Habits Q & A: Special Needs; One at a Time

Today I’m answering two questions about habit training with children who have special needs or unique challenges. This post is one in a series on habits in which we are answering questions from parents.

The first question today is from a parent who has a child on the autism spectrum. I also have a daughter with autism and developmental delays, so I’m happy to share out of my experience. Here’s the question:

Question: “Can you give or share your best practices for moms like me who have children in the spectrum and who are really in that challenging area of establishing habits with their children? Because one of the things that I’m personally trying to address with my child is rigidity. I want him to learn to be more flexible. And sometimes I feel like the habit training kind of clashes somehow. So if you can share some of your best practices on this, it would be very helpful.”

I’m happy to share what my practices are, but as you know, every child is different. And I’m happy to say that my child has become more flexible with daily life and scheduling changes over the years while still maintaining the habits we’ve worked on.

What I’ve tried to do is find the sweet spot of challenging but not pushing to the point of overwhelming. If you can find that spot just on the edge—and it will be different for each child—if you can find where that sweet spot is for challenging and stay there, you’re going to see some growth over time. But if you go one step further into overwhelming, the brain is going to shut down. Actually, it’s the same for all kids, autistic or not. If you push them too far, to where they’re overwhelmed, the brain just shuts down. It’s like a fuse goes off. It pops.

What worked pretty well for my daughter when she was young, and before she could read, we created a pocket chart. You know what I mean? It was just a long piece of poster board, and we cut little poster board strips and taped them on the long piece like pockets. Then we took pictures of her doing different things during the day, like brushing her teeth, combing her hair, making her bed, eating breakfast, playing with her toys, reading books with an older sibling. Whatever we wanted her to be doing during the day, we took a picture of that, and we printed those out to make little cards. Then for each day, we would put in place those activities, so she could see at a glance what was going to happen today. That made her feel secure.

The visuals helped keep the habits in place and the regularity that made her feel secure. But we did not keep the same schedule every single day. We didn’t change everything every day: the meals were still there, the chores were still there. We changed just one or two other things each day. So maybe on Monday after lunch she would read a book with a sibling, but maybe on Tuesday after lunch we were going to go to the park. So we changed one little thing, but still gave her a heads up where she could see, “This is what’s going to happen today.”

When your child gets used to that, then you can put two cards in a pocket and say, “After lunch we’re either going to read a book or go to the park. We don’t know yet which one it’s going to be, but I’ll tell you at lunchtime which one we’re going to do.” So again it’s just one little change, taking that child to the edge but not pushing her off the cliff. The habits stay in place, but you add some flexibility in one little time slot during the day.

Now if that might be too big of a step for some kids, you might back it up and tell her at bedtime, “Here are two options for tomorrow after lunch” (or whichever time slot pocket it will be in). “I’m going to put them in that pocket tonight, and at breakfast tomorrow I’ll tell you which one we’re going to do.” That will give the child more time to process, because you’re letting her know earlier and giving her more space to mentally prepare—if that helps your child. Some kids might obsess over it all night, in which case you might want to adjust the other way and put the two options in the pocket immediately before that time slot happens. You know your child; do what will be challenging but not overwhelming to her.

Once you get that step in place with putting two options in one time slot, you could do a couple of different time slots with options during the day. And then you might take the next step of leaving one of the pockets blank: “It’s going to be a surprise. I’ll tell you, when it’s time, what we’re going to do then.” Always keep it positive. Not, “I don’t know what we’re going to do then,” because that might freak your child out, but “It’s going to be a surprise.”

Now, praise God, my daughter is to the point where I’m seeing a flexible mindset appear in other ways. She has gone on a rearranging spree recently. She rearranged her play room almost every day for a week. And if she wasn’t rearranging her play room, she was rearranging her bedroom. That’s huge for a child who likes to be stuck in a rigid mindset. 

And you’ll have those encouraging peeks into your child’s growth every once in a while too. It’s not going to be consistent. It’s not going to be, “Wow, all of a sudden everything is great and we have no challenges anymore.” But you’ll have those little encouraging peeks to let you know you’re on the right track.

The second question comes from a parent with two children, one who has autism and one who has ADHD, and she’s asking about how to focus on one habit at a time. Here’s what she wrote:

Question: “This is our second year in homeschooling, and this is my first time for Charlotte Mason. . . . I have two kids. My eldest is seven, and she’s the one I’m homeschooling. My youngest is turning six next week, but she’s autistic and my eldest has ADHD. We already have our habits set like that. I mean the bad habits and everything because of how unique my kids are. 

“So my question, let’s say that I have decided that obedience would be my first habit that I would address with my children, coming from zero habit formation, and they are already past the early six years that Charlotte Mason said was very, very critical for that. So does that mean that I let the other habits lie for now? Like for example, specifically with my eldest, who is the one I’m homeschooling, the ones of inattention or imperfect execution, dawdling because she has ADHD, this is the one that’s really my issue with her, and the lack of zeal with lessons, and all the others that are affecting our homeschooling atmosphere that come up during her lessons. Despite that, I’m already trying to make efforts to alternate the subjects, to keep the lessons short, doing everything that I can, given that this is her first time to homeschool, but to make it interesting. So do I let those other bad habits be for now, since I’m still focusing on the one habit? Or how do I address that when they’re coming up all together during the session?”

It’s a good question, and I often get asked a form of that question from parents with special needs children and parents without special needs children. What I would say is you’re going to have one habit that is your focus, that we are going to talk about every day and we are going to practice every day and we are going to memorize Scripture about it and we’re going to read inspiring stories about it. That’s going to be the big focus, but you still have to deal with life. It’s not like, “Okay, I saw you smack your brother, but I’m going to ignore that because we’re dealing with the habit of attention right now.” No, you still have to deal with life as it happens. 

I think this mama is doing a lot correctly, in that, she has the supports in place to help with those other habits that are lacking. She’s doing short lessons, she’s alternating the sequence, she’s using living ideas—all of those things are to support that habit of attention. But that’s not going to be the main focus for this term. Yes, do all you can to encourage it and to try and help that happen. And if you see your child’s eyes rolling back in her head, stop, go do a different lesson that uses a different part of the brain, and then come back to that one and finish it—that’s another support you can do.

Keep all of those good practices in place that help with the habit of attention or the habit of perfect execution. But the main focus, the one you’re going to talk about and consciously work on every day, is going to be the obedience habit. 

And let me encourage you. I know that Charlotte said we need to work on a habit for six to eight weeks in order to get that plate spinning, to get that habit up and running, but be sure to keep in your mind that good habits are a life-long process. They’re like layers. 

You’re going to put down one layer of the habit of obedience, as it looks at this age, during these eight weeks. And then, you’re going to switch and do another habit that you’re consciously focusing on. You still practice the obedience and keep the supports in place, but the conscious focusing will change for the next eight weeks. 

You don’t want to stay on one habit for so long that it’s like beating a dead horse. You don’t want your children to get so used to it that they tune out: “Oh yeah, we’re talking about that again.” You want to keep it fresh in their minds. But you’re not going to completely get that habit 100% instilled forever-amen in those eight weeks. You’re going to get an aspect of it or a couple of aspects of it solidly in place. Every aspect that gets in place is going to make your home smoother and easier. But later on, you might want to come back to that habit and address it again with some other applications of it. 

And especially with an autistic child. It is possible to instill habits with our special needs kids; but with some of them, it’s going to take longer than eight weeks. So don’t become weary in well doing. Don’t give up hope. It’s going to happen; it’ll just take longer. 

And also consider that you may need to narrow the focus. All of the habits that Charlotte talked about are really categories. The habit of cleanliness is a category. There are lots of applications within that category: brushing your teeth, combing your hair, washing your hair. My daughter still can’t wash her own hair. All of those specific applications are in that one habit of cleanliness. With our special needs kids, sometimes we need to focus on just one application during those eight weeks or however long it takes. With neurologically typical kids, a lot of times you can focus on the big category and they will generalize it across lots of applications. But with our special kids, sometimes, we need to narrow that focus: “We’re just going to work on brushing our teeth for these eight weeks” or even “We’re going to focus on putting the right amount of toothpaste on the toothbrush for these eight weeks.” Adjust the application to fit your child. 

Let me encourage you. It is not too late to lay down new habits. It is never too late to lay down good habits. God made our brains to be able to form good habits, new habits, our entire lives. It is possible, so don’t ever believe the lie that it’s too late. It is never too late. The brain will do the new habit-track forming. It might take longer. It might take more work. But it is so worth it, and it’s going to happen.


  1. Thank you! I have a child diagnosed with ADHD, ODD and anxiety. It can sometimes be difficult to find advice geared toward special needs kids and CM at the same time, so this was comforting.

  2. This is great advice, however I am not an organized person and I don’t always know the plan, or I change my mind. My child is 17. Is there any way to start now? Honestly, I am overwhelmed.

    • Hi Jenny. First, let’s determine why you feel the need to change. Does your 17 year old have various needs that are not being met? If learning is progressing well and you see graduation in sight, change for change’s sake at this age should be approached with caution. We would love to talk more. Please use our website contact button to get in touch.

  3. I’m a Sped Tutor, reading this advices encourage a lot on how to handle children with special needs. I’m doing a home service tutorial most of the parents are working and they leave the kids with extended families or they sometimes just rely on the tutor.

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