Finding Motivation: Losing Challenging Behaviors

Guest Authored By Aislin Woell, BA-CSD

Everyone has been in a situation where they didn’t want to complete a task or participate in an event. It can be easy to bribe oneself to do something unpleasant or boring, knowing that there is an opportunity to do something fun afterward. 

When working with children, it can at times be difficult to maintain control when you are attempting to have them complete any non-preferred tasks. Non-preferred tasks can include a variety of things, but are most often any task that involves work. Oftentimes, children need some extra motivation to complete a more difficult or undesired task. This is where first [Symbol] then charts can provide some extra visual aide and guidance for a child.

First [Symbol] then charts can help simplify the instructions given and show children that when they participate in a non-preferred activity, they will get to do something they find more desirable afterwardThe ‘first’ should always be a less preferred activity (chores, homework, car rides, etc.) while the ‘then’ should always be a preferred activity (play, a favorite treat, listening to a favorite song, etc.). Complex instructions are difficult for anyone to understand, and this simplified step-by-step chart can be extremely effective for learners who require a visual aid or need to know what’s coming next.  

first [Symbol] then chart can look different depending on the level of communication that a child uses. Some children require a visual (see below), while others can understand a simple verbal exchange of “First eat your dinner, then you can have ice cream for dessert!” When facing any challenging behaviors at home, first[Symbol] then charts can be helpful in decreasing the occurrences of these behaviors. This is due to the fact that when a child is motivated by a reward (the ‘then’ portion of a first [Symbol] then chart), they are more likely to engage in an activity they don’t necessarily enjoy doing.  


It is important to remember that if the child completes the ‘first’ activity, they also get to participate in the ‘then’ activity that has been set prior to beginning the non-preferred activity. Even if it takes longer to complete the task, or a child needs help to complete the task, they still get to participate in the ‘then’ activity that they were promised when the first [Symbol] then chart was brought in to help provide instructions and a reward for completing the less preferred task. If the ‘then’ activity does not occur after the child has engaged in the ‘first’ activity, they are not likely to trust that what the chart says is true and will be less motivated to engage in the non-preferred activity. When used correctly, first [Symbol] then charts can greatly increase the likelihood of your child participating in household chores, completing homework, or listening to adult instructions.  

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