Self-management Skills for Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused

By Margaret Walsh, M.A., BCBA

A self-management program can help a person with intellectual disabilities (ID) stop engaging in undesirable behaviors. In the process, he will learn new skills, become more independent, and improve his daily life.
To begin, have him choose a behavior he wants to change. The person will likely be more committed to the program if he chooses the behavior. Then help him set a goal that is measurable and achievable. Many self-management programs fail because the goal is not specific, or is too difficult to achieve. If a goal is measurable, a person will know when he has achieved it.
Let’s say he wants to lose weight. He would start out by deciding how much weight he wants to lose, how many calories he should eat, and how much he should exercise every day in order to lose the weight. Then he can set specific goals that can be measured and are easy to understand.
Recording and analyzing data
Recording data on the occurrence or non-occurrence of a behavior is a key component of a successful self-management program. Often, simply taking data on a behavior is enough to change it. An individual with ID should be able to record his own data, or get the help he needs until he can reliably do so. For example, if he wants to exercise more every day, he (or his helper) would need to record how long he exercised each day. Collecting data should be easy to do. Often all he needs is a piece of paper and pencil, although apps on electronic devices can be helpful.
Once the data is recorded, it is important to graph and analyze it. As you graph the behavior, make sure you display it in a location where he will be able see it. It is a good idea if the person with ID enlists the help of friends and family to ensure that the data is collected and graphed honestly and consistently. That way, they can provide feedback and encouragement as he makes progress toward his goal.
The data can also help spark a conversation about what is and isn’t helping him make progress. When going over data, talk about the environments and situations that are difficult for him to manage. For example, you may notice that he is more likely to swear at people when he is in a stressful work situation. If this is the case, it would be necessary to come up with a strategy to help him manage his swearing at work.
It is very important to establish what has prevented him from or assisted him with realizing his goals in the past. Try to determine what distracts him, what times of day are better for him, what motivates him, and what keeps him focused. This is key to developing the self-management program. To change a behavior, you need to be able to understand the contingencies, or influences, that are making the behavior likely to keep occurring.
Encouragement and Reinforcement
We all need encouragement when we are trying to make a positive change in our lives. It helps when we understand what we are committing to, and the benefits we will enjoy when we achieve our goals. An individual with ID also needs support from the significant people in his life to help keep his commitment strong.
To be successful, the person must decide how he is going to respond to the occurrence of a desired or undesired behavior. He can choose to give himself small rewards when he meets a goal. He can also choose to “punish” himself by paying fines, engaging in activities he finds aversive (e.g., snapping a rubber band on his wrist every time he wants a cigarette), or giving himself a time out (e.g., staying home when friends are at the movies because he forgot to do the laundry).
To ensure he stays motivated, vary the reinforcers (rewards) he is working for, offer encouragement daily, and provide special rewards when he stays with the program. It is imperative that he is consistent in how he responds to his behavior.
Teaching self-management skills can be an effective and very beneficial way to help a person with ID learn a new behavior because it supports independence. With a little supervision, a person living with ID can learn new skills and conquer a problem. This is not only fun, but also improves his self-esteem by helping him prove to himself and others that he can achieve goals on his own.
Margaret Walsh, M.A., BCBA, is the Clinical Director for the Western Massachusetts division of the May Center for Adult Services. She can be contacted in West Springfield at 413-734-0300 (ext. 262) or at

About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and individuals with other developmental disabilities, brain injury, neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. The May Center for Adult Services in West Springfield provides day and residential services to adults with developmental disabilities living in western Massachusetts. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit