Only for Young’uns?

Since my husband and I are driving back from my hometown in the deep South as I type, I thought this title was perfect for my next blog. I know it’s been a while, but we were in the middle of answering a series of questions about misconceptions related to Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). The first question was about whether these techniques are only helpful for individuals with autism diagnoses. The next question is this…

True or False: ABA is relevant for young children; however, its applications with older children & adults are limited.

And the answer is…………………………………another FALSE!!!

In my opinion, this might be the biggest misconception about ABA. It is, by far, the one that I have heard the most among parents searching for treatment options. The conversation typically goes like this…”Well, we’ve heard great things about ABA, but our child is beyond the ‘window’ so we’re looking for other options.” You’re probably wondering what this so called “window” is all about, but I’m going to go ahead and bust your bubble by telling you that it isn’t as special as it sounds. You see, a lot of people believe that once a child is outside of a specific age range, ABA is significantly less helpful for them. This is simply not true and can be easily refuted by looking at past and ongoing ABA research.

Before going any further, let me remind you that the first most influential publication on ABA was done with children (Lovaas, 1987). As with the first misconception, the participants of this well-known study also likely led to the “birth” of the age misconception. Another similarity relates to funding, as ABA services are more accessible for children, which further misleads people into believing that ABA isn’t as important for older individuals. Finally, remember that the number of professionals working in a particular area is heavily dependent on funding; just because most BCBAs work with children doesn’t mean they couldn’t help others! Instead of making assumptions about whether age matters based on publicity and/or funding, let’s dig deeper and see what the research says – this research may not be as well-known, but there’s a lot of it!

Here are numerous ways that ABA has been used to help older individuals with various disabilities:

  • Teaching cover-letter writing as a part of the job interview process (Pennington et al., 2014)
  • Teaching menstrual care to women (Richman et al., 1984)
  • Teaching safety skills, such as how to seek assistance when lost (Taylor et al., 2004)
  • Teaching conversation skills (Bourgeois, 1993)
  • Teaching internet leisure skills (Jerome et al., 2007)

Just from this small sample of studies, you can see how ABA has already been used to help older individuals live more independently, build friendships, stay safe, and grow in careers that they love! Despite this truth, please don’t think that I am discounting the importance of early intervention! Just because ABA can help beyond childhood doesn’t mean that waiting is a good idea. On the contrary, starting early will help people reach more goals, more quickly. What I’d really like to leave you with is this…DON’T GIVE UP! Whether you’ve gotten early intervention services or not, ABA can help people of all ages in amazing ways!

As always, I’m happy to send more research your way if there is a topic that you’re particularly interested in for your child or someone else. The more we educate others on the truth, the more we can get people the help that they so desperately need!

Also, you definitely won’t want to miss my next blog about the common complaint that ABA is too boring, so stay tuned!



Bourgeois, M. S. (1993), Effects of memory aids on the dyadic conversations of individuals with dementia. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 26: 77–87.

Jerome, J., Frantino, E. P. and Sturmey, P. (2007), The effects of errorless learning and backward chaining on the acquisition of internet skills in adults with developmental disabilities. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 40: 185–189.

Lovaas, O. I. (1987), Behavioral treatment and normal educational and intellectual functioning in young children with autism. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55: 3-9.

Pennington, R., Delano, M. and Scott, R. (2014), Improving cover-letter writing skills of individuals with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 47: 204–208.

Richman, G. S., Reiss, M. L., Bauman, K. E. and Bailey, J. S. (1984), Teaching menstrual care to mentally retarded women: acquisition, generalization, and maintenance. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 17: 441–451.

Taylor, B. A., Hughes, C. E., Richard, E., Hoch, H. and Coello, A. R. (2004), Teaching teenagers with autism to seek assistance when lost. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 37: 79–82.

Only for Autism?

It’s time for some answers! Ready for the first True/False question of this series on the most common misconceptions of ABA? Here we go!

True or False: ABA has only been proven effective with children diagnosed with autism.

And the answer is………………….a resounding FALSE!!!

I am assuming that this will be a surprise to many people reading this blog. Why? Well, this is what the majority of parents & teachers hear through word of mouth. Let me start explaining my answer by telling you how this misconception came about in the first place.

If you don’t already know, ABA is a relatively young field of study with research only dating back to the 1950s. After about 30 years, a study on an intensive, 40 hours/week ABA program was published (Lovaas, 1987). This study continues to be the most influential publication supporting ABA. Who were the participants? You probably guessed it…children diagnosed with autism!

What happened next truly set the stage for this misconception to stick. Based on what I’ve told you about the history of our field, who do you think insurance companies were first mandated to cover ABA services for? Children diagnosed with autism, of course! Thus, where do you think the most & highest paying jobs are for BCBAs who provide & supervise ABA services? Yep…with children diagnosed with autism! You see, the Lovaas study was really when ABA got people’s attention. It was finally our chance to show that we could bring something different to the table. Something that was unlike any treatment at the time. I guess you could say that ABA “got its foot in the door” through its work in the autism community.

The unfortunate part of this history is that we have yet to get the same recognition for the plethora of research supporting the benefits of ABA with others. So now, let’s now shift our focus to what IS true. ABA HAS been proven effective across a wide variety of disabilities and challenges! And no, that’s not just my opinion. As I’ve already mentioned, there is a great deal of research showing how successful ABA can be beyond autism treatment. Below are just a few examples…

  • Helping individuals diagnosed with traumatic brain injury (TBI) learn to recognize names & faces (Cowley et al., 1992)
  • Helping children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) learn to stay on-task during work tasks (Rapport et al., 1982)
  • Helping older adults diagnosed with dementia stay active & engaged in their living environments (Engstrom et al., 2015)
  • Helping typically developing preschool children respond safely to lures from strangers (Johnson et al., 2005)
  • Helping individuals with addictions to abstain from engaging in those behaviors, such as cigarette smoking (Reynolds et al., 2008)

This list could go on forever, but even these 5 examples show the variety of people that could benefit from ABA techniques. I hope that this post helps people reconsider ABA as a treatment option if this misconception was holding them back from doing so. For others, help us educate people! We could really use any help we can get!

My next blog will be similar to this one, but I’ll be specifically looking at whether age plays a factor in the effectiveness of ABA. As always, I’d love comments & questions. I’m even happy to research other applications of ABA if you’d like more specific resources! And just so you know, I may not be talking about Auburn football quite as much this fall; if you haven’t noticed, they’re not looking so hot this year…and that’s NO misconception. ::sigh::



Cowley, B. J., Green, G. and Braunling-McMorrow, D. (1992), Using stimulus equivalence procedures to teach name-face matching to adults with brain injuries. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 25: 461–475.

Engstrom, E., Mudford, O. C. and Brand, D. (2015), Replication and extension of a check-in procedure to increase activity engagement among people with severe dementia. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 48: 460–465.

Johnson, B. M., Miltenberger, R. G., Egemo-Helm, K., Jostad, C. M., Flessner, C. and Gatheridge, B. (2005), Evaluation of behavioral skills training for teaching abduction-prevention skills to young children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 38: 67–78.

Lovaas, O. I. (1987), Behavioral treatment and normal educational and intellectual functioning in young children with autism. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55: 3-9.

Rapport, M. D., Murphy, H. A. and Bailey, J. S. (1982), Ritalin vs. response cost in the control of hyperactive children: a within-subject comparison. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 15: 205–216.

Reynolds, B., Dallery, J., Shroff, P., Patak, M. and Leraas, K. (2008), A web-based contingency management program with adolescent smokers. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 41: 597–601.

True or False?

[ File # csp8317961, License # 1990404 ] Licensed through in accordance with the End User License Agreement ( (c) Can Stock Photo Inc. / bbbarMy grades throughout high school & college were extremely misleading. See, they made it seem as though school came easy for me. Truth be told, I was one of those nerds that worked myself to death in order to get good grades. Tests and quizzes were never easy for me – I ALWAYS had to study. A lot. True/false questions were one of my least favorite types of questions because I would immediately jump into over-analytic mode when I saw one. As most people know, this is a sure fire way of getting the answer wrong. Despite my distaste for these questions, I will be answering a few of them for you over the next few posts. These questions are easy for me because I am asked to answer them ALL the time, so I’ve become very familiar & knowledgeable about the right answers. All of these questions relate to Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Let me pose them to you now so that you can be thinking about your own answers:

True or False…

  1. ABA has only been proven effective with children diagnosed with autism.
  2. ABA is relevant for young children; however, its applications with older children & adults are limited.
  3. ABA is enjoyable & fun for learners.
  4. ABA can result in “robotic” behavior/language.
  5. ABA is a different type of therapy than PECS, Discrete-Trial-Training (DTT), and Verbal Behavior.
  6. The primary benefit of using ABA is to address challenging behaviors.
  7. Anyone with knowledge about autism and/or general experience as a behavior therapist can use ABA techniques effectively.
  8. For children who understand how therapy “works,” ABA is not successful.
  9. ABA can involve strategies that are extremely difficult & time-consuming to implement.
  10. For the most part, all Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) are equally qualified.

As we’ve talked about in many of our posts, questions about different therapeutic approaches can be extremely difficult to answer. The crazy amount of personal opinions and misinformation flying around about ABA makes it almost impossible for a parent to find accurate answers to any of the questions I listed above. Although my answers will obviously draw from my professional experience, my goal is to rely as much as possible on the research literature.

By writing a blog series in this fashion, I hope to discuss, in detail, the concerns that too often keep families and professionals from considering ABA for their child, student, or client. As you will see, many misconceptions keep people from seeking these services despite desperately needing them (and despite more & more easily being able to access them). It is my mission to constantly inform others about the proven benefits and limitations of ABA, as well as the determinants of its effectiveness,  so that families & professionals can make well-educated decisions about when it would be beneficial. I hope you will join me in this journey by commenting on and asking questions about each of the topics posed.

Stay tuned for question #1: True or False – ABA has only been proven effective with children diagnosed with autism. This answer, along with the start of football season, will be coming very soon!🙂


Medications–Making Informed Decisions

In the life of a behavior analysts, hearing about medications is a double-edged sword. On one hand, there are many children that would benefit from medication to help address certain symptoms of their diagnosis; but on the other hand, there is little research on the effectiveness of many of the medications being prescribed. The lack of evidence is more than I’ll try to address in this post (though maybe I’ll brave that topic later). Rather, I want to consider the potential benefits of the use of medications and help understand how to make INFORMED decisions that are best for the individual.

First and foremost, ask questions to ensure you know exactly what the proposed medication is expected to do, both good and bad. Many of the medications being prescribed to help address challenging behaviors were actually designed for other purposes and are prescribed “off label” to hopefully address these needs. What are some questions you can ask?

  • What (exact) behavior should I expect to see improve while on this medication?
  • How will the medication help that improvement happen? (This will help understand the primary purpose of the medication [e.g., lower blood pressure] and how calmer behavior might be a secondary result.)
  • What are the key behavioral side effects of the medication?
  • What are the key medical side effects of the medication?
  • How quickly should I expect to see changes?

Having answers to these questions will help you understand what to expect, if the medication will likely address what you see as a serious concern, and whether or not the pros outweigh the cons.

After you have all of the information, begin collecting data (before making your decision) on the behavior the medication is intended to address. Even if the pros (on paper) outweigh the cons, that is only true if the potential positives actually happen. And the only way to know if the behavior is improving is to know how much it occurs before the medication v. how much it occurs while on the medication. How can the behavior be quantified?

  • Count how many times the behavior happens each day
  • Time how long the behavior lasts
  • Keep a rating scale of how intense the behavior is each day (e.g., physically harmful v. annoying but not dangerous, etc.)

Now that you can see how much the target behavior is occurring, go ahead and make your decision. If you decide to move forward with the medication, keep tracking the dataMake a note on the day the medication began and watch what happens to the data. Remember before when I recommended asking how quickly you should expect to see changes? This is where that comes in. If the doctor said you should expect effects to kick in within a couple days, you should see changes in your data quickly. If they said it will take 2 to 3 weeks, you know you need to let the medication take it’s time before you make judgements about the effectiveness.

When it is time to follow up with your doctor about the medication, take the data with you. Help your doctor make informed recommendations with really concrete evidence of the effects (or lack thereof) the medication is having. Doctors and families want the same thing: healthy, happy kids who are able to function well in their environments. The more objectively you can describe the effects to your doctor, the better they’ll be able to make recommendations about altering dosages, continuing/discontinuing medications, etc; and they will appreciate the additional information you’ll be able to share with them if you record data.

There is one more recommendation that doesn’t quite fit into the step-by-step process I’ve tried to lay out here, but it’s a BIGGIE! Whenever you are making changes to treatment (whether they be medication-related or not), try to make one change at a time and record in your data when they happen. For example, if you are considering adding a medication and increasing ABA therapy from 4 hours a week to 12 hours a week, decide which change you’ll make first and leave the other alone for a couple of weeks. If the behavior changes in the desired way, maybe the other change isn’t needed. If you don’t see the necessary change, then consider the other option.

If you change multiple things at once, there is no way to know which change actually did something beneficial. This is dangerous because you could end up continuing something with serious negative side effects because you think it’s helping when it was really the other change that was supporting the positive changes. The other negative about doing too much at once is more “practical” in nature: if you are doing things that aren’t necessary or effective, your resources are spread unnecessarily thin as opposed to focusing them all in the direction of the effective treatment(s).

Things to remember:

  1. Ask lots of questions on the front end
  2. Take data before making any decisions
  3. Make your decision (based on your data) and keep tracking it
  4. Share the data with your doctor moving forward
  5. Make one change at a time

Hopefully this has been helpful, not only as it relates to medications, but in making any decisions regarding treatment options.


A New Year’s Resolution


Happy 2015, everyone! Although it can be fun to celebrate the new year, I am not always super excited around this time of year. Here are a few reasons why…

  1. Christmas is over
  2. Football is almost over
  3. Tax season is coming
  4. I will write the wrong date on paperwork for the next 3 months

Anyhow, there are lots of exciting things about starting fresh, making positive changes, and all that jazz – which is what the beginning of a new year often gets us thinking about. Like most people, I’m typically centering these thoughts around my personal life but THIS year seems to be different.

Why? Well, it all started with watching the news. I happened to tune in during a story about a doctor in Naperville, IL. According to news sources, she was known nationally for treating individuals with autism. I believe I may have even known families who pursued this doctor, as her name sounded extremely familiar. The story was about how her license was placed on probation after allegedly providing “medically unwarranted treatment that may potentially result in permanent disabling injuries.” Sadly, this is a story that is told all too often.

What always makes my heart break the most is knowing that the families who fall victim to these scenarios truly want to help their children and are willing to do anything it takes to do just that. Although we typically think about those qualities as being good & honorable, they can also be especially dangerous given the number of providers in the autism community that feed off of them. In other words, there ARE doctors and other, typically well-respected professionals who are not in business to help, but to make money. It may take a lot of questions and research to identify them, but the worst thing you can do is make assumptions about the soundness of their recommendations before doing any research (or simply based on their credentials).

To get back to my original point, I knew after hearing this story that my resolutions were going to be less about personal achievements and more about helping families that I work with have the right perspective so that they can better advocate for their children. Although this is something that I always try to do, there is so much more that needs to be done. To start, I want to give you a couple of ideas to consider…

First, remember that all services providers (doctors, psychiatrists, behavior analysts, counselors, etc.) are HUMAN! Why is this important? Because being human means that we don’t always have the answer. It also means that there is some possibility that we haven’t done our research because we are lazy (but don’t like to admit it) or that we are simply “followers” and continue to do things because it’s what we were taught to do. Unfortunately, it also means that there is some possibility that all we begin to think about is what is going to get us the most clients and income for our own business or family – without considering what’s at stake for others. I can tell you from my own experiences that the nicest people can fall into all of these categories, which directly affects the soundness of their services. The outcome can be disastrous…

Second, consider what things would be like if there was a quick cure for autism that simply required a particular medical procedure. Wouldn’t the effects of this type of discovery be dramatic??? For one, you would know because other well-established therapies, such as ABA, would no longer be growing exponentially. Also, more than a handful of doctors would be providing it and more funding streams would be covering it. You may immediately think, “All types of therapy were ‘born’ at some point – what if this one turns out to be the best?” This is a good point; however, if there is little yet known about whether something is effective, there may also be little known about whether it is dangerous. Aren’t we just as responsible to protect our children from harm as we are to find them the resources they need? Furthermore, if we disregard/minimize proven treatments for those that may not be effective at all (or even dangerous), isn’t that also doing our children a disservice? Wouldn’t it be most beneficial to re-allocate resources if/when other treatments are actually proven effective?

I know this process can be unbelievably overwhelming for families, but checking your perspective is a great place to start. There is so much to learn about what questions to ask and what to look for when deciding on the type of treatments to pursue/continue. If you want more information on this topic, I’d encourage you to visit the Association for Science in Autism Treatment ( – an organization whose primary goal is to educate people on evidence-based treatments for autism. Even if you are seeking treatment for other disabilities, you may still find resources on this site that will help you have the right perspective throughout your search.

I think I’m off to a good start to my new year’s resolution – now if only Auburn could win the 2015 national championship🙂


Beyond the Table and Little Kids Part 5: Achieving Independence

So, we’ve reached the end of our series on what ABA looks like in the general education setting and I think we may have saved the best for last. As teachers (or parents or therapists or adults interacting with kids in any capacity), what do we most wish for our students? For many of us it is independence and not being needed. Don’t get me wrong, we all want (or maybe need) to be needed, but there are few things more fulfilling—at least for me—than teaching someone something so well that they don’t need us to continue doing it. Achieving this level of independence is the topic of our final entry in this series.

Within the classroom setting, independence includes completing assignments, organizing materials, being able to walk the halls & return to class, being on task, knowing when to be social & when not to, having supplies prepared, etc. But, if we’re all being honest, how many of us can actually say every one of our students demonstrates these behaviors all the time (or even 50% of the time)? More often than not, we see plenty of students “ignoring” instructions, coming to class unprepared, refusing to compete activities, and many other things that are not illustrations of independence in the classroom. But most of the time, the strategy used to address these struggles is repeating the instructions given.

While it might seem like that is effective—because after the 5th time, the student completes the task—it isn’t usually the most effective long term solution to the problem of noncompliance and dependence on staff. Why not, you ask? There are four main reasons this typically is not the best strategy: 1) it may teach students they don’t have to listen until the 9th repetition of the instruction, 2) they may not have the skills to be successful, 3) they may forget the instruction if too much is presented at once, and 4) too many nonsuccesses makes trying the next time difficult or discouraging. Think about what happens when you give an instruction multiple times…it often goes (and sounds if you read bold and capitals with emphasis) like this:

“Johnny, put your homework in the ‘to grade’ box.” (Johnny does nothing). “Johnny, I told you to put your homework in the ‘to grade’ box.” (Johnny does nothing). “Johnny, are you listening? Put your homework in the ‘to grade’ box.” (Johnny does nothing). “Johnny, I already told you 3 times, put your HOMEWORK in the ‘TO GRADE’ BOX!”

And, the really crazy thing, is that sometimes we get through all of those instructions and Johnny has still not put his homework in the “to grade” box. This is definitely not what we want for our students or for ourselves as teachers. We (the adults) often begin to feel exasperated with students through these interactions and the students likely feel as though we don’t like them because these interactions are so negative and tension-filled. I’m sure we ALL want to avoid these types of interactions with our students…and there are ways we can!

So the question, then, is, “What can I do differently?” The really short answer is to use a different prompting strategy. The slightly less short answer is to use either graduated guidance or errorless teaching, both of which are technical terms for how you might prompt students to complete tasks you present when you present them. Graduated guidance is when you increase your assistance following noncompliance or errors. Errorless teaching is the opposite; you begin with a lot of assistance and fade it out as the students become familiar and successful. The illustration below is a simple example of what each of these strategies might look like.Prompting Graphic

But I’m guessing there are many people thinking, “What does she even mean by, ‘Use a “prompting strategy”?’” Well, that’s also kind of a technical way of saying, “Change your response to the students based on how they respond to your instructions/assistance.” In the example with Johnny above, the teacher kept doing the same thing each time Johnny failed to put his homework in the box. By planning ahead of time to use one of the prompting strategies I described, we would have seen the teacher’s behavior change with each refusal or success. Let’s look at graduated guidance:

“Johnny, put your homework in the ‘to grade’ box.” (Johnny does nothing). The teacher walks closer to Johnny and repeats the instruction, “Johnny, put your homework in the ‘to grade’ box.” (Johnny does nothing). The teacher taps Johnny on the shoulder, gets eye contact, points at the ‘to grade’ box and says, “Johnny, put your homework in the ‘to grade’ box.” (Johnny puts his homework in the box).

In this example, Johnny still didn’t comply the first time, but the teacher increased the level of assistance with the task each time she stated the instruction. Because there was a planned shift in responses from the teacher, this interaction remained much calmer and more positive, and Johnny complied after 3 instructions. This is essential because we know that if something didn’t work on the 1st or 2nd time, it is unlikely to work on the 5th time. The repetition of the exact same instruction is not likely to work better the 5th time than the 1st time. The student may eventually comply, but more often than not it is due to increasing intensity in the instruction rather than the virtue of hearing the instruction again. And what we’ve inadvertently taught the student is that we don’t really mean our instructions until the 5th time we’ve said them or when we are fully yelling the whole statement.

The idea of using a “prompting strategy” also implies that we shift our level of assistance as performance changes. When performance is low, there is a high level of assistance. As performance increases, assistance decreases. When using errorless teaching, you begin with MORE assistance and fade it out over time. This is sometimes a bit of a “dance,” as you might think a student is ready for you to fade your assistance and they aren’t quite ready. That’s OK, it just means you have to increase your assistance and go a little more slowly the next time your remove the assistance. Here’s an example of what that might look like:

“Katie, you need to do the math worksheet and we only have 10 minutes.” (Katie engages in off task behaviors). The teacher stands right next to Katie, taps the paper, and says, “The worksheet, Katie.” (Katie begins working & completes 2 problems). The teacher moves 1 step away from Katie but keeps her attention focused on her. (Katie continues working and completes another 2 problems). The teacher walks to the next group of students and provides assistance to them as a group. (Katie begins engaging in off task behavior). The teacher returns to Katie’s desk group and gives “the look” to her paper. (Katie resumes her work). The teacher helps another student at Katie’s group but doesn’t walk away. (Katie continues working). The teacher leans to the group next to her but doesn’t walk away. (Katie continues working).

Katie was struggling to be on task, but didn’t really need help with the work itself. The teacher was able to use proximity and subtle gestures to get Katie on task, but it was clear that walking too far away led to off task behavior. After the teacher returned and got her on task, she walked away more slowly to ensure that Katie stayed on task. This represents prompt fading—or how we take out that added assistance.

The last big question is a BIG one, but I’ll try to be brief in answering it: How does all this added assistance INCREASE independence?! The simple answer is that success begets independence. There are four main ways this happens: 1) assistance minimizes errors and, thus, learning errors, 2) success increases contact with reinforcers, 3) learning to do things correctly increases future motivation, & 4) planned responses for noncompliance increases the consistency of expectations.  Without the added assistance, we saw that Johnny was never successful in following the instruction to put his homework in the correct box. It is really hard to stay motivated to follow instructions and try to do difficult tasks if you are never successful and you never contact the reinforcers for doing things well. Once additional assistance is added, we see both of the students succeed with the tasks they are given. If they contact reinforcers for that success, they are far more likely to do those tasks again than if they failed.

I feel like I could write for days on prompting, but the big take home of all of it is this: when something doesn’t work, we need to try something different. If student don’t respond to verbal instructions the first time, they aren’t likely to respond to the same instruction the next 3 times they are given…shifting your behavior helps the students succeed and you to maintain positive interactions with the students.

We truly hope that you all have found this series valuable, and we welcome thoughts, questions, and comments. Please also feel free to share other topics you’d like to see us tackle in the future.


Beyond the Table and Little Kids Part 4: When Learning Isn’t Fun & Grades Don’t Matter

Now that we have a better understanding of why problem behaviors occur & some general strategies to help, the next two posts will focus on more specific issues commonly faced in general education classrooms. The first of these is when kids simply aren’t motivated. Think of the students that you have taught who couldn’t care less about grades, teacher recognition, or school-wide incentives. Yes, ABA techniques CAN help these kids!

Strategy #5 Increasing Motivation

For some students, motivation comes easy. Good grades or approval from others may be more than enough for them to do their very best day-in and day-out (this was me!). But if we’re being honest, there are many kids who just aren’t yet motivated by these natural, positive consequences…or maybe it just isn’t motivating enough given how hard the work is for them. For these students, it is critical to use something extra or different to get them more motivated! Think about this: if no one ever motivates them somehow, they probably won’t contact the natural consequences that we want them to care about—so then why would they ever come to care about those consequences at all!? We MUST think outside the box to boost their motivation so that they can actually experience the benefits of working hard. If we can successfully do so, there is a much better chance that the natural consequences will eventually start working. If we simply wait for a student to be motivated by the things that they “should” be motivated by, we are not doing our job as teachers.

So, what does this look like? First, you have to consider things/activities that your student will be willing to WORK FOR. Remember, this is different than something they just LIKE. I will gladly accept a cookie or candy any day, but I’m not going to do my job in exchange for them! Kids may like privileges that can be earned through a school-wide incentive system, but they may not being will to work for these things. To start finding motivators that a student will work for, you may be able to brainstorm options and ask the student to rank them. Other students may already know of some things that they would like to earn that are reasonable.  Once you have some ideas, the only way to know if they are truly motivating is by using them and watching the effects on a student’s behavior. You may not get it right the first time and you may have to switch these items/activities up frequently to keep things interesting, and that’s okay. The key is to continuously be thoughtful about whether what you are using is actually motivating (i.e., a reinforcer). Here are a few things we’ve used in classrooms before: helping jobs, computer time, library trips, teacher/principal visits, playing games, among many others. You may have to get creative (or do like me and ask for help with ideas)!

Once you identify reinforcers, the next step is to decide how they will be earned. One of the most common mistakes with this step is setting the bar TOO HIGH at first. If a student must be perfect for an entire week when they currently struggle to stay motivated for one day, they will likely give up on day 2. What if someone told you that you could earn a car? You’d be pretty excited, right? But what if they then said you had to run 10 miles every morning for 1 month to earn it? I have even run a marathon and I think I would give up on day 1 if someone offered that to me! You may have the perfect reinforcer, but if you make it too hard to earn off the bat then it likely isn’t going to make a difference at all. The key is to start easy and then gradually increase the requirement for earning reinforcers as progress is made. This may take some trial-and-error on your part, but as long as you are clearly communicating the expectation each day, there is nothing wrong with making adjustments.

By now, people are usually thinking a couple of things: 1) What if the other children get jealous? & 2) What if the student learns to constantly expect rewards for everything they do? Let’s go ahead and address these issues before you worry about them too much. Other children may not understand why Johnny gets to earn something special for doing what they do all the time; however, this should not be what keeps us from helping Johnny get back on track. You may need to explain that some things are harder for Johnny than for them and vice versa. In other situations, you may be able to make the system discrete enough so that other students aren’t aware of what is being earned. At the end of the day, every student is different and, thus, may need different strategies to grow in particular ways. Based on age and other factors, each teacher should determine how to best plan for and address peers’ reactions to the use of these strategies. The second concern mentioned above will only become a reality if expectations never change. For example, if Johnny earns homework passes for every math worksheet he completes for an entire year, I would guess he’d likely continue expecting this reward the next school year for completing math worksheets. On the other hand, if Johnny starts the year earning homework passes for every math worksheet; but then math becomes a little easier and he is then expected to complete 3, then 4, then 5 (and so on) worksheets before earning a homework pass, it is unlikely that he will get “stuck” with an unrealistic expectation. The goal is always to fade these reinforcers gradually until the student is using the same system as his peers.

Hopefully this post gives you some ideas for the students in your class who struggle to do what’s expected. Remember, even though we want our students to be motivated by good grades & approval, this just doesn’t come naturally for all students. We must start somewhere for that to actually happen; and, for many things in life, even adults don’t dish out effort “for free.” Stay tuned for our final post of this series – we think it will hit home on another big challenge that all teachers experience!



As we’ve been talking about in the past couple blogs, ABA is SO MUCH MORE than one-on-one table work with preschool-aged kids. It crosses all lines of age and ability once you understand the underlying principles of behavior. Last month we talked about one of the most impactful principles: behaviors happen for a reason (i.e., have a function) and that reason is almost always to tell us something that the person may not have other healthy communication skills to convey.

Let’s do a quick recap of the four functions & what they are telling us:

Attention—I want your attention right now! Escape—I do NOT want to do this task or be in this situation! Access—I really want that item or to do that activity! Self-Stimulation—This activity looks/feels/smells/sounds/tastes really good!!

Now that we understand the purpose of challenging behaviors, there are two more strategies that can be used to help reduce those behaviors: extinction and differential reinforcement. These two things go hand-in-hand; neither one will be nearly as successful as it can be without the other!

Strategy #3 Extinction

Are you thinking in your head, “Extinction?! What does extinction have to do with my students or how they behave?” That’s ok; extinction is a technical word in the behavior analysis world that doesn’t really have a “normal” counterpart. Basically, extinction means that a behavior no longer brings the same result. For example, many students might act out in class and be removed from the lesson to sit in the hall. Extinction, then, would be that acting out in class no longer results in being removed from class.

Like we’ve said before, people engage in behaviors that work to get them what they want or need; and this is true about both positive and negative behaviors. If something works, there is no reason not to do it in the future, right? Let’s go back to the example from before with the student acting out in class. If he began acting out one day because he was really upset with the tasks being presented and was sent into the hall, he likely noticed that he got to escape the work. In the future, he might try to use that same behavior of acting out when he doesn’t want to work (i.e., the function is escape) because it has worked before. It isn’t a positive means of getting out of work, but it is effective; and in the grand scheme of things, people are most likely to do what is effective, even if it isn’t the healthiest. If we know acting out is occurring to escape work, we can change the response so he does not get sent into the hall when acting out. And, thus, set the occasion that the behavior does not work to gain escape from work.

There are dangers in using extinction, though. These aren’t dangers that suggest it shouldn’t be used; but it needs to be well-planned and used in conjunction with other strategies (one of which I’ll get to next). To think about the side effects of extinction, picture a soda machine. You approach the soda machine, put in the money, and push the button for your favorite soda…and nothing comes out. What is your response? For me (a self-professed diet cola addict), I immediately start pushing the button over and over quite rapidly. I know you’ve all done it a time or two as well. And, when pushing the button doesn’t work, maybe I’ll give the machine a little shake, a little kick; who knows what I might do to try to get my soda out of the machine that I just gave WAY TOO MUCH money to. This is called an extinction burst or a behavior burst. When something that usually works doesn’t work any longer, we will try other (usually more intense) means of getting the desired result.

For kids with limited skill sets or when a particular behavior has been working for a really long time, the behavior burst might not stop in escalation before there are safety risks. Usually people have to work through all of the escalations they can think of and see that none of them work before they stop trying. With a student acting out, that might mean that they are going to try some fairly risky behavior before the behavior burst is over. That is why it is essential to plan for this before starting extinction and to have other pieces to the intervention that offer a healthy way of getting the same result.

The most important element to the success of extinction is consistency. If extinction is implemented consistently so the problem behavior never results in the desired outcome, the behavior burst will be shorter and likely less intense than if it is only inconsistently used.

Strategy #4 Differential Reinforcement

I said it many times when talking about extinction—it should not be used alone! If problem behaviors occur as a means of communication and we remove the only behavior that the student has to communicate a particular want/need, we have basically taken away their means of advocating for themselves. That is not what we are trying to do. Yes, we want them to stop that particular negative behavior, but they need some other way to get the same result. Oftentimes students display some positive behavior(s) that could be as effective as the negative options, but they don’t always do them as frequently as the negative behaviors. In the example above, I highlighted the extinction of an escape-maintained behavior. In order to give that student a replacement behavior so acting out is no longer the only option, he needs a new way to request escape from class or the work. Depending on the student’s current behaviors, the exact response will differ; however, it will always look like a means to access the same result that the problem behavior used to get. Let’s say this student occasionally demonstrates highly attentive, on-task behavior or asks to be excused from class. By making sure that these more appropriate behaviors are reinforced with a break from class, he will come to see that these positive behaviors are more effective and easier. This gives him a healthy way to request escape from the work tasks rather than using his unhealthy means of demanding it.

Both of these strategies will look slightly different based on the function of the challenging behavior, but what is most important to think about is the ultimate reinforcer that may be fueling problem behavior. Extinction is about making a behavior ineffective so that negative behaviors no longer result in positive outcomes. And when paired with differential reinforcement, the students will learn to shift their behavior away from the (now ineffective) problem behavior to the easier and more effective positive behavior.  In the most simple terms, this means providing “the good stuff” following positive behaviors while withholding “the good stuff” following challenging behaviors.

Check back in a few weeks as we dive further into how to use ABA to increase motivation in students and feel free to leave questions or thoughts in the comments; we love the conversations they can start🙂


Beyond the Table and Little Kids Part 2: The Basics

In case you missed it, take a look at our last post; we kicked off a 5 part series on how ABA can be used across a wide variety of settings and situations – contrary to most people’s understanding. In this series, we will be specifically focusing on helpful ABA strategies that can be used in any and every classroom. Yes, even general education classrooms with older students!  Let’s get to part 2…

There are two basic strategies that are always, ALWAYS important in parenting or teaching. These strategies are likely things that you already do, at least to some extent, but we hope you will finish this post with a better understanding of how you could use them even more effectively with your students.

Strategy #1 “Why?????????”

Yes, the first strategy relates to this very question. How often do we ask ourselves, “WHY do they DO that?” Probably a LOT. Well, ABA is all about answering it; and the answer is what we call the “function” of (i.e., reason for) a behavior. When you think about it, we help kids learn all kinds of things when we know what makes them “tick.” For instance, those who know me know that I LOVE Zaxby’s (a delicious, fast food chicken joint). They also know that I love Zaxby’s enough to do just about anything to get it. In other words, I would do everything in my power to meet any expectations/requirements tied to eating some delicious Zaxby’s chicken; but I would be just as likely to throw an adult “tantrum” to get it (if that was the quickest/easiest way to do so). It is important to know these things about your students, too – whether they are 2 or 18 years old.

So how do we figure out why kids do what they do? There are 4 primary functions to consider. The first is ATTENTION. Although the forms of attention that people like may change as they get older, it is a common payoff that kids are looking for when they make good and bad choices. Even I like hearing positive feedback or approval from my colleagues, as do most of us! And yes, sometimes bad attention is just as cool as good attention! The next possible function is ESCAPE. Basically, this means that kids do a lot of things to get out of stuff. It could be to get out of a situation, a task, or even away from a certain person. As you can imagine, kids are often trying to escape things in school. It might be in a good way (e.g., working diligently so that they can graduate early) or a bad way (e.g., skipping school). The next possible function is ACCESS. This goes back to my Zaxby’s example. It simply means doing something to get access to things we want. This is the payoff for a lot of what adults do – it is called $$! I’m also sure that anyone who is a parent can remember a time when their child threw the biggest tantrum EVER to get a toy or candy at the store, a prime example! Just as with attention and escape, kids go about getting access to things in good and bad ways at times. Finally, the last category is called SELF-STIMULATION. Yes, I know this sounds technical, but it simply means doing something because of how it feels. We all have things that we do for this reason. I, for example, constantly rock or kick my foot when I work at my desk. Some people twirl their hair or chew on their pens. I’m sure you’ve thought of some more that you do while reading this!

So now we have to ask how we pinpoint which one is at play. Well, we must pay close attention to patterns in the events that surround the behaviors that we are concerned about. We call these patterns the ABC’s (antecedent – behavior – consequence). If you pay attention to what typically happens right before (i.e., antecedent) and right after (i.e., consequence) particular behaviors, you may notice trends that serve as clues to figuring out the payoff(s). As an example, let’s say that every time Max is given a reading worksheet (antecedent), he starts talking and “cutting up” with his peers (behavior). Although his peers typically ignore him, he usually gets sent to the office shortly after (consequence). This trend gives you multiple clues. Since Max usually gets out of the classroom and assignment (at least for some time) following this behavior, escape stands out as a likely function. This is further supported by the trend in antecedents, as the behavior only occurs when a specific type of task is given. Now, you may be thinking, “I already know why my student is doing ___. What now!?” No worries…Part 3 will be devoted to helping you determine what to do once you know why a behavior is happening.

Strategy #2 “Catch ’Em Being Good”

The next basic strategy is something that we all do to some extent, but that probably none of us do enough! It is all about shifting our focus…paying MORE attention to the good than to the bad. Just think about how easy it is for all of your attention and focus to be on the one student in the class that is off-task or being disruptive. But what about all the kids who are working hard??? Those are the kids that seem to get the short end of the stick more times than not. You will be amazed at the difference it will make in any classroom if you learn how to provide the most attention and “good stuff” to the students that are behaving well. Pivoting your focus in this way often motivates the students that are behaving poorly to get in on the action by changing their behavior for the better! When they do, make sure you catch them being good, too! This will help them learn what will and won’t get your attention in the future. But you may be asking, “What if they don’t like my attention?” That’s where knowing what makes your students “tick” comes in! If you know what they are most motivated by, find ways to provide those things when you catch them being good. For instance, since we know Max doesn’t like reading, maybe we give him tokens that can be exchanged for reading worksheet passes when he is caught being good! This is just one of many ways that these basic techniques can be applied in any classroom to make a HUGE difference!

Stay tuned for Part 3 and don’t forget to leave comments or questions if you have any!


ABA: Beyond the Table and Little Kids

Ok, with the school year upon us, we’re kicking off a 5 part series about how ABA is not just for little kids on the autism spectrum learning to sit in a chair and make eye contact with their teachers. ABA can, has, and probably should be used across all settings and ages…but most people don’t know that or don’t know how to make it work. That’s where we come in. Over the next few weeks we’ll share information on different strategies to use in the classroom that will help in many ways: 1) understanding the challenges teachers face, 2) how to address the different functions of problem behaviors, 3) increasing motivation, and 4) how to use different types of assistance to ensure the best possible student performance.


Before we get too deeply into the different topics and strategies that can be used in all classrooms, I want to share one point of passion I have for my job and the worldview of behavior analysis. I share this with you because I believe with all my heart that behavior analysis is a compassionate and loving strategy that keeps everything (even the most difficult things) framed in a positive light to highlight the hope of growth for all of us.

One question we often hear in the world today is, “What’s wrong with that kid that he would do that?!” (or some variation of such). Nothing positive can possibly come as a result of such a question. All that question does is place blame and insinuate that other people need “fixing.” Behavior analysis helps reframe that question into “What can I do to foster positive change? Where/how can I support growth in others?” How much more supportive and growth-focused is that question? If we can frame our approach to working with kids (or co-workers) in a way that is necessarily focused on growth rather than blame, how much more impact can we have on the kids we are working so tirelessly to help, teach, and mentor?

This question and this approach is not to say that some of the kids we work with don’t need to learn to make better choices and don’t need to stop doing some of the things that they do. I am NOT saying that kids can do no wrong and we (i.e., the adults) are the ones “to blame.” This worldview, rather, posits that our own behavioral changes support and motivate behavioral changes in others. I love what I do and the science of behavior analysis because my own actions have helped to turn around kids and adults that were on a very difficult path of destructive and dangerous behavior.

My belief is that beginning with the question of “What can I do?” sets the stage for the most positive and healthy relationships in the classroom, and we hope to share the different impacts of this worldview with you over the next few blogs. Walk this road with us and feel free share struggles and success stories with us, too!