Positive Reinforcements For Your Child With Special Needs

Mom using positive reinforcements with her special needs son.

“Don’t touch that!”

“Put that down!”

“I told you not to do that. Why won’t you listen to me?”

“Ugh… you need to go to your room!”

Five minutes later, when the power struggle is over, and your child’s behavior has finally settled…


They’re finally being good, so there’s no need to say anything… right?


In fact, NOTHING could be further from the truth…

Why Positive Reinforcement? 

Praise and encouragement are the building blocks of emotional and social development for all children, regardless of their special needs or disability.

A child with special needs might often show signs of intentional unwanted behaviors, a disrespectful attitude, or have a physical setback that prevents them from learning traditionally.

These attributes can lead to frustration, anger, tension, and emotional outbursts from you and your child. 

This is why it’s important to remember that your child did not ask for these educational roadblocks. They are the product of unforeseen circumstances and not the problem of the child themselves.

“You always catch more flies with honey” is an adage that describes how positive reinforcements work for all individuals, especially children.

An uplifting attitude and positive encouragement get better results in building a child’s confidence and self-esteem than negative reinforcement or negative consequences. 

This is why it’s vital to a child’s well-being to have a specific praise and reward system in place for each step on the path to educational success and peace of mind.

Positive reinforcements have a proven record of improved results toward an end goal. So finding the right combination is essential to your child’s education.

3 Different Types Of Positive Reinforcements

There are three different types of positive reinforcements. Let’s clarify each one of them.

#1 Primary Reinforcers

Primary Reinforcers are the tangible rewards for desirable behaviors. 

These can be small rewards such as: 

  • Stickers or Trading Cards: Young children love stickers and trading cards they can collect and display. You can give your child a sticker or trading card for each positive behavior or wait until they have accumulated a specific number (like using sticker charts) to earn a larger reward.
  • Sweet Treat: Offering your child a treat as a reward for positive behavior can be a great way to show your appreciation. This could be their favorite candy at the grocery store or a trip to get ice cream.
  • Extra Playtime: Children love to play, so offering extra playtime as a reward can be highly motivating. This could be as simple as letting them stay up a little later playing video games or giving them an extra 30 minutes of playtime after dinner.
  • Privileges: Granting your older children special privileges as a reward for positive behavior can be a great motivator. For example, let them stay up late to watch a favorite movie or allow them to choose what’s for dinner. These privileges can be simple but can mean a lot to your child.

Or these can be bigger rewards such as: 

  • Special Outing: You could plan a special outing for your child, such as a zoo or amusement park trip. This can be a great way to reward good behavior and give your child something to look forward to.
  • Extended Screen Time: For many children, screen time is a highly prized reward. Consider allowing your child extra screen time, such as an hour of TV or video game time after dinner.
  • Toy: Consider buying your child a new toy or item they’ve wanted, such as a video game, book, or sports equipment.
  • Allowance Increase: If your child receives an allowance, consider increasing it for good behavior. This can be a great way to show your child the value of hard work and encourage them to continue making positive choices.
  • Activity or Class: Consider enrolling your child in a new activity or class they’ve wanted to try as a reward for positive behavior. This could be anything from music lessons to a cooking class or a sports league. This is also a great way to encourage your child to try new things.

#2 Secondary Reinforcers

Secondary reinforcers are the ones that are learned, like verbal praise and social recognition. Coupled with a primary form of positive reinforcement, it can be a powerful combination to get the desired results.

Secondary Positive Reinforcement Examples

  • Verbal Praise: Children learn to associate positive feedback with good behavior.
  • Social Recognition: Children who receive positive attention from their peers or adults learn that their behavior is valued and appreciated.
  • Smiling or Positive Facial Expressions: Smiling or positive facial expressions can also be a positive reinforcer. Younger kids especially look for their parents’ attention in everything they do. So when they see you smile, they relate that to your happiness with what they are doing.
  • High-Fives or Fist Bumps: High-fives or fist bumps are physical gestures of recognition that can be a powerful secondary reinforcer. Younger children quickly learn to associate these gestures with good feelings. 

#3 Intrinsic Motivation Reinforcement

Intrinsic reinforcement means the child will start to evaluate themselves and their own good behavior and reward themselves in some manner without outside support.

As this is not always possible for a child with special needs, it’s essential to use as many primary and secondary reinforcers as necessary to get the desired results.

Examples of Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement sets an excellent example for appropriate behaviors and is useful for your child’s home and school environments. 

The specific set of rewards should differ depending on the child’s motivators and preferences. Just keep them striving towards a positive outcome at every turn.

– “Gotcha” – Reward Positive Behavior When You See It

Letting your child with special needs know when their particular behavior is acceptable is the best way for them to learn the difference between positive and negative behavior. 

Your child will learn that good choices get rewarded, while “naughty” actions don’t receive the same type of attention and gratification as the others.

If your child loves scratch ‘n sniff stickers, keep a stock of them handy while you do help with homework. Then after they accomplish a particular goal for the day/week/month, reward your child with a certain number of stickers (for example. one sticker per page or five stickers) for homework turned in on time.

Find the reward that piques your child’s curiosity, and let them know how much you appreciate their working towards a specific achievement.

– Using Your Words and Actions

A bright smile, an encouraging pat on the back, or a quick hug goes a long way in letting your child with special needs know you care about their work and development. This also gives them a needed boost of confidence each time.

Try incorporating phrases like, “Good job!” or “That was an outstanding effort!” on a consistent basis into your language as positive indicators of good actions.

It’s often the intangible things we remember later in life, and small gestures can go a long way.

– Making It Fun

If there is one surefire way to engage a child’s interest while positively reinforcing a desired behavior or action, it’s through fun!

When you take the aspect of learning being “work” out of the environment, you can help your child with special needs learn in a fun and engaging manner that doesn’t seem hard at all.

There is a multitude of ways to help you accomplish these goals. Some examples include;

  • Board Games
  • Books
  • Interactive Software
  • Create Games Together

No matter what constitutes fun for your child, there is a way to keep learning fresh and light.

– Spending Some One-On-One Time

Between the demands of home, work, and family, it might sometimes feel next to impossible to grab some quality time with your child on a daily basis. 

But remember that children who experience positive reinforcements regularly flourish in many educational and social areas.

Structure your day to include at least twenty minutes of personal time with your child, listening to their;

  • Frustrations
  • Concerns
  • Achievements

Children are eager to have their world and experiences recognized by those they love, and personal attention shows them a positive example of how to treat others.

They will feel more confident in social interactions and build the self-esteem needed to succeed in school and life.

A child with special needs perceives the world differently than we do, which might be challenging to grasp. So remember that despite the situation, positive reinforcements are the difference between scoring a win or suffering from a loss.

Additional Resources You Might Consider

Alternatively, special education tutoring is rapidly growing in popularity among those parents searching for additional tools and resources to help their child achieve excellence.

Special Education Resource focuses on molding the curriculum your child is already learning in a way that makes it more comfortable based on their specific learning needs. 

A child with special needs has unique talents and abilities that need to be celebrated, not judged, for them to feel good about themselves and their accomplishments.

A kind word, small physical rewards, or token of appreciation teaches much more than momentary gratification for a job well done.

You are teaching the building blocks of life.

What type of positive reinforcements have you tried? Let us know your experience in the comments below!

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Mom using positive reinforcements with her special needs son.
Positive Reinforcements are essential, especially for a child with special needs. What type will work for your child? Here’s what you need to know.

Picture of Luke Dalien

Luke Dalien

Author Luke Dalienhttps://specialedresource.com/author/lukedalien/ has spent his life dedicated to helping others break the chains of normal so that they may live fulfilled lives. When he’s not busy creating books aimed to bring a smile to the faces of children, he and his amazing wife, Suzie, work tirelessly on their joint passion; helping children with special needs reach their excellence. Together, they founded an online tutoring and resource company, SpecialEdResource.com. Poetry, which had been a personal endeavor of Luke’s for the better part of two decades, was mainly reserved for his beautiful wife, and their two amazing children, Lily and Alex. With several “subtle nudges” from his family, Luke finally decided to share his true passion in creativity with the world through his first children’s book series, “The Adventures Of The Silly Little Beaver."


  1. Excellent what scholarly approach . as a mother of a intellectually disabled girl child… and as a special educator with degree in special education I really congratulate the person who has framed this.. very good

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