Trying to Figure Out the Function for Problem Behaviors? Ask the Child!

When addressing problem behaviors in individuals with ASD, the first step is to determine the function the behavior serves.  The main reason why we need to determine the function for problem behavior is so that we can teach the child replacement skills that are more appropriate that can serve the same function.  There are many tools teachers and behaviorists use when doing a functional behavior assessment to determine the function of a problem behavior.  They conduct functional behavior assessment interviews with caregivers and professionals.  They observe and record the antecedents leading up to the problem behavior and the consequences that follow the behavior.  They collect scatter plot data in which they document when and where the behavior is most and least likely to occur.  And if they are real savvy, they go as far as doing functional behavior analyses in which they actually manipulate variables in the environment to test out the hypothesis for the function of the behavior.  For more info on these things I just mentioned, click on the helpful link: The Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice. 

One of the most effective things we can do first when trying to determine the function of a challenging behavior, however, is to ask the child why he/she is engaging in the problem behavior.  You would be amazed at what you can learn about a student's problem behavior if you just ask.  There was a boy in middle school who cried very often, which was a "contaminating behavior" for him socially because the other kids were turned off by it.  Instead of jumping in and doing a full blown functional behavior assessment, his teacher asked him why he cries all of the time. In a heartbreaking tone of voice, he said "I'm just worried all of the time." So within seconds the teacher could rule out that he was crying to get attention or to avoid work.  He was crying to regulate his emotions of anxiety and fear.  So...the teacher implemented some emotional regulation interventions, and his crying significantly decreased.

You may be thinking, "What about kids who are non-verbal?" In those cases, you would try to get a response using augmentative and alternative communication (assuming the child has an effective communication system in place).  The reality is, many kids who are non-verbal do not effectively communicate in alternative means.  However, we can still try to find ways to "ask the student" the purpose of a challenging behavior.  A few years ago when I was delivering a teacher training, one of the participants, who was an autism specialist, gave the best example of this: One of the teachers she supports contacted her because a student with autism was regularly running out of the classroom.  According to the teacher "she tried everything" to stop this behavior with no success.  So, the autism specialist asked, "Where is he trying to go?" (What a smart question!)  The teacher replied, "I have no idea.  We just get him as soon as possible and bring him back to the classroom.  The autism specialist recommended following the student to see where he was going to be able to determine the function for the running away behavior.  It turns out that the student was running to get to the faculty lounge because he would see the man who refills the vending machines pulling into the school through the classroom window, and he wanted to get to the lounge to get a chance to see the man open up the machines and refill the products.  Once again, it was quickly determined that the student was not running to get attention or to avoid work: He was running to try to see something he found very interesting.  While the student was unable to tell why he was running out of the classroom verbally, he was able to show the teachers why he was running.  So the intervention was simple: Allow the student to go to the faculty lounge a few minutes before the vending machine operator was scheduled to arrive, and he would then receive some job training on refilling vending machines each time the operator came to the school.  You would think that would be the intervention that anyone would come up with, but I can't tell you how many times I tell that story at teacher trainings and teachers say the intervention should be shutting the blinds on the classroom window so the student cannot see the truck pulling in!

Written by Deb Leach, Ed.D., BCBA

Posted in Behavior Tagged with: , , ,

The Value of Antecedent Interventions to Prevent Problem Behaviors

Here's a common question: "What should I do when my student/child  ________ (fill in the blank with your favorite problem behavior)?" It is human nature to think that there is some consequence that can be administered to stop problem behavior and prevent it from happening again, but that is typically not the case.  In fact, if you administer negative consequences during or following problem behavior, it is likely that the child will actually increase the use of that problem behavior.  This is because what we think of as "negative" consequences often serve as positive reinforcers for students with ASD and other disabilities (or typically developing kids for that matter).  So, instead of asking what you can do WHEN or AFTER a child engages in problem behavior, ask what you can do BEFORE the child typically engages in problem behavior to prevent the behavior from occurring.  These things you can do before a problem behavior occurs to prevent it from happening are called antecedent interventions, and they are very powerful when it comes to preventing challenging behaviors and increasing desirable behaviors.  You must first determine the function of the problem behavior before selecting antecedent interventions so that the interventions selected address the problem at hand. Here are some examples of antecedent interventions that can be selected for specific functions of problem behavior:

  1. If a child engages in problem behavior to avoid repetitive tasks, the antecedent intervention can be to provide much more variety of tasks and more interest-based activities.
  2. If a child engages in problem behavior when the teacher selects the schedule of activities, allow the child to set the schedule of activities by giving the child choices.
  3. If a child engages in problem behavior to avoid uncomfortable social situations, use a social story or video modeling/video self-modeling to teach the child the social expectations.
  4. If a child engages in problem behavior to avoid tasks that are too difficult, adjust the tasks so that they are developmentally appropriate (easier).
  5. If a child engages in problem behavior to seek adult attention, increase the amount of attention you give the child when the child engages in appropriate behaviors to reduce the need for negative attention.
  6. If a child engages in problem behavior to seek attention from peers, use peer-mediated interventions to teach peers how to engage in positive social interactions with the child so that the child gets positive attentions from peers and thus has less of a need for negative peer attention. 
  7. If a child engages in problem behavior when eating in the cafeteria because of the noise levels and smells, allow the child to eat in another location such as the classroom or an outdoor picnic table.
  8. If a child engages in problem behavior when transitioning to art, music, or p.e. because of difficulty shifting attention and/or anxiety, use a transition object that the student can bring to the art, music, or p.e. teacher to help the child shift attention to the activities that will take place in the next class (ex. Have the child carry a ball to p.e., a tambourine to music, a paint brush to art).
  9. If a child engages in problem behavior when asked to write because of fine motor impairments, allow the child to type on the computer or dictate to a scribe.
  10. If a child engages in problem behavior because the child does not know how to ask for help, teach the child to ask for help using words, pictures, symbols, or voice output devices.
This list can go on and on.  The message is this: When problem behaviors arise first think about what you can do to prevent them from happening not what you can do when or after they occur.

Written by Deb Leach, Ed.D., BCBA

Posted in Behavior Tagged with: , , ,

Token Economies: Examples of Class-Wide and Individual Token Economies for Inclusive Settings

Token economies can be effective strategies to use when modifying the behavior of an individual or group of students. There are countless forms that a token economy can take. In a class-wide system, a token economy might look like a weekly reward system. Individually, a token economy may address one specific block of time or activity. Token economies may be charts, tally marks, stickers, or smiley faces. They can use everything from edibles to activities to homework passes as backup reinforcers. Regardless of what your token economy looks like, it should be designed to meet the individual needs of your students, have clearly defined expectations and consequences, and have the potential to be faded out over time. Below are several examples of token economies that I have used or seen in a variety of situations. 

1. Class-Wide Color Chart - Sports Themed

Description: The class-wide color chart consists of five levels. The first level is green, for “Ready to Learn.” The class begins every Monday on green. The second level is teal (“Up to Bat”). If the students as a class meet a set of behavioral expectations on Monday, they can move up to “Up to Bat” for Tuesday. The third level is pink, for “Team Player.” The fourth level, “Team Captain,” is purple. Finally, the fifth level, “Champion,” is blue. The students continue to move up the ladder throughout the week when behavioral expectations are met on a daily basis. The students get to choose from the treasure box on Friday if the class is on “Champion.” If the class earns three out of four champion weeks, then the students are rewarded with a popsicle party. If the students do not meet the behavior expectations, then the class does not move up on the ladder. If the students do not move up, the teacher has a class meeting and the students give examples explaining why the class is not able to move up on the ladder. A magnet or clothes pin can be used to give the students a visual of where the class stands.

What it looks like: 

  Ready to Learn
Up to Bat   Team Player   Team Captain

The class can move up if:

1. All students walk quietly in the hallway

2. All students bring textbooks to class

3. All students bring in completed homework

Champion Weeks: _______ out of 4


2. Individual Daily Behavior Chart

Description: A student who has a difficult time meeting behavioral expectations during certain times of the day may benefit from this token economy. The student is given a schedule of activities that he/she will be engaged in throughout the day. For every activity, the student can earn a smiley face. During the last 10 minutes of the day, if the student earns a specified amount of smiley faces he/she can have a desired activity, such as playing on the iPad. 

What it looks like: 

Activity  🙂 = I was quiet. I completed my assignment. I remained    seated. 
Morning Group  
Reading Group  
Math Group  
Science Class  
Social Studies Class  
Special Area   

6 out of 7 smiley faces = ____iPad_____


3. Individual Token Economy - Breaking Down the Activity

Description: Some students, especially those who are younger or require more intensive supports, may benefit from a token economy that breaks activities or lessons down into smaller tasks. For example, in an ABA program, a student might receive a token for every initiated greeting. A student that has a strong dislike for math may earn a token for every math problem that he/she completes. There are numerous ways to set up these systems, but it will essentially work the same in every scenario. An activity is broken down into smaller tasks. The student earns a token for one task. The tokens are then exchanged once the activity is completed and the student receives a backup reinforcer. These can also be useful strategies when modifying off-task behaviors. 

What it looks like: 

Earn one check mark for every math problem. Complete 10 math problems and exchange your check marks for 5 minutes of free time. 

       ✔               ✔              ✔                                                                                                  


4. Self-Monitoring Materials

Description: Many students have difficulty bringing materials to class. Some students benefit from having a materials checklist on the desk or in the front pocket of his/her notebook. Students can use the materials checklist to monitor his/her own behavior. The student places a check mark in the appropriate box indicating that the materials were brought to class. If the students bring all materials to class, the teacher initials in the appropriate column. If the students do not bring specified materials to class, then the teacher does not initial the chart. The student must earn four out of five teacher initials in order to receive a backup reinforcer. 

What it looks like: 

For math class I will need:

Materials    Monday        Tuesday     Wednesday     Thursday     Friday  
Pencil with eraser           
Math Book          
Math Workbook          
Teacher Initials          

I need 4 out of 5 teacher initials to receive ____a homework pass____

These are just a few examples of how token economies can be implemented to modify student behaviors in inclusive settings. These strategies can be used with all students, not just those with ASD. By giving students behavior management tools such as these, teachers can help promote student independence and intrinsic motivation. For more information on token economies, click here

Written by Jennifer Rodecki, M.Ed.

Posted in Behavior Tagged with: , , , ,

“Mind Blindness?” I Don’t Think So: Thinking Differently About Theory of Mind and ASD

It has been well documented in the literature that individuals with ASD have impairments with what it called “theory of mind.”  Basically, theory of mind refers to the ability to take the perspective of other people, or to see things from the point of view of someone else.  Some refer to the difficulties with theory of mind in people with ASD as “mind blindness.”  I find that to be quite a harsh description of individuals who have amazing minds and much to offer the world.  I’m not going to discount the fact that many people with ASD do have difficulty understanding the perspective of other people.  But what I am going to point out is this:  so do a lot of people who don’t have autism.  Let’s not deny that many people in this world spend the majority of their time thinking from their own perspective and have great difficulty seeing things from the perspective of others.  It may be true that people with ASD have more difficulty with perspective taking than individuals without ASD, but they are not a rare species of humans who are the only people who have difficulty with theory of mind.  

Here’s another thought to ponder: Individuals with ASD often have a very different way of viewing and experiencing the world compared to people who don’t have ASD.  How many people spend time learning about the perspective of children and adults with ASD?  Often times parents, therapists, teachers, and others are thinking of ways to change the behavior of children with ASD as opposed to first understanding the perspective of the child.  Thus, many people without ASD have difficulties with “theory of mind” when it comes to understanding the perspective of individuals on the autism spectrum.  They have “mind blindness” when it comes to truly understanding why a person with ASD thinks and behaves in certain ways.   

A friend of mine told me a story about her son with autism that illustrates my point that we need to spend more time working on our ability to take the perspective of individuals with ASD.  When her son was young he used to find specific praise aversive.  His parents and teachers tried to change his behavior so that he would receive praise in a positive manner instead of cringing every time someone told him something positive about his academic or social performance.  They were unsuccessful.  The child continued to dislike praise for many years.  Now the child is a very successful teen who is indistinguishable from his peers.  His parents can now ask him questions about why he behaved certain ways when he was younger, and this really has helped them understand autism from the child’s perspective.  When they asked him why he didn’t like praise he said, “Because I would immediately get anxious thinking that I wouldn’t be able to do whatever you praised me for again, and you would be disappointed.”  When she told me that story, all I could say was, “Wow.” Never in a million years would I have thought that a child would find praise aversive because of the fear of not being able to please that person again in the future.  A functional behavior assessment would have never gotten to the root of the problem unless the child was able to answer the question, “Why don’t you like it when people praise you?”  At the time, this child had limited verbal skills and was not able to answer that question.   

Keep in mind that I am a behavior analyst.  Much of the work I do involves teaching new skills by designing ABA interventions that will be implemented in natural contexts.   So, I am not suggesting that functional behavior assessments and ABA interventions are not necessary.  Of course they are.  What I am trying to say is that first and foremost those of us who do not have ASD must put forth much more effort to improve our “mind blindness” when it comes to understanding individuals on the autism spectrum.  While it will continue to be necessary to teach individuals with ASD how to take the perspective of others, it certainly will remain necessary for the rest of the world to understand their perspective as well.


Written by Deb Leach, Ed.D., BCBA

Posted in General Tagged with: , , , ,

Don’t Just Speak, Communicate!

Over the last several years, I have worked with individuals with ASD ranging from children to adults. It is amazing how very different each case is, even though the diagnoses are the same. However, one thing that is consistent across individuals diagnosed with ASD is the deficits in communication skills.

Verbal behavior, as defined by Skinner, is the the vocal or nonvocal behavior of an individual which is reinforced by the behavior of another person. There is a relationship between the speaker and the listener where the speaker’s behavior affects the behavior of the listener, and vice versa. For example, a toddler says, “More juice,” and the listener reinforces that behavior by filling the cup with juice. However, there is more to language than just making requests. Skinner broke verbal behavior into six subcategories known as “verbal operants.” 

 Verbal Operant  Description
Mand Making a request
Tact Naming or identifying items
Echoic Imitating language
Intraverbal Answering and asking questions
Textual Reading written words
Transcription Writing and spelling spoken words 

Instead of just assessing and teaching expressive and receptive language, Sundberg and Michael (2001) state that Skinner’s verbal operants break down skills so that students with ASD can receive a more comprehensive program on language development. Individuals with ASD can be taught to respond to language stimuli appropriately through the manipulation of antecedents and consequences and direct instruction. 

One component of communication is manding. Requesting items, or manding for items, plays a vital role in the beginning development of language, and is also an important part of everyday interactions. Teaching a child to mand for items can be done in a variety of ways using the principles of applied behavior analysis. First, desired items can be withheld to increase motivation. This is known as manipulating the antecedents to prompt the mand. For example, a teacher may withhold a student’s favorite ball during recess to teach the student to mand for the ball. During meal times, I have intentionally withheld items such as straws, spoons, and forks to prompt students to spontaneously mand for those items. Many educators and caregivers teach manding by using food as a reinforcer. However, I would rather teach students to mand in more natural situations. Life does not come with a pack of Skittles, and students with ASD need to be taught how to request items that are needed, not just items that are highly desirable. 

Skinner’s definition of verbal behavior is important because it clarifies that verbal behavior is not just referring to vocalizations. I have worked with several students who were nonverbal. In teaching these students to communicate, I have used everything from picture symbols and choice boards to complex communication systems such as the Proloquo2go App on an iPad or SayItSam. Teaching students to communicate wants and needs through manding can decrease problem behaviors. Many times, students with ASD engage in inappropriate or aggressive behaviors because of the deficits in communication skills. When individuals with ASD do not have any means to communicate, then frustration builds, leading to major meltdowns. By using direct instruction, time-delay, modeling/request imitation, and manipulating antecedents and consequences, these individuals can learn a appropriate ways to communicate. 

Below are procedures for a student to expressively request/mand an item using vocal language:

1. When the child indicates a desire for an item or activity by reaching, grabbing, whining, crying etc., withhold the item and use time-delay.

2. If the child names the item to request it, provide natural positive reinforcement by giving the child the item.

3. If the child doesn’t name the item, use the following least-to-most prompts hierarchy:

a. Provide a fill-in (ex. You want the _________).

b. Use modeling/request imitation by saying the name of the item and encourage the child to imitate.

c. Ask the child to point to the item (provide gentle physical assistance if necessary)

4. Provide natural positive reinforcement after the child requests the item even if prompting was needed.

For more lesson plans on teaching verbal behavior and communication skills, CLICK HERE

Manding is one basic form of communication that can be taught. While educators and caregivers can increase verbal behavior by manipulating antecedents and consequences, and using direct instruction, instruction on communication skills can be made more meaningful by teaching in natural contexts with natural reinforcers. 

Not only should individuals with ASD be taught in natural environments, but they should also be taught to communicate for a variety of purposes. As I mentioned before, I don’t believe students should be taught how to mand only for items that are highly desirable; individuals should also be taught to request items that are needed. In addition, educators and caregivers should provide explicit instruction using peers to teach communication for social engagement. Teaching intraverbal skills to students with ASD is important for their success in inclusive settings. Peer mediated interventions can be used to teach individuals with ASD to comment on activities, respond to comments, initiate greetings, and so much more! 

Written by Jennifer Rodecki, M.Ed.

Sundberg & Michael (2001). The benefits of Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior for children with autism. Behavior Modification, 25, 698-724.
Posted in Communication Tagged with: , , , ,

Using Ecological Assessments to Set Meaningful Goals for ABA Interventions

When professionals develop ABA intervention programs for students with ASD and other disabilities, they use many different approaches when selecting goals.  Some use criterion-referenced assessment tools such as the Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills- Revised (The ABLLS-R) or The Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment and Placement Program (VB-MAPP) to set intervention goals.  Others use informal assessment procedures such as interviews with students, caregivers, and teachers, checklists, and informal observations to set goals for ABA interventions.  What professionals do not typically use nearly enough are ecological assessments to set goals for ABA interventions.

An ecological assessment begins with examining the skills needed for an individual to be successful in a specific environment (i.e. reading group in the general education classroom, school cafeteria, playground at recess, dinner table at home, restaurant, library, movie theater, workplace).  Professionals use task analysis by listing all of the skills required for the selected environment, observing the student in the environment, and documenting which skills the student demonstrates and which skills the student does not.  Then goals are set based on the skills the student needs to be successful in the environment but does not currently display.  Of course, goals need to be developmentally appropriate.  Consider this situation: one of the skills on the task analysis for eating at a restaurant indicates that the student verbally tells the waitress what meal he would like. However, the student is non-verbal. Thus, the goal would need to be something such as pointing to a picture or description of the desired meal on a menu when the waitress asks what he would like. 

Ecological assessments can be conducted to assess students’ independence and present levels of participation so that meaningful goals can be set to teach the necessary communication, social, behavioral, cognitive skills, or daily living skills the student needs to maximize performance.  Below is an example of an ecological assessment of a student’s participation in small group reading with suggested goals that can be targeted for ABA interventions:

Skills Needed Student Performance Goal
Sit at the table The student sat at the table appropriately. N/A
Look at the teacher when the teacher is providing instruction The student did not look at the teacher while the teacher was providing instruction. However, this is not necessarily an indication that the student is not listening. No goal at this time because the student may be listening to the teacher even though she is not looking at the teacher.
Read along silently when someone is reading The student did not look at the words in the book while someone was reading. The student will move her finger along the words while someone is reading.
Read when called on The student is non-verbal so she cannot read aloud. The student will hit a switch to “read” a pre-recorded section aloud when called on. 
Answer comprehension questions The student did not answer any questions.  Since she is non-verbal, she did not have a means to communicate whether or not she comprehended the story. The student will respond to literal comprehension questions by pointing to pictures given a field of four.
Make Predictions The student did not make any predictions Provide the student with a communication board that has a symbol for “I have an idea.”  This can be the words and/or a light bulb.  The student will hold up the symbol when she wants to make a prediction.  To make a prediction, she can use gestures, choose from a set of pictures, or she can use an AAC device.


In the example above, the teacher can design ABA interventions for all of the goals listed or target them one at a time until the student is able to participate in reading group independently.  As you can see, using the ecological assessment approach allows professionals to set goals that have immediate relevance to the students and those they interact with across different environments.  Although specific social, communication, cognitive, daily living skills, and/or positive behaviors are addressed when writing goals, they are selected based on what the student needs to learn to increase independence and active participation in the environments in which they engage.

Written by Deb Leach, Ed.D., BCBA
Posted in Assessments Tagged with: , , , ,

Standards Based Instruction Should Not Prevent the Use of Differentiated Instruction

When I talk to teachers about using differentiated instruction and assessment when including students with ASD and other disabilities in their classrooms, I often hear that they wish they could teach that way but with the emphasis on teaching the standards, it's impossible.  I don't really understand why standards based instruction would prevent the use of differentiated instruction.  The standards provide the curriculum, not the teaching and assessment methods.  Differentiated instruction means that teachers take that curriculum and differentiate the content (what students learn), the process (how students learn), and the product (how students demonstrate what they learned) to address the interests, learning profiles, and readiness levels of their students.  

Today's classrooms are made up of a diverse group of students requiring teachers to differentiate their instruction and assessment.  Teachers cannot simply "teach to the middle" with pre-determined instructional objectives using the same teaching and assessment methods for all students and end up with a classroom of learners all performing at grade level and meeting all of the standards.  Without a doubt some students will be left behind and others will not be challenged who are performing above grade level.  To implement standards based instruction using differentiated instruction and assessment procedures, teachers can do the following:

  1. Assess the students' interests, their present levels of performance in all academic domain and how they learn best (learning profiles)
    For more information on assessing students' interests, CLICK HERE!  
  2. Select a standard(s) that will be addresses for a particular unit of instruction
  3. Conduct a pre-assessment to determine what pre-requisite skills the students have and do not have and the knowledge and skills they may have already mastered related to the standard(s).
  4. Based on the pre-assessment, set differentiated instructional objectives selecting the "big ideas" (what all students will learn), and additional instructional objectives for most students, and advanced instructional objectives for some students.  When including a student with severe intellectual disabilities, it may be necessary to set individual instructional objectives if the "big ideas" are not developmentally appropriate for that student.  Also, for students with ASD and other disabilities, additional instructional objectives can be set to address their IEP goals within the lessons for the instructional unit.  This allows students to learn social, communication, academic, and independent functioning skills within the ongoing instructional activities in the classrooms enhancing motivation and generalization.
  5. Plan differentiated teaching procedures to address the learning profiles and interests of the students.  For example, students with ASD typically require active engagement strategies, the use of visual supports and instructional technology, and motivational strategies to fully benefit from classroom instruction. 
  6. Plan differentiated assessment procedures to allow students multiples ways to demonstrate what they learned.  This can include pencil/paper tests, essays/reports, oral presentations, artwork, music, drama, PowerPoint presentations, group projects, answering questions orally, etc. Make sure there are assessment procedures selected for all of the differentiated instructional objectives. 

While the differentiated instruction and assessment framework sounds like the best way to teach, it is also the most difficult way to plan, teach, and assess.  It is best done with collaboration among general and special education teachers throughout the planning, teaching, and assessment phases.  It can be quite overwhelming for teachers to plan for differentiated instruction throughout the school day.  Therefore, teachers should start small and gradually increase the quantity and quality of their differentiated instruction and assessment procedures. No teacher is ever finished learning how to improve their approaches to differentiated instruction. 

The final "Yeah, but:" Teachers will often say that they have to "teach to the test" preventing them from using differentiated instruction and assessment procedures. I say this: Of course, you can teach test taking strategies and get students comfortable with the format they will see on the tests, but that should not be your sole instructional approach.  It should be a small part of what is done throughout the school year with some extra emphasis a month or two before the tests take place.  Teaching to the test does not address the unique learning needs of the students in today's classrooms, does not provide authentic learning experiences, and will not likely teach students to love learning or allow teachers to love teaching.

Written by Deb Leach, Ed.D., BCBA

Posted in Academics Tagged with: , , ,

First Things First: Initial Goals to Target When Beginning an ABA Intervention Program for Young Children with ASD

I remember when I first start working as a discrete trial training therapist back in the 90's, the first goals for the children I worked with were teaching the child, "Look at me," "Sit down," "Stand up," "Come here," "Give me," and "Do this."  Sure does sound like a I was training a dog instead of teaching a child social communication skills, doesn't it?  So, 20 years later, what should the initial goals be for a young child with autism beginning an ABA intervention program?  First, there is not one answer to that question.  It would depend on the skills the child already has.  However I will share some skills to assess and target at the initial stages of learning social communication skills that I believe are essential for building the foundational skills a child needs to communicate and engage with others.  Here are some initial skills to target if the child doesn't already display these skills:

1: Point to request a desired item that is in close proximity to the child (Initially the child should touch the item with a point and then receive the item.  Then increase the expectation to also making eye contact before, during, or after pointing.  Then increase the expectation to naming the item and eventually using a simple sentence to request the item). The reason why pointing is so important is because it allows the child to learn how to request items in a socially appropriate manner instead of crying, whining, screaming, or grabbing.

2:  Make a choice given a field of two items (hold up two items and teach the child to point to request one of the items).  It's easier to teach this by first holding up an item that you know the child would want with one the child wouldn't want.  Then teach the child to make a choice when it is two desirable items.  The reason why teaching a child to choice given a field of two is to build the skills of listening, scanning, and communicating a selection to a communication partner.  This skill is used throughout the lifespan to demonstrate knowledge and to engage in reciprocal interactions with others.

3: Imitate motor movements during playful activities (songs, simple games like Simon Says, with toys, during book sharing activities).  The key is to teach the child to watch an adult or a peer and do what that person is doing not to memorize specific motor movements. So, it is important to vary the movements you use during the activities once the child is able to imitate some movements that were presented repeatedly. The purpose of focusing on this is to teach generalized imitation skills.  Many children with autism have deficits in imitation. Imitation is a very important skill for developing relationships with peers and learning new skills.

4: Play independently with a variety of age and developmentally appropriate toys (You can start with shape sorters, nesting cups, peg puzzles, legos, etc.)  This skill is important to teach because independent recreation increases the quality of life for all people.  If a child with autism does not have independent recreation skills, the child may resort to engaging in self stimulatory behaviors or problem behaviors.

5: Allow an adult and/or a peer to join the child's play (when someone joins the child's play, the child remains calm and refrains from moving away or engaging in problem behavior).  This is important to teach because it teaches children with autism early on that playing with others is something to view as enjoyable not something to avoid.  It helps them deal with their social anxiety by beginning with just allowing others near them while they are playing (parallel play). Eventually this should be expanded to responding to initiations from others during play, maintaining joint play, and initiating play with others.

Of course, these are not the only goals that can be targeted when beginning an ABA intervention program, but they should certainly be considered as initial targets.  Click HERE for ABA lesson plans on early cognition goals for children with ASD. 

Written by Deb Leach, Ed.D., BCBA

Posted in General Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

Embedding an ABA Intervention During Read Aloud

In school settings, it is important to plan ways to embed ABA interventions into as many different instructional and non-instructional activities as possible (as opposed to implementing the intervention in isolation).  I will give you an example for how an ABA lesson plan for teaching a child how to respond to comments during ongoing activities can be embedded during a read aloud activity.  Here is the ABA lesson plan:

1. When the child is engaged in an activity, make a comment about what the child is doing. If the child responds, provide positive reinforcement by smiling and making another related comment with positive affect.

2. If the child does not respond to the comment, use time delay to encourage a response.

3. If the child does not respond given the time delay, try either restating or rephrasing the comment. If still no response, use the following least-to-most prompts hierarchy:

a. Point to something the child can comment about

b. Use a fill-in (give a sentence starter and have the child finish the sentence)

c. Use modeling/request imitation (model the comment and    have the child imitate the response)

4. Use peer-mediated interventions when possible to encourage the child to respond to comments from peers.

5. Provide multiple opportunities throughout the day, across a variety of settings and activities to promote generalization of the skill.

Now...Here is how the above ABA lesson plan can be embedded during a read aloud activity.  

The teacher is reading a book to her kindergarten class.  In the book, there is a picture of a girl eating breakfast.  The teacher says, "Her breakfast looks delicious!"  The children immediately start responding to that comment saying things such as, "She's eating pancakes!" "I had cheerios for breakfast!" "My mom makes me pancakes too!" The student with autism, Jack, does not respond to the comment.  The teacher calls on Jack specifically and restates the comment while showing Jack the picture ("Jack, her breakfast looks delicious!").  The teacher uses time delay, but Jack still doesn't respond.  The teacher rephrases the comment to encourage Jack to respond ("She is eating.")  Jack says, "Eating."  Since Jack did not respond to the comment other than imitating the word "eating," the teacher restating the comment, "She is eating," and pointed to the pancakes.  Jack said, "Eating pancakes."  The teacher said, "Yes, Jack, she IS eating pancakes. They look soooo good!" 

Some may say, "I can't interrupt my instruction and do all of that while the other students are ready to move on." The fact is, it takes way less than a minute to embed that intervention, and the impact the intervention will have on Jack is well worth taking those few moments to teach him how to respond to comments just like his peers do.

Written by Deb Leach, Ed.D., BCBA

Posted in Academics, Social Tagged with: , , , , ,

Raising the Bar

I recently had the opportunity to hear Ron Clark speak. If you don’t know anything about Ron Clark, he is teacher who has changed the lives of low achieving students by setting high expectations and teaching lessons that appeal to the students’ strengths and interests. He currently runs a school in Atlanta, GA where all of the students come from low socioeconomic backgrounds and are taught material that is two levels above grade level. A major component of Ron Clark’s presentation that I attended was on “raising the bar.” I was immediately taken back to my first year of teaching.

During that first year, I was often criticized for having expectations that were “too high” for my students. At the time, I was teaching middle and high school students with moderate to severe autism. My students had received little, if any, early intervention and no ABA instruction. When I began setting up my classroom, I had all of these great ideas like teaching money, time, life skills, social skills, etc. My excitement was extinguished when my coworkers began talking about all of the things my students couldn’t and wouldn’t do. My students had spent their entire school career sorting items by color, shape, and size to prepare for a job at a sheltered workshop. I remember being discouraged by the way other people viewed my students. After all, it was not the fault of my students that ABA interventions had never been implemented into the classroom. 

The beginning of that first year was rough. The sole focus of the classroom was on potty training the students, teaching appropriate behaviors, implementing functional communication training, and working on basic academics such as identifying numbers and counting with correspondence. However, I knew where I wanted my students to be, and in order to get there, we needed to first work on the basics. By the end of the first semester, my students were ready to start working towards meeting higher expectations. 

As teachers, it is our responsibility to provide students with the best education possible. Our students can only achieve what we expect of them. If we are only expecting our students to complete workshop activities and engage in inappropriate behaviors, then that is what we will get. However, if we raise the bar, our students can grow into successful, productive members of society. When we raise the bar, we can change the lives of our students. Many of the students that I had the opportunity to work with that first year of teaching are now participating in community-based instruction, whereas before, their problem behaviors were so severe that they were not eligible for such programs. 

When we raise the bar, we are doing so not just for our students, but for our own teaching. We must implement research-based teaching procedures that will assist our students in achieving success. Positive behavior interventions and supports need to be put into place to help teach and reinforce appropriate behaviors, direct instruction should be used to teach new skills, and learning must occur in natural settings to teach for generalization and maintenance. Combining all of those principles helps students successfully meet higher expectations. Raising the bar leads to better instruction, higher test scores, and lifelong learning. Therefore, I challenge all educators to stand up and make a difference by continuously raising the bar. 

Written by Jennifer Rodecki, M.Ed.
Posted in General Tagged with: , , , , ,

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