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!