Increasing On-Task Behavior

Categories: Schedules

A classroom teacher had a student who got up from her seat and walked across the room frequently during instructional times. While I’m sure you can relate, this can be very disruptive! Having to redirect a child back to their seat can mean losing focus on what you’re talking about; not to mention it distracts other students! After some data collection, I found out the little girl was getting up in order to get preferred items (there was some task avoidance as well). She would go get games, crayons, tape (which she liked to play with), and some other non-essential things.

The Autism Helper

The most important thing I wanted to do was to teach this little gal to ask for what she wants! It is so important for her to learn to advocate for herself and what she wants/needs, while making sure to follow classroom rules. It is so important to teach a child that you can not just get anything you want without asking the teacher (talk about a safety concern!).



The entire plan I came up with was a simple tupperware box that the little girl could take with her everywhere at school. She also had complete access to it at all times. Inside the box, three preferred items could be kept inside. I made sure to tape an index card on the bottom with the numbers, “1,” “2,” and “3.” This was done so the box didn’t accumulate 20 something items and was difficult to remove over time. On the lid of the box I taped the phrase, “I want ___.” Any time the little girl says, “I want ___,” or is prompted to say that, she was immediately rewarded with that item AND praise. This was a first step in teaching her that when you ask for something appropriately you get it! Now, I completely know that you don’t get everything you ask for, but this was just the first step.


The items are provided in the box to minimize the likelihood of her getting up from her seat to get a game or preferred item. This whole idea is what we jargon-filled behavior people call, “satiation.” The idea behind this is if the child has immediate access to these preferred items, they will become satiated and are less likely to get up from their desk to get them. One important thing to note is she was able to play with the items whenever she pleased to ensure satiation took effect.



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  1. I am a high school sped teacher. I work in a self-contained class with severe disabilities. I have a really challenging kid this year. He is really defiant, he will just flop down on the floor for hours, and he is sometimes violent. My school psych (who has not even been in my class to observe) insists that I use a mystery motivator with him. So basically he works for a set amount of tokens and then gets to roll a dice with 3 food rewards and 3 sensory rewards. He is totally food obsessed. So obviously he always wants the dice to land on the food items and will sometimes refuse the non food items. It is now January and the psychologist’s idea is not really working. I am wondering if using an “I am work for” card would be better. That way he knows what he is earning the tokens for. Of course he is going to work for a food item and realize especially for kids with Down syndrome that isn’t ideal but I need help and he needs help. Do any of you have any suggestions? Thanks

  2. Hi Denise – I’m going to be straightforward with you – I am totally not into the dice idea. Imagine if your principal rolled a dice to see how you would get paid every two weeks. Would you be okay with that? You need to make sure that the items your student is working for are reinforcers (ie. they reinforce his behavior) not just a preferred item (something you like). The example I always give is that money is a reinforcer for my behavior. I will go to work is I am paid in money. I love Yankee Candles – totally obsessed. But Yankee Candles are not a reinforcer. I would not be willing to go to work if I was paid in them. Does that make sense? It’s not our place to tell kids what their reinforcer is and what it isn’t. Obviously you don’t want to overload with food but you can use token economies, small pieces of food, & play on natural food breaks (lunch, snack, etc.) while start to condition praise & task completion as reinforcers. I think this idea of working for food rubs people the wrong way but if you think about it – our whole world is setup on contrived reinforcers (paycheck, allowances, speeding tickets, etc.). We are just getting our kids ready for a rule driven world. Hope this helps! Sorry this is so long! 🙂

  3. Hello Denise,

    I know that you created this post some time ago, but hopefully you will receive my response.

    I do like the idea of the dice to an extent… It usually helps more if the child has 1-2 known rewards to choose from rather than it being a complete mystery. I have had great success with posting and reminding the challenging individual of the expected behavior and reward for doing so.

    I am not at all comfortable with using food as a reward. Now, this response is coming from a different perspective as the clientele I work with are part of my residential treatment program. We do not use food as residents do become increasingly obsessed with food which can and does lead to further behaviors — especially if the goal has not been met.

    Pictures of the rewards would be great to have in a bucket. Let your student choose which 2 rewards he would like to earn for the day. Ask the student what he has to do to earn the reward. If the student begins to have behavioral problems at any time, remind him of his goals-reward and that he gets to choose between the 2 rewards.

    A fun, upbeat approach is very helpful and encouraging to the student…Hope this helps


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