How to Keep a Child Motivated in ABA

One of the common concerns we get from parents and therapists is that the child isn’t motivated for anything.  Why is this important, you ask?  Well, because in an ABA program, we rely on motivation to get things done.  It’s the “then” in the “first/then”.  It’s the reward at the end of the token board.  If there is no motivation, then we can’t use reinforcement to increase behaviours we want to see more of.  Without motivation, we’re just asking kids to do things they don’t want to do with nothing in it for them.

So what do we recommend when a child seems unmotivated?

1. Do a Preference Assessment

Preferences change.  Think about your own preferences – do you ALWAYS get the same burger at your favourite restaurant? Or are you sometimes in the mood to try the chicken wings?  Our clients may also get bored of the same thing so being creative and constantly introducing new items and activities is important.  Some clients need daily (even hourly!) preference assessments while some might enjoy the same reinforcer for longer. 

There are many ways to do a preference assessment.  Formal, or trial-based methods usually involve presenting one (single stimuli), two (paired stimuli) or many (multiple stimuli) potential reinforcers and recording data on which item the child reached for or wanted.

Alternatively, you can also find preferences informally by asking the student (“What do you want to work for?”), asking a parent or caregiver, or just observing what the child likes to play with in the environment (Free operant observation).

2. Be Creative!

There are so many things a child can be motivated for that are not typical.  If we’re offering the child the same toy over and over again and he’s not into it, it’s time to move away from that option.  While it’s easy to offer a child a toy or a chip, some children are more motivated by attention or activities.  We’ve had kids who worked for squeezes or tickles or being spun around really fast.  Think about the child’s perspective and be creative in offering reinforcers that the child would enjoy.  It’s okay to move away from the typical reinforcers if it’s what your client is motivated for.  As long as you can make the reinforcer contingent on an expectation, the options are endless!

3. Look at the Programs

Seeing a lack of motivation might be a sign that the programs need some attention.  Is the child bored? Do the programs need to be updated? Does there need to be more Natural Environment Teaching (NET)?  Going back an re-pairing is also a good option at this point.  Like any relationship, putting too many demands can cause a strain.  What started off good can become stressed if you don’t continue to build the positive aspects of the client-therapist relationship. Go back to pairing for a few sessions, add some sensory social routines in the program so that it’s more fun.  Don’t forget to include as much fun as you can!

Rarely have we actually come across a student who was not motivated.   Lack of motivation is usually solved by one of the three above options.   

What works for you to keep motivation high?

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2 thoughts on “How to Keep a Child Motivated in ABA

  • I have a 17 years old boy with ASD, do you have any advice for that age? He only wants to stay in his room.

    • Hi Amelia! We recommend getting in touch with a BCBA in your area who can meet with you and your son and make individual recommendations : )

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