Teaching Counting Skills

Categories: Basic Skills | Math

Sometimes counting is like a song. This is often exactly how some students are first introduced to the concept. “1, 2, 3 ,4 ,5 …” The challenge here is that sometimes it’s hard to break that chain with our students when we want them to count out objects or simply identifying a number.

Here are two programs that target counting skills, where the challenge of breaking the chain may arise. We’ll also look at some tips on how to break that chain. These programs are for students who do know how to count but may have challenges counting to a specified number (and stopping), or identifying numbers.


Counting Out Objects

This is a super versatile program that is as simple as the name indicates. You can use multiples of any item you have available in the classroom or the home (and I highly recommend using a variety of items here).

As with any program, you’ll need your data sheet and pencil, and, of course, a choice of reinforcers for your student.


Where to start: As a program guide, you can break targets up based where your student is currently at. For example, if you ask your student to give you 5 blocks, and he begins counting each block and continues beyond 5, then this is an indication what you’ll need to start from those smaller numbers and work your way up. If the student stops at 5 on their own, that’s great! Do some more trial to see how high they can count out to . If your student can successfully count out any number of items you request, then this program is not for them.

If, however, when you get to a certain number your student continues counting beyond the requested amount, then this program is a tool you can use to help break that counting chain.


Step1: Select about 5 targets to work on. One target being that certain number your student continues counting beyond, with two targets above that number and two targets below.

Step 2: Have your data sheet and pencil ready, as well as your bin of items for your student to count out.

Step 3: Present your student with the bin of items and the request, e.g., “Give me 8…”

Step 4: Once your student begins to count, pay close attention. If they’re counting the target that you know they are likely to get correct (stop at the specified amount), when they get to that number wait 3 seconds to see of they continue counting.

Step 4: If they make no attempt to keep counting (i.e., their hands are on the table and they are now attending to you),deliver some verbal praise (Good job! That’s 8!” and a few minutes with a preferred item (a toy, or small amount of a snack) while you make a note of their correct response in your data sheet. If your student does attempt to keep counting, simply block their hand and and repeat the requested number, (e.g., “8! That’s 8! How many? [wait for student to respond] Good. Nice counting 8.”). Wait 5 seconds then re-present the same request.

The Autism Helper

Step 5: Place the counted out items back into the bin and present the next target number. Conduct up to three trials per target in a day.


Number Identification

For some students, it may be that they can count and even identify some numbers, but at other times they may count up a series of numbers before correctly identifying a specific one. For example, whenever we showed a student of ours a flashcard with the number 13 printed on it, and asked him, “What number?” he’d respond, “9… 10… 11… 12… 13. 13!” this he’d do for just about every number in the teens. This wasn’t particularly functional, so we designed this program to help work on breaking that chain, while working on his identification of larger and larger numbers.

As with any program, you’ll need your data sheet and pencil, and, of course, a choice of reinforcers for your student. In addition, you’ll need a few flashcards that have numbers printed from one to as high as your student can accurately identify; plus a few of those numbers they’re having challenges with.

The Autism Helper - Seriation

Step 1: Shuffle your flashcards. Make sure the first few cards are those he/she already responds to accurately.

Step 2: When your student is seated and ready, present the first card and say, “What number?” and wait up to 3 seconds for your student to respond. If he/she responds correctly, place that card on the desk (creating a pile for corrects), provide some verbal praise, example, “Good, that’s 5,” and present the next card.

Step 3: When you get to numbers for which you student had difficulty, immediately say the number for them to repeat (i.e., once you present the card, e.g., 13, say “13” and wait 3 seconds for your student to repeat after you.). Do this for about 5 trials with each number the student has challenges with.

Step 4: After 5 trials of giving that immediate prompt to say the correct number, for the next couple of trials, wait 3 seconds before giving the prompt. I.e., once you present the card, e.g., 13, wait 3 seconds. If the student does not say anything or attempts to count up to the number of make an incorrect response, say “13” and wait 3 seconds for your student to repeat after you. If, however, the student responds correctly without any prompting, deliver some excited verbal praise, “Yes! That’s 13! Awesome job saying 13!” as well as a few minutes of a preferred item (a toy or a sample of a snack).

Step 5: Keep going through the cards until your student is accurately saying each number ( without any prompts. Once he/she is doing so, you can gradually add new numbers to the deck while taking out those earlier numbers.


The key here, for both programs is to block the student’s attempts to keep counting beyond the requested amount, and to interject whenever they attempt to count up when asked to identify a specific number.

The program guide and goal sheets for the counting program are included in out Discrete Trial Goal Sheets & Program Guides SET 3. 








  1. How would you do this with a non-verbal student?

  2. The Counting Out Object Program can be run with students who are nonverbal. If they need an additional prompt – when you say “give me 5 pencils” you can count aloud as they hand five pencils. Then you could fade this so eventually they are giving you 5 pencils without you needing to count aloud. 🙂

  3. Hi! which program should you run first? Number identification or counting out object program? My boy has problems with both… can’t identify numbers properly, and can’t give the correct number of objects, however can count up to 20 and sometimes more…

  4. I would focus on one! Probably number identification. I will respond to your emails tomorrow and get back to you on this, Desiree! 🙂

  5. Nice steps for teaching counting to the students.

  6. Thanks for reading!

  7. What about kids who can’t count yet? Start with counting out loud? What about with kids who don’t have vocals or the fine motor for the signs? Pointing to a number line?

  8. I would still work on the “give me” counting described with just a few numbers (ie. 1, 3, 5) as well as number identification (so point to the number when the number is said aloud). That will begin to develop the association between the quantity and verbal number as well as the written number and verbal number. Hope this helps!

  9. What if you nonverbal student doesn’t know how to give you things? What else could work?

  10. How Can i Get three children who are 5 Yrs autistic to Give me items I placed into the rice bin for them to name and for each child to tell me e.g what item duck then e.g how many ducks they have in the rice bin.
    Or e.g give me spoon from the rice bin
    I need to be shown how to make this into a study moment .
    FYI all three on it in the same level . Two are low functioning and one is high functioning also how to keep them still while trying to teach each child for observation of faculty to show progress.

    • It takes a lot of practice for students to learn vocabulary, count items, and then name the quantity. Just keep practicing! I wouldn’t target “sitting still” but perhaps staying at the table or keeping their hands to themselves. Try visuals for those!


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