challenges, not to mention pandemic fatigue. So how can we motivate them without epic meltdowns?
Set a Routine
Nobody knows motivation techniques better than an ABA therapist. To find out what we might learn from the professionals, we spoke with Dr. Faye Carter, regional clinical director of ABA services at STAR of CA, which provides behavioral and psychological services to children, adolescents, and adults. Dr. Carter started with the basics:
- Get back to a healthy bedtime: After a year-plus of distance learning and a summer that didn’t feel all that different from the school year, kids aren’t the only ones who may be struggling with the early morning hustle — and as we all know, being tired doesn’t make anything easier.
- Set expectations: “Figure out what they’re working for and explain how they can meet that criteria so they have clear expectations and are motivated ahead of time.”
- Establish a regular homework routine: “Set up their work area, have their materials ready, and let them pick out the materials they want to use so they have ownership of that,” Dr. Carter says.
Set Goals and Reminders
- Create a vision board: Dr. Wang says that school grades and points aren’t always good motivators. Putting up a vision board can remind your child of their goals. For older kids, a vision board might have the logo of the college that they want to go to or future vacation plans. Younger kids can cut out or draw pictures of activities they want to do over the weekend or after they finish their homework.
- Remind your child of what they can look forward to at school: Help them identify what they like about school. Whether it’s the chance to see their friends or an item on the school lunch menu, these things can often get your child out the door.
- Help your kids set an intention: A good attitude for school starts in the morning. Dr. Wang says that even reminding your child, “Today is going to be a good day,” can help make a difference. Or have your child say, “Today is going to be a busy day, but I can handle it.”
- Break goals and tasks down into small steps: Help your child stay confident by setting small, doable goals to accomplish one thing at a time. If they want to make a new friend, their goal could be talking to one new person that day. Writing down a to-do list and crossing items off as they go can help your child recognize their progress and build momentum for the next task. Watch this short clip from our Back to School/Back to Life event series on micro-tasking:
Make sure your child’s work area is clutter-free and comfortable, and minimize any harsh lighting or loud background noise. Equally important, move toys, games, and other distractions out of the work area. If kids have more than one device, Dr. Carter recommends designating one for school and one for fun, so there’s a clear delineation between the two. So go ahead and accept the device for academic use if your school is offering one. “I would argue that 50% of kids need the school device that doesn’t have any of the fun stuff on it,” Dr. Carter says.
According to Dr. Wang, keeping a clear separation between work and relaxing is important for kids (and adults too!). Having different spaces for homework and breaks can help your child stay motivated to focus on school tasks.
Create Visual Schedules and Work on Transitions
In Dr. Carter’s experience, visual schedules work really well; at STAR of CA, therapists create visual schedules that include icons of what will happen that day and apply them at different times. Check out this Visual Support System Bundle, which costs $6.99 for a digital download and includes more than 330 editable visuals including sample IEP goals, schedule boards, self-regulation visuals, emotions and associated behaviors, self-help tasks, classroom routines, and more.
Transitions from preferred activities to less-preferred ones are often challenging, especially for our kids. Dr. Carter says it helps to build routines and consistency around the transition itself, and to describe what’s coming next with a timed countdown (“Okay, five more minutes and then we’re doing X”). This has been echoed by other clinicians and therapists; read more about transitions and emotional regulation here.
Use Reinforcement and Token Systems
As many of us know, reinforcement systems are really important. Dr. Carter tells us that at STAR of CA, they use a token system, where the child earns access to something they’ve agreed on beforehand with the family. This can take many forms, including verbal praise. “If the child can read,” Dr. Carter says, “we’ll use a token economy system and agree on who will use it — us or the parents. There are virtual platforms where kids can see how many tokens they have, or you can design them so the child can see what is being reinforced.” Here are a few other tips:
- Get creative with reinforcers, such as finding a video that’s of high interest that your child can watch after completing their lesson or assignment. Dr. Wang recommends that you ask your child what they would enjoy during a break to help them stay motivated. You could encourage them to play with Legos, listen to music, or do another enjoyable activity instead of screen time.
- Hold your ground on extinction strategies. Dr. Carter explains that if a child has meltdowns about denied access to a device or another activity, parents need to continue to deny access rather than reinforce the behavior by giving in. “This will help kids get to a point where the behavior is no longer reinforced and they stop engaging in it,” she says.
Read Social Stories
Social stories are a great way to introduce new concepts to children of all abilities. One of the techniques used to support children when they struggle with transitioning to less-desirable tasks is to use “first this, then that.”
- This social story — geared toward 1st through 6th grade and available to download for $6 — introduces the concept by illustrating that there are tasks a child has to complete first in order to earn rewards.
- Another social story — geared toward younger elementary grades and available to download for $2.50 — clarifies that strategy, and provides several examples of what children need to complete first before they get their reward.
Try Reward Apps
There are several apps that can be used for reinforcement and reward systems. Dr. Carter tells us that apps with a gaming element seem to have greater longevity because the child has a desire to keep earning. Here are a few we rounded up:
This customizable app allows parents to create a star chart or a token reward board to give children a visual tool for improving their behavior. In addition, you can upload pictures for tasks/activities that need to be done first and the reward that will follow. It was selected as “best back-to-school app” by Apple for Special Education and by Parents magazine.
- Age range: 4+
- Cost: $2.99
- Platform: iPhone and iPad
This app enables the user to assign different star values to behaviors or actions and provide a reward for meeting the predetermined goal. It also includes a calendar that shows the rewards so the parent and child can monitor progress.
- Cost: FREE; offers in-app purchases from $1.99 to $4.99 per item
- Platform: Google Play
This great app can help children meet therapeutic goals at home through gamification. You and your child use the app to set goals, and the child receives points as the goals are achieved that can be redeemed for fun family rewards. An interactive chatbot provides exercises based on cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness. The app can be used with or without a therapist; it’s also ad-free and HIPAA compliant.
- Age range: 4+
- Cost: FREE
- Platform: iPhone and Google Play
Social Graces is a reward system app that allows for multiple profiles for children and guardians. Users create a contract with each child that lays out their expected duties for the day, and then assign points for completed tasks. Each point earned goes to a reward of the child’s choosing (kids can create a wishlist, which can be linked to Amazon, and parents can assign appropriate points to each item).
- Age range: 4+
- Cost: FREE; all features access is $3.99
- Platform: iPhone and iPad
How has your experience been with your child’s return to school (as we knew it)? Are there any motivating strategies that work for your family? We’d love to know!