Help Your Students Learn by Learning About Your Students

As a new school year is about to begin, teachers are busy writing welcome letters and lesson plans. But how many teachers are taking the time to really get to know their students? Every great lesson begins with an assessment. Most teachers conduct pre-assessments to determine what content students have retained from the previous year. However, assessing students’ strengths and interests is also an important aspect when working with students with and without disabilities.

Assessing students beyond academic levels is a key component to having success in the classroom. When activities are interest-based and meaningful, students are more likely to actively engage in learning. Assessments help teachers plan activities that are both developmentally appropriate and meaningful across settings. This allows more opportunities for students to learn for generalization and maintenance.

Students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) typically have very particular interests and are not often motivated to engage in challenging tasks (Leach, 2010). Therefore, it is the teachers’ responsibility to design activities to be interest-based and appeal to the students’ strengths. In doing so, students with ASD can be more motivated to participate in activities, thus enhancing the inclusive classroom learning experience.

There are a variety of ways to assess students’ strengths and interests. Parent and caregiver interviews, student interviews, and preference assessments can all be useful tools for teachers to implement to learn more about their new students. Once teachers have gathered information on the students’ strengths and interests, they can then build upon those and create ABA intervention programs that will be motivating.

Below you will find several examples of interview questions that can be asked (Leach, 2010):

Questions to Ask the Student:

  • What are you good at?
  • What do you like to do?
  • What are your favorite toys?
  • What makes you happy?

Questions to Ask the Parents or Caregivers:

  • Who does the student like to spend time with?
  • What about the student makes you proud?
  • What keeps the student’s attention?
  • What would the student never want to give up or live without?


A preference assessment is an effective tool to use when working with students who are nonverbal or have limited interests. During a preference assessment, the teacher or caregiver records what activities or objects the student engaged in when given two or more objects to choose from. A preference assessment can also be done by recording how much time a student spends engaging in each activity. Using preference assessments can be a great way to expand on students’ interests by introducing new activities or objects during the assessment.

Below is an example of a completed preference assessment:

Student’s Name Assessor
Steven J.R.


Choice 1

Choice 2


8/20 – free time Put together puzzles Play with blocks Play with blocks
8/20 - Math Count blocks Count animals Count blocks
8/20 – Reading Group Read a book about shapes Read a book about dinosaurs Read a book about shapes

Based on this short preference assessment, we can see that Steven is interested in blocks and shapes. The teacher can incorporate blocks and shapes into several of his daily activities. Blocks can also be used as a tangible reinforcer or incorporated into teaching play skills to Steven.


It is important to note, that the strengths and interests of students often change throughout the course of the year.  Thus, it may be necessary to conduct assessments every three or four months.  For students with ASD, in particular, it is highly recommended that you conduct strengths and interests assessments quarterly.  Since students with ASD have a restricted range of interests, you can use your quarterly assessments to determine if using strengths and interests based learning activities is actually helping to expand the student’s repertoire of interests. 

Overall, interviews and preference assessments can be efficient ways to learn more about your students. By learning about your students, you can plan meaningful interventions that motivate the students to be actively engaged. Real learning begins when students are willing to participate in instruction.


 More information on assessing strengths and interests can be found in Bringing ABA Into Your Inclusive Classroom and Bringing ABA into Home, School, and Play.


Written by Jennifer Rodecki, M.Ed. and Deb Leach, Ed.D, BCBA

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