Key takeaway: We talked to Dr. Faye Carter, regional clinical director of ABA services at STAR of CA, for tips on motivating our kids to sit down for distance learning; visual schedules, routines, reward systems, and motivational apps top the list! 

Getting our kids to sit down for undesirable activities can be a herculean task, and firing up the computer for a long day of Zoom lessons is likely high on their list of things they don’t want to do (and who can blame them? Zoom fatigue is real!). Many kids struggle with online classes, especially those with sensory and focus challenges. So how can we motivate them for distance learning without epic meltdowns? 

     5 THINGS YOU CAN TRY RIGHT NOW

  • Set a routine and keep games and other fun distractions tucked away, especially on the device they’ll be using for school.
  • Prepare for transitions using visual schedules or verbal/visual cues.
  • Implement a reward system so that kids know each time they accomplish a task it’s getting them closer to that prize.
  • Read social stories to help kids with transitions to less-preferred activities using the concept of “first this, then that.”
  • Try some of the motivational apps we’ve rounded up! They work!
A child with short brown hair and a gray shirt looks at a laptop, seemingly frustrated.
A child with short brown hair and a gray shirt looks at a laptop, seemingly frustrated.

Make Adjustments at Home and 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 — and as we know, even the basics can present challenges when you have adults and children working from home. To start, make sure your child’s work area is clutter-free and comfortable, and minimize any harsh lighting or loud background noise. Dr. Carter  reminds us that having a regular routine is important: “A lot of our kids have been staying up until who knows when; now they’re going to have to be online and ready to learn at 8:30 or 9:00 a.m.,” she says.“Move dinner and bedtime back, 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.” She also notes that it’s good to set expectations before each lesson: “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.”


Reduce Distractions

Keep toys, games, and other distractions out of the work area. “Plenty of kids sit and play games during online learning, so their face is showing on the screen but they’re not really paying attention,” Dr. Carter says. “With iPads, you can set them up so that only one thing — like Zoom — can come up at a time,” she explains, adding that you can disable certain apps on most devices to decrease the likelihood of distraction. If kids have more than one device, she 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. 


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 such as 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 clinician 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.” She adds that they also use parent reinforcement: “We’ll text the parents and say, ‘Hey, he’s doing a really good job, can you go reinforce that?’” 

You can 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. “The most preferred thing for most kids is a device, so we create visual schedules that have icons representing what will happen that day and incorporate times when parents can allow device use,” Dr. Carter explains. They also work with parents on extinction strategies. If a child has meltdowns about denied access to a device or an activity, parents need to hold their ground and 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 that clarifies this strategy (geared toward younger elementary grades and available to download for $2.50) 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:


iReward 

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


Child Reward — Chores, Rewards, and Statistics 

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 


Manatee

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

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

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