Skittle-Free Methods for Getting Kids to Cooperate with Testing

29 Nov

I gave the Woodcock-Johnson III Tests of Achievement to an 8-year-old yesterday. While the Woodcock Johnson (WJ-III) is widely loved by graduate students for its excellent name, it is not widely loved for the length of its administration. My clinic’s policy is to administer half of the subtests in the extended battery in addition to the standard 12-subtest battery, which can easily extend testing time to 2.5 hours or beyond – especially if you’re working with a small wiggly person who needs a lot of breaks.

My 8-year-old, like most of the children I have tortured with given the WJ-III, was not at all enthused about testing, and the situation was looking bleak: my sticker supply had been exhausted, I had no change for a bag of Skittles from the vending machine, and my kid’s parents had left the building, removing any chance of negotiating for post-assessment incentives from mom and dad.

It’s amazing what you can do with a blank piece of paper, though, and I managed to scrounge up a reinforcement strategy that kept my kiddo engaged for a full 2.5 hours. She was a self-professed horse lover, and we agreed that for every subtest she completed, I would draw a small portion of a horse – an ear, an eye, a leg – so that at the end of testing, she would have a complete picture to take home. I let her choose which part I drew after each test, where spots should go, what the horse’s legs should be doing, etc. It worked like a charm, and it got me thinking about other simple methods I might use to motivate children to cooperate during assessments… methods that did not encourage cavities or require frequent trips to the sticker aisle at Hobby Lobby. If you’ve been looking for quick, cheap reinforcers to use during testing with elementary-age kids, here are some ideas:

  • This is one that has worked well for another therapist in my program: Draw a path on a piece of paper, and draw lines across the path to divide it into sections representing subtests. Tell the child it’s a game board, and give her a small object or coin she can use as a game piece. Allow her to advance the game piece forward after completing each subtest.
  • Draw a series of circles on a piece of paper (one circle per subtest) and tell the child you’ll draw in a smiley face for each subtest he completes. Tell him that once every face is smiling, the two of you will do something fun together. Agree on what that activity will be. In the past I’ve used a game of red light/green light as a testing reinforcer, but the fun activity you choose could be anything: playing a quick board game, drawing a goofy picture together, playing trash can basketball with a wad of paper, and so on.
  • Draw a large slice of pizza with no toppings on it. Tell the child that whenever you notice that she is doing an exceptionally good job of sitting still and following directions, you’ll draw a pepperoni on the pizza. Tell her that if the pizza is covered with pepperoni by the end of the testing session, you’ll do a fun activity together (see above).
  • If you know how to do any sort of origami or paper folding – paper cranes, “fortune-tellers,” sailboats – tell the child you’re going to make him a surprise out of folded paper. Explain that you’ll make one fold for every subtest he completes. If you finish your creation before testing is done, tell him that now you’ll show him how to make the folds, and teach one fold per subtest.

A note of caution: if you use subtests as units of achievement, a child may get in the habit of asking how long each subtest will take (“Is it almost over?”). You can avoid this entirely by framing achievement as “doing a good job of sitting still and following directions” and reinforcing accordingly, as in the pizza example above. I like the structure of subtest-based achievement, and I’ve found that I can usually get kids to stop asking how long subtests will take by explaining that these questions make the subtests last longer. “Oh, man, it’s a shame you’re asking me that, because whenever you do, it takes us even longer to get done with the section.”

I’d be interested to hear from others who do assessments with children. What reinforcement strategies work for you?

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