Back to School!  Using Behavioral Strategies to Support Academic Success

 

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Back to school is an exciting time for students and teachers, but those with learning differences might find it stressful to start a new school year with new faces, rules, and expectations.  Fortunately, there are behavioral support strategies that can help to smooth the way for a fun, productive year of learning.  Following are some research-based methods to consider.

  • Choice

One of the easiest ways to help students to succeed in school is to offer choices!  Dunlap at el. (1994) found that students were more engaged in tasks and less disruptive when offered choices of activities.  Giving students choices of activities that all achieve the same learning objective is a great way to facilitate engagement and ownership of task outcomes.  Students who can pick how they learn something may be more enthusiastic about learning overall.

  • Momentum

Another great way to get compliance with task demands is to use the strategy of momentum.  This involves asking the student to do tasks that he is likely to comply with, before asking him to do things that are harder.  For example, a teacher might present a coloring activity to a student who likes to color, and then praise him for completing that activity.  The next activity could then be something a little harder and less preferred, like spelling, but now the student has a history of reinforcement for compliance and so is more likely to continue to comply.  Lipshultz and Wilder (2017) offer a review of the recent research in this area.

  • Task Distribution

Sometimes stretching learning out over multiple sessions and across days can be helpful.  Some research shows that distributed learning, where students are given instruction on the same skill for several days, is more efficient and effective than massed learning, where students are given lengthy instruction on the same skill all at once (e.g., Haq et al., 2015).  For students who struggle in a particular area, consider shorter, more frequent opportunities to practice and learn. 

Given thoughtful supports and reasonable, meaningful accommodations, students with learning challenges can be successful and happy in school.  Adding some strategies like the ones described here can make for a fun and productive year!

 

References

Dunlap, G., DePerczel, M., Clarke, S., Wilson, D., Wright,S., White, R., & Gomez, A. (1994). Choice making to promote adaptive behavior for students with emotional and behavioral challenges.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 27, 505–518.

Haq, S. S., Kodak, T., Kurtz-Nelson, E., Porritt, M., Rush, K., & Cariveau, T. (2015).  Comparing the effects of massed and distributed practice on skill acquisition for children with autism.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 48, 454–459.

Lipschultz, J. & Wilder, D. A. (2017).  Recent research on the high-probability instructional sequence:  A brief review.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 50, 424–428.


About The Author 

Dana Reinecke is a doctoral level Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA-D) and a New York State Licensed Behavior Analyst (LBA).   Dana is an Assistant Professor and Department Chair of the Department of Special Education and Literacy at Long Island University Post.  Dana provides training and consultation to school districts, private schools, agencies, and families for individuals with disabilities.  She has presented original research and workshops on the treatment of autism and applications of ABA at regional, national, and international conferences.  She has published her research in peer-reviewed journals, written chapters in published books, and co-edited books on ABA and autism.  Current areas of research include use of technology to support students with and without disabilities, self-management training of college students with disabilities, and online teaching strategies for effective college and graduate education.  Dana is actively involved in the New York State Association for Behavior Analysis (NYSABA), and is currently serving as President (2017-2018).

Building Variability Into The Routine

Several years ago, I was working with a 6-year-old boy we’ll call Terrence. Terrence was diagnosed with autism. He was a very playful child who was generally good-tempered, enjoyed playing with trains and watching TV, and posed few difficult behavior issues for his parents…until the day there was construction on their walk from the grocery store to their apartment and they decided to take a different route home. What happened next is what most people would call a full-blown meltdown: Terrence dropped to the ground, screaming and crying, and refused to move.

Many of the parents I work with have a similar story when it comes to their child with autism and an unexpected change in the routine. The change varies: the favorite flavor of fruit snacks is out of stock at the store or the babysitter greeted the child at the bus instead of the parent or they grew out of the coat they wore the past two winters… In fact, it can be difficult to anticipate exactly what specific routine may be a trigger for your learner. This is precisely why building variability into the routine can be helpful.

Here are a few things to consider:

First, think about the routines that are the most likely to be interrupted. Make a list of these so you can begin thinking about how to address those issues.
Second, work with your team (whether that means family or practitioners that work with your learner) to select 2-3 routines to focus on first.
Discuss how those routines would most likely be interrupted. For instance, a favorite TV show may be interrupted during election season or you may have a family function when the TV show is aired. In teaching your learner to be flexible with changes in routine, you will contrive changes that are likely to occur to give your learner quality practice.
Plan to vary the routine. Essentially, you are setting up the change in routine, but you will be prepared in advance to help your learner behave appropriately. (You’re much more likely to experience some success in this scenario than you would be if a change in routine occurs unexpectedly and/or last minute.)
Give your learner a vocabulary for what is happening. I teach many of my students the term “flexible.” I might say, “I appreciate how you’re being flexible right now” or “Sometimes when plans change we have to be flexible. This means…”
Reinforce appropriate behaviors related to flexibility! You want to be clear when they’ve made an appropriate, flexible response. In the planning phase, you can discuss what appropriate reinforcers might be for the routines you are targeting.
If you build in variations in routine and teach your learner some strategies for being flexible, you and your learner are much more likely to be successful in navigating unexpected changes.



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.

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Go Play! The Importance of Symbolic Play in Early Childhood

This week’s post comes to us from Stephanny Freeman, PhD and Kristen Hayashida, MEd, BCBA, and Dr. Tanya Paparella, our partners on the Play Idea Cards app. Play Idea Cards is a full curriculum on teaching play – right in the palm of your hand! Check it out on the Apple App Store

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Most adults think of toy play as a natural part of childhood.  When my daughter was born, we were showered with plush animals, tea sets, and dress up clothes for her to use in play.  But what happens when the child does not find toy play to be natural?

Many children on the autism spectrum use toys non-functionally or repetitively.  When I ask parents of children with ASD to tell me about their child’s play they often say “he doesn’t know how to use toys appropriately!”  They then tell me about how the child may spin the wheels on the car while staring at the rotating objects.  They tell me about the specific scripts the child uses to carry out a routine with their toys and subsequent tantrums if the routine is disrupted.  Parents notice how this deficit in play impacts their ability to engage with peers or occupy their free time appropriately.

Symbolic play occurs when the child uses objects or actions to represent other objects or actions.  For example, a child using a doll as their baby and rocking the doll to sleep is an act of symbolic play.  The doll is not alive, but the child is representing a baby.  This skill is a core deficit in children with ASD.  This means that they do not “naturally” or “easily” acquire the ability to use toys to represent other things.  Development of symbolic play is crucial in early development and is tied to numerous subsequent skills:

Language: symbolic play is highly correlated to language development.  This means that the better the child’s ability to play representationally, the better the child’s language skills.  There is also emerging evidence to support symbolic play as having a causal relationship to language.  [Explanation].

Social Development: as neurotypical children continue their learning about symbolic play and through symbolic play, children with ASD often struggle to relate to their peers and understand their play schemes.  Some children with ASD may only engage peers in physical play (instead of symbolic play) or they may end up playing alone using their familiar play scripts.

Perspective-taking: symbolic play allows the child early opportunities to take on the perspective of another being.  If a child pretends to be a pirate, they being to talk and think of things a pirate might want/do.  This early practice with perspective-taking allows the child to use this skill when interacting with peers and adults.

Meta-cognition and Problem Solving Skills: meta-cognition is the ability to think about one’s own thinking.  This is an essential skill when solving problems and planning one’s time.  During play kids plan, organize and cognitively process through obstacles and mishaps with their toys.

Emotional Development: through symbolic play, children can practice expressing emotion through the scenes they create.  There is also some evidence suggesting that this early practice contributes to emotion understanding and empathy.

Clearly, children need play for growth and development.   However, for children with ASD the development of symbolic play may be difficult and, even thought of as WORK!

Given the numerous skills that come out of symbolic play, we urge parents of children with ASD to consider the importance of toy play.  Dedicate time and effort to engage your child in symbolic play.  It is usually not easy at first!  It might have been decades since you picked up an action figure and used him to fight off bad guys, but practice with your child.

Parents know that it is part of their job to help their child learn to read and do basic math.  They would not let their child escape those tasks because they are hard.  Please consider PLAY to be just as important and necessary for the child’s development.  Even if it is work at first, insist the child play with you and in time, improvements may come not only in toy play but also in so many other key areas of development.

Jarrold, C., Boucher, J., & Smith, P. (1993). Symbolic play in autism: A review. Journal of

Autism and Developmental Disorders, 23(2), 281-307.

Ungerer, J.A. & Sigman, M. (1981). Symbolic play and language comprehension in autistic

children. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 20, 318-337.


About The Authors

Dr. Stephanny Freeman is a clinical professor at UCLA, a licensed clinical psychologist, and Co-Directs the Early Childhood Partial Hospitalization Program (ECPHP).  For 20 years, she has educated children with ASD and other exceptionalities as a teacher, studied interventions for social emotional development, and designed curriculum and behavior plans in school and clinic settings.

Kristen Hayashida is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst at the UCLA Early Childhood Partial Hospitalization Program (ECPHP).  For the last 10 years she has served as a therapist, researcher and educator of children and families living with autism spectrum disorder through the treatment of problem behavior.

Dr. Tanya Paparella is a specialist in the field of autism having spent more than 20 years in intervention and research in autism. She is an Associate Clinical Professor in the Division of Child Psychiatry at UCLA, a licensed clinical psychologist, and Co-Director of UCLA’s Early Childhood Partial Hospitalization Program (ECPHP), an internationally recognized model treatment program for young children on the autism spectrum.

 

 

 

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Ethics Part One: Data Collection and The Right to Effective Treatment

In the next few weeks I will be writing about ethics in the field of applied behavior analysis. This is the first part in a multi-part series.

Sometimes behavior analysts get a bad rap because we are so focused on the data. Somehow, there is a perception that writing down the numbers and graphing the information is “cold” or “unfeeling” towards the client. Over the course of my career, I’ve had more than one person say to me that I was more fun or more playful than they expected me to be as a behavior analyst. I’m not exactly sure where these misperceptions started, but today I want to get to the root of them.
As a BCBA, I am bound by the Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts. Within this code, it clearly states “Clients have a right to effective treatment.” This is something I take to heart every day in my work. And it’s the primary reason that I have my clipboard and am taking data. I want to ensure that the treatment I am introducing is actually effective. My data is what shows me when something is clearly not working, and allows me to be efficient with making changes the best benefit my client.
Clear, objective data allows me to be responsive to data and provide information in a responsible manner. Here are a few things to consider:
• When I graph data daily and look at that information, it’s very easy for me to see if a client’s performance has plateaued, is improving, or is actually getting worse. I can make adjustments based on the trend in the data.
• When all practitioners working with the client graph daily, I might (as the supervisor) see that the client is not performing as well with one practitioner. This might indicate that more training needs to occur. Or, I might see that one practitioner is getting far better results than the others. This might indicate that the practitioner is not recording data correctly or is doing something as part of the intervention that everyone should be doing.
• Data should be collected daily and the teaching programs should be clearly outlined. This way, if for some reason a practitioner abruptly stops working with the client or if the client moves, it is much easier for future practitioners to pick up where the last ones left off.
• Looking at data daily gives an idea of the individual client’s general trends in mastering new skills. For instance, last year I had a client who generally mastered new skills within one week, and his trend in the data was very consistent across all types of skills. So if we introduced a new program and he wasn’t mastering it for three weeks, it was an indication that we needed to re-evaluate what we were teaching or how we were teaching it. Being well-versed in your individual client’s learning patterns allows you to more clearly make individualized decisions!
We’d love to hear from you. What outcomes have you discovered in the relationship between being responsive to data and providing effective treatment for your clients?


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.

Discussing Autism with Newly Diagnosed 9 Year Old

This week’s blog comes to us from clinical psychologist Lauren Elder and was originally posted on Autism Speaks as part of their Got Questions? series.


“Our son, age 9, was recently diagnosed with autism. He knows something’s up, but we’re not sure how to explain. Advice?”

Yours is a difficult situation shared by many parents. Children need to understand what’s going on, but the discussion needs to be appropriate for their age and level of development. Your openness will help your child feel comfortable coming to you with questions.

I recommend a series of ongoing conversations rather than a one-time discussion. Here are some tips for starting the conversation and preparing some answers for questions that your son may ask:

Explain autism in terms of your child’s strengths and weaknesses
You may want to focus on what he’s good at, and then discuss what’s difficult for him. You can explain that his diagnostic evaluation provided important information on how to use his strengths to meet his challenges. Focus on how everyone has strengths as well as weaknesses. Give some examples for yourself, his siblings and other people he knows.

Provide basic information about autism 
Depending on your son’s maturity and understanding, you may want to continue by talking about what autism means. (See our “What Is Autism?” webpage.) You want to give your child a positive but realistic picture.

It may help your son to hear that autism is common and that there are many children like him. This can open a discussion about the strengths and challenges that many children with autism share. You might likewise discuss how individuals with autism tend to differ from other children.

For instance, you might explain that many children with autism are very good at remembering things. Some excel at building things or at math. Also explain that many children with autism have difficulty making friends and communicating with other people.

Don’t make everything about autism
It’s important to emphasize that your son’s autism-related strengths and challenges are just part of who he is and why you love him. Be sure to point out some of those special qualities that have nothing to do with his autism. This will help your child understand that autism is something that he has, not the sum total of who he is.

Assure your child of support 
Explain to your son why he’s receiving the services he’s getting. For instance, you could tell him that he sees a speech therapist to help him communicate more clearly, or that he’s seeing a behavioral therapist to improve how he makes friends. Help him understand how you, his therapists and his teachers all want to help him. You can point out that we all need some help to become the best we can be. Some children need extra help learning to read. Some get very sad and need help in that department, etc.

Expect to repeat these conversations!
All children – and especially those with autism – need to hear some information multiple times. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand. what you’ve told him. Rather, revisiting these topics can be an important part of his processing the information.

Find role models and peers
It’s important for children with autism to spend time with typically developing peers. However, for children your son’s age and older, it can be a wonderful experience to spend time with other children on the autism spectrum. Consider enrolling your son in a play group or social skills group specifically for children with autism.


 

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Got Questions: Help for Socially Anxious Preschooler Who Has Autism

This piece originally appeared at Autism Speaks as part of their Got Questions? series.

My almost 3-year-old was recently diagnosed as having autism spectrum disorder. We struggle going places such as open gym or even the library because he doesn’t like other kids in his space. He does okay with adults, but other kids make him extremely anxious. How do I help him become more comfortable when other children are playing in the same area or with the same set of toys?

I commend you for seeking support for your son at this young age. Receiving a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder can be challenging and confusing. Yet research shows that early intervention can help maximize cognitive, language and social development.

In my pre-doctoral work at UCLA and my post-doctoral training at Pediatric Minds Early Childhood Treatment Center, my colleagues and I have seen many forms of anxiety in children and teens who have autism. Like your son, many of them experience anxiety around other children, especially groups of children. Understanding the reasons for this anxiety can help select approaches that help.

For example, you mention that your son “does okay” with adults, but not other kids. This is very common. While adults tend to be more consistently friendly and accommodating, children can be very unpredictable. For instance, it’s not unusual for three-year-olds to grab toys from each other, cry, get very close to each other and just be loud! This can be particularly anxiety provoking for someone with autism.

In addition, many people with autism are hypersensitive to sensory input. As a result, public places such as open gyms or even a lively children’s library can be over-stimulating. The sights, sounds and smells can feel intense, uncomfortable and overwhelming. Understandably, this can lead a child to avoid these environments and become upset in the midst of them.

I strongly encourage you to work with your son’s therapists to develop a personalized intervention plan. Children with autism who are under age 3 can qualify for such services through their state’s Early Intervention program. After age 3, these services can be accessed as part of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) through your school district.

Also see “Access autism services,” for more information on early intervention and individualized education services.
Fortunately, many programs are available to help young children with the type of social anxiety you describe. These include play-based forms of Applied Behavioral Analysis, occupational therapy that includes sensory integration, communication-focused intervention, social skills play groups and other options. Many children do best with a multidisciplinary approach that combines two or more of these methods with close collaboration among the care providers.

Also see, “Autism therapies and supports,” in the “What is autism?” section of this website. While every child has different needs, here are some strategies you can try – ideally in collaboration with your son’s therapists.

Practice. Are there specific social situations that tend to trigger your son’s anxiety? For instance, does he get upset when another child tries to take his hand or pull him into a game? Consider teaching him simple phrases he can use in these situations. For example, a simple “no.” You can also teach and practice toy sharing and turn taking at home. If your child enjoys play dough, for example, place just a few pieces on the table and take turns modeling each of the pieces, handing them back and forth. This can help him learn sharing and even waiting for gradually increasingly periods before getting what he wants. These skills can be difficult to learn. So start with brief periods of waiting and offer plenty of praise along the way. Providing this type of structured opportunities to practice social skills can encourage your son to use them in social settings.

Start slow. A room full of children may be too overwhelming for your child to use the new skills that he’s practiced with you at home. Consider hosting a playdate with one other child who is relatively calm and engaging. Sometimes, a slightly older child will understand how to be more accommodating.

In selecting where to have the playdate, consider your son’s comfort level. You might start at home or maybe a relatively quiet place at a nearby park.

Choose some relatively structured activities such as games or sharable toys that your child knows and likes. Keep the playdates relatively short to further the chances of success.

Bring the familiar. When entering a loud or anxiety producing environment, a comfort object may help provide a sense of security in an otherwise overwhelming environment. Consider allowing your son to bring a familiar toy, stuffed animal or book. Another possibility is a toy or game that actively engages his attention – and so directs his attention away from the hubbub around him.

Be patient. I encourage parents to appreciate that their child’s stage of development may not match what’s typical for his or her age. This is particularly true of social development in children on the autism spectrum. By focusing on small steps, you can foster your child’s confidence and decrease the likelihood of setbacks.

Remember, your child – like all children – is continually developing. You can support his social development – while decreasing anxiety around other children – by providing ample opportunities for success.


About The Author 

Dr. John Danial is a 2012 Autism Speaks Weatherstone predoctoral fellow. Dr. Danial’s fellowship supported his work with mentor Jeffrey Wood at the University of California, Los Angeles, developing and evaluating behavioral interventions that reduce anxiety in children, teens and adults with autism and low verbal skills. He is currently completing his post-doctoral placement at Pediatric Minds Early Childhood Center, working with families of children with developmental delays and social-emotional challenges.