Many of us have said this about a child at one time or another.  It reflects our frustration in getting and keeping a child’s attention.  It describes a child’s lack of responsiveness to our teaching.  It usually suggests a lack of progress — we’re just not getting anywhere:  Something must be done.

What do we really mean when we say, “Nothing is rewarding to this child”?  If we mean it quite literally — absolutely nothing is rewarding — then we are describing a truly difficult child, indeed.  Fortunately, few children are so unresponsive, so passive, so lacking in interests.  When examined a little more closely, the description of nothing-is-rewarding may be a little more hopeful, a little less puzzling.

Some Alternate Meanings

1.  Atypical Interests

Sometimes what is rewarding or interesting to a child is so unusual that it can be easily overlooked.  Usual “treats” — food, social attention, a favorite toy, a game, a tickle, etc. — are offered and received with indifference.  Sit back and watch the child.  What does the child choose on his/her own?


Some children continue such repetitive activities out of habit — they do have other interests which can be encouraged by limiting opportunity for the habit to take place.  For example, one child liked to play ball, liked to ride a tricycle, liked to mark with a pencil — but out of habit would spend long periods of time pacing through his house dangling a shoelace.  Finally his mother hid all string-like objects from him, bought him shoes without laces.  He learned to break his old habit and practices his other interests more and more often.

2.  Inconsistent Interests

Frequently we recognize that a child does have some interests but they are unpredictable — we can’t count on them.  A child might one moment appear excited when we blow some bubbles for him/her and a moment later show no interest in them at all.  Another child might like a music box one day, bubbles the next day, and a game of peek-a-boo on the third day — his/her interests keep changing on us:

For a child who has many interests which change from day to day, we might offer a reward as “__________’s choice.”  Examples:

a.  a reward box — 3 toys in a bin — following a work activity, the bin is presented and the child allowed to choose the toy which sparks his/her interest at that moment.

b.  a “play” chart — 4 pictures of things of interest — following a work activity, the chart is presented, child picks a picture, is given the toy of his choice and sent off to play with it briefly.

For the child who has few interests, we are faced with a more difficult problem.  I think it is fair to assume that this child is disorganized, confused, can’t make up his mind, rather than simply whimsical.  It is up to us, then, to help him/her become more organized, more consistent about his/her choices, his interests.  It is up to us to direct him/her in “play” as well as “work” — to choose for him.  It may be important to present a reward consistently even when it is responded to inconsistently just as we are consistent about the way we present a work activity.

3.  Atypical Affect

How do we know that something is rewarding to a child?

If a child is non-verbal, we rely heavily upon the expression on his/her face.  Especially with children with autism, this can often be misleading.  A child may giggle when nothing appears funny to us.  Another child may look “bored” during an activity which he/she is choosing again and again.  If we cannot rely on a show of interest through facial expression, we need to look at other physical behavior.  Does he/she reach for something?  Does he/she push something away?  Does he/she simply remain still (not avoiding what we offer)?  One child liked to have the teacher blow on his hand.  He turned his head away, “appeared” disinterested, but kept his hand right out there in a position to be blown on again.

In summary, it is our contention that rewarding activities can be identified for all children.  On-going assessment is often necessary, and continually trying to expose the child to new activities is a very important part of the process.


(Adapted from Piedmont TEACCH Center)

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