Building Rapport with Students using Specific Strategies to Promote Pairing

This month’s ASAT feature comes to us from Juliana Oliveira, PhD, BCBA-D, and Alice Shillingsburg, PhD, BCBA-D (University of Nebraska Medical Center – Munroe Meyer Institute). To learn more about ASAT, please visit their website at You can also sign up for ASAT’s free newsletter, Science in Autism Treatment, and like them on Facebook!

I am a newly minted BCBA consulting for a team in a public-school setting for an 8-year-old boy with ASD. He has a history of escape-motivated behavior (e.g., refusal to do his homework) which appears to have progressed to engaging in avoidant behaviors as soon as he is approached by several of his providers. I am familiar with the importance of pairing to enhance rapport with a student but am looking for ways to best address this with his team. Do you have any suggestions for framing the need as well as specific strategies?

This is an interesting and timely question, and you are most certainly not the only provider to go through situations related to escaped-motivated behavior. There are a variety of evidence-based procedures that could be helpful in this situation, but you are right that emphasizing rapport between teachers and students is an important element to consider.

Escape-motivated behavior in the classroom?

Some behaviors demonstrated by students occur in order to avoid or escape aversive situations. Through our life history, we learn to identify and predict when unpleasant events are about to occur and act in ways to avoid or escape those impending unpleasant situations. For example, a student may have learned over time that when their teacher gets up from their desk and approaches with a bin of materials or a folder of worksheets, that they are going to be asked to put preferred toys away and begin working on tasks. Initially, the student may begin to engage in behaviors such as running away from their desk and/or shouting, to get out of doing work tasks. Over time, the student may start to engage in those same behaviors, just at the sight of the teacher approaching with materials. In extreme examples, students may sometimes avoid going into their classrooms at all. Of course, this cycle of behavior poses significant barriers to learning and teachers can often find themselves wondering how to teach students who won’t come to the classroom or to their desk, who refuse to engage with educational materials, or who engage in disruptive or dangerous behaviors when presented with learning tasks.

What can we do about it?

Functional communication training (FCT) is a commonly used and effective intervention strategy to teach students to use communication skills rather than engaging in avoidant behaviors in the classroom (e.g., Shawler & Celiberti, 2019). However, another important strategy to resolve situations like the one described above, or to prevent the situation from happening at all, is to prioritize rapport-building strategies in the classroom between the student and the teachers.

Developing a good relationship between the teacher and the student can be viewed as an antecedent intervention, something we do before challenging behaviors arise, that sets the stage for ongoing productive learning in the classroom. For many students, developing a strong relationship will happen easily and quickly. For others, more specific and intentional strategies may be needed, and the process may take longer. In either case, a strong relationship between the teacher and student will come in handy as learning tasks become more difficult over time.

Therapeutic procedures aimed at building a strong relationship have been called pairing or pre-session pairing (Kelly, et al., 2015; Shillingsburg, et al., 2014; Shillingsburg, et al., 2019), rapport-building (McLaughlin & Carr, 2005; Weiss, 2001), and relationship-building interventions (Parsons, et al. 2016). Although these are different terms, they all describe interventions that include pairing the teacher with the presentation of strong, positive reinforcers to the student throughout their interaction. Through this process, the instructor, setting, and materials become associated with, or conditioned as, positive and reinforcing as well. Although the pairing procedure is often highlighted in the beginning of instruction, it is not limited to these sessions. Pairing, or rapport-building, is an ongoing effort of the teacher, to make sure that the teacher-student relationship remains strong, particularly given the intensity and duration of many of these relationships with students with autism.

Based on our previous experiences and observations, it can often happen that a previously good relationship between teacher and student deteriorates over time. Some reports such as “In the last few sessions, the student started to run from me every time he saw me”, or “The student is not cooperating with my instructions as much as he used to” are not unusual. However, escaping or avoiding teachers is not a lost battle. It is possible to rebuild trust and rapport by conducting the pairing procedure again.

What are the specific strategies?

The pairing procedure can sound like a very general concept but is much more strategic and intentional than simply providing reinforcers and refraining from instructions. Here are some guidelines and strategies that teachers – including the entire multi-disciplinary team that provides services to the student – can follow to effectively pair themselves with preferred activities, objects, and events and eventually work toward an effective teaching session with an engaged student.

No demands at first. – When establishing rapport, we try to avoid placing demands on the student or requiring participating in non-preferred activities. This might be difficult to envision in a classroom setting where teaching is what we are supposed to be doing. But rest assured, the pairing process sets the stage for high quality teaching with a student who has chosen to participate and is the soil in which good teaching can take root!! If you can find a way to structure the day to limit non-essential demands in the first days with your student, your long-term interactions will benefit. As discussed earlier, the goal of these first sessions is to pair the instructor, setting, and materials with strong positive reinforcers. This is always the first goal and first step in teaching.

Select preferred items to use. – Be intentional about the items you will use during the pairing sessions. You can use preference assessments, reinforcer inventories, and observations of the student to determine what items could be used as reinforcers – this can include toys, activities, food, drinks, and favorite conversation topics. It is also important to ensure you have numerous preferred items and activities, so you can rotate them throughout the sessions. For example, if the student likes musical toys, having multiple musical toys (e.g., keyboard, drum, cymbals) might be more effective than having only one musical toy. Make note of the student’s responsivity to different items (e.g., item appeared very motivating, interest was sustained over several minutes, seemed powerful one session but not the next).

Setting up. – Sit at the table or on a specific area on the floor with all the student’s preferred items. You will be constantly presenting items to the student, so you want these materials within YOUR arms’ reach so that you can deliver the items as the student shows interest. For example, if the student is playing with a musical toy, but starts to look at a Play-Doh, indicating interest, you can immediately deliver the Play-Doh to the student.

The items that you set up should always be in your possession and under your control. This is because the pairing process entails you, the teacher, as the giver of great things. If the items are within the student’s reach and not in your possession, you become less relevant and won’t necessarily be paired with the preferred items. The key here is that engaging in fun and preferred things happens with you. You can use strategic solutions to make sure that the items are in your control, such as putting the items in plastic bins, on shelves, in plastic bags, in your pocket, etc. At every instance that the student shows interest in a new item or activity, you provide it.

Capture and contrive motivation to engage with the instructor. – At the start of the pairing process, observe what seems to interest your student. If you identify that specific items and activities are preferred by your student, keep giving those things to them. Additionally, throughout the session, it is important to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there a way for me to have the student continue coming back to me to get more of this item?
  • Can I change the activity in such a way that it is more fun with me than without me?
  • Can I make myself a critical component of engagement in this activity?

For example, let’s say the provider and the student are playing with a highly preferred puzzle. The student could have all the pieces of the puzzle for himself, and there would be no need to interact with the provider. However, to try to favorably answer the previous three questions, the provider could first present the box of the puzzle to the student. If the student engages in a response indicating interest, such as reaching to the box, looking, or smiling at the box, the provider could open the box and provide a few puzzle pieces for the student (question 3). Then, the provider could keep delivering the pieces “for free” or after indicating responses from the student (questions 1 and 3). For every delivery, the provider could engage in silly sound effects, or could label the piece (“Wow! We found the eye!”), and so on (question 2). Overall, the instructor is actively trying to capture and contrive motivation.

Follow their lead to play and engage. Be a good “reader” of your student. – Play and engage with what your student wants to play with. If their motivation changes throughout the play, you will follow along with what they want to do. For example, the student may lose interest in the current activity and indicate, verbally or nonverbally, for a different activity. When this happens, be quick and attentive to respond to subtle cues of your student’s changing or diminishing interests as missing these cues may lead to problematic behavior. For example, if you are playing with the puzzle and you notice that your student is not engaging in indicating responses to do more of the puzzle, but rather, starts looking around the room for another toy, be responsive to those early indicators. You can offer other activities until signs of interest occur and then follow their lead.

As you introduce items, don’t persist if there is no interest. When presenting a new activity or item, initially you can simply model how to engage with the activity and monitor if interest increases. If that is the case, keep providing more of that item. If you notice that interest is starting to decrease, try other things. For example, if the student is interested in building a block tower, you can 1) provide more blocks to him; 2) give the student some blocks and you can both build a tower together); or 3) build a block tower next to theirs. If the student starts to lose interest in the tower, you can model other structures to build, or you can engage in a different activity.

Use sensory-social play. – For some students, sensory-social play is highly engaging. When engaging with the student, add big movements, exaggerated facial expressions, and a sensory element to songs or play routines (e.g., doing wiggle arms, tickle spiders, ups and downs). During those play routines, make sure to build anticipation: Repeat the same words or sequence of movements over and over in the same manner and then pause (e.g., “I’m going to get . . .you”, “Ready, set . . . go!”, “1, 2, ….3”). Another important tip is to engage on the same level and face-to-face with your student, as this might increase the chances that your face and voice become paired with preferred activities. However, an important note about physical proximity is to know what your student feels comfortable or uncomfortable with. Some learners will enjoy tickles and loud voices, while other learners will prefer quieter interactions. These suggestions should also consider the student’s age and other individualized considerations.

Talk to your student. – Throughout your pairing sessions, pair words/sounds with what the student is doing (e.g., while the student is bouncing on a ball say, “bounce, bounce, bounce.”). Also, pair words/sounds with what the student is attending to (e.g., while the student is looking at the orange tiger on the pop-up toy, say “orange!”). You can also reflect on what they say (e.g., after the student says, “Crash!” as they crash their truck, you say, “Crash!”), and with a minimally verbal student, this can mean just imitating his vocalizations (e.g., while the student is looking at the ball and says “bah”, say “bah! Ball!”).

Listen to your student. – Be the best conversation partner they’ve ever had (i.e., nod, smile, agree, ask follow-up questions about their topic). Questions that sound like demands should be avoided (as discussed in the first strategy – no demands at first).

Plan how to fade in the demands. – After several sessions of pairing, you can start planning to introduce demands. Initially, it is crucial to add demands that the learner already knows how to answer, and that are easy for the student. After a while, you can gradually increase the level of difficulty or the rate of responding during the session. Instructional fading is an evidence-based approach to preventing escape/avoidant behaviors during instructional settings. We generally start with low frequency, low effort instructions, and gradually fade in more (Pace et al., 1993). It is also important to ensure the things we are asking students to do are meaningful and engaging. Curriculum revision, where aversive, non-essential tasks are replaced, is also an evidence-based approach to reducing escape behaviors (Geiger et al., 2010). It is not a great approach to teach students to tolerate poor instruction that involves meaningless objectives. As you fade in more learning opportunities and as these learning opportunities get more difficult, you should monitor engagement, choice to come to the teaching setting, and whether avoidant behaviors are absent. For a more detailed description of how demands can be gradually incorporated during the session, see Shillingsburg et al. (2019).

Putting it all together

Overall, children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder receive a large amount of intervention hours per week, with different professionals, in different settings. Additionally, instructional sessions for students with autism are often long in duration. Our engagement with students may wane at times, necessitating one or more members of the team to revisit the suggestions above. The instructional sessions have the goal to teach a variety of social and academic acquisition targets, often in a discrete trial teaching arrangement, which can lead to escape-motivated behaviors. The pairing procedure is an antecedent intervention that focuses on building strong therapeutic rapport. As compassionate providers, our hope is that our students genuinely want to participate in therapeutic and instructional settings and want to engage with the different providers. In this way, we might decrease the chances of escape-motivated problem behaviors, while increasing learning and happiness.


Geiger, K. B., Carr, J. E., & LeBlanc, L. A. (2010). Function-based treatments for escape-maintained problem behavior: A treatment-selection model for practicing behavior analysts. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 3, 22-32.

Kelly, A. N., Axe, J. B., Allen, R. F., & Maguire, R. W. (2015). Effects of presession pairing on the challenging behavior and academic responding of children with autism. Behavioral Interventions, 30, 135-156.

McLaughlin, D. M., & Carr, E. G. (2005). Quality of rapport as a setting event for problem behavior: Assessment and intervention. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 7, 68-91.

Pace, G. M., Iwata, B. A., Cowdery, G. E., Andree, P. J., & McIntyre, T. (1993). Stimulus (instructional) fading during extinction of self-injurious escape behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 26, 205-212.

Parsons, M. B., Bentley, E., Solari, T., & Reid, D. H. (2016). Familiarizing new staff for working with adults with severe disabilities: A case for relationship building. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 9, 211-222.

Shawler, L., & Celiberti, D. (2019). Clinical corner: What is functional communication training? Science in Autism Treatment16(12).

Shillingsburg, M. A., Bowen, C. N., & Shapiro, S. K. (2014). Increasing social approach and decreasing social avoidance in children with autism spectrum disorder during discrete trial training. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 8, 1443-1453.

Shillingsburg, M. A., Hansen, B., & Wright, M. (2019). Rapport building and instructional fading prior to Discrete Trial Instruction: Moving from child-led play to intensive teaching. Behavior Modification, 43(2), 288-306.

Weiss, M. J. (2001). Expanding ABA intervention in intensive programs for children with autism: The inclusion of natural environment training and fluency-based instruction. The Behavior Analyst Today, 2, 182-186.

Citation for this article:

Oliveira, J., & Shillingsburg, A. (2023). Clinical Corner: Building rapport with students using specific strategies to promote pairing. Science in Autism Treatment, 20(12).

About the Authors

Juliana Oliveira, PhD, BCBA-D, is a postdoctoral fellow at the Integrated Center for autism spectrum disorders (iCASD), at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) Munroe-Meyer Institute (MMI). She obtained her bachelor’s degree in psychology at the Federal University of Para (UFPA) in Brazil, and her M.S. degree in Experimental Behavior Analysis also at UFPA. Juliana conducted research on conditional discriminations with Cebus apella monkeys,stimulus-stimulus pairing procedures to induce vocalization with children diagnosed with autism, and caregiver training for toddlers and children diagnosed with autism. Later, she moved to Texas and obtained her doctorate at Texas Christian University (TCU). During that time, Juliana worked on a series of studies that evaluated the efficiency and other potential benefits of equivalence-based instruction, while remotely consulting families back in Brazil. In her current position, Juliana is providing ABA services to dyads and small groups of children diagnosed with autism. She is also interested in assessing different teaching procedures to teach verbal behavior and to assess the emergence of different verbal operants. She is addicted to shrimp (any kind of shrimp!) and loves to go to the beach.

Alice Shillingsburg, PhD, BCBA-D, LP is the Yale Family Endowed Professor and Director of the integrated Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Munroe-Meyer Institute. She received her PhD in child clinical psychology at Auburn University and completed her APA Accredited doctoral Internship at the Marcus Institute in Atlanta, GA. In prior roles, she has served as Sr. Vice President of Children’s Clinical Services and Training at May Institute, Director of the Language and Learning Clinic at Marcus Autism Center, and held an appointment as Associate Professor at Emory University School of Medicine in the Department of Pediatrics.

Dr. Shillingsburg’s research and clinical interests involve the development and implementation of comprehensive and focused interventions to promote robust, meaningful skill development for children and adolescents diagnosed with autism. Dr. Shillingsburg has published over 60 empirical research articles and book chapters, is current Editor-in-Chief of Operants Magazine, and is past Associate Editor for the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis and The Analysis of Verbal Behavior.

Posted in ABA

Supporting Your Student with Visual Timers

By Ashleigh Evans, MS, BCBA

Time is a challenging concept for children to grasp. It is even more difficult for concrete thinkers, as many neurodiverse children are. Children with autism tend to understand concrete concepts better than abstract ones, like time. Visual timers and other supports can help bridge the gap, giving children a better understanding of time. 

What is a visual timer?

Visual timers allow you to observe the passage of time through visual cues. There are different types of visual timers. The type you choose will depend on a number of factors, such as your child’s preference and your intended use of the timer.

Here are a few options

The Time Timer demonstrates the passage of time with a colored disk that fades away as time passes. With this timer, your child can easily observe the color closing in as the time passes.

Time Timers are great for longer activities, as you can set them for up to one hour.

Sand timers are another great option to demonstrate the passage of time. Each sand timer has a different duration. They come in durations of 1 minute, 2 minutes, 5 minutes, and 10 minutes. Simply flip it over and watch the sand flow down. When the minutes are up, the sand will be entirely at the bottom.

The Time Tracker is a unique and customizable visual timer. The green, yellow, and red sections light up to serve as warnings for the amount of time left for an activity. You can program the time each section lights up, making it customizable to your needs.

How can visual timers be used at home?

Visual timers are great for helping with transitions, whether big or small.

Here are a few ideas for using visual timers with your child at home

  • To show the remaining time in an activity. Transitioning away from a favorite activity like screen time or playing outside can cause distress for many children. A visual timer can make these transitions easier by providing a visual cue before the activity is over.

  • To help your child wait for an upcoming activity. Waiting is not easy. For children with a limited understanding of time, being told to wait may feel the same as being told “no.” To help your child understand what “wait” means, set your visual timer to allow them to observe the amount of time they need to wait.

  • For morning and bedtime routines. A Time Timer with a dry-erase board can be beneficial to help your child work through morning, bedtime, or any other routines. Set the timer for each task and check each off as you go through the routine.

  • To teach your child how long to engage in an activity. If your child tends to rush through activities they should be spending more time on, set a visual timer to help them identify how long to spend in that activity. Brushing teeth, for example, is a daily task that many children tend to rush through. A visual timer is a great way to help them learn how long to spend brushing.

Review the visual timer with your child and set expectations before using it. This will help things run more smoothly when you begin using it. Don’t worry if it doesn’t click right away. It may take time for your child to understand how the visual relates to the activity. With consistency, your child should be able to understand the concept of time better.

About the Author

Ashleigh Evans, MS, is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. She has been practicing in the behavior analysis field for over 13 years and opened her own independent practice in early 2022. Her experience has been vast across different age groups, diagnoses, and needs. She is passionate about improving the field through education, reformative action, and better supervisory practices, leading her to create content and resources for families and ABA professionals which can be found on her website,

Posted in ABA

Picking the Right Social Skills Assessment

By Nahoma Presberg, MS BCBA NYS-LBA

You’ve probably heard that ABA is a tool to teach social skills. You’ve probably also heard that one of the characteristics of autism is difficulty with social interactions. But what does that mean exactly? Does that mean that conversations with friends are hard? Knowing if someone is flirting with you? Taking turns at a board game? Interviewing for a job? The answer is, it could mean all of those things and a whole lot of other things too.

Social skills is a hugely broad category used to describe so much to do with the world around us. Young children begin to learn social skills starting with early play skills. Babies learn that making sounds from their mouth can often get an enthusiastic response from a caregiver. Preschoolers learn to share their toys with their friends. Every stage of development includes the expansion of a child’s social world.

For children with developmental disabilities, social skills may not develop in the same ways. ABA therapy can often be a useful tool to help children understand about social contingencies and engage more appropriately with the world around them. But this is a hugely complicated concept. How do we decide which social skills to teach? Assessments are hugely important tools for helping identify strengths and challenges of learners. But it’s important to pick the right assessment. For example, you wouldn’t give an assessment that focuses on pre-school play skills to someone getting ready to apply to jobs.

So how do you pick a social skills assessment? There are number of elements that you’ll want to consider. Picking a good social skills assessment is just the beginning of the process. You’ll also want to consider factors like your client’s age, current social environment, motivations and interests, and feedback from parents and caregivers about where that child might be struggling. Just because someone doesn’t have a skill listed on an assessment tool doesn’t mean that it should be the therapeutic priority because it may not be relevant for their current environment or won’t significantly enhance their quality of life. You may also want to consider using a mix-and-match approach with assessments to most accurately meet the needs of your client.

Let me tell you a little bit about some of my favorite assessment tools and what they’re used for:

Socially Savvy: The Socially Savvy is a curriculum designed to help students learn skills to prepare for kindergarten. They address the following domains: joint attention, social play, self-regulation, social/emotional, social language, classroom/group behavior, and nonverbal communication

PEAK: PEAK is a more comprehensive language and social skills curriculum. It was developed based on teaching advanced relational responding. Relational responding is what contributes to our ability to engage with abstract language and generalize information to broader contexts. PEAK was created to target skills for children as young as 18-months old all the way through teenage years. This is a great choice for a more comprehensive curriculum.

AFLS: The Assessment of Functional Living Skills may sometimes be conceptualized as a functional skills curriculum as opposed to a social skills curriculum. However, for some learners, it may be more appropriate to focus on functional elements of socializing (interacting with community helpers, navigating the community appropriately, etc). The AFLS has a number of different curriculum (daily living skills, community skills, vocational skills, etc.) which can be a great way to really get specific about what is most important for your learner.

Early Start Denver Model: This curriculum is also focused on social skills of younger learners. It covers the following domains: receptive and expressive communication, social skills, imitation, cognition, play, fine motor, gross motor, (challenging) behavior, and personal independence.

Social Skills Improvement System: This tool includes a child self-report form and a parent report form. The assessment looks at social skills and problem behaviors. This assessment is rated for children ages 8-12 years old. While this is certainly not a strict age range, it gives a sense of the level of social skills that this tool assesses for. 

Social Skills Checklist: There are two checklists in this assessment. One is for younger learners and focuses on the following categories: beginning play behaviors, intermediate play behaviors, advanced play behaviors, understanding emotions, self-regulation, flexibility, problem solving, conversation skills, nonverbal conversation skills, and compliments. The checklist for older learners focuses on conversational skills, problem solving, understanding emotions, compliments and flexibility.

Remember, there is no one right way to address social skills. It’s always important to come back to the question: What is going to most benefit my client right now? If you’re able to answer that question, there’s a good chance you’re on your way to effective treatment planning!

About the Author

Nahoma Presberg, MS BCBA NYS-LBA, is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. Nahoma obtained their master’s degree at the University of Rochester in Human Development. They have been working with clients in their homes for the past 6 years but has over a decade of experience supporting children with developmental disabilities. Nahoma is passionate about neurodiversity affirming care and thoughtful programming that helps every client thrive.

For more information about Nahoma, you can visit their website at

Posted in ABA

Build Desirable Behaviors

By Sam Blanco, PhD, LBA, BCBA

One of my favorite textbooks about ABA is Focus on Behavior Analysis in Education: Achievements, Challenges, and Opportunities. And one of my favorite chapters in that book is called “Building Behaviors versus Suppressing Behaviors,” which focuses on school-wide positive behavior change. This is an often-overlooked key concept in behavior analysis that can have a huge impact on the school environment. Furthermore, when we think of ABA, we often think about individual interventions, but the principles of ABA can be highly effective when applied to large environments, such as an entire school.

The chapter references several studies about school-wide behavior change and offers evidence-based practices for achieving such change. It also outlines social behaviors that should be taught, such as how to apologize or how to make a request, then discusses strategies for rewarding the desirable behaviors. I appreciate that it focuses on getting students involved in making such changes.

Teaching these desirable behaviors can often feel challenging with the additional stresses of a special education classroom. One curriculum I have found effective in addressing this problem is Skillstreaming. I often use Skillstreaming in Early Childhood with young learners, and love that it clearly defines desirable behaviors, such as how to listen or how to offer help (see image below), but provides those definitions in simple terms with visual prompts that help our young learners. It also incorporates positive reinforcement for learners who are engaging in those desirable behaviors.

Listening Skill

In summary, there is lots of evidence out there that focusing on what kids should be rather than what they should not be doing is beneficial for the learner and the general culture of the classroom. Providing clearly defined desirable behavior and building instruction in those behaviors throughout the day is essential. And that instruction may need to be more frequent and more detailed for our learners with developmental disabilities.


Heron, T. E., Neef, N. A., Peterson, S. M., Sainato, D. M., Cartledge, G., Gardner, R., … & Dardig, J. C. (2005). Focus on behavior analysis in education: Achievements, challenges, and opportunities. Pearson/Merrill/Prentice Hall.

About the Author

Sam is an ABA provider for school-aged students in Brooklyn, New York. Working in education for over 15 years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam utilizes strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. She is also an assistant professor in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges and the Senior Clinical Strategist at Encore Support Services.

Easy Data Collection for the Classroom

Get a preview of the helpful tips found in ABA Tools of the Trade by Sam Blanco, PHD, LBA, BCBA.

From the beginning of my career, I have loved data collection. Not only does it help me track what interventions are working and how quickly my students are learning, it also provides excellent structure and organization of what needs to be done on a daily basis. Much of this love of data collection was influenced by my colleague Val Demiri. While Val and I both looked at data as a way to make our lives easier, for many of our colleagues, data appeared to be more of an obstacle than a useful tool. So we set out to change that.

We’re both so thrilled about the release of ABA Tools of the Trade: Easy Data Collection for the Classroom. Our goal is to make data collection easier, more useful, and possible considering the many tasks a teacher is already doing on a daily basis in their classroom. Here are few things we’re really excited to have in the book:

  • An overview of some of our favorite tools for data collection, including why we love them and when they might be useful for you
  • An easy-to-use guide based on the specific behavior challenges you are currently facing, with suggestions for data collection and recommended readings
  • A task analysis of the data collection process that breaks down each step for pre-data collection phase, data collection phase, and post-data collection phase
  • A wealth of strategies to use to address problem behavior before they occur
  • An entire section devoted to BCBA Supervision that not only aligns with Task List 5 but also contains lesson plans and rubrics for assessing supervisees

We hope that by making data collection methods more accessible, we can motivate you to appreciate tools for data collection as much as we do!

About the Author

Sam Blanco, PhD, LBA, BCBA, is an ABA provider for students ages 3-15 in NYC. Working in education for twelve years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam utilizes strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. She is also an assistant professor in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

Best Practices in BT/RBT Supervision

By Ashleigh Evans, MS, BCBA

Behavior Technicians (BTs) and Registered Behavior Technicians (RBTs) are vital for the success of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy programs. When opening a new ABA clinic or beginning a new supervisory relationship, it’s important to establish an environment with supervision dynamics that allow clients to make progress while behavior technicians grow and thrive. Let’s explore some essential BT and RBT supervision practices that will set you up for success.

Establish Clear Expectations

When developing a new supervisory relationship, the first step is to clearly define expectations for your supervisee and yourself. Outline the technician’s roles, responsibilities, and performance expectations, and detail your responsibilities as the supervisor. Clear expectations set the foundation for a mutually beneficial working relationship.

You can establish clear expectations with your behavior technicians by:

  • Writing detailed job descriptions
  • Conducting comprehensive orientation and training for new hires
  • Creating an employee handbook with written policies and procedures
  • Holding 1:1 meetings to set goals collaboratively

Setting clear expectations reduces the likelihood of mishaps as time passes. If challenges arise later, take them as an opportunity to reflect on whether performance expectations were clearly delineated.

Provide Ongoing Feedback

Ongoing feedback is necessary for an RBT’s professional growth and development. Feedback is also vital for ensuring treatment fidelity and promoting high-quality care. Feedback can sometimes be uncomfortable for both the person giving the feedback and the one receiving it. Establishing clear expectations from the start can help prepare technicians for receiving feedback. During orientation, explain the importance of feedback and discuss how they can expect to receive both positive and constructive feedback. During onboarding, you can also take the time to ask staff how they most prefer feedback. For example, some people like company-wide shout-outs, while others find that quite aversive and prefer 1:1 feedback instead.

Also, take your time to develop rapport with new BTs. A strong rapport may ease their nerves and make them more receptive to feedback.

Create a plan for providing behavior technicians with feedback across areas such as:

  • Professionalism
  • Communication
  • Accuracy and reliability of data
  • Following procedures as written
  • Writing objective session notes
  • Recognizing and honoring assent withdrawal.

Maintain Channels of Open Communication

Ensure there are open and transparent channels of communication. Encourage all staff to feel comfortable coming to you with questions and concerns. Inform them of the best ways to reach you and your general availability.

Also, establish opportunities for RBTs to provide anonymous feedback. Feedback should always go both ways. While staff should be encouraged to offer feedback, they are often less likely to do so directly due to the power dynamics. Instead, provide a channel for anonymous feedback. Creating a Google Form that allows anonymous feedback is one easy way to set this up. Send the link to new staff upon hire and include it in your email signature for easy access when needed. 

Support Professional Development

It is natural to crave growth. While many technicians are comfortable staying in their roles, others will likely want to experience career growth. By investing in professional development, you can show your staff that you value their career growth and contributions to your organization.

Some ways you can support your RBT’s professional development include:

  • Offer ongoing training, workshops, and continuing education opportunities
  • Allow staff to pursue their interests and passions within the field by systematically developing new roles
  • Implement RBT leveling systems with additional training and responsibilities at each higher level
  • Hold roundtable discussions with technicians taking turns running them
  • Offer fieldwork supervision for staff who wish to pursue BCaBA or BCBA certification
  • Create professional development plans to outline staff’s career goals and action steps for achieving them

Reflect on your Own Supervision Practices

Section 4.10 of the BCBA Ethics Code for Behavior Analysts requires BCBAs to actively and continuously evaluate their own supervisory practices. Develop plans to self-evaluate your supervision. You can do this by seeking and reflecting on feedback from your staff and clients. You can also self-assess your supervisory practices by evaluating the progress your clients and staff are making toward their individualized goals. Through self-evaluations, you can identify whether your supervisory practices are having a positive impact and develop plans for modification if they are not.

Cultivate a Culture of Support

To run a successful ABA organization, you must foster a culture of support and collaboration where staff feel valued, respected, and empowered. Without the dedication of behavior technicians, your learners would not make progress, and your organization would not thrive. You can create a positive, empowering environment by establishing clear expectations, providing and accepting feedback, ensuring open communication, and supporting professional development. Take care of your staff first. Then, they will take care of your clients.


Sellers, T. P., Valentino, A. L., & LeBlanc, L. A. (2016). Recommended Practices for Individual Supervision of Aspiring Behavior Analysts. Behavior analysis in practice, 9(4), 274–286.

Sellers, T. P., Alai-Rosales, S., & MacDonald, R. P. (2016). Taking Full Responsibility: the Ethics of Supervision in Behavior Analytic Practice. Behavior analysis in practice, 9(4), 299–308.

About the Author

Ashleigh Evans, MS, is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. She has been practicing in the behavior analysis field for over 13 years and opened her own independent practice in early 2022. Her experience has been vast across different age groups, diagnoses, and needs. She is passionate about improving the field through education, reformative action, and better supervisory practices, leading her to create content and resources for families and ABA professionals which can be found on her website,

Posted in ABA

Using Task Analysis to Develop Independent Living Skills

This article was reposted with permission from Stages Learning and author Frankie Kietzman.

Life is filled with routines. When you’re a student, you have years of repetition in a school setting to learn where to go when you arrive, how to get your lunch, transition in the hallways, and dress out for the gym. You’ve had the support of teachers and family to learn how to be a good student. However, for many students, especially autistic students, graduation finds them grossly underprepared for independent living. 

Figuring out how to cook a meal, do laundry, keep the house clean, and maintain hygiene can be hard for anyone, but sometimes overwhelming for autistic individuals. Education’s early emphasis on communication, academic, and social-emotional learning can sometimes unintentionally leave independent skills in the back seat. Those typical priorities may cause autistic students to become too reliant on others to take care of their more basic needs. 

One way we as educators and family members can remedy this is through intentional instruction of independent living skills through task analysis (TA) and higher awareness of our levels of prompting. Task analysis can also be a useful tool in helping students develop closer approximations toward higher levels of independence, thus leading to a higher quality of life when students leave the security of school and home. 

Task Analysis Refresher

You can find several online articles covering task analysis in more detail, but the main point is taking a task with multiple steps and breaking those down into smaller chunks. It’s helpful for a teacher to see each step in order to identify where a student may need more support and to determine if you should consider forward- or backward-chaining strategies.

What are independent living skills?

  • Personal care
  • Food preparation
  • Clothing management
  • Personal organization
  • Household maintenance


When should I consider task analysis for teaching an independent living skill?

Skills for independent living include lots of components, not all appropriately addressed through task analysis. For any of those skills you’d like to teach, think about the number of steps involved in the process and any prerequisites the student already has mastered. 

Perhaps the ultimate goal is to cook a meal, which obviously entails many smaller steps: choosing a recipe, reading and following it, obtaining accurate materials or supplies, measuring, time management, and physical components to each recipe like whisking, kneading, and stirring. 

Once you consider all the pieces needed to complete the task, check or take baseline data to determine what skills the student already has. Maybe they’re mostly independent with all steps except following or reading the recipe. This is where task analysis could be used to target instruction. If your baseline indicates they are missing multiple components needed for the larger skill (in this case cooking), you may need to break down instruction in those areas like matching or motor imitation to get them prepared to generalize those skills later.

Here are some independent living skills that TA might help:

  • Vacuuming
  • Simple cooking (matching numbers on a microwave or oven)
  • Using a dishwasher or laundry machines
  • Washing hands or face
  • Using the toilet
  • Bathing—shower or bathtub
  • Hygiene routines like toothbrushing or applying deodorant
  • Fastening or unfastening clothing 
  • Folding, hanging, or putting away clothing
  • Cleaning the bathroom or kitchen

As you can see from the example and this list, there are a lot of pre-requisite skills to master before you’re ready to use an independent living TA for autistic students. Making sure they can imitate, sort, and match will be important skills as they move into this area.

Developing a Plan

Once you’ve determined a skill to teach and the student has the necessary pre-requisite skills, you are ready to develop your plan for what that perfect routine would look like when the student is engaging in this activity. Some of these skills may be individualized based on the student’s preferences—because there’s no necessarily “right” order for cleaning your body—so defer to the individual’s preferences but develop a TA that still makes sure they meet all requirements (like cleaning their entire body or brushing all of their teeth).

An example TA for the independent skill of folding pants could look like this:

  1. Lay pants on a flat surface.
  2. Smooth out the wrinkles.
  3. Fold one pant leg on top of the other (in half)
  4. Bring the bottom of the pants up to the waistband (in half again).

Wording can vary, but use vocabulary familiar to the student and be sure everyone working to support that skill uses the same words in this learning stage.

Visual Supports

Let’s talk visuals! Research continues to support visual aids as an evidence-based strategy for teaching skills to people with autism. Not only can you pair visual supports with your actual task analysis, but the visual supports can be part of the task itself. What do I mean? Glad you asked.

1. Dots or markers:

I remember when I tried to have a student clean tables after a meal or vacuum an area of the classroom and they’d just go back and forth on the same spot, so the greater area didn’t get clean. Something that helped students recognize they needed to get all over the table, floor, or window was to spread out some kind of markers so they’d know removal meant the areas were done. For vacuuming, I would clean out my hole-puncher and sprinkle the dots on the floor in the 4 corners of the space so they’d cover more ground. Think of other ways to visually mark an area that needs to be covered.

2. Jigs:

A jig is a tool that can help when folding shirts, towels, pants—you name it! Some you can purchase, or you can watch a video to DIY; just get some duct tape and cardboard and viola! You can also write numbers on the cardboard to correspond with the steps in their folding TA. Eventually, you can work to fade the jig support, but it is very helpful when first learning the skill.

3. Near-point models:

Besides having TA visuals accessible and nearby, a near-point model can help students improve executive functioning. For example, have the numbers they need to copy directly next to the area where they’ll be needed. If a student is cooking oatmeal for 1:10, I would have those numbers on a Post-it note on the microwave so they don’t have to look back and forth to fine print to enter the numbers. Finding ways to cut down on such processing can help students gain success as they practice these independent living skills.

The best part about focusing on intentionally teaching independent living skills is that these also have the potential to generalize into vocational opportunities, which means a whole new level of independence!

How have you been able to introduce task analysis for teaching independent living skills? How can visual supports paired with TA help enhance your practice? 

For more specific information on Task Analysis see:


About the Author

Frankie Kietzman is a Sales Development Associate for STAGES Learning with experience teaching as an elementary teacher, self-contained autism teacher for elementary and secondary students, autism specialist and coach for teachers dealing with challenging behaviors. Frankie’s passion for supporting children and adults with autism originates from growing up with her brother who is deaf and has autism. As one of her brother’s legal guardians, she continues to learn about post-graduate opportunities and outcomes for people with autism. Frankie has a Bachelor’s degree from Kansas State University in Elementary Education, a Master’s degree in high and low incidence disabilities from Pittsburg State University and in 2021, completed another Master’s degree in Advanced Leadership in Special Education from Pittsburg State University.

About Stages

Angela Nelson, a UCLA trained ABA Therapist, founded Stages Learning in 1997 when autism diagnoses first began to rise. The top-selling autism education product, the Language Builder Picture Cards, was designed to specifically meet the learning needs of children with autism. The research-based Language Builder Series has become a staple in home and school programs around the world and Stages Learning is now the premier developer of learning tools for children with autism.

Posted in ABA

Behavioral Sibling Training

This month’s ASAT article comes to us from Mi Trinh, BA, and Executive Director David Celiberti, PhD, BCBA-D, Association for Science in Autism Treatment. To learn more about ASAT, please visit their website at You can also sign up for ASAT’s free newsletter, Science in Autism Treatment, and like them on Facebook!


Learning how to interact and engage with other children is among the many social challenges that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) confront, with some finding even minimal social interaction difficult. Including siblings in treatment can be potentially effective in helping a child with autism build these important interaction skills. Behavioral Sibling Training is the practice of engaging neurotypical siblings of an individual with ASD in the intervention efforts for a child with ASD hopefully leading to positive interactions in the future, as well as improved social and play skills (Ferraioli et al, 2012). For example, in a study conducted by Celiberti and Harris (1993), neurotypical siblings were taught in their homes how to target play and play-based language, to reinforce positive behaviors, and to prompt their siblings with autism to promote responding. Including siblings as agents of change is a natural extension of the existing literature on peer-mediated interventions, which has been studied and shown to be effective for many decades (e.g., Lancioni, 1982; Strain, Shores, & Timm, 1977; Wahler, 1967).

Prior to describing the research basis for involving siblings as intervention agents, it would be helpful to share with the reader other ways siblings may be engaged and supported outside of being a participant in interventions. Many programs already provide services to siblings that may include, although are not limited to, education about autism, social opportunities (“Sibling Appreciation Day”), and ongoing or time-limited sibling support groups. These latter experiences may include some aspects of skill building (e.g., communicating needs to parents, coping with stress, addressing peer questions about autism) but these are often narrow in focus, time limited in nature, and not intensive. As such, they are beyond the scope of this review. Further, there are some providers that target social initiation and play skills in other settings (e.g., school) and may request that parents arrange and/or assess the extent to which these newly acquired skills generalize during interactions with siblings in the home. In this case, siblings are often not provided specific training in how to facilitate that carryover and, therefore, this would not be considered an example of Behavioral Sibling Training.

Research Summary

Extensive systematic reviews of the research literature on the efficacy of using siblings in interventions for children with ASD have been carried out (e.g., Banda, 2015; Bene & Lapina, 2021). Sibling training efforts have included participants who are pre-school age (e.g., Jones & Schwartz, 2004; Oppenheim-Leaf et al., 2012; Tsao & Odom, 2006), school-age (e.g., Celiberti & Harris, 1993; Ferraioli & Harris, 2011; Glugatch & Machalicek, 2021), and adolescent (e.g., Rayner, 2011a; Walton & Ingersoll, 2012). Targeted skills have included cooperative play skills (e.g., Celiberti & Harris, 1993; Coe et al., 1991; Glugatch & Machalicek, 2021; Reagon et al, 2006), social interactions (e.g., Dodd et al, 2008; Strain & Danko, 1995), joint attention (e.g., Ferraioli & Harris, 2011; Tsao & Odom, 2006), motor skills (Colletti & Harris, 1977), imitation skills (e.g., Rayner, 2011a), and self-help skills (e.g., Rayner, 2011b). Intervention methods have included elements such as didactic teaching and roleplaying (e.g., Oppenheim-Leaf, Leaf, Dozier, Sheldon, & Sherman, 2012), in vivo modeling (e.g., Celiberti & Harris, 1993) and video modeling (e.g., Neff, Betz, Saini, & Henry, 2016). For more information about video modeling, please see Evoy (2023).

These studies showed that there were mutual benefits for both neurotypical siblings and siblings with ASD after treatments that engaged the typically developing siblings (Ferraioli et al, 2012). For children with ASD, researchers observed gains in targeted social-communication and play skills, and a decrease in problematic behaviors (Shivers & Plavnick, 2014). For neurotypical siblings, studies report an increase in confidence and pleasure in interaction with their brother or sister with ASD and a decrease in sibling frustration (Shivers & Planick, 2014; Banda, 2015). When typically developing siblings were trained to use behavioral strategies, they not only learned to generalize these strategies to facilitate social and communication behaviors with their siblings with ASD across various settings, but they also improved their own social behaviors from developing a more positive view on the siblings with ASD (Shivers & Plavnick, 2014; Banda, 2015; Bene & Lapina, 2020).

Bene and Lapina (2020) shared some encouraging data with respect to both generalization and maintenance, as well as social validity. In their review, 7 of the 16 studies reported generalization and maintenance although the probes were generally just a few months post-treatment. In addition, 11 of the 16 studies offered social validity information; however, this varied widely across studies. Although these studies often included reports of parental or sibling satisfaction with the outcomes, other studies used naïve observers to demonstrate that changes were observed in the siblings before and after intervention and these changes were positive in nature.

However, these literature reviews also point out many limitations across studies. For instance, the roles of neurotypical siblings vary across studies: some were passive (i.e., modeling behaviors through videos, or included in social stories), while some were active interventionists. Future studies should investigate how the extent of siblings’ involvement influences the impact on children with autism (Banda, 2015). There is also a need for further research about other factors that might influence the effectiveness of siblings’ interventions, such as age, gender, and closeness between the siblings (Shivers & Plavnick, 2014). Finally, most of the reviewed studies lacked long-term follow-up, which is necessary to make a definite conclusion regarding the long-term impacts of utilizing siblings in interventions (Shivers & Plavnick, 2014; Banda, 2015; Bene & Lapina, 2020). Aside from further research looking into the maintenance of the intervention effects, Glugatch and Machalicek (2021) also suggested that component analyses look carefully at which specific skills are pivotal to reciprocal play.


Based on the reviews of the existing body of literature, further research with better experimental designs is warranted to draw more robust conclusions regarding the long-term effects of engaging neurotypical siblings in intervention plans for children with autism. Although there is evidence across studies that these intervention models show positive impacts for both neurotypical siblings and for their siblings with autism, a better understanding of those benefits is an area warranting more research. Therefore, professionals and parents should base their decisions to pursue sibling training on a case-by-case basis, carefully considering their specific goals, and evaluating whether those goals and proposed methods align with the existing research (Banda, 2015). Despite the need for more research, Banda (2015) points out that utilizing siblings in interventions for children with autism might result in long-term improvement in siblings’ relationship and overall family wellbeing. These collateral effects can also be studied systematically as this body of research is expanded.

With respect to implementation, it is important that providers offering sibling training are practicing within their scope of competence. As sibling training often occurs in the home, providers should be particularly sensitive to family, cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic considerations to enhance outcomes and overall experiences for all members of the family. Assent on the part of the sibling should be assessed at the onset and revisited frequently as the intervention unfolds and social validity can include more in-depth consideration of the siblings’ views on goals, interventions, materials chosen, etc. Parents and guardians interested in including their child with ASD’s siblings in intervention should inquire about providers’ prior experiences including siblings as agents of change and be open about family values, strengths, and limitations – even if not adequately solicited by prospective providers.

Finally, we encourage parents to be mindful of the potential knowledge differential surrounding autism between the autistic child and their sibling, particularly when the sibling is engaged in intervention (i.e., provided with background information, given strategies). For autistic children who do not yet understand much about their diagnosis, be as sensitive as possible when explaining it to others (such as the sibling), discussing it, or otherwise referring to it; and consider what steps can be taken to help the individuals with autism better understand their differences (e.g., Weiss & Pearson, 2016).


Systematic Reviews of Scientific Studies

Banda, D. R. (2015). Review of sibling interventions with children with autism. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities50(3), 303-315.

Bene, K., & Lapina, A. (2020). A meta-analysis of sibling-mediated intervention for brothers and sisters who have autism spectrum disorder. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders8(2), 186-194.

Shivers, C. M., & Plavnick, J. B. (2015). Sibling involvement in interventions for individuals with autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders45, 685-696.

Selected Scientific Studies

Celiberti, D. A., & Harris, S. L. (1993). Behavioral intervention for siblings of children with autism: A focus on skills to enhance play. Behavior Therapy24(4), 573-599.

Coe, D. A., Matson, J. L., Craigie, C. J., & Gossen, M. A. (1991). Play skills of autistic children: Assessment and instruction. Child & Family Behavior Therapy13(3), 13-40.

Colletti, G., & Harris, S. L. (1977). Behavior modification in the home: Siblings as behavior modifiers, parents as observers. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 5(1), 21-30.

Dodd, S., Hupp, S. D., Jewell, J. D., & Krohn, E. (2008). Using parents and siblings during a social story intervention for two children diagnosed with PDD-NOS. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities20, 217-229.

Ferraioli, S. J., & Harris, S. L. (2011). Teaching joint attention to children with autism through a sibling‐mediated behavioral intervention. Behavioral Interventions26(4), 261-281.

Glugatch, L. B., & Machalicek, W. (2021). Examination of the effectiveness and acceptability of a play-based sibling intervention for children with autism: A single-case research design. Education and Treatment of Children, 44(4), 249-267.

Jones, C. D., & Schwartz, I. S. (2004). Siblings, peers, and adults: Differential effects of models for children with autism. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education24(4), 187-198.

Neff, E. R., Betz, A. M., Saini, V., & Henry, E. (2016). Using video modeling to teach siblings of children with autism how to prompt and reinforce appropriate play. Behavioral Interventions32, 193-205.

Oppenheim-Leaf, M. L., Leaf, J. B., Dozier, C., Sheldon, J. B., & Sherman, J. A. (2012). Teaching typically developing children to promote social play with their siblings with autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders6(2), 777-791.

Rayner, C. (2011a). Sibling and adult video modelling to teach a student with autism: Imitation skills and intervention suitability. Developmental Neurorehabilitation14(6), 331-338.

Rayner, C. (2011b). Teaching students with autism to tie a shoelace knot using video prompting and backward chaining. Developmental Neurorehabilitation14(6), 339-347.

Reagon, K. A., Higbee, T. S., & Endicott, K. (2006). Teaching pretend play skills to a student with autism using video modeling with a sibling as model and play partner. Education and treatment of children, 517-528.

Strain, P. S., & Danko, C. D. (1995). Caregivers’ encouragement of positive interaction between preschoolers with autism and their siblings. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders3(1), 2-12.

Tsao, L. L., & Odom, S. L. (2006). Sibling-mediated social interaction intervention for young children with autism. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education26(2), 106-123.

Walton, K. M., & Ingersoll, B. R. (2013). Improving social skills in adolescents and adults with autism and severe to profound intellectual disability: A review of the literature. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders43, 594-615.

Other References

Evoy, K. (2023). Video Modeling: A treatment summary. Science in Autism Treatment, 20(08).

Ferraioli, S. J., Hansford, A., & Harris, S. L. (2012). Benefits of including siblings in the treatment of autism spectrum disorders. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice19(3), 413-422.

Lancioni, G. E. (1982). Normal children as tutors to teach social responses to withdrawn mentally retarded schoolmates: Training, maintenance, and generalization. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis15(1), 17-40.

Strain, P. S., Shores, R. E., & Timm, (1977). Effects of peer social initiations on the behavior of withdrawn preschool children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis10(2), 289-298.

Wahler, R. G. (1967). Child-child interactions in free field settings: Some experimental analyses. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 52(2), 278-293.

Weiss, M. J., & Pearson, N. (2016). Clinical Corner: How to manage the impact of child with autism on siblings. Science in Autism Treatment, 13(2), 22-26.


Trinh, M., & Celiberti, D. (2024). Treatment Summary: Behavioral sibling training Science in Autism Treatment21(01).

About the Authors

Mi Trinh, BA earned her bachelor degree in Finance from Brigham Young University in 2014 and is a former ASAT Extern. During her externship, she wrote a few articles for ASAT and translated several ASAT articles into Vietnamese as part of her project in disseminating evidence-based information about autism treatments internationally. One of her topics of interest is the collaboration between behavioral analysts and speech language pathologists. She is starting the PhD program in Speech and Hearing Sciences with a clinical track in Speech Language Pathology at the University of Iowa in the Fall 2024.

David Celiberti, PhD, BCBA-D, is the Executive Director of ASAT and Past-President, a role he served from 2006 to 2012. He is the Editor of ASAT’s monthly publication, Science in Autism Treatment. He received his PhD in clinical psychology from Rutgers University in 1993 and his certification in behavior analysis in 2000. Dr. Celiberti has served on a number of advisory boards and special interest groups in the field of autism, applied behavior analysis (ABA), and early childhood education. He works in private practice and provides consultation to public and private schools and agencies in underserved areas. He has authored several articles in professional journals and presents frequently at regional, national, and international conferences. In prior positions, Dr. Celiberti taught courses related to ABA at both undergraduate and graduate levels, supervised individuals pursuing BCBA certifications, and conducted research in the areas of ABA, family intervention, and autism.

Posted in ABA

Early Intervention, Applied Behavior Analysis, and A Group Learning Experience

By Kelly (McKinnon) Bermingham, MA, BCBA, author of The Group Experience and co-author of Social Skills Solutions: A Hands-on Manual

There is a long history of evidence and research indicating that early intervention is one of the most successful measures of autism spectrum disorder symptom reduction (ASD). In 2001, The National Research Council convened a panel of many of the most well-recognized national experts in the treatment of autism at the time. This panel was charged with integrating scientific literature and creating a framework for evaluating the scientific evidence concerning the effects and distinguishing features of the various treatments for autism. One of the significant recommendations for children on the autism spectrum is the need for early entry into an intervention program.

In a second Clinical Report of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Children With Disabilities, the report noted, “The effectiveness of ABA-based intervention in ASDs has been well documented through 5 decades of research by using single-subject methodology and in controlled studies of comprehensive early intensive behavioral intervention programs in university and community settings. Children who receive early intensive behavioral treatment have been shown to make substantial, sustained gains in IQ, language, academic performance, and adaptive behavior as well as some measures of social behavior, and their outcomes have been significantly better than those of children in control groups.”

In the field of child development, the term “early intervention” refers to intensive therapeutic services provided for infants and young children (typically from the ages of under 2 to 5 or 6 years old) who have a delay in reaching developmental milestones before they enter kindergarten. “Intensive” means the hours provided to the child are significant and impactful. These programs are often also called EIBI programs, Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention. In the field of ABA, this is often referred to as a “Comprehensive ABA program” that assess for and seeks to teach and develop skills that are needed across all developmental areas. Additionally, according to the National Research Council, Committee on Educational Interventions for Children with Autism, the committee noted that research shows that early diagnosis of, and interventions for, autism are more likely to have major long-term positive effects on symptoms and later skills.

A young child’s brain is still forming, meaning it is more “plastic” or changeable than at older ages. Because of this plasticity, treatments have a better chance of being effective in the longer term. Early interventions not only give children the best start possible but also the best chance of developing to their full potential.  Recent guidelines suggest starting an integrated developmental and behavioral intervention as soon as ASD is diagnosed or seriously suspected. ABA therapy programs should be designed for these crucial skills related to language and social communication deficits, including responsivity to social stimuli, which supports skills including imitation and joint attention as mentioned previously.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-5-TR) was published in 2022. The DSM-5-TR is used to diagnose a person on the autism spectrum based on two primary domains.

A. Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or historically:

  1. Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduce sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.
  2. Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.
  3. Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to the absence of interest in peers.

B. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or historically:

  1. Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g., simple motor stereotypies, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases).
  2. Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns or verbal/nonverbal behavior (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take the same route or eat the same food every day).
  3. Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g., strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interest).
  4. Hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g., apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement).

As we can see, the core symptoms of autism are heavily related to language and social communication deficits. Conversely, we know that in neurotypically developing children, social and communication skills develop inherently.  As these social and communication skills emerge, they are reinforced by people in their world and the environment they live in, further strengthening these skills. Let’s look at how these skills emerge and develop.

As young children age, they begin to look around and become aware of their surroundings. They smile or frown, or even cry based on what they see. They begin to imitate and respond to their environment based on what happens, or the consequences of their responses. They begin to point to ask for things or to show you things they see. They respond to the attention they receive when doing these things.  During the first year of life, children start to develop close connections with their parents and other caregivers. They begin to observe, imitate, and show pleasure and displeasure. During the second year of life, children begin to notice other children and seek interactions with other children. They may begin to show pleasure with others, as well as conflict, and begin to recognize emotions in others. During the third year of life, children expand their play skills and explore more. They begin to develop friendships with those in their proximity and engage in common play actions. They begin to cooperate, imitate, and learn to accept compromise during conflict, with adult support. During the fourth year of life, conversation skills improve and become robust. Their social interactions with others advance through shared play and conversations. They begin to show support and help toward others.

Children may also interact with other children or more people in their environment. They may go to daycare or preschool, then on to kindergarten. In preschool, children are taught and reinforced to use language to communicate. They are taught to play, share, and play together cooperatively toward a common goal. They are taught to wait. They use their imitation skills to learn how to dance and sing and observe and learn new skills from other children. They move on to kindergarten and are taught even greater communication and social skills that include learning how to negotiate and play a friend’s choice. They learn how to regulate their feelings and behaviors. They learn these in a group experience. During the fifth year of life, children can more comfortably create and maintain friendships through common interests and play. They can engage in more complicated games that require more attention and are guided by rules. There is a wide variety of words and actions in play and interactions, and they can directly express concern and help. As they move on to an educational setting, they are ready and able to learn in a group format. They can follow along with an adult leading the group, follow the directions, and manage themselves around others.

Children diagnosed with autism are not likely to demonstrate these skills and they are not coming into contact with reinforcement. Going back to the diagnostic criteria and symptoms of autism, we see that deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts result in challenges with interacting with others in a social setting and these crucial milestones being missed.

A new study by Blacher et. Al, 2022 found that nearly one in six kids with autism are expelled from preschool and daycare. Many of them, in the sample, were expelled more often from a private than a public program. Most of the children were expelled due to their behavior which included temper tantrums, hitting, and yelling. The study found that often the teachers were not trained or credentialed and didn’t have the required courses in autism.

ABA is a science devoted to the understanding and improvement of human behavior. Applied behavior analysts focus on objectively defined behaviors of social significance; they intervene to improve the behaviors while demonstrating a reliable relationship between the interventions and the behavioral improvements. Most people think of ABA instruction being delivered in a 1:1 format. Concerns arise when a child transitions to a daycare or classroom setting. The child learning in the 1:1 format may not have the skills to learn alongside other children in a group format. Now we are back to the statistic of one in six kids with autism being expelled from preschool and daycare.

By providing early intervention in a group ABA-based format as soon as possible, we can better prepare the child with autism for group learning. If you think of the very best teacher, you ever had in school, the teacher likely employed ABA strategies, such as: including environmental arrangements, priming, using visual supports, reinforcement/reward strategies, and using first this. That teacher likely considered motivation and created activities that were interesting and motivating to you while you learned. That is using ABA in a group format.

For many children diagnosed with ASD, a comprehensive program would look across all of these developmental areas, identify what skills are missing, and then identifying appropriate teaching methods to teach those skills. This comprehensive program would likely be heavily based on play and natural environment teaching. It would include caregivers in the programming, as well as siblings, peers, and possibly other family members. It would include consultation with other therapies or providers the child may be receiving and coordinating care with those services. It would be intensive in the hours provided in the beginning, often 27-40 hours of ABA recommended according to research. This program would focus on teaching the child to be able to attend to, respond to, and participate in group environments as they prepare to attend daycare, preschool, or kindergarten. The ultimate goal of the ABA-based Early Intervention program should be to move from 1:1 therapy to a group learning experience, focusing on the developmental milestones described earlier, and allowing these skills to come into contact with reinforcement from other children.


American Academy of Ped American Academy of Pediatrics (2001). Policy Statement: The Pediatrician’s Role in the Diagnosis and Management of Autistic Spectrum Disorder in Children (RE060018) Pediatrics.

American Psychiatric Association (Ed.). (2022). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5-TR (Fifth edition, text revision). American Psychiatric Association Publishing.

California Legislative Blue-Ribbon Commission on Autism (2007). Report: An Opportunity to Achieve Real Change for Californians with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Sacramento, CA: The Legislative Office Building. Available online at:

Blacher, J., & Eisenhower, A. (2023). Preschool and Child-Care Expulsion: Is it Elevated for Autistic Children? Exceptional Children89(2), 178-196.

Dawson, G., Toth, K., Abbott, R., Osterling, J., Munson, J., Estes, A., & Liaw, J. (2004). Early social attention impairments in autism: social orienting, joint attention, and attention to distress. Developmental Psychology, 40(2), 271–283.

Myers, S.M., Johnson, C.P. & the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Children With Disabilities, (2007). Management of children with autism spectrum disorders. Pediatrics. 120, 1162–1182.

National Research Council (2001). Educating Children with Autism, Committee on Educational Interventions for Children with Autism, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

The Group Experience. Printed in the United States of America Published by: Different Roads to Learning, Inc. 12 West 18th Street, Suite 3E New York, NY 10011 tel: 212.604.9637 | fax: 212.206.9329

About the Author

Kelly (McKinnon) Bermingham has been working in the field for 27 years and has been a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst since 2003. She is an ESDM certified Therapist and a PEERS-certified therapist.  Kelly wrote her first book, “Social Skills Solutions: A Hands-on Manual” in 2002.  Kelly has written several blogs for Autism Speaks, been published in several journals, and co-authored a chapter in the textbook, “Rethinking Perception & Centering the Voices of Unique Individuals: Reframing Autism Inclusion in Praxis.”  Kelly helped found a school for middle school & high school children on the autism spectrum and a sports league for children with autism. Kelly is part of The September 26th Project, creating safety awareness checklists and reminders for those on the autism spectrum and their families. She was an Expert Subject Matter for CASP’s recent Organizational Guidelines for ABA companies. Kelly provides training on The Group Experience to organizations based on this book.

Posted in ABA

Teaching Multi-Step Skills Through Task Analysis for Autistic Students

This article was reposted with permission from Stages Learning

Life is filled with constant multi-step directions and processes. That’s why a common elementary project is to have students write exact directions to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Their peers are then told to only do exactly what the directions say. As you might imagine, hilarity ensues—inevitably some steps are missing, like “Open the jelly jar” or “Spread the peanut butter evenly across (one or both slices) of bread.” Peers will stare confusedly at jars or pile massive amounts of peanut butter on the bread just to make a point when detailed steps are left out. What students may not realize is, this assignment is actually a task analysis in the making.

What is it?

Task analysis (TA) is the process of taking a complex skill such as making a sandwich, running the dishwasher, or doing laundry—and breaking it down into smaller, manageable, and observable steps.

Why is it useful?

If a student is struggling to complete a skill in its entirety, breaking the task down into steps can make it more apparent to teachers or parents as to where the error is occurring. Then we can use prompting, reinforcement, and/or modeling to help fill the gaps.

Autistic students particularly struggle with executive functions that govern the ability to plan and organize thoughts, recall and remember information, and initiate an activity. Listing manageable steps can be a quick reference as they learn new skills through repetition and muscle memory.

When should I use task analysis?

Task analysis should be used to chain-link together a sequence of smaller steps to perform a bigger action. Many functional, self-help, or vocational skills fit this description—rather than simply opening a microwave, the act of cooking a packet of oatmeal is comprised of multiple small steps to complete the greater action.

Here are some ideas for skills that task analysis could be helpful in breaking down:

  • Laundry
  • Doing dishes
  • Vacuuming
  • Setting the table
  • Logging on to a device
  • Cooking a meal
  • Tying shoes
  • Using the bathroom

But is it only for life skills? Absolutely not! Task analysis can also be tremendously helpful in breaking down academic and social skills that have set steps such as long division, multi-digit multiplication, and turn-taking during a board game, or kickball.

TA can also be a great way to introduce simple play scripts for anyone learning how to appropriately use play materials. Sample ideas could include:

  • Feeding a baby doll
  • Playing dress up
  • Building a train track
  • Playing restaurant
  • Making sandcastles
  • Building block patterns

How to implement it?

1. Choose a specific skill to target

To identify the skill you will teach, start by identifying the student’s needs and the team’s goals for them. Depending on age or developmental level, the necessity or desire of the individual to learn the skill (such as toilet training) may be an important factor in prioritizing where to start.

2. Assess the learner’s ability level and necessary materials or supports

Begin by collecting baseline data on the student’s ability to complete the identified skill. If you were going to teach them how to cook something in the microwave but they cannot accurately match numbers on a recipe to the microwave, then you may need to start with preliminary instruction before you’re ready to begin teaching the broader skill of cooking. 

Similarly, if the need is high for an individual to learn a skill and they can perform each step, but they lack motivation, you may need to evaluate how to provide ample reinforcement when going through the TA.

3. Break down the skill

As described earlier in the peanut butter sandwich challenge, breaking down a skill into smaller steps can be harder than you’d expect. The best way to segment the information is by actually completing these steps or observing someone else doing so, and analyzing the process as it occurs. Here are a few different breakdowns of steps to provide some ideas of what the process can look like:

Task Analysis for PB&J Sandwich

StrategiesSkills Required
Get ingredients:BreadPeanut ButterJellyKnifePlateKnowledge of ingredients and location
Open up the bread bag and take out 2 slices of breadUntwisting a twisted tieCounting two objects
Place the slices side-by-side on the plateKnowledge of “side-by-side”
Open up the peanut butter jarAbility to twist off a lid
Put the knife in the jar and while still holding the knife, with the other end, get out about 2 Tbsp of peanut butterHow to use a knifeKnowledge of the quantity of Tbsp
With the knife, smear the peanut butter on one large side of the bread — not on the crust, and use all the peanut butter that is left on the knifeHow to smear with a knifeKnowledge of the concept of “large”Knowledge of the definition of “bread crust”
Open up the jelly jarAbility to twist off a lid
Put the knife in the jar and get out about 2 Tbsp of jellyHow to use a knifeKnowledge of the quantity of Tbsp
With the knife, smear the jelly on top of the peanut butter that is on the breadHow to use a knifeKnowledge of the concept of “top”
Place the plain piece of bread on top of the one with the peanut butter on itKnowledge of the definition of “plain”Knowledge of the concept of “top”

And of course, after eating the PB&J, you may need to consider brushing your teeth!


TASK ANALYSIS EXAMPLE: Brushing Teeth (Mason et al., 1990)

  1. Obtains materials
  2. Takes cap off toothpaste
  3. Puts paste on the toothbrush
  4. Replaces toothpaste cap
  5. Wets brush (I know—debatable for when to wet the toothbrush!!!)
  6. Brushes left outer surfaces
  7. Brushes front outer surfaces
  8. Brushes right outer surfaces
  9. Brushes lower right chewing surfaces
  10. Brushes lower left chewing surfaces
  11. Brushes upper left chewing surfaces
  12. Brushes upper right chewing surfaces
  13. Brushes upper right inside surfaces
  14. Brushes upper front inside surfaces
  15. Brushes upper left inside surfaces
  16. Brushes lower left inside surfaces
  17. Brushes lower front inside surfaces
  18. Brushes lower right inside surfaces
  19. Rinses toothbrush
  20. Wipes mouth and hands
  21. Returns materials

Of course, when writing a task analysis, there’s room for flexibility. I personally wet my toothbrush before I put the toothpaste on, and I definitely put peanut butter on both pieces of my bread when I make a sandwich, so I may write my version a bit differently—that’s where personalization comes into play.

4. Determine the comprehensiveness of task analysis

The best way to make sure you’ve developed a comprehensive TA is to have someone else run the steps exactly as you’ve written them. Then you’ll see if anything has been left out and revise the steps as needed.

5. Develop a teaching plan

Depending on the complexity of the skill and the student’s baseline data, the teacher should determine the best way to teach it—can the learner manage the TA in its entirety, should some of the steps be taught in phases or using forward or backward chaining? For students who are very reinforced by the end product (for example: cooking), start with the last several steps (backward chaining) and end with the positive experience of how to get there.

Similarly, the way in which the TA is presented should take into account the student’s learning style and ability. Some may need pictures of each step, some readers may have the steps written out and still others may benefit from a video model of the task before they complete it. Steps should be subtle but thorough and efficient in communicating the process to the learner.

6. Implement and monitor progress

When collecting data for task analysis, a checklist for each step can pinpoint discrete steps that may be difficult for the student—isolating those independent skills lets the teacher practice any step in isolation (when possible or applicable). Further, the checklist should include a section that outlines the level of prompting a student requires to complete the skill. Since the goal is always for students to be as independent as possible, this will help guide future instruction, too.

So whether you’re making a sandwich, washing your car, editing a paper, cooking dinner, or taking a shower, life is filled with many discrete steps that make up a larger action. Finding a way to effectively break those steps down and instruct the gaps can help students gain valuable skills, a greater quality of life, and self-reliance. 

What other tips and tricks have been effective in using task analysis in your practice? Are there any specific skills that you’d like help breaking down?

For more specific information on Task Analysis see:

Using Task Analysis for Arrival and Dismissal Routines

Using Task Analysis to Develop Independent Living Skills


About the Author

Frankie Kietzman is a Sales Development Associate for STAGES Learning with experience teaching as an elementary teacher, self-contained autism teacher for elementary and secondary students, autism specialist and coach for teachers dealing with challenging behaviors. Frankie’s passion for supporting children and adults with autism originates from growing up with her brother who is deaf and has autism. As one of her brother’s legal guardians, she continues to learn about post-graduate opportunities and outcomes for people with autism. Frankie has a Bachelor’s degree from Kansas State University in Elementary Education, a Master’s degree in high and low incidence disabilities from Pittsburg State University and in 2021, completed another Master’s degree in Advanced Leadership in Special Education from Pittsburg State University.

About Stages

Angela Nelson, a UCLA trained ABA Therapist, founded Stages Learning in 1997 when autism diagnoses first began to rise. The top-selling autism education product, the Language Builder Picture Cards, was designed to specifically meet the learning needs of children with autism. The research-based Language Builder Series has become a staple in home and school programs around the world and Stages Learning is now the premier developer of learning tools for children with autism.

Posted in ABA