Sometimes getting children to do chores or complete homework can be a challenging task for the adults in their lives. Timers are an excellent way to motivate your child or student(s) to complete tasks and follow directions.
Research and reputable resources consistently indicate the benefits of using timers with children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Additionally, a study completed at Apple Tree Learning Center, in 2012, in Washington D.C., concluded that using a timer with a picture schedule, with a preschool student with a developmental delay, significantly increased his time on task during center-based play. (Be sure to check the end of the article for types of timers to use with children who may have trouble understanding the countdown on a traditional digital timer).
My own experiences over the past 19 years have also consistently shown me how effective timers can be when working with students who have trouble staying on task, completing non-preferred activities, and transitioning away from preferred activities.
Below I will illustrate three ways for you to effectively use timers with children to increase cooperation, time on-task, task completion, etc.
Side Note: In addition to the strategies in this article, there are other methods that are helpful to encourage chore/homework completion and other positive behaviors. See the bottom of this article for recommendations on other articles to read. Additionally, there is no magic fix. What works for one child may not work for another. If you have significant concerns about your child’s ability, motivation, learning, behavior, or level of attention talk to your child’s doctor and/or school to find out what support they can provide.
Recommendations for Timer Use
1. Some children have difficulty working for prolonged periods of time without a break. They may get frustrated or mentally drained. I have seen children start to look around, talk, and play with items during prolonged periods of homework or classwork. This often leads to an adult telling them to get back to work before they are mentally ready. Sometimes the child becomes resistant and refuses to get back to work. Other times they will make statements such as “I am too tired.” “It is too hard.” “I am bored.” or “I don’t care about this.” If they do get back to work, they may work slowly, rush through the assignment, or not put forth their best effort.
So how can timers help?
1. Tell your child that he/she needs to complete a certain amount of work and allow them to work towards a break.
For example, if your child is given 20 math problems for homework, you can say, “Complete the first ten problems and then take a five minute break to do something of your choice. Then do the next ten problems.” During the break, set the timer for five minutes and make sure the child can see it so they know exactly how much time they have left.
This is a great method for encouraging work completion because children like to work towards something fun. Many children also need a mental break and will work more effectively when they have the opportunity to take one. Using a timer takes the ownership away from the parent or teacher. The adult is not arbitrarily telling the child that the break is over. The timer dictates the length of the break. This leads to less resistance from the child.
If you are doing an open ended activity, such as studying or practicing an academic skill, try setting the timer for 10 minutes and saying something like “we will practice for ten minutes, take a five minute break to do something of your choice, and practice for another 10 minutes.” In this case you would use the timer to let the child know how long the practice/study session will last and how long the break will last. Some children need suggestions for the break (e.g., when you take your break do you want to draw or play a game on the computer). If you are offering suggestions, pick things that you know your child would want to work towards. You can adapt the number of minutes as some children can work for longer periods, some need to work for shorter periods, and some benefit from longer or shorter breaks. Work with your child/student to see how much time works best for him/her.
A simple list of the plan can be extremely helpful
- 10 math problems
- 5 minute break for a preferred activity
- 10 math problems
- Finished (pick activity of choice)
Children who struggle with reading/language may need the list to be in visual form. See How to Use Schedules to Improve Children’s Behavior for more on this topic.
2. Some children benefit from timer games.
Some children are very easily distracted during routine tasks like getting dressed, putting toys away, or copying down their spelling words. The child may look around, talk, or play with items rather than getting the task done. If the child is able to do the task competently but gets easily distracted, he/she may benefit from a “timer game.” Try it out to see if it benefits your child/student. For instance, you can tell your child that if she finishes putting away her toys by the time the timer goes off, she can engage in an activity of her choice when she is done. You may want to time the fun activity she chooses if you want her to do something else afterwards (e.g., put your toys away before the timer goes off, play on the computer for 20 minutes, get ready for bed). If “timer games” make your child anxious there are other methods which may be successful or, maybe she can push through some of that anxiety and get it done. You can also keep in mind that if you do not want to turn it into a game you can say something like “you have ten minutes to put your toys away” and then set the timer to help your child monitor how much time he/she has to complete the task.
Side Note: Try to keep distractions to a minimum when asking your child to complete a task.
Related Article: How to Set Up the Classroom for Students with Autism and ADHD
3. Use timers to facilitate transitions from one activity to the next.
Has your child ever resisted when you told him to clean up, get off the computer, or turn off the television? Children often have difficulty breaking away from something enjoyable when they are not prepared that their fun time is coming to an end. Using a timer is a great way to prepare your child for these situations. For example, you can set the timer and say “In five minutes it is time to turn off the computer and start your homework.”
Teachers can also use timers in their classrooms with individual students or the whole class to encourage classwork completion, again using the same strategies described above.
For children who have trouble understanding the concept of time or numbers, a visual timer can be helpful because the child can see how much time is left. Visual timers can be purchased on Amazon or other online stores. Here are some examples below:
Red Clock Visual Timer
With a red clock visual timer, children can see time running out as the red disappears.
Sand timers let children know that time is up when the sand at the top gets to the bottom.
A Great New App to try with a Kid Friendly Timer is Kazutime. When the doggie gets to the other side of the lake, the time is up. It can be used to beat the time, to keep track of time, or to know how long something will last. See a screen shot below!
- How to Use Schedules to Improve Children’s Behavior
- Top Ten Discipline Tips for Kids with Oppositional Defiant Disorder
- 12 Effective Strategies for Children with ADHD (great strategies for kids with and without ADHD)
- 15 Behavior Strategies to Help Children on the Autism Spectrum (great strategies for kids with and without autism)
- How to Use Natural and Logical Consequences to Improve Children’s Behavior
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More Visual Timers
- 7 Research-Based Strategies to Help Children with Reading Fluency
- Evidence Suggests That the Coping Cat Program Reduces Anxiety in Children and Teens
- Sample After-School Visual Schedule for Kids with Sensory Needs or Impulsive/Hyperactive Behaviors
- 9 Methods to Teach Toileting to Individuals on the Autism Spectrum (and to those with other developmental disabilities)
- 5 Great Games to Play in a Social Skills Group
Rachel Wise is a certified school psychologist and licensed behavior specialist with a Master’s Degree in Education. She is also the head author and CEO at educationandbehavior.com, a site for parents, educators, and counselors to find effective, research-based strategies that work for children. Rachel has been working with individuals with academic and behavioral needs for over 20 years and has a passion for making a positive difference in the lives of children and the adults who support them.