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How to Make Your Neurodivergent Child's Positive Reinforcement System a Success

Updated: Jan 30

There are two things that drive people to act or take action - one is needs like food, sleep, clothing, a home, etc., and the second is rewards because an action is positively reinforced.

Just like us, your neurodivergent child gets motivated in the same way. They act or take action when they need something.

Your neurodivergent child who might be non-verbal would do his usual sign language to show you that he wants some food.

Similarly, let’s say grandma promises to bring him a special gift on the weekends if your neurodivergent child sleeps early for that week. That ‘special gift promise’ can actually motivate your child to sleep early each day for that entire week and get excited to meet his grandma as he is looking forward to that surprise gift.

The latter is what we commonly know as Positive Reinforcement System or a Reward System. For neurodivergent children, the more popular form is using visuals, i.e. reward charts.

A Positive Reinforcement System/Reward Chart for your neurodivergent child can be a very effective tool in helping your child learn, and acquire good behavior such as concentrating in the classroom, following a bedtime routine, etc. The primary purpose of this article is to introduce parents to a Positive Reinforcement System/Reward Chart they can use for their neurodivergent child. Parents will learn what positive reinforcement systems or reward charts are and how to use them successfully.

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What is Positive Reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement is one of the most effective ways to teach children new skills.

It is a reward system that provides positive feedback and encouragement for desired behaviors. It can be anything from a smile to a high-five, or even a sticker or toy.

Types of Positive Reinforcements

There are four types of positive reinforcements that you may be able to consider when trying to establish a good behavior or routine for your child:

Natural or Direct reinforcers

This type of reinforcement results naturally directly from the appropriate behavior. For example, if your child interacts with his/her peers in a play group activity appropriately, he/she is more likely to be invited to participate in other group activities. In this case, your child seeks attention and participation and his/her appropriate interaction is reinforced by the attention he/she gets.

Social reinforcers

This positive reinforcer involves expressing approval or praise for desirable behavior. This type of reinforcer is moderated or mediated by parents, teachers, other adults, or peers. For example, your child’s teacher or you as his/her parent may praise your child for an excellent project done (Kamery, 2004). Examples of these praises are given below:

  • 'Great job, John

  • ''Well done, Joanne'

  • 'That's awesome, Eloise'

Remember that praises nurture your child's confidence and sense of self.

Tangible reinforcers

This type of positive reinforcement involves actual, physical rewards for desirable behavior. These could include candy, treats, toys, money, or some other desirable object. Beware that even though these are a powerful type of reward, if you overuse or misuse them, they can actually disincentivize the behavior of your child when they are not used. (Kamery, 2004). For example, if giving them candies or chocolates would not be good due to your child’s pre-existing health issues like allergies or diabetes (worst scenario).

Activity Reinforcers

Sometimes children would love to do activities together with their parents, siblings, classmates, or playmates. This type of positive reinforcement is called Activity Reinforcer. Examples of these activity rewards are reading aloud with your child, doing puzzles with him/her, or playing with him/her.

Token reinforcers

The last type of positive reinforcement is points or tokens awarded for performing certain actions. This reward can then be exchanged for something of value. For example, a teacher may give your child points for completing assignments on time, which can be exchanged for a prize e.g. Good job stamp on his/her hand or notebook (Kamery, 2004).

Tokens can be used to motivate your child to work towards a larger goal. For example, if your child completes his/her bedtime routine schedule on time, he/she can earn a token. If he/she loves to play video games, he or she can collect tokens in order to play video games.

Using visuals to show a child how many tokens are needed for a preferred activity can make it easier for the child to understand.

Why Do We Use Positive Reinforcement?

Research suggests that positive reinforcement can be used as a way to reduce stress and anxiety in neurodivergent children. This is because it helps them feel valued and respected, which in turn reduces their stress levels.

Moreover, rewards elicit a positive response and motivate neurodivergent children to follow instructions, follow through with activity, or generally observe good behavior.

This brings me to the discussion on why we do the things we do.

As mentioned earlier, we do things because we either NEED them or we feel REWARDED.

Let’s focus on the REWARDS.

Rewards are any object, event, or activity which can either motivates us, causes us to learn, or brings out pleasurable feelings.

But how do our brains compute the value of a reward and how is that translated into action? The answer lies in the brain circuitry known as the “reward system.”

The chemical in our brain that is responsible for this ‘reward system’ is DOPAMINE.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and plays several key roles in the brain and body. It is one of those chemicals that is responsible for transmitting signals between the nerve cells in the brain, the so-called neurons, dopamine is a feel-good hormone, and it's able to give you pleasure, a sense of reward, and therefore motivation to do something.

Now, going back to our ‘reward system’.

A reward system or a reward chart can be used to make this process easier for parents, especially when there is more than one child in the family. They come in several forms, including wall posters and apps.

Following a bedtime routine visual schedule is an excellent opportunity for parents to use positive reinforcement with their children.

Consistency is Key

When you're using a positive reinforcement system for your neurodivergent child, it's important to keep the reward chart consistent. That way, you can be sure that your child understands the consequences of their actions.

If you're giving your child rewards for good behavior and they don't understand why they were rewarded in the first place, they may not want to try hard enough or succeed at all. In this case, it can be helpful to explain how the reward works and why—for instance, if you tell them that they're getting a cookie because they're being good (e.g. they've been doing well following their bedtime visual schedule), then there's no reason why they shouldn't continue being good!

Make sure that you are consistent with your rewards. If your child has been working on something for an hour and you reward them with a cookie after 20 minutes, they may feel like they don't deserve the cookie because they didn't complete the task within 40 minutes. This will cause them to lose confidence in themselves and their ability to succeed.

A parent needs to reward the child every time the behavior happens. Right time (e.g. after finishing the bedtime routine schedule) and/or the right degree of reward (e.g. small reward like a cookie or a big reward like a brand new phone).

Keep it Simple

Positive Reinforcement or Reward Charts can be used for many different things, including homework completion, chores, and following directions.

The key is to make sure that you keep your chart simple and easy to use.

Here’s a sample of a Bedtime Routine Rewards Chart from Rewards Charts for Kids:

It is important that your child knows what the chart is supposed to represent before they start using it.

For instance, if they are expected to have their bedtime routine done by 8:00 pm, then it would be helpful if the chart had a “bedtime routine” section where they could put in their schedule for the day prior to it.

If they have trouble remembering what the chart represents, you can use pictures or drawings to help them understand how they should fill out each section of their chart.

[Refer to The Importance of Visual Aids at Bedtime and How to Use Them for your Neurodivergent Child]

You may also want to consider adding some bells and whistles like stars or stickers so that it will motivate your child even more than just numbers alone would do alone.

Make it Fun

In making the reward system fun, your goal is to make your child understand that they aren't just another chore or obligation on your child's plate.

The key is ensuring your child feels excited about earning new privileges or privileges previously denied them! This will ensure their motivation stays high throughout the process—and will help ensure success along the way!

Give Them Some Control

Positive reinforcement is a form of positive discipline. It allows us to make use of our children’s individual strengths and focus on their personality traits and interests. Because of this, we can connect with them, communicate effectively with them, and ultimately empower them to be more of themselves.

Giving your child some form of control over their positive reinforcement or reward chart can make them cooperate more and can bring them more excited to follow or follow through with their bedtime routine visual schedule.

One example of this is giving your child the option to choose what they want for their reward each day or week, but don't make it too hard for them! Make sure you don't give them an option like "I will get to eat popcorn" because it's not motivating enough for them—try

something more like "I get to watch TV after lunch!"

This is my favorite reward treasure box.

Be Flexible and Have Good Timing

It is important to be flexible and have good timing when it comes to the positive reinforcement system or reward charts. Some children respond better to a reward system that provides them instant gratification while others may need more time before receiving a reward.

The best way for parents to figure out what type of system their child may respond best to is by observing their behavior and seeing how they react in certain situations.

If the child is stressed, anxious, or frustrated, then it may be best for them to receive an immediate reward.

On the other hand, if they are on-task and calm, it might be better for them if they are rewarded later.

Maintaining a positive reinforcement system in your home is likely to have a profound psychological effect on your child with ASD and other neurodivergence, making them feel loved and cared for.

If you have any more questions or concerns about your child's sleep issues, please don't hesitate to contact us here at The Slumber Academy. We will give you a free 15-minute sleep consultation to ease your worries and know your child's needs.

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