Origin of Red Buttons in Water

ShoeboxTasks Red Buttons in Water has opened doors to learning for countless special needs students

During my time as a therapist with the North Carolina TEACCH program, I was fortunate to be a staff member on a number of TEACCH Trainings both in the U.S. and abroad. To my mind, this was a very effective training model for parents, therapists, teachers, and professionals working with individuals on the autism spectrum. The training typically consisted of 5 TEACCH trainers and 25 participants over 5 days. The school system sponsoring the training provided the physical space and furniture to create a classroom, as well as raw materials needed to construct the curriculum for the week. Each trainer was assigned to work with one autistic student during the week, demonstrating the TEACCH Structured Teaching Approach. These 5 students reflected a varying degree of autism and a range in age and ability.

The curriculum and classroom were created the weekend prior to the Training week.  Each of the trainers were given information about the student and, based on this material, the team began creating individual work systems, daily schedules, and activities, as well as arranging work and leisure areas in the classroom space provided.

On Monday, participants attended a series of lectures while we met our students for the first time to begin assessing their success with the curriculum and physical structure we’d created. Since we invariably would not get it completely right, Monday evening was spent re-designing and tweaking whatever hadn’t worked with the students that day. It was important to get things as right as possible, as Tuesday-Friday we each worked with a different group of 5 participants, having our student demonstrate the TEACCH Structured Approach to Learning and Independence.

During one Monday evening Team Meeting, a therapist expressed concern that his student did not seem interested in anything that had been presented to him. It was very challenging to motivate him to do anything.

We looked at his strengths and interests and realized he did not show many interests at all. One of the few things he liked was water, and I began thinking along those lines. How could something be made that involved water, which might gain his interest and thus motivate him?

I searched the raw materials table and found an empty tennis ball tube with cover. There were also several shoeboxes with tops. I set the tube upright through a cut hole in the shoebox lid and filled it with water. Now, what could be dropped in the container that would sustain somewhat of a float before sinking out of sight? I spotted a container of buttons. Cutting slits in the top of the lid next to the upright tube, I placed the buttons on edge, available for easy grasping. I dropped a few of the buttons into the slotted lid of the clear tube and watched as they zig-zagged, floating down until they disappeared. I liked it. But would the student?

The Button Activity was placed on his work table. Seeing just one demonstration, he was immediately interested and began doing it himself. He watched excitedly as each button floated down the tube before disappearing from sight. After finishing all the buttons, he wanted to do it again! His worker reset the Button Activity, but this time held it within sight but out of the student’s reach. He put another activity of lesser interest in front of the student, indicating that first he wanted the student to do this activity and then he’d get another chance with the Button Activity. Once the student made the First/Then connection, the amount of lesser-interest activities could slowly be increased before the high-interest button activity was given. By the end of the week, the student was completing 5 activities before his still most-favorite Buttons in Water!

The Button Task had served as a door opener to having a successful work session. It was a beautiful example of working a high interest activity into a work system, allowing the student to expand upon his skills. High interest activities have power and are effective in opening a door to activities of lesser interest. The important aspect to this process is that the student understands the connection of First/ThenFirst I do these activities that may not be of interest, and then I get to do something that I really want to do.

~Ron Larsen



Share with us your experience using ShoeboxTasks: Task17 Red Task17.jpgButtons in Water as a door opener to learning with your student and win a free Red Buttons in Water (or choose from one of our other Motivational Tasks: Drum Roll, Flex Tube, or Positive Attraction).


  • Each of the Top 3 entries—voted on by our staff—will win one of these Tasks
  • Submit your entry by June 30th to information@shoeboxtasks.com with the subject: Doors to Learning
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