The Checkpoints System: Some Questions And Answers

Has COVID-19 made school MUCH more difficult than it used to be? Does your child resist their remote-learning activities like Zoom classes and homework? Nagging your child; arguing with your child; or yelling at your child to get their work done – is all this a major source of stress for you, and you want it to stop?

On November 14 I gave a webinar on the Checkpoints System, one of the tools I use to help parents with these problems. Some of our participants asked some great questions, and I want to thank you for those! These questions, and some answers, are below:

Q: Can your Checkpoints System work for kids on the spectrum, who are intensely resistant/aggressive when frustrated?

A: Yes! What I see in my work with intense kids, and kids who can be very resistant or aggressive, is that these kids can take on responsibility, and they can take on the accountability that comes with that. There’s nothing inherently “wrong” with them, that would prevent them from managing themselves or accepting accountability. Yes, they will get frustrated: “This is stupid.” “This is boring.” But humans need to learn to do things that feel stupid or boring.

Having said this, if you have a child who responds with defiance or aggression, this makes it all the more important for you to implement the System correctly, so you’re not setting things up or communicating in ways that exacerbate their frustration. It would also be important for you to have an effective strategy for managing aggression, and of course you would need to be able to implement the System in the face of defiance. This is entirely doable, however. Kids may be resistant, they may have a low frustration tolerance, they may get aggressive, but this doesn’t mean those patterns can’t change, given the right strategies and focus!

Q: The Checkpoints System asks kids to do their work before moving on to the fun things they’d rather do instead – but how do I build intrinsic motivation?

A: I don’t believe it’s necessary or even possible for us to be intrinsically motivated all the time. Many of us aren’t intrinsically motivated to go to work – we do it because of what happens if we don’t. If you think about it, there are quite a lot of things we have to do even though we’re not intrinsically motivated to do them. On the other hand, if you want your child to be intrinsically motivated to do something, there are ways to approach this. With learning, you could research and implement ways to build your child’s love of learning, and you know what? Zoom lectures probably won’t be among the methods you’ll discover! With household tasks – you could model a positive vs. negative attitude toward these, and that modeling would have an impact. So there are things you can do to build intrinsic motivation, but I don’t believe that’s a helpful goal, especially when it comes to basic expectations like schoolwork or participating in household tasks.

Q: What do we do when kids haven’t done their tasks by a set time, but then frantically start trying to do them last-minute in order to meet the Checkpoint “in time”?

A: The basic principle is, if the child did the task, they get the Checkpoint Activity, and if not, they don’t get the Activity. And if they wait until the last minute, they may or may not make the Checkpoint, depending on the task. If you happen to check in 10 minutes before the Checkpoint and you ask, “Hey, it’s almost 3:00, are you going to get your screen time today?” And they have to take out the trash and they can get that done, fine. Lots of grownups wait until the last minute to get things done, and the child should be free to chose this work style if they want to. Of course, if the child has to write an essay, they’re not going to do a good job of that in 10 minutes. This is part of what we all have to learn, through experience: It’s OK to put it off, but you still have to manage your time. You can do some things at the last minute; with other things, you’ll want to give yourself more time.

Q: How far from the Checkpoints should the reward be?

A: The Checkpoint Activity should happen immediately – at the time of the Checkpoint. This design is a big part of why this system works. So many times I see where a child may miss the morning Checkpoint, but they know they can get on track and make the next Checkpoint, and they have a solid experience of that – they get the Activity. This is really encouraging for kids, and the opposite, is really discouraging. The long time between the effort and the reward, is part of why rewards charts often fail with impulsive or strong-willed kids. Of course, there are exceptions to this – I told the story of the teenager who only cared about driving, so her Activities were opportunities to earn points toward driving time. But generally speaking, the Activity needs to happen at the Checkpoint time. If your child is earning points toward something they want, you can give them tangible tokens or tickets, so they really feel like they have something in the moment.

Q: How do we put the daily school assignments into the Checkpoint schedule if there are different assignments each day? Do we customize which ones are due at which time?

A: There are different ways you can handle this. You could ask the teacher for a homework schedule, and if certain assignments are due certain days, you can design the Checkpoints Schedule accordingly. Or, rather than list specific assignments in the Schedule, the task could be “Do assigned schoolwork,” or “Homework as agreed.” Of course you will need to have clarity as to what the school assignments are, and the teacher should be able to help with this. If assignments are to be completed on a weekly basis vs. a daily basis, work with your child and get their input as to what days and times the work should be done.

Q: Can you recommend specific parental control subscription services?

A: We wanted to answer this question, but after some research we chose not to pursue it. Many of the reviews out there are by organizations that receive compensation when one of the reviewed products is purchased – which doesn’t mean the information is bad, but… Having said this, we found the products in a SafeWise review to show up often in our research, and we found the SafeWise review to be helpful. It focuses on software vs. devices. And here’s a link to a Fatherly review that focuses on devices vs. software.

Q: What if the kid goes ahead and does the Checkpoint Activity ANYWAY, even if they didn’t make the Checkpoints?

A: If the child can get the Checkpoint Activity even if they didn’t make the Checkpoint, this means that you are not in control of the Checkpoint Activity. And as I mentioned in the webinar, for this system to work, you do need to be in control of the Activity. And then, if there’s something in your situation that makes it impossible for you to have that control, you need to choose another Activity. As an example, if the Activity is eating ice cream and your child chooses to eat the ice cream regardless, and they’re bigger than you so you can’t just take the ice cream away – then you need to take ice cream off the Checkpoints Activities list. I mentioned in the webinar that screen time is a popular Checkpoint Activity, and this is where parental controls can be very helpful, as you can use these to block access to screen time when a child hasn’t earned the time.

Q: Any suggestions about how to ‘publicize’ the Checkpoints? Should I print out a bunch of copies, post it on the wall, or next to the Zoom spot, etc.? And how often should I remind them what the Checkpoints are?

A: It is good if the child can see the Checkpoints Schedule; it’s nice if it’s in their workspace. But what this actually looks like really depends on the child. They may be fine with a Schedule similar to the one I showed in the webinar. On the other hand, I see a lot of kids in my practice, maybe they’re on the Spectrum or they have some other diagnosis and they’ve had a ton of interventions involving charts and schedules. And they’re sick of charts and schedules. I worked with one family where we used post-it notes instead of the nice list I shared with you. Some families use a white board. If you use a white board or you print out the Schedule, take a picture of the board // print extra copies, so you’ll have that record in case something happens to the original :)

But you shouldn’t be reminding kids to meet the Checkpoints – let the system teach them to manage their tasks and time. They should get the Checkpoints Schedule, but they shouldn’t be getting reminders.

Q: I would love to hear about how to scale this system for younger ages who aren’t as cognizant of time/need more support with time management. How much do I hover and remind them?

A: The Checkpoints System does need a bit of adaptation for kids younger than age 7. Because it’s really not developmentally appropriate for younger kids (generally speaking, kids younger than 7) to just take a list of things and manage that on their own for 3 hours, or 1 hour. Generally speaking, you shouldn’t ask younger kids to manage blocks of time longer than 30-45 minutes. And also, you should be near them and they should feel connected to you even during that block of time. So you might say, OK, it’s 9:00. I want you to pick up the living room before 9:30, and if you do that, at 9:30 we can tell jokes for 5 minutes. And then 9:30 is the Checkpoint. There are devices you can use to help kids become more cognizant of time, for example, a Time Timer. But for younger kids, you’re basically breaking the day into pretty small increments, and the kids need a lot of connection with you even while they’re working on their own – for example, they may be in the same room as you. I’m sorry to say there’s no simple fix that makes Zoom classes work for younger kids – this is just not developmentally appropriate, and there’s nothing we can do to make it so. On the other hand, doing the things I’m suggesting here will help them learn time- and task-management. But all this is not to say that you need to hover and remind young kids to do their work; what I’m saying is that you need to give them smaller periods in which to get the work done. Doing it as I’m describing here helps them learn task-management, whereas reminding them over and over does not.

Q: I’m struggling with trusting that my kindergartener will able to remember the few things he needs to do, even with a picture version of tasks and Checkpoints. How do I help him begin to make checking the schedule part of his way of going through the day?

A: This question is similar to the question above, so I’ll refer you to my answer to that question. And you can help him to make checking a schedule part of his day by just walking through this with him. You could put the things he needs to do on a schedule – you won’t ask him to check it on his own, and you won’t make periods between Checkpoints longer than 45 minutes – but you can still use a written schedule and look at it with him: “OK, let’s look. We’re at the first Checkpoint – it’s 9:30. Did you play by yourself for 20 minutes? You didn’t, did you? OK, we don’t get to work on the puzzle together. But let’s see if we get the next Checkpoint. Now you have to do a worksheet before 10:00. You can sit at this table next to me if you want. OK, I’ll check in with you at 10!” This approach will definitely teach him what you’re wanting to teach him, but, due to his stage of development, it will take time before he can actually manage a schedule or list of tasks on his own.

Q: If schoolwork doesn’t get done can it be added to the next Checkpoint? Or does it just never get done because we’re starting fresh each one?

A: If something doesn’t get done by the Checkpoint, definitely do NOT add it to the next Checkpoint Period. Each period is separate from the others, and if a child misses that Checkpoint, they just move on to the next one. If a child misses a Checkpoint and you move those tasks to the next period, this will be very discouraging for them and the system will fail. But this doesn’t mean the task never gets done – but it may mean that you need to adjust the Schedule or the Checkpoint Activities. On the webinar I gave an example of the parents getting extra support for a child who just was not doing his reading. As another example, you may be using Activities that aren’t as effective as they could be.

Q: What if some of the tasks are required school assignments? If they don’t get done, are we not supposed to follow-up until finished?

A: This question is similar to the one above, so my answer is similar: If the assignments aren’t getting done, you may need to change your Checkpoint Activities, and there are other things that may be needed as well – for example, the child may need additional support, from someone besides the parents. Many of the kids I work with won’t accept support from their parents. The other thing I’ll add is that a lot of families are finding it helpful to ask the teacher for extra support with the accountability piece. Ask the teacher to keep expectations high and to hold the child accountable to get the work done. Often kids are responsive to this; they’ll do it for the teacher when they won’t do it for you.

Q: My child needs help with schoolwork but when he’s having trouble he gets so frustrated it’s like pulling teeth to work through it. I need help with his mood… Can how the work gets done be one of the pieces to achieve or only that it gets done?

A: Yes – you definitely want to include the How as one of the pieces to achieve. Getting it done so the outcome is what we want – that’s what’s important, right? So if the work is cleaning the sink, the sink needs to actually be clean. On the other hand, if this is a question of the child’s attitude while doing schoolwork, we do not want to add the requirement that they can’t be frustrated or angry. It’s OK if they’re frustrated and they complain – but they have to get their work done to meet the Checkpoint, and getting work done essentially means actually getting it right.

Now if they child really needs your help and they’re frustrated and not accepting your help, then you need to let go a bit and let them take responsibility for that. So at that point you might say, “I can help you and we can get it done, but if you want to fight instead, this means the work won’t get done.” And then they miss the Checkpoint. If the child needs help and it’s hard for them to just accept it without all the resistance, I suggest finding someone else, like a tutor, to help them. This often works very well.

Q: Is it OK to start simple and layer in more as we learn and get used to the System, or do we need to keep it constant (and not raise the bar later)?

A: Yes, it’s important to raise the bar! So start with something you can manage. For example, if your child can work from 9-12 and do X things with a Checkpoint at 12, start there. But where you are now is not where you want your baseline to be, so you need to continually raise expectations. Of course there are more or less helpful ways to raise expectations, but what do we want? We want kids to be doing their schoolwork, and we also want them to be contributing to the family and household, for example, by doing household tasks, and we also want them to manage their emotions safely and be nice to siblings, and we may want to lead them to higher levels of functioning as well. So yes, layer those additional things in as this makes sense.

Q: Can small food treats work as a Checkpoint Activity, or can this be problematic?

A: In my experience, small food treats can work well. Whether or not this can be problematic down the road – this is not my area of expertise, but I think you can draw some conclusions about your own context and situation. As an example, say your family generally eats a balanced diet, and everyone is doing nourishing things like connecting with each other, eating at least one meal a day together, people are getting outside… and one of your Checkpoint Activities is a food treat. I really don’t think that’s a problem. But if your child has a pattern of using food to self-soothe, then using food as a Checkpoint Activity may be a problem. I think it’s all about the overall balance, and most of the things we would consider as Checkpoint Activities aren’t inherently harmful as such, as long as they’re done in balance.
Have other questions on the Checkpoints System? Let me know! Thanks, everyone!
–Rebecah Freeling