Tip of the Week: Clearing Up the Misconceptions About Reinforcement

ABA often gets a bad rap due to misunderstandings about reinforcement. In my career alone, I’ve had people tell me that people are not like rats and pigeons, that reinforcement harms intrinsic motivation, and that when I do produce behavior change, it has nothing to do with ABA but with my abilities as a teacher. Today, I’d like to clear up some misconceptions about reinforcement.

Reinforcement is not equivalent to rewards. Reinforcement is anything that occurs immediately following a behavior that increases the future likelihood of that behavior. For instance, I am more likely to say hello to my neighbor down the street because in the past he has responded by saying “hello” back to me. However, I do not say hello to my next door neighbor because she has never responded to my greeting. My history of reinforcement with the neighbor down the street increases the likelihood that I will greet him upon seeing him.

Flowers GrassReinforcement occurs in the natural environment all the time, whether we are conscious of it or not. We are reinforced by paychecks for going to work, by our favorite dessert for visiting a restaurant 30 minutes out of our way, by compliments when we get a new haircut, and more. ABA utilizes reinforcement when an individual is not acquiring skills in order to help them learn. And when ABA is implemented correctly, reinforcement should be as close to naturally occurring reinforcers as possible and should be reduced systematically over time to levels that would naturally occur in their environment.

Reinforcement works for dogs and for humans. The previous two points illustrate that humans do respond to reinforcement, and decades of scientific research back that up. Comparing the work behavior analysts do with humans to the work behavior analysts do with other animals is not far off base. What is off base is using such a comparison to imply that behavior analysts treat people with disabilities like dogs. As with other professionals who work with individuals with disabilities, (such as speech therapists, physical therapists, nurses, etc.) most behavior analysts are professionals who put a lot of time, care, and love into their work.

Child Blowing BubblesReinforcement is individualized. Everything we do in ABA is individualized, because human beings are wonderfully complex creatures that cannot be characterized by statistics, averages, or norms. One of my students may find stickers reinforcing; another may show no interest. One student may find listening to music reinforcing; another may cover his ears and ask me to turn it off. In ABA, we seek to find the items and activities that are motivating for individuals; then use those as tools not only for reinforcement, but for increasing skills and broadening interests and opportunities. In an ideal ABA session, my students spend a lot of time engaging with items and activities that they enjoy while also learning and growing.

It’s easy to fall prey to misconceptions about reinforcement, but such misconceptions can make it impossible for us to understand how to alter the environment in order to provide the best possible outcomes for our students. As Skinner put it, “The ideal of behaviorism is to eliminate coercion: to apply controls by changing the environment in such a way as to reinforce the kind of behavior that benefits everyone.”

Over the next few weeks, we will be publishing a series on Differential Reinforcement procedures that will help you become more skilled in using reinforcement to affect behavior change.

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSED, BCBA

Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-12 in NYC. Working in education for ten years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam has developed strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. Sam is currently pursuing her PhD in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College.

Interview with Lisa Carling, Director of the Theatre Development Fund’s Accessibility Programs

Lisa Carling is the Director of the Theatre Development Fund’s Accessibility Programs in New York City. Recently, she sat down to speak with BCBA Sam Blanco about their Autism Theatre Initiative. TDF’s next autism-friendly performance will be The Lion King on Sunday, September 27, 2015 at 1PM. The Lion King was the first autism-friendly performance TDF organized back in October 2011, and has been so popular that it is now an annual event each fall at the end of September. Read on for Lisa Carling’s inside scoop on the Autism Theatre Initiative!

SAM BLANCO: Tell me a little bit about how the Autism Theatre Initiative came about.

LISA CARLING: It came about because we had a very successful program for students in the District 75 schools who had hearing loss and vision loss. We would schedule Wednesday matinee performances of Broadway shows, and bring these kids with their teachers to see Broadway performances. We were hearing more and more from special ed teachers, “This is great, but what can you do for all the kids in the District 75 schools that are on the autism spectrum.” We didn’t know, because the more we talked to parents, educators, therapists, the more we realized that this population would probably benefit more from a designated performance, being able to come to a show and be themselves. It wouldn’t be fair to mix them with typical audiences that may not understand atypical behavior. We also realized from talking with parents that they’re very few opportunities for families to do something together if you have a child or adult on the spectrum, what can you do together with siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles. So we wanted to create an opportunity for families to come to the theatre together and have a terrific time in a judgment-free, welcoming environment where the children or adults on the spectrum could just be themselves, and the parents and siblings would not have to explain a thing. Anything goes. No judgments.

SB: Do you feel that judgment-free aspect is what has really drawn people in?

LC: I do. We’re very careful with the material, what productions we choose. We go after what most families want to see, family-friendly productions, big musicals, easy storylines, colorful costumes, dancing and singing, what everyone loves. And then we will ask the production if they are able to make slight modifications in sound and lighting. We rely on specialists in the autism community who can come and take a look at a production and then say, here are maybe a dozen places where it would really be beneficial if the sound could be turned down a level, we usually say not above 90 decibels, or the lighting is just too intense. We always stress when we talk to a show that these are suggestions and if they can make them that would be great. If not, we will warn the parents ahead of time at point-of-purchase. And we always emphasize we want it to be the same great show, the same terrific Broadway musical that families all over the country want to see when they come to New York.

We tried something different in December by doing a play for the first time, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the NightTime. We were very leery of that. We didn’t know what it would be like for families to come and see a serious drama, albeit with very funny moments in it, about situations that they may live with 24/7. But it was an opportunity to stretch our expectations and to offer something newer to the autism community, to identify older people in the community, college-aged students on the spectrum, older adults.

SB: What was the response to that?

LC: It was unbelievable. It was very moving to all of us. The cast, every cast member, had tears in his eyes at the curtain call. And there was a very moving moment at the end of the play, where Christopher, after he’s told his teacher all the things he’s accomplished: he found his mother, he wrote a book, he solved the mystery of who murdered Wellington, and he says something to the effect, he asks her, “This means I can do anything, can’t I?” And he asks her three times, and that question just hangs there unanswered by the teacher. But for our autism-friendly performance, there was a teenager who shouted right back at him, “yes, you can!” And it was such an affirmation of the impact of that show on this audience.

There was a time when we would have shied away from offering a performance where there was strong language in it, or violence. There’s a scene where the father strikes his son. The show worked with us on that and it was choreographed in a different way. It was more suggestive and not as startling. But we did it. And we’re not afraid anymore to just put opportunities out there. Parents know their kids the best, and if they think their child or adult can’t handle something then they’ll let us know or they won’t buy tickets.

SB: Are you involved with other theatres who are putting on autism-friendly performances?

LC: This year’s National Autism Theatre Initiative advisory partnerships varied in scope from Stages St. Louis’s 235 seat Playhouse at Westport Plaza in Chesterfield, MO that offered a sensory-friendly performance of The Aristocats in June for groups of school children on the spectrum in the St. Louis area; to The Big Apple Circus in Brooklyn, NY which presented a total eight autism-friendly performances of Metamorphosis throughout the year in up to 1,700 seat tents in Manhattan and Queens, NY; Boston, MA; and Bridgewater, NJ. The impact on attendees with autism or with other developmental or cognitive disabilities was immeasurable. From a mother at Stages St. Louis, “My daughter is in this show. Until today, her younger brother had never seen her perform because he is autistic and needs to get up and walk around every now and then and can be loud when he’s excited. Today, he not only saw his sister perform but he felt he was in a safe space, and he gave her a standing ovation every time she walked on stage.”

SB: With the partnerships, what resources do you provide?

LC: Conference calls. We help them in the planning. We recommend give yourself first time six months to a year to plan for this. We show them examples of the social narrative, character guides, video of what it’s like to walk inside the theatre, various supports day-of, what works out the best for us in terms of the koosh balls and stress stars. Just essentially, share our play book, what worked well for us and we always emphasize adapting for your community. And that goes for what you call the performance as well. In New York, we use the term autism-friendly because our community wants that and because in the initial planning they wanted to own that word and raise the awareness. Other parts of the country might use the term sensory-friendly, in the U.K. they like relaxed performances. But it doesn’t matter. The thought process is the same, you’re welcoming people on the autism spectrum as well as individuals with other developmental or cognitive disabilities and making slight adjustments that make the experience more comfortable.

SB: What advice do you have for theaters or other organizations who want to create autism-friendly events?

LC: Jump in and do it. Don’t be afraid because you will learn every time you do it; you’re going to do it better. Opening up accessibility for people on the spectrum as well as for other individuals with cognitive and developmental disabilities is where the need is right now. All theaters get it about providing captioning and audio description, but they are neglecting a huge audience in their communities. So, make the effort. Reach out there, you will not regret it.

I would advise choosing the first production (or productions) that are going to be successful. Particularly the first one. Make sure it’s a positive experience because this is a new audience. So look for a show that would be engaging to all families. Please do a weekend matinee. Scheduling this on a weekday. About 90% of the people on our surveys say they want a Saturday or Sunday matinee. They cannot come during the week. Again, this is geared for families. If you’re working with school groups, that might be different. Oh, an advisory group. Three is a good number. Make sure you get some outside input, someone who’s looking at the production you’re considering with an autism eye. Because what an artistic director might think is a good choice is not necessarily what someone who works with people on the spectrum, or someone on the spectrum. Don’t discount the value of having someone on the spectrum as one of your advisors.

SB: Can you describe some of the feedback you have received from participants?

LC: The overwhelming feedback we’ve received again and again is how wonderful it is to be in a judgment-free environment, where parents and siblings can just relax. They don’t have to worry about explaining behavior, they don’t have to feel that they’re being stared at. One very telling comment came from a mother last April after our Disney Junior show, who said, “Here I am, sitting in a theater with 2,000 strangers, and yet I feel we’re all part of the same family.” She’s right. They all understand each other. So a child who’s stimming or needs to get up, is singing along, it’s wonderful. There’s no difference. It’s not bothering anyone.

SB: Are you always able to offer the tickets at 40-50% off or is that the goal?

LC: That’s the goal. We hit that most of the time. If you have a family of four that you want to bring to a Broadway show, and you’ve got parking involved and public transportation, it’s important to keep the cost low. And then you get into all the additional expenses parents have: medical expenses, schooling, one-on-one therapists.

SB: Can you tell me anything about future direction of ATI?

LC: We are interested in working with off-off Broadway companies and consultancies where we will help them provide autism-friendly performances during the summer which is a hard time for us to book an autism-friendly Broadway show so we have our summers to help smaller theaters that might be willing to open their shows to the community.

SB: Is there anything I left out?

LC: I want to cite National Theater America Office with Curious Incident. They recognized that they wanted to make the show as affordable to the autism community as possible, so they went out and sought funding to underwrite the cost. So all of our Curious Incident tickets we were able to sell for $25. Orchestra to balcony, $25 thanks to the National Theater’s funding to help underwrite the cost. I wish more producers thought in terms of providing these affordable opportunities. It’s in the nature of the commercial theater that it’s very expensive to do shows, but if occasional opportunities could come along like this, we could reach so many more people. I remember getting e-mails from parents who were saying, “This is the first time I’ve ever been able to sit in the orchestra.”

ABOUT LISA CARLING

Lisa CarlingLisa Carling is Director of TDF Accessibility Programs (TAP) at Theatre Development Fund where she runs a department of services for people with physical disabilities as well as individuals on the autism spectrum or with other developmental or cognitive disabilities. She has spoken on accessibility panels for the Broadway League Education Forums, Association of Performing Arts Presenters, Americans for the Arts and the Kennedy Center’s Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disabilities (LEAD) conferences. Lisa received a “Distinguished Leadership in Hearing Accommodation Award” from the Hearing Loss Association of America New York City Chapter in 2015 and a “Community Hero Award” from Best Buddies New York in 2014. TDF has won seven accessibility awards honoring her department achievements, including the “Excellence in Accessibility Leadership Award” at the 2006 LEAD conference. Her credits include: launching the “Autism Theatre Initiative” (2011) which makes theatre accessible to children and adults on the spectrum and their families; designing TDF’s “National Open Captioning Initiative” (2004) that partners with regional theatres across the country to expand audiences of people with hearing loss; and establishing TDF’s open captioning on Broadway program (1997). Lisa created “Access for Young Audiences” (1995), a service that provides sign language interpreting, open captioning (added, 1998) and audio description (added, 2008) for students with hearing and vision loss who attend specially scheduled Wednesday matinee performances on Broadway. Lisa holds an MFA from Yale School of Drama.

Pick of the Week: NEW! SchKIDules Visual Schedules for Kids in the Home and Classroom

Brand-new and just added, these SchKIDules Visual Schedules for Kids are a great and easy way to create visual schedules in the home and classroom. This week only, we’re offering 15% off* the SchKIDules Home Collection and the SchKIDules School Collection! Just use promo code SCHKIDULE when you place your order online or over the phone with us!

This 70-piece Home Collection depicts home essentials, chores, and outings, and is a great tool for easily creating visual schedules in the home. It helps manage communication, expectations, predictability, independence, improving memory, and more.

The Home Collection contains one 14″ x 12″ magnet board; 19 Headings magnets for structuring your schedule including: Days of the Week, Morning/Afternoon/Evening, Numbers 1 to 5, To Do/Done, and First/Then.

Seventy 2″ x 2″ magnets display daily activities such as:

  • bike riding
  • dentist
  • playground
  • music
  • out to eat
  • party
  • shopping
  • play date
    and so many more.

The School Collection contains 30 pieces that depict typical school day activities to support the easy creation of a visual schedule for the day. The School Collection contains one 14″ x 12″ magnet board; 19 Headings magnets for structuring your schedule including: Days of the Week; Numbers 1 to 5; To Do/Done; First/Then; and Morning/Afternoon/Evening. Thirty 2″ x 2″ magnets depict school activities and objects such as:

  • assembly
  • calendar
  • centers
  • circle time
  • dismissal
  • field trip
  • line up
  • math
  • story time
  • science
  • group work
    and more!

Don’t forget to use our promo code SCHKIDULE to save 15%* on either or both of the SchKIDule Home Collection and the SchKIDule School Collection this week only!

Protected: “Guided Playdates” by Caitlin Reilly & Carole Deitchman

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“Touch Red” – A Poem by Georgie Herz, ABA Teacher

Here’s a touching – pun intended! – poem given to us by Georgie Herz, an ABA teacher from Special School District in St. Louis, MO, that we thought we’d share with all of you so you can start off your weekend with a smile.

Touch Red
Georgie Herz

Touch red
One card, one choice
Touch red

This is touching red
A prize, cheerios, candy, a car
This is touching red
I’ll guide your hand it’s not far
Touch red

Three times, I’m keeping score
Now with two
Touch red, I pray not blue
This is touching red

Add yellow, three cards, three times
Touch red you score
Pick a prize
Yes there’s more
Touch red

A week or two or three or four
We check again, yea you score
Touch red, there’s more

Cards are gone
See the bears
We start with one
Then it’s two
A prize for each one
You do

Touch red.

 

Pick of the Week: NEW! Function Wheels – A Behavioral Identification and Intervention System

We’re absolutely thrilled to introduce Function Wheels, an easy-to-use system that enables users to identify the function of behavior and immediately intervene. Created and piloted by Keith Amerson, MSEd, Different Roads to Learning is a proud partner in bringing you the first all-inclusive, systematic approach for identifying the functions of problem behaviors and implementing research-based interventions to manage them.

Get your kit today at the introductory price of $149.95 through July 31st! No promo code necessary.

Click to enlarge.

Be sure to check out this nifty video below for a more in-depth look at the Function Wheels Kit!

Autism Parenting Magazine – News, resources, and expert advice for autism parents

Check out the newest issue of Autism Parenting Magazine! With up-to-date news and professional resources for parents of children with autism, this magazine offers expert advice from medical professionals and therapists among others, autism treatment centers and therapies, news and research in the field, and even real life stories from parents and families that inspire and provide support.

 

For more information about the Autism Parenting Magazine, visit their website here.

Tip of the Week: Improving Behavior for the Whole Class

Often, we focus on how to improve the behavior of an individual, but there are many times in which teachers must figure out a way to improve the behavior of the entire class. In ABA, we might implement a group contingency, a strategy in which reinforcement for the whole group is based upon the behavior of one or more people within the group meeting a performance criterion (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007).

Group contingencies can be especially beneficial for teachers because it may not always be possible to implement a contingency for an individual or there may be several students who need improvement with the same behavior. It’s also a useful strategy for individuals who respond well to peer influence. Furthermore, there are several studies that demonstrate the group contingencies can increase positive social interactions within a group.

Let’s look at examples of each type of contingency. In the first type, a dependent group contingency, reinforcement for all members of the group depends on the behavior of a single person within the group or a small group of people within the group. For example, you might say, “If Joseph remains in his seat for all of math, we will have five extra minutes of recess today.” This can be highly motivating for Joseph, because his peers will respond well to him if he earns them access to five more minutes of recess (leading some to call it the “hero procedure” because the individual is viewed so positively upon earning the reward.) It’s clear that if you have a student who is not motivated by social reinforcement from peers, this type of contingency would backfire. However, there is plenty of research that shows it’s benefits. (Allen, Gottselig, & Boylan, 1982; Gresham, 1983; Kerr & Nelson, 2002)

In the second type, an independent group contingency, criterion for accessing reinforcement is presented to everyone, but only the individuals who meet criterion earn the reinforcer. For example, you might say “If you remain in your seat for all of math class, you will earn five extra minutes of recess today.” In this contingency, every student who reaches criterion accesses the extra recess time, but those students who left their seat do not earn the extra five minutes. Another example might be, “Each person who turns in all homework earns two bonus points on their spelling test.” In this set up, the entire class is working towards a common goal, but the individuals who achieve the goal earn reinforcement no matter how their peers perform.

In the third type, an interdependent group contingency, reinforcement for all members of the group depends on the behavior of each member of the group meeting a performance criterion. Mayer, Sulzer-Azaroff, & Wallace put it very well when they wrote “Independent group contingencies involve treating the members of a group as if they were a single behaving entity. The behavior of the group is reinforced contingent on the collective achievement of its members” (2014). In many classrooms there some type of independent group contingency in place, such as earning behavior points per class period or keeping your name on the green light (with yellow and red lights indicating problematic behaviors.) It’s quite simple to add an interdependent group contingency to these systems already in place. For example, you might say, “If all students names are still on the green light at the end of math, everyone earns an extra five minutes of recess.” There is evidence that interdependent group contingencies promote cooperation within groups (Poplin & Skinner, 2003; Salend & Sonnenschein, 1989).

Group contingencies are an excellent tool for classroom teachers, as well as anyone else working to manage a group of individuals.

FURTHER READING

Allen, Gottselig, & Boylan. (1982). A practical mechanism for using free time as a reinforcer in the classroom. Education and Treatment of Children, 5(4), 347-353.

Cooper, Heron, & Heward. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis – 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs; NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Gresham, F.M. (1983). Use of a home-based dependent group contingency system in controlling destructive behavior: A case study. School Psychology Review, 12(2), 195-199.

Kerr, M.M. & Nelson, C.M. (2002). Strategies for addressing behavior problems in the classroom (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Mayer, Sulzer-Azaroff, & Wallace. (2014). Behavior Analysis for Lasting Change (3rd ed.). Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY: Sloan Publishing.

Popkin, J. & Skinner, C. (2003). Enhancing academic performance in a classroom serving students with serious emotional disturbance: Interdependent group contingencies with randomly selected components. School Psychology Review, 32(2), 282-296.

Salend, S.J., & Sonnenschein, P. (1989). Validating the effectiveness of a cooperative learning strategy through direct observation. Journal of School Psychology, 27, 47-58.

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSED, BCBA

Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-12 in NYC. Working in education for ten years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam has developed strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. Sam is currently pursuing her PhD in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College.

Photo courtesy of Books and Blogs by Cindy Andrews

Registration Open for the Ethics in Professional Practice Conference 2015

Presented by the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies and the Van Loan School at Endicott College, MA, the 3rd Annual Ethics in Professional Practice Conference will be held on Friday, August 7, 2015. Register for your spot now for a great opportunity to hear leaders in the fields of Psychology, Business, Autism and Applied Behavior Analysis. Speakers include R. Wayne Fuqua, PhD, BCBA-D, Michael F. Dorsey, PhD, BCBA-D and Mary Jane Weiss, PhD, BCBA-D.

Ethics in Professional Practice Conference 2015

For more information, visit the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies event page.

Federal Government Calls for Greater Inclusion of Children with Disabilities in Preschools

Federal officials say that young children with disabilities should be receiving educational services in inclusive settings in greater numbers. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services are encouraging greater inclusion of children with disabilities in preschools, Disability Scoop reports. The Department of Education has reported that while a majority of preschoolers with disabilities did attend general early childhood programs since 2013, more than half received special education in contained environments.

States are being urged to create task forces to promote early childhood inclusion, establish new policies, and allocate funds to facilitate these programs and track goals for expanding inclusive learning opportunities.

In a draft policy statement on the inclusion of children with disabilities by the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, the lag in progress on giving children with disabilities and their families access to inclusive early childhood programs is troubling for several reasons, such as:

  • “Being meaningfully included as a member of society is the first step to equal opportunity, one of America’s most cherished ideals, and is every person’s right—a right supported by our laws.
  • “A robust body of literature indicates that meaningful inclusion is beneficial to children with and without disabilities across a variety of developmental domains.
  • “Preliminary research shows that operating inclusive early childhood programs is not more expensive than operating separate early childhood programs for children with disabilities.
  • “Meaningful inclusion in high-quality early childhood programs can support children with disabilities in reaching their full potential resulting in societal benefits more broadly” (U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, 2015).

What are your thoughts on this urge for change in the early childhood setting?

Read more: “Feds Call for Greater Inclusion in Preschools”