Tip of the Week: Using Economy of Language in Your Teaching

Sometimes our learners don’t comply with instructions simply because they don’t fully understand what we are asking of them. At times, I find myself making the error of using too many words when I give directions, especially if I’m in a rush during a transition. For instance, I might say “Grab your shoes, put them on, and meet me by the door.” A few seconds later my learner meets me at the door, but with no shoes.

Using economy of language in your teaching. I may feel frustrated or irritated, but ultimately I realize my instructions are provided in a poor manner. I am at fault! It would have been more effective to point towards the shoes and say “Shoes on.” In his book Teach Like A Champion, Doug Lemov refers to this as Economy of Language, a phrase that essentially means the fewer words you use, the clearer your message. (It should be noted here that Teach Like A Champion is written for ALL teachers, not just special education teachers. This is a strategy that works across the board!) This is especially true when working with learners who struggle with listening comprehension, attention, or multi-step directions.

Here are a few suggestions to help you with economy of language:

Plan ahead. I actually write out instructions that I will be providing often and plan precisely how I will be giving them. I might plan a few variations, but, especially when working with young learners with autism, I want to provide lots of opportunities for success, then build to more complex instructions.
Consider hand signals. I often pair a hand signal with an instruction. For instance, one of my current students often sticks his fingers in his nose during instruction. I pair “Hands down” with a hand motion in which I move my hand from about shoulder-height to my lap (down). This is helpful because the learner also comprehends the signal, and I can begin providing the signal without the vocal statement. This allows me to provide instructions without interrupting the lesson.
One step at a time. Be aware of your learner’s listening comprehension and attending skills. If you notice that your learner is often only completing the first or the last thing you asked, this is a good indication that you provided too many instructions at the same time.
Avoid lengthy explanations. Sometimes I’ll hear an adult say something like “You need to hurry up and put your shoes on because your father is going to be here in a moment and we need to meet him outside and get in the car quickly so you’re not late for swim practice.” This is an easy trap to fall into, especially if vocalizing the explanation is helping you remember everything you need to do during a transition, but it may result in inaction from your learner.
Take a deep breath. If your learner is not responding correctly to instructions you’ve provided, step back, take a deep breath, and think about how to simplify the instruction.

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSED, 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. Sam is currently a PhD candidate in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College. She is also a lecturer in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

Tip of the Week: Measure Group Behavior in the Classroom

Measure Group Behavior in the ClassroomMany classroom teachers are required to take data on the behavior of their students. However, this can feel like a daunting task given the many things teachers are trying to do simultaneously throughout the day! PLACHECK is a simple way to measure group behavior in the classroom for engagement or attention.

PLACHECK is short for Planned Activity Check. Let’s say that Ms. Esterman is using a partner activity for a math lesson for the first time in her fourth grade classroom. She wants to see if the kids remain engaged with the content during the partner activity. Here is how she can implement PLACHECK to collect data on engagement.

  1. Measure Group Behavior in the ClassroomSet a MotivAider for a predetermined interval (learn more about the MotivAider). The partner activity Ms. Esterman has organized will take a total of ten minutes. She decides to set the MotivAider for 2 minute intervals.
  2. At the start of the lesson, set the MotivAider to run and clip it to your waistband. For Ms. Esterman, the MotivAider will vibrate every two minutes to signal her to observe her students.
  3. When the MotivAider vibrates, collect tally data. Ms. Esterman feels the MotivAider vibrate, then quickly counts the number of students who are engaged in the partner activity.
  4. Continue to do this for each interval.
  5. Graph your data.

Ms. Esterman’s graph looks like this for her 24 students:

PLACHECK Graph 1

The next day, Ms. Esterman does a similar activity with her students, but uses an independent activity instead of a partner activity. She uses the same 5 steps to use PLACHECK to measure student engagement in the independent activity. Now she can easily compare engagement between the two types of activities. You can see both days graphed below:

PLACHECK Graph 2

When she compares the two days, she finds these results, and it allows her to make better decisions about what types of activities might work best for the individuals in her classroom. Here, it is clear that between these two activities, her students were more likely to be on task during partner work. However, Ms. Esterman would attain better results by taking more data.

PLACHECK is simple to implement. Ms. Esterman is able to collect this data in less than two minutes each day and can learn a lot from just that brief time.

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSED, 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. Sam is currently a PhD candidate in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College. She is also a lecturer in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

Tip of the Week: Ideas for Interactive Play For Learning

Creating opportunities for interactions is key when working with any child, but it is especially important when working with children with autism. ABA often gets a bad rap for being staid or leaving a kid stuck at a table doing discrete trials for hours on end. In reality, it should be neither! While I do discrete trials in my practice, my biggest priority is always focused on increasing learning opportunities by taking advantage of the child’s natural motivations. This typically means leaving the table, so I alternate between discrete trials and lots of teaching through games and activities. Here are a few of my favorites:

Toss & Talk
For this activity, I usually use a large ball, a soft ring, or something else the child can toss. I name a category, and we take turns tossing the ball (or other item) and naming an item from that category. The game can be easily modified for whatever you’re working on: counting, skip counting, or even vocal imitation. I like the game because it’s simple, it provide a back-and-forth that is similar to a conversation, and it can easily be modified to include peers, siblings, or parents. This is particularly great if your learner likes throwing balls, but I’ve also modified it to push a train back and forth or take turns hopping towards one another.

Ideas for Interactive Play For LearningPlay Dough Snake
This game is one I saw a preschool teacher use years ago and have had great success with. In this game, I simply create a snake out of play dough. I make a large opening for the snake’s mouth, then roll up little balls of dough that will be “food.” I tell the child that we are going to pretend the play dough is food. I have a silly snake voice, and I tell the child “I’m so hungry. Do you have something I can eat?” The child picks up a piece of the rolled-up play dough, tells me what kind of food it is, and then feeds it to the snake. I pretend to love it, and the little ball of play dough becomes incorporated into the snake’s play dough body (which is great, because the more “food” the snake eats the bigger it gets.) I can expand the game to have the snake dislike certain foods or tell the child he is too full. On several occasions, the learner has asked if they can be the snake, which is fantastic! This is another great game for peer play, sibling play, and modeling.

Pete’s A Pizza/You’re A Pizza
One of my favorite books for young learners is Pete’s A Pizza by William Steig. In this book, it’s a rainy day and Pete’s parents entertain him by pretending they are making him into a pizza: they roll up the “dough,” toss him in the air, add toppings, etc.
This is another game I saw a preschool teacher using during play time, and one I’ve used with many, many students. Sometimes I read the book beforehand, but if my learner’s level of comprehension or attention span is not appropriate for the book, I can just introduce it as a standalone game. I say, “It’s time to make a pizza!” Then, we get into the fun part of rolling the learner around, tossing him on a couch or mat, etc. This can generate a lot of language, work on sequencing, and provide a lot of opportunity for requesting activities.

Ideas for Interactive Play For LearningAnything with a Parachute
My parachute is one of my best purchases of all time. I use it often and it allows me to play a wide range of games. Besides just having the learner lay on the floor and have the parachute float down onto his/her body, it is a highly motivating toy for a range of activities. Many of my learners love just pulling that large item out of it’s small bag. I’ve already written about three games I frequently play with the parachute. You can see that here.


Songs

Repeating rhymes and songs with motions that your learner loves can provide anticipation of an activity that may increase eye contact and manding. One of my favorites is shown in a video here. While this video is shown with toddlers, I’ve used it with kids up to 6 or 7 years old. Similar activities might include Going on a Bear Hunt; Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes; and Animal Action.

It’s important to note that none of these activities is beloved by every learner I encounter. The idea is to have a range of possible activities to learn which ones are motivating to your learner, then use those to create opportunities for language and interaction.

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSED, 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. Sam is currently a PhD candidate in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College. She is also a lecturer in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

Tip of the Week: Considerations for Parents on Grounding Kids

Many parents choose to “ground” their kids when they make poor decisions. Maybe they lose access to video games for a week, or can’t watch TV for a month. Grounding in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Here are a few considerations:

  • Considerations for Parents on Grounding KidsIf you keep grounding your kid for the same behavior, then grounding is not changing the behavior. Sometimes grounding your child is a default response, but if it’s not working, you might want to consider some other options. You can take a look back at our series on
    differential reinforcement
    or our post on noncontingent reinforcement.
  • When possible, the consequence should be connected to the behavior. If your child throws a controller, then not having access to video games makes great sense. However if video games are taken away for any infraction, it may not be the most logical punishment and over time, it may even backfire. If the child is losing video games for everything, then he/she might stop trying to earn video games at all.

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Tip of the Week: Things You Should Know About BCBAs

Things You Should Know About BCBAsMaybe you’ve never heard of Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs), or you’ve heard of them frequently but never been provided an explanation of how a BCBA differs from an ABA therapist. Here are a few things you should know:

  • BCBAs are required to take extensive coursework in applied behavior analysis and complete 1500 hours of supervised work. Furthermore, they are required to take a difficult comprehensive exam at the end of their coursework and supervision hours. Once they have completed the hours and passed the exam, they are officially a BCBA.
  • BCBAs must complete 32 units of continuing education every two years. There is a requirement that some of these hours pertain to ethics, but the rest can be focused on skills such as addressing verbal behavior, feeding issues, aggressive behaviors, and more.
  • BCBAs are required to utilize evidence-based practice. A BCBA should be aware of current research in the field and should be able to easily reference the literature when encountering a difficult problem or working on an intervention.
  • One of my favorite parts of the ethical code for BCBAs is that “clients have a right to effective treatment.” Your BCBA should be taking data and implementing interventions that are effective in creating behavior change for clients. If an intervention is not working, then adjustments should be made.

The goal of Behavior Analyst Certification Board is to ensure appropriate training and accountability for behavior analysts.

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSED, BCBA

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

Tip of the Week: How to Maintain a Fast Pace of Instruction

How to Maintain a Fast Pace of InstructionThere is a common misconception that individuals with special needs require a slower pace of instruction. While they may require a slower pace through a curriculum, this does not mean that individual lessons should be taught at a slower pace. In fact, slowing the pace of instruction not only wastes precious instructional time, it may increase the occurrence of problem behaviors.

Higbee (2009) writes that “appropriately paced instruction helps students to maintain attention to the instructor and instructional materials. Though student attention can be lost when instruction is happening too rapidly, it is most often lost when the pace of instruction is not rapid enough” (p. 20).

So how can you maintain a fast pace of instruction that is appropriate for your student? Here are some things to consider:

  1. Prepare! Set out your materials in such a way that they are easy to access quickly. I keep all the mastered skills on index cards so I can easily add maintenance questions into instruction. Organization is often the simplest way to increase efficiency in your session.
  2. Take data. You want to increase attention and decrease problem behaviors. Try different paces of instruction and measure the behaviors you are wanting to change. For instance, if I have a student who is often grabbing for my shirt during a session, I may try a pace of instruction that includes 15 questions each minute, then try a pace of 20 questions per minute, another of 25 per minute. Next, I will compare the rates of grabbing for my shirt with each pace of instruction. Remember, these aren’t 15 questions for the target skill; some mastered skills will be intermixed.
  3. Record a session. By taking video of yourself working with a child, you may see opportunities for increasing efficiency on your own. You may also observe specific times at which problem behaviors tend to increase, then be able to target those specifically. For instance, perhaps problem behaviors occur when you turn to write data in a binder, but didn’t recognize that pattern until you watched a recording later.
  4. Use reinforcement effectively. Usually, pace of instruction in and of itself will not change behavior. Instead, pair it with reinforcement and be systematic with how you implement reinforcement. We’ve talked about reinforcement here on the blog a lot, so you can read about that in more detail here.
  5. If possible, get input from supervisors or the individual you are working with. Supervisors may be able to observe your session and provide insight on how to increase your pace of instruction. And the individual you are working with may be communicating that they are bored through misbehavior, stating “I’m bored,” or nonvocal behaviors such as yawning. This may be an indication that you need to provide more challenging material or increase the pace of instruction.

REFERENCES

Higbee, T. (2009). Establishing the prerequisites for normal language. In R. A. Rehfeldt, Y. Barnes-Holmes, & S.C. Hayes (Eds.), Derived relational responding applications for learners with autism and other developmental disabilities: A progressive guide to change (7-24). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSED, BCBA

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

Tip of the Week: Your Child’s Autism Diagnosis Long Term

In the years immediately after a parent learns of a diagnosis of autism, it can be especially challenging to think of your child’s autism diagnosis long term. But as parents advocate for their child, and as practitioners work with the family to create goals for that child, the long term must be considered. Your Child's Autism Diagnosis Long TermHere are a few suggestions to help with considering the long term, while focusing on short-term goals:

  • Create a vision statement. One of my favorite books is From Emotions to Advocacy: The Special Education Survival Guide by Pam Wright and Pete Wright. This book covers everything parents need to know about advocating for a child with special needs. One of the first things they suggest is creating a vision statement. They describe this as “a visual picture that describes your child in the future.” While this exercise may be challenging, it can help hone in on what is important to you, your family, and your child with special needs in the long term.
  • Look at your child’s behaviors, then try to imagine what it might look like if your child is still engaging in that behavior in five or ten years. Often, behaviors that are not problematic at three are highly problematic at 8 or 13 years old. Such behaviors might include hugging people unexpectedly or (for boys) dropping their pants all the way to the ground when urinating (which could result in bullying at older ages). While it is easy to prioritize other behaviors ahead of these, it’s important to remember that the longer a child has engaged in a behavior, the more difficult it may be to change.
  • Talk to practitioners who work with older students. Many practitioners only work with a certain age group of children. While they may be an expert for the age group they work with, it may be helpful to speak with a practitioner who works with older kids and ask what skill deficits they often see, what recommendations they may make, and what skills are essential for independence at older ages.
  • Talk with other parents. Speaking with other parents of children with special needs can be hugely beneficial. Over the years, I’ve worked with hundreds of parents who are spending countless hours focusing on providing the best possible outcomes for their children. And while it’s impossible to prepare for everything that will come in your child’s life, it may be helpful to find out what has blindsided other parents as their children with special needs have grown up.

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSED, BCBA

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

How Siblings Of Children With Autism Can Help Improve Behaviors

How Siblings Of Children With Autism Can Help Improve BehaviorsWhen I first came across this study, “Behavioral Training for Siblings of Autistic Children,” I was immediately hesitant. There’s something about the idea of sibling-as-therapist that makes me cringe a little bit. When I work with the families of children with autism, the hope is that the siblings of the child with autism still have a childhood without being pushed into the role of caregiver. And I also want the child with autism to have independence and feel like an individual who is heard, which may be more challenging if their siblings are issuing demands just as a parent or teacher would. But as I read the study, I realized that the work they completed had incredible social significance.

In the study, there were three pairs of siblings. The ages of the children with autism ranged from 5 years old to 8 years old. The ages of the siblings ranged from 8 years old to 13 years old. The researchers trained each sibling of a child with autism how to teach basic skills, such as discriminating between different coins, identifying common objects, and spelling short words. As part of this training, the researchers showed videos of one-on-one sessions in which these skills were taught, utilizing techniques such as reinforcement, shaping, and chaining. What the researchers did next was the part that really stood out to me: they discussed with the siblings how to use these techniques in other environments. Finally, the researchers observed the sibling working with their brother/sister with autism and provided coaching on the techniques.

It should be noted here that the goal of the study was not to have the siblings become the teacher of basic skills. Instead, it was to provide a foundation of skills in behavioral techniques for the sibling to use in other settings with the hope of overall improvement in the behaviors of the child with autism. The researchers demonstrated that, after training, the siblings were able to effectively use prompts, reinforcement, and discrete trials to effectively teach new skills. But, perhaps the most meaningful aspects of the study were the changes reported by both siblings and parents. The researchers provide a table showing comments about the sibling with autism before and after the training. One of the most striking comments after the training was, “He gets along better if I know how to ask him” (p. 136). Parents reported that they were pleased with the results and found the training beneficial.

This study provides excellent evidence that structured training for siblings has real potential for making life a little easier for the whole family. The idea isn’t that they become the therapist, but instead that knowledge truly is power.

References

Schriebman, L., O’Neill, R.E. & Koegel, R.L. (1983). Behavioral training for siblings of autistic children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. 16(2), 129-138.

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSED, BCBA

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

 

Tip of the Week: Using Token Economies In Autism Classrooms

Token economies are used in many different environments. They’re typically simple to implement and achieve desired results for behavior change, especially in autism classrooms. Furthermore, there are tons of research on how to best use them. If you want to get the best results while simultaneously promoting independence in your learners, it is not as simple as just putting some stars on a chart.

Using token economies in autism classrooms

  • Use a preference assessment. This will help you identify reinforcers your learner may want to earn. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I often use the Reinforcer Assessment for Individuals with Severe Disability (Fisher, Piazza, Bowman, & Amari, 1996). You can view it here.
  • Define the target behavior. What behaviors do you want to increase? And how can you define them so they are clearly observable and measurable. For instance, your learner could earn tokens for raising his or her hand in class or responding to a question within 3 to 5 seconds. It is important the behavior is clear and everyone using the token economy agrees on what each behavior looks like.
  • Choose your tokens. When I was a classroom teacher, I had a class-wide token economy in which my students earned paperclips. The paperclips had no value initially, but once the students understood the system, I could put paperclips in the bags of the students who were sitting quietly while still continuing to teach my lesson. It allowed them to reinforce the appropriate behaviors and make the most of instructional time. For other students, I’ve used things such as Blue’s Clues stickers, smiley faces I drew on a piece of paper, and even tally marks on an index card.
  • Choose when and how tokens will be exchanged. With the paperclip system in my classroom, exchanges occurred at the end of the day. After everyone had their bags packed and were sitting at their desk, we did the “paperclip count” and students could decide whether to spend or save. There was a menu of options ranging in price from 10–100 paperclips. It was also a great way to reinforce some basic math skills (such as counting by fives and tens and completing basic operations). For other students, they might be able to exchange tokens after earning a set amount. Depending on their level of ability, that set amount may be very small (such as 2 to 3) or much larger (such as 25). Sometimes, students have a choice of items or activities, while at other times they earn a pre-selected item or activity.
  • Keep it individualized. Conducting a preference assessment helps to make sure it’s individualized to your learner’s preferred items. With my students, the menu of items/activities they could earn was generated through a conversation with them.
  • Decide if you will implement a response cost. For my students, I have never used a system in which they could lose tokens they had already earned. But you may find that utilizing it may help. It all depends on your particular learner, which makes the next point all the more important.
  • Take data. You need to take data so you will know if your token economy is helping you achieve your goal with the target behaviors you have set.
  • Thin the reinforcement over time or change the target behaviors. I do not want any of my learners to be using a token economy for one behavior for all eternity! Let’s say I start with a young learner who is not sitting down for instruction. I may start the token economy by having my student earn a token for every instance in which they are seated correctly for a specified period of time. As my student masters that, I will increase the amount of time required before a token will be earned. Once they’ve achieved the goal I set, I can either fade out the token economy, or keep the token economy but use it for a new behavior.

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSED, BCBA

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

Using Smartphones and Tablets in Video Modeling For Autism

using smartphones and tablets in video modeling for autism

There are tons of articles and lists about the best apps for kids with autism. However, you may be missing out on one of the best possible uses of smartphones and tablets for improving services for your learner: the camera app that is already built into the device.

A wealth of research has shown the efficacy of using video modeling to teach children and adults with autism, to train staff on how to implement programs and procedures, and to train parents on interventions. Smartphones and tablets make creating such videos much easier than it was in the past. Here’s why you should be using smartphones and tablets for video modeling for autism, as well as a few things to consider:

  • Be sure you have named the steps of the procedure or program you are modeling. It may be helpful to have those steps written down for the person using the video model.
  • If you are a teacher or practitioner recording your learner, be sure you have consent from the individual’s guardian(s). Also, check in about any recording policies at your school or center.
  • If you are a parent struggling to implement an intervention, request that the teacher or practitioner create a video model. It’s helpful to see someone else doing and to be able to refer back to that video as necessary.
  • If you are taking video of your learner for the first time, you may want to set up the tablet or smartphone without taking video for a few sessions before you actually create the video model. This will help avoid problems with the learner changing his or her behavior because a new (and often desirable) object is in the environment.
  • Consult the literature! As I mentioned before, there is a huge amount of research on video modeling. In recent years, it has been used to teach children with autism to make requests (Plavnick & Ferreri, 2011), increase treatment integrity for teachers implementing interventions (DiGennaro-Reed, Codding, Catania, & Maguire, 2010), teach children how to engage in pretend play (MacDonald, Sacramone, Mansfield, Wiltz, & Ahearn, 2009), increase social initiations of children with autism (Nikopoulos & Keenan, 2004), and more.

With the easy-to-use technology at our fingertips every day, video modeling is a simple and efficient way to demonstrate a new skill. This basic use of smartphones and tablets should not be overlooked because it can have a huge impact on teaching learners with autism new skills or helping parents and staff implement stronger programs and interventions.

References

DiGennaro-Reed, F. D., Codding, R., Catania, C. N., & Maguire, H. (2010). Effects of video modeling on treatment integrity of behavioral interventions. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 43(2), 291–295.

MacDonald, R., Sacramone, S,. Mansfield, R., Witz, K., & Ahearn, W.H. (2009). Using video modeling to teach reciprocal pretend play to children with autism. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 42(1), 43–55.

Nikopoulous, C.K. & Keenan, M. (2004). Effects of video modeling on social initiations by children with autism. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 37(1), 93–96.

Plavnick, J. B., & Ferreri, S. J. (2011). Establishing verbal repertoires in children with autism using function-based video modeling. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 44(4), 747–766.

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, MSED, BCBA

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