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Seven Tips to Help Motivate Your Child With Special Needs to Complete Tasks

Susin has been a Special Educator for over 20 years. She currently teaches and mentors student teachers and learning support educators.

How to help your special needs child learn to follow through and complete tasks independently.

How to help your special needs child learn to follow through and complete tasks independently.

How to Get Your Child to Complete Tasks With Fewer Prompts, More Independence

Have you tried setting tasks for your child to do and realized that, from start to end, you must constantly remind, prompt, and redirect your child so they'll complete the task?

Here are some strategies that you use to foster more independence and focus in your child. Always remember to set your child up for success, not for failure.

1. Only Assign Tasks That Are Appropriate for Your Child's Abilities

It is of great importance to understand the needs, abilities, and readiness of your child before designing activities to help them grow.

Always remember to set your child up for success, not for failure. Nobody likes to do something they know they may fail only to find out that it really turns out so. And nobody would want to do it again, having gone through that negative experience before.

This is why it's important to ensure that all assigned tasks are appropriate for your child. Give something way too challenging, and your child will fail and lose motivation. Give something too easy, and your child will lose interest.

The key is to start where your child is and continue to build on that foundational skill and knowledge. Put in little modifications so that your child feels that they are something a little different, using and expanding on those foundational skills in completing each task. This helps in promoting a little stretch in cognitive and problem-solving skills each time. Provide alternative ways of doing things, or build in a little problem-solving opportunity for your child, based on what they can already do.

Do remember that the number of tasks you assign makes a huge difference, as well. Ask yourself:

Can my child complete this many given tasks successfully?

Does my child work better with fewer tasks set at different times of the day?

2. Make Use of Your Child's Interests and Strengths

Leverage your child's strengths to work on skills that they are weaker in. For example, if your child is good at counting but weak at word recognition, use a counting task to practice word reading. Another example: if your child is good at matching colours or shapes but needs to work on fine motor skills, get them to practise picking up fun, colourful materials to sort or match!

Increase your child's interest and motivation to work on tasks by using themes or topics and even pictures your child likes. Your child may be a Transformers fan. When getting them to work on interpretation or word recognition, use the Transformers as a theme. If your child enjoys music and movement, put on some music and get them to dance or jump onto word cards or pictures. Tailoring the lessons to fit the child's interests can motivate them to start working on the task. Hands-on activities using materials that your child can relate to positively—puppets, puzzles, textured materials, colourful and thematic boxes—as well as movement-based activities, it can all make a difference.

3. Build in Novelty

Do not give the same tasks day after day unless they are routine chores. And—even so!—build some novelty into the chores to create interest and motivation.

Modify the materials used and instructions given.

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Make changes in the duration, the time of day, the sequence, and even the location the tasks you do each day, if possible.

In this way, your child not only gets to practise skills in less mundane ways, your child also gets to practise with different materials, different people, and in different settings, and this element of surprise promotes remembering those skills.

4. Provide Organization

Even as well-mannered adults, we get flustered and frustrated when faced with too many tasks and may not know how to get started. It is even more frustrating and difficult for your child.

A little organization always helps. Present tasks in an organised way so that your child knows what to do, how much to do, when to do it, and when it will be done.

Visual Tools to Help a Child Get Organized

A visual organization of tasks helps your child be better prepared. It provides clarity about what to do, how to get started, how much work to get done, and which tasks are completed. Here are a few different ways to visually organize tasks.

1. Use Schedules

Schedules are used more for activities. They help your child know what and how many jobs to do. Schedules also help with the sequencing and completion of tasks.

For instance, if you want your child to first get showered, then do homework, and finally, to get ready for bed, then present these tasks visually using pictures and/or words (depending on your child's reading level) in a top-to-bottom approach.

Another way is to simply write these tasks on a small whiteboard or notepad as a reference. Your child can take down the whiteboard and erase or put a tickmark (or a smiley face) next to the task when it's complete. This gives your child a sense of progress and ownership and also helps them understand how much there is left to do.

2. Use Checklists or Task Schedules

Alternatively, you can create a checklist or task schedule. Make and print a reusable template of a checklist or task schedule card, then get it laminated. Use a marker to write out the tasks and add pictures if needed. This card is portable and can be brought to wherever your child goes, even on outings. Be amazed at how flexible this little card can be!

3. Use Trays, Plastic Bags, Baskets, or Folders to Organize Materials

Separating tasks and their materials into different vessels helps to provide organization for your child. By labeling the vessels and arranging them in the sequence that matches the task schedule, you help your child know where to start and what to do next. It also aids in transiting from one task to another, hence reducing any downtime that may lead to disruptions.

5. Break a Complex or Long Task Into Simpler Steps

This strategy is slightly similar tip number 4. It helps with organization. In addition, it helps your child achieve little steps of success.

Many times we take skills needed to do a task for granted, thinking that what is straightforward and automatic for us to do, must be so for our children as well.

Consider helping your child know exactly what to do for example, in keeping belongings, or preparing the swimming bag, in small steps. In that way, your child gets to achieve small steps that add up to the total achievement of task completion.

An example of preparing the swimming bag:

  1. Take swimming bag
  2. Pack towel in swimming bag
  3. Pack swimwear
  4. Pack underwear
  5. Pack shower gel and shampoo
  6. Pack goggles
  7. Pack clean plastic bag
  8. Put swimming bag on chair
  9. Finished.

Have these steps presented on a checklist. Add pictures if needed.

A sample break down of steps in making a burger meal.

A sample break down of steps in making a burger meal.

6. Build in Positive Reinforcement and/or Rewards for Task Completion

Everyone likes to be acknowledged for their effort, and so does your child. While you do not need to provide a reward for every single job ticked off the list, it will be motivating for your child if you provide praise while your child is working on the tasks. A happy face or a picture of something that your child likes can be "awarded" beside the completed task on the checklist. This helps to encourage your child to work towards task completion.

Upon the completion of the last task, provide a treat. As much as possible, schedule a preferred activity upon the completion of the final task. For example, if your child looks forward to computer time every day (or teatime, or playtime), schedule that desired activity only after your child has completed a series of tasks.

Some children enjoy more tangible rewards, such as stickers, badges, or trinkets. You can motivate your child to collect a number of tokens to earn a favourite Barney sticker at the end of the week.

Allow your child to choose their own reward for completing work. This will help your child with more cognitive and choice-making skills.

Different children have different preferences and different abilities for gratification delays. Create the reward system with your child accordingly.

A significant point to note is to praise and socially reinforce your child for the completion of the work. A celebratory fist bump, high-five, and elaborated praise will all help to motivate your child. Celebrate your child's successes, no matter how small they may seem.

7. Provide Breaks in Between Tasks

Not all children are able to concentrate for long periods of time, so it is prudent to take at least one break in between tasks.

A break is meant to be a short getaway from the task at hand, meant to help the child feel ready to continue with the work. Make sure that the chosen breaktime activity is not something that will command too much attention from your child. You would not want your child to be so engrossed in that break-time activity that they will be reluctant to start work again.

For example, sing a simple action song during the transition, or do some activity (like having a drink, playing with toys, jumping on a trampoline for a minute, or doing some light stretches).

Schedule breaks visually on the schedule or task cards so that your child knows that there will a break and anticipates when it will be given. Your child can also help choose the activity during break time.

Everybody's a Unique Individual

Remember, everyone is different and unique. We all have different characteristics and learning preferences and ways of doing things. The same applies to your child.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Adopt the strategies and fine-tune them accordingly to suit your child's abilities, interests, and learning needs.

Have a good time teaching and learning!

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Susin Lim

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