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Incentives for Students with Disabilities

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When you work with students with disabilities, you probably hear about incentives a lot. What are good incentives for students with disabilities? What role do incentives play in Special Education? Do we overuse incentives? We’re going to go over it, so don’t even worry. Keep reading for tips and tricks!

I’m planning on making cookies for my students. Or let me rephrase. I’m really hoping I get to make cookies for my students.

I recently introduced something called “Harmony Points.” 

My students earn Harmony Points by being harmonious through one class period. 

So far, we haven’t earned the reward, but that’s not really the point, at least for me. The point for the kids is very much the reward. For me, it’s more about improving the function of my classroom.

It has. In a way, this means that I get my reward first.

That is the point of the incentives. They help get kids to do skills and or activities that they are not naturally motivated to do. 

But how do we pick good incentives, and what do we say when people question our judgment?

Keep reading to learn more!

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So, here’s a sad story about me and incentives. My mom was diagnosed right around Thanksgiving, around five years ago. 

Now December is already a hard time to go to work when you’re a teacher, but when your mom is dying, it’s almost impossible.

I was working as SEIT at the time, and I was canceling sessions left and right. 

Now, no shame to me. Self-care is important, and that was a really difficult time for me. However, when you’re a SEIT, you don’t get paid for sessions you cancel. So I needed money because…you know…food. 

So I told myself if I made it through a whole week without canceling a session, I would get to buy myself a nice $30 lipstick from Sephora. 

The lipstick was an incentive, a special prize that got me to do the thing I had no motivation to do, which just so happened to be my job. 

Now, incentives are not usually things people use on themselves because it takes a lot of willpower to do the thing and not just go buy the lipstick. That was some Special Ed Teacher magic right there.

But incentives are things teachers often use to teach kids behaviors that they are not internally motivated to do. 

Some people call it bribery, but it’s more strategic than that. 

Good incentives have to be based on a goal, preferably a SMART Goal.

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable 
  • Relevant
  • Time Bound

The reward is attached to a goal the child has to earn, which will ultimately get them closer to achieving their goals. And in the case of students with disabilities, those goals should be related to their IEPS.

If your students have IEPs, chances are they have some experiences already with incentives. These days most states require students get interventions before going into special education. 

This includes doing interventions for not just academics but also behaviors. 

There are lots of different incentives you might see in the modern educational world. 

There are games like beat the teacher, adding pom poms to a jar that seems popular, and the classic stop light that my teacher used. 

Very often, schools will have standards for incentives, or general education teachers will have incentives for the whole class. 

However, the fun thing about being in special education is we can customize our incentives to fit the student, so everyone in our classes can have incentive charts. But each chart can be individualized.  

When you are working with kids on incentives, you want them to be customized to them. The first thing to do is to assess the student and determine the root cause of any issues they have in school.

If we look at the example of me and the lipstick, the problem was my mom had cancer, and I had no motivation. 

We can’t really solve that problem with incentives, but in what negative ways was that problem affecting my life? 

I was not going to work enough, and it was affecting me financially. Okay, so that’s a problem we can solve.

What is something I enjoy? 


I always want to shop at Sephora, but I don’t let myself because I am poor.

So we pair those two things together, and we have an incentive that is motivating and relevant to my life. It addresses a key issue of concern. So we need to complete that process with the children. 

When picking an incentive for your kids, ask yourself what will make the biggest impact on your student’s life, and pair that with getting a reward of something they like. 

Now, this is where Incentives make more work for you.

Stick to your guns.

Don’t forget about them. 

You can’t stop doing them for a day. No matter what, you have to stick to them. 

Consistency is king here!

That includes even if some adults in your sphere of education don’t get them. Sometimes I’ve had adults tell me my rewards are too much or I’m giving the kids “special treatment.”

Well, the sassy response I never give to “special treatment” because I like having good relationships with people is, “Well, they are in special ed.

The whole point of having an IEP is that you get things done a little differently. 

Incentives are based mostly on theories created by our man BF Skinner. Now I have complicated feelings about Skinner, but regardless, he did have a good idea or two.

To learn more about him, click here!

Just remember that in order for an incentive to be effective at helping a child, it has to be motivating, and the more you care about it, the shinier you should make the reward.

When working with incentives for students with disabilities, you want to make the reward easy to get, especially in the early days. 

Then as they get better at it, make it harder to earn as we get better at the skill. This is all part of sticking to your guns and the process of teaching.

Incentives for students with disabilities can be incredibly effective. You just have to make sure they are motivating enough and targeting whatever will make the biggest difference in your student’s ability to function. 

Or sometimes adults, since we’ve established, I do use them on myself sometimes. 

If you’re looking for more specific ideas, make sure to check out this list of 20 Incentive Ideas!

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