3 Simple Positive Behavior Strategies You Can Implement Today!

If you are the parent of a child with exceptional needs and are using the same techniques your parents used while raising you, or that you’ve used with your children who don’t have exceptional needs, it’s probably not working. But, here are three strategies that will!

1. Tell, Don’t Ask

Tell, Don’t Ask is an easy-to-use strategy that simply means rather than asking your child to do what you expect them to do, just tell them. It sounds very straightforward. But so many times parents ask their children rhetorical questions, such as: Are you ready to eat? Are you ready to take a bath? Do you want to do your homework now? The question is irrelevant; the parent expects the child to comply. But when asking a question for an expectation, the child may think there is an option to say no.

Things to keep in mind when using Tell Don’t Ask:

  • Make the request within close proximity to your child using as few words as possible.
  • If your child can, make eye contact.
  • If your child can, ask them to repeat the request back.


  • “Take your plate to the sink. What do you need to take to the sink?”
  • “Put your shoes on. What do you need to put on?”
  • “In two minutes, it’s time for dinner. What is it time for in two minutes?”

2. Using Choices

Everyone loves choices! But for our kiddos with exceptional needs, choices can be a huge help in everyday routines. If your child is reluctant to transition to bath time and you say, “Do you want to wear your Sponge Bob pajamas or your PJ Masks pajamas?” there is an increased chance your child will happily head to the bathroom.

Things to keep in mind when using Choices:

  • Keep choices limited to two or three.
  • Both choices should be acceptable to the parent, with at least one choice highly preferred by the child.
  • Be consistent. If you have selected two acceptable choices, you cannot let your child add a third option.


  • “Do you want soup or a sandwich for lunch?”
  • “Do you want me to pause your iPad, or do you want to pause it?”
  • “Do you want to shower now or in two minutes?”

3. First/Then

(Also called the PreMack Principle or Grandma’s Rule)

The First/Then strategy is where you pair a non-preferred activity with a preferred activity. In other words, you tell the child to do something you want them to do they may not want to do, with the promise of immediately after they get to do something they want to do.

Things to keep in mind when using First/Then:

  • The non-preferred activity (or what you want them to do) is always completed first.
  • Never negotiate the order and allow the preferred activity first.
  • Can use a visual First/Then board with pictures for younger or pre-verbal children.


  • “First bath, then story.”
  • “First pick up toys, then iPad.”
  • “In two minutes wash hands, then snack time.”

Bonus Tip – Using Timers!

Timers are my favorite tool for helping my six-year-old autistic son move from preferred activities to nonpreferred activities and for transitions. You’ll see that I included the use of timers in all of the three strategies above. If you use timers often, it will become second-nature to you and your child.

Things to keep in mind when using Timers:

  • Keep the time-frame short. Just long enough to finish what they may be doing, but not long enough to start anything new. We consistently use 2 minutes.
  • Set the timer, have your child start it, and place it where they can see it.
  • Do not negotiate more time after the timer goes off.


  • “In two minutes, put on your shoes. What do you need to put on in two minutes?” (Tell Don’t Ask + Timer)
  • “In two minutes, do you want to read Green Eggs and Ham or Hop on Pop?” (Choices + Timer)
  • “In two minutes, put your toys in the bin, then we will go to the park.” (First/Then + Timer)

Raising a child with exceptional needs does take a shift in mindset, and a break from traditional parenting. Punishment, time-outs, spanking and other negative approaches are not effective, can make behaviors worse, and can have damaging long-term impacts on both the child and parent. But positive techniques, such as the simple strategies above will work and you can start using them today!

For more information like above, check out these other posts!

Behavior Strategies: Tips for Transitions

Using Timers For Children With Autism

Burn Your Parenting Books: Why Traditional Parenting Won’t Work With Children With Exceptional Needs

Until you have a child with special needs, you never know the depth of your strength, tenacity and resourcefulness. – Author Unknown

Published by

Amy Nielsen

Amy Nielsen is a former children's librarian of nearly twenty years. She now spends most of her time obsessively pounding on a keyboard. She is the author of It Takes a Village: How to Build a Support System for Your Exceptional Needs Family, Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her upcoming YA Worth it debuts in May of 2024. She is also a freelance writer for The Autism Helper. When she's not writing, she and her family are most likely crusing the waters of Tampa Bay.