Data collection in OT using a simple bead counter !

Data collection in OT using a simple bead counter !
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Not only is this a fun and crafty option for data collection, but it is a lot easier than carting around a big binder of data sheets & charts. Also, surprisingly using a bead counter is often super motivating for students AND it can be a useful non-visual data collection option (for the visually impaired student or practitioner perhaps ???)

Before I continue though, I want to give credit to a reader who is the reason I decided to write this article.

She emailed me and asked a very poignant question …

My first thought was.. what a brilliant question ?!?!?!? I tend to blabber-on about data collection all the time, but I have never really given much thought to adaptive non-visual options. Truth be told Gretchen had me a bit stumped.  Albeit just for a few minutes 🙂

Then I remembered learning about an article by Eric Haughton published in (1974) all about an alternative data collection method using a crafty little ‘Myriad counter’ (bead counter) for data collection. I started wondering if this hands free, low tech data collection system might be an option in this case.

While this bead counter concept was introduced simply as an alternative to using data collection sheets in the literature, it offered a new possibility. The tactile feature of the bead counter could serve as a great adaptive data collection option for the visually impaired, but I figured it may need a little tweaking.

Before we look at the potential adaptations .. let’s take a look at the original concept of using a bead counter for data collection.

So, what exactly is a bead counter?

A bead counter is basically a string of beads which are strung on one end of a string and then are slid down to the other end when taking data (one bead for each count). It is a simple hands-free tactile tool for collecting data.

This crafty tool is especially handy when you are tracking multiple behaviors, and when you have “all hands on deck” situations like self- contained classrooms and therapy in groups.

The bead counter is also a great data collection system for students to manage their own behavior/ goals, as long as they have the requisite fine motor skills to pinch and pull down one bead at a time.

A bead counter makes it a little easier to collect data on the go, and then you can always have the option to transfer your data into a Fluency data sheet or a Standard Celeration Chart

How to make a bead counter for data collection ?

For this version, all you need is some non resistive string, colored peony beads and a clasp.

Here is an example of how I would use this type of bead counter to collect data in my OT sessions in a school setting:

So in this example, I may take data on two different behaviors for the same student “Maya”.  I have assigned the red bead counter for ‘pulling hair behavior’ and the blue bead counter for ‘running off during circle time’.

I attach both bead counters to my belt and as I observe either behavior during the session, I keep count simply by transferring the respective beads down 1 at a time.   

If you are tracking high frequency behaviors that are likely to occur on more than 10 occasions in a session…then you may consider using two separate bead counters: a counter for the ones unit and another one for the tens unit.

The typical use of such bead counters, relies on the use of colored beads to make a distinction.  However, we can adapt this into a non-visual option for the visually impaired by adding tactile features which provide a greater distinction.  

How to adapt the bead counter for the visually impaired?

Both these aspects can be used to create a differentiation which can be felt rather than just seen.

A version made with laces ……

This could be a great option for the visual impaired and is a less fussy version of the traditional bead counter. The flat feature of the laces provide the resistance necessary to keep the beads in place and prevent them from slipping down.  Plus, using a lace can offer the option of having 2 bead counters in 1 longer format.

All you need is…a flat shoelace, a clip/clasp, two sets of 10 different sized or shaped beads.

  1. Get a flat athletic lace that is at least 24 inches in length. 
  2. Tie first knot in the lace so that the lace has two different length strands.
  3. Place a knot at the top of each strand.
  4. Thread nine beads and then leave a space and tie a 2nd knot at the bottom of each strand.
  5. Typically the fifth bead in each strand is a different color or in this case a different shape. (Just to provide you with a visual cue)

This ‘flat laced’ bead counter can be used in many different ways and can be customized for your data collection needs, for example:

Option A:

The longer strand of beads can be the one’s column and the shorter strand would be the ten’s column.

Option B:

The longer strand can indicate the number of correct responses, while the shorter strand can indicate the number of incorrect responses.

Option C:

Each strand can be used to count and collect data on different behaviors.

Can using a bead counter be motivating?

I cannot figure out a scientific reason for this, but yes it can!  This was my impression when I tried it out with some of my students.   They absolutely loved using the bead counter.  Apparently there is something very satisfying about sliding that bead down…. Go figure???

Perhaps it is the sheer fine motor act of pulling the bead down or maybe it’s just very visually appealing to ‘see’ your progress. For some students this act is reinforcing enough.  However, some students need a little more motivation and that’s when you may consider adding a tangible reinforcer.

For example, if 6yr old Johnny is working on writing his name, he may enjoy pushing a bead down for every letter written correctly AND after every 3 beads …. he can earn M&M’s or stickers etc.

Now if the student is still struggling, you can try adjusting the frequency of the tangible reinforcer, such that the student earns it more often. So maybe Johnny gets an M&M after EACH correct response/ bead transfer rather than having to wait to get 3 correct responses.

Other benefits of using the bead counter….

The bead counter may also helpful to create close ended activities to otherwise open ended tasks.  This is especially helpful for students who get overwhelmed easily or those who may experience sensory ‘shutdown’ when a demand is placed.  The beads help provide a visual/ tactile cue of the expected number of trials. 

Many students perform better when they know what to expect and that there is an end to the activity.  I have noticed this especially with students diagnosed with ASD.  Using the bead counter seems to lessen their anxiety and tends to increase overall engagement.  

The bead counter may also help modify difficult behaviors indirectly and discreetly.  How does that work?… you may be wondering.  Well, when you use the beads to ‘count’ a desired behavior, it brings more attention to that desired behavior and lessens the attention to the undesired behavior.  This reinforces or increases the occurrence of the desired behavior inadvertently.

FEEDING THERAPY: Using the bead counter to collect data on sensory aversions.

Here is an example of how I would use this bead counter as part of a sensory home program for a student we shall call “Justin”.  


While I have not used an actual bead counter for this type of case, I have used similar tangible methods of data collection for my feeding therapy clients in the past.   The key factor here is to include the student in the process and whenever possible, have them track their own behavior.

So in this example Justin is a picky eater with a diagnosis of ASD and an OT goal to increase the textures/ types of foods he eats.  He presents with a very strong gag reflex alongside the tactile and oral sensory aversions, which are all impacting his tolerance for eating new textures.  

First and foremost, it would be important to invest the time to teach Justin steps of using a bead counter. The sheer act of having Justin track his own exploration of foods or trial of new foods can provide a sense of control, in what tends to be a high anxiety situation.   

Also, being able to ‘feel’ or ‘visualize’ your own progress can be so empowering.  Plus, it also means there is less nagging, convincing going on, which in turn, tends to create a more positive relationship around food.    

So in Justin’s case, I may start off with tracking the number of times Justin willingly touches new foods, then move on to tracking the number of times he brings the new food to his lips.  Once he has met this goal, I could collect data on the number of times Justin licks the new foods.  Finally, I would start counting the number of actual bites taken of the new food.

Using a bead counter in this scenario not only provides an easier option for data collection, but it also offers a no pressure, no nagging option for both therapists and parents alike.  Who doesn’t like the sound of that?

Another thing I would do is to encourage parents or siblings to play along with their own bead counters.  This can be a great inclusive strategy and I may even add another contingency.  For example, “whoever moves the most beads during meal time gets to choose the TV show or doesn’t have to help with clean up after dinner.”  

It is always fun to try out different reinforcers, especially if there is data you can rely on.  The bead counter will tell you if it is working or if you need to try something else.

So whether you choose to use a bead counter or another method, remember that adding any medium for data collection can be highly impactful.    


Maybe it’s because I am an OT and love anything crafty, but doesn’t using a bead counter add a little pizazz to the ever so mundane, boring & dull process of data collection?  Plus who knew it had other motivational aspects? 

I cannot explain exactly how or why … but there is a definite dopamine laced ‘feel good’ sentiment around this process of data collection.  It reminds me of the feeling I get when crossing off items on my never ending ‘to do’ lists.  The sheer mechanics of it all conveys a sense of accomplishment and can be so very satisfying.

Will you give it a go?  Let me know if the comments below



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