How To Use A First-Then Board

8/10/2020 By Candous McGuire, MS, BCBA

A First-Then board, otherwise known as the Premack Principle, visually displays a preferred behavior contingent on a non-preferred behavior. What does that mean? It means that your child must “first” do something they might not want to do in order to “then” do something they would like to do. For example, “First fold your laundry, then you can play video games.” Substantive research shows that this strategy will increase compliance with those less enjoyable tasks because there is motivation to earn something preferred immediately after. After successful use and considerable compliance using a First-Then board, you can try using a First-Next-Then board.

A First-Next-Then Board uses the same principle, but it means that your child must complete two non-preferred tasks before they can do something they find highly rewarding. For example, “First fold your laundry, next make your bed and then you can play video games.” Adding the “next” step allows your child to continue benefiting from this support while providing opportunities for further learning, growth and development. Additionally, as every child is different, including this “next” option allows this visual support tool to be customized for each child and their unique needs.

How to Use a First-Then or First-Next-Then Board

  • Evaluate whether your child would benefit most from using pictures or words to represent activities or items.

  • Use cards with a variety of your child’s daily activities clearly displayed. If they love playing video games, playing outside or playing with sensory sand, be sure to have those things represented.

  • We recommend using magnetic activity cards, when possible, and displaying them in a central location, such as on the refrigerator or on a magnetic whiteboard. A dry-erase whiteboard works well because you can easily separate the space into two equally-sized boxes side-by-side.

  • We recommend using cards that clearly read “First” and “Then” to help keep you organized. Work from left to right to maintain chronological order.

  • Place a non-preferred activity card on the left under the “First” label, and have your child select a preferred activity card to place on the right side under the “Then” label. Allowing your child to choose their preferred activity will help them be motivated to work toward that goal.

  • Point to the non-preferred activity card and say, “First (activity 1)”, and then point to the preferred activity card and say, “Then (activity 2)." For example, "First: Pick Up Toys. Then: Play Outside."

  • Provide access to the second activity as soon as the first activity has been completed.

    • Pro tip: Control access to your child’s most preferred activities so that they only earn them for completing the least enjoyable tasks.

  • If using a First-Next-Then board, you should use labels for “First,” “Next” and “Then” side by side. The left side should read “First”, the middle “Next”, and the right side should read “Then.” Once again, we want to maintain chronological order to help the child understand the transition.

Remember, that any new system takes some practice. Be patient with yourself and your child as you integrate this visual support into your family routine. However, know that this tool is autism-informed and was designed to help you and your child to work on skills like transitioning in a variety of environments, like home, school, and even play.

Have questions? Check out our product page here to learn more about tools that can help your child. Want to learn more about Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy and how it might be able to help your child with autism? Give us a call at 833-825-5246 or email us at for more information. We’re here to help!

For further reading:

Banda, D. R., & Kubina, R. M. (2010). Increasing academic compliance with mathematics tasks using the high-preference strategy with a student with autism. Preventing School Failure, 54(2), 81-85.