Sitting Nicely at the Table

Sitting Nicely at the Table

Sitting nicely at the table can be genuinely challenging for many children with autism. This requires not just sitting for a short time, but long enough to learn meaningfully. It is a necessary skill as:

  • Learning while sitting is more comfortable
  • Keeps the child in one place
  • Gets their attention better


Sitting nicely is also a basic expectation in school.


This lesson will focus only on teaching a child to sit at the table, without expecting them to learn another challenging skill like do a puzzle or complete a worksheet, as this is an additional demand. Instead, the adult should prepare a fun, reinforcing activity for the child to do at the table while they are sitting there.

Pre-requisite Skills

  • First Then: The child should understand the concept of ‘First Then’,  which is being willing to do something unpreferred first before the preferred activity. In this case, sitting nicely before getting one’s reward.
  • Follow a Schedule: The child should be at the very least, be willing to clean up play and transition from play to table, even if for the briefest duration.
  • Come Here Table: Ideally, the child should understand this instruction. Just like the schedule, this will make the transition to table easier.

Materials You Will Need

1. Table-play schedule



2. First-Then Board: With instructions, “First sit, then reward.” It is preferable to use a picture of your child’s favourite reward, or have a few different pictures.



3. Timer



4. Reinforcement that can be ‘broken’ into pieces: Such as LEGO, a favourite snack or even different toys in a cooking play set.

Breaking the Skill of Sitting Nicely Down

Start at the shortest durations, then build up. The maximum a child should sit depends on their age and skill level. For children who are just learning how to cooperate, they may typically be expected to sit at the table for at least 2-3 minutes, before they are ready to learn anything else.

Teaching Procedure

Set up your table with the materials you need (First Then board and timer)

  1. Using the visual schedule, foreshadow the end of play time, and that table time is coming up.
  2. After cleaning up, show your child the reinforcement they like and say “Come Here”. If they are motivated, they should reach out or attempt to follow and grab it.
  3. Bring the reinforcement to the table. Before giving it to your child, point at the First-Then board and say, “X seconds/minutes, then reward.”
  4. The moment your child sits, give them a piece of the reinforcement and praise them for “Good sitting!”
  5. Continue to give pieces of the reinforcement throughout the duration of the timer, as long as the child continues to sit.


Once the timer has beeped, the child can return to play and repeat this process again after.

Common Challenges when Teaching Sitting at the Table

1. Add an extra step of standing at the table 

If the child finds it challenging to even sit, have them just stand at the table. They can then be gently nudged into their chair, while playing with the reinforcer.



2. Rocking back and forth in the chair

A preventive tip is to have chairs against the back of the wall, using a sturdy but comfortable chair with a back that is not easy to rock, instead of more fragile seating like stools.



3. Child slides off the chair

Assuming the chair is suitable to the child’s size, tuck the table closer to the child’s torso or place a sturdy footstool or box beneath their feet.

In all scenarios, remember to:

  1. Break skills down
  2. Ensure reinforcement is strong, and
  3. Get plenty of practice!

A Note on Motor Skills

Some children with special needs may also genuinely have motor coordination difficulties that make it difficult for them to sit upright in a chair. If you suspect this is the case, do consult a trained physical therapist’s guidance on strengthening their motor coordination.