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!