Recently I was working with a parent who was using a TimeTimer with her son to help him recognize when it was time to get ready for bed. Our plan was to start the timer every night while he was engaged in an activity, show him the timer and have him repeat how many minutes left, then have him tell his mom when the timer went off. For the first couple of weeks, this plan worked beautifully. The boy could see the time elapsing, brought the timer to his mother when it went off, and then started the process to get ready for bed without engaging in tantrum behaviors.
I went in for a parent training session after a month of the intervention and the boy’s mother informed me the timer just wasn’t working any more. As we started talking, I realized that the mother had drifted from our original plan in a way that is quite common. As her son experienced success, she used the timer less frequently. Then, if he was struggling, she would introduce the timer. In effect, she started only using the timer when he was misbehaving, instead of using it as a consistent tool to help him with the bedtime routine.
This type of procedural drift (when there is an unintentional or unplanned change in the procedure outlined for the intervention) is very common for parents, teachers, and ABA therapists. It’s important to understand this type of drift so it can be corrected when it occurs.
Here are a few things to remember when implementing an intervention:
• First, any intervention should include a clear plan for fading the intervention. In the example above, the TimeTimer was an appropriate tool for this particular child, who was only four years old. But we don’t want him to rely on the timer for the duration of childhood! A plan should include how to fade the intervention with specific steps and specific requirements for mastery.
• The use of the TimeTimer is considered an antecedent intervention. This means that we are implementing a change in the environment prior to any problem behaviors to help the child contact reinforcement and experience success. Antecedent interventions should be implemented consistently as part of a routine, not ONLY when a problem behavior occurs. If it is only implemented when the problem behavior occurs, it is no longer an antecedent intervention.
• If we implement a tool (like the TimeTimer) only when problem behavior occurs, it’s possible the tool will become aversive to the child and possibly result in an increased magnitude of the problem behavior.
• Consider using tools for the people implementing to intervention to remind them of the specific steps. For example, you might create a video model and instruct the parent (or other adult implementing the intervention) to watch it every couple days. Or you might post the steps in a clear space to be reviewed regularly.
• Finally, we have to remember that a couple of good days in a row without any instances of problem behavior does not mean that the problem is solved. This is why the first step outlined above is so important. We want to teach the child replacement behaviors and give them lots of opportunities to be successful with it.
Ultimately, we were able to re-implement the procedure with this parent and see more continued success with this particular case. We also decided to post the steps to the intervention on the back of the TimeTimer for easy review on a daily basis.
However, in some cases, you might have to create an entirely new intervention using different tools. The goal is to be clear about the steps of the intervention, and to maintain those steps when implementing the intervention.
WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, PhD, LBA, BCBA
Sam 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.