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).

Medication Considerations

What do you do when your doctor recommends medication? In this month’s ASAT feature, Megan Atthowe, RN, MSN, BCBA, offers insight on a variety of approaches parents can take when medication is recommended for children exhibiting aggressive behaviors. To learn more about ASAT, please visit their website at www.asatonline.org. You can also sign up for ASAT’s free newsletter, Science in Autism Treatment, and like them on Facebook!


My son with autism has developed aggressive behavior, and his doctor is considering whether medication could help. What can I do to prepare for this conversation?
Answered by Megan Atthowe, RN, MSN, BCBA

doctor-563428_960_720First, you should know that there is no medication that specifically treats autism. Medications approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for other conditions can be useful only to lessen symptoms. That said, off-label use of pharmaceuticals is by no means unique to autism and is common practice for many health conditions. So while research on the use of particular psychotropic medications in the autistic population is growing, our body of knowledge is still limited. In addition, medications can and do affect every individual differently, and children can respond differently as they develop, so it is likely to take time to find the best medication at the appropriate dose. Medication management, in other words, is a complex and an ongoing process and one that is highly individualized. It is a good idea, then, to be prepared with the right information before every visit to your health care provider.

Do you know how often the aggression actually occurs? Bringing data like this to the visit can be very helpful. You may want to ask your son’s teachers to share any information they have about the aggression with your health care provider, too. (They would need your consent to talk with him/her or to share any confidential information such as behavior data.) If you have not been keeping track of the aggression, now is a good time to start, even if there are only a few days until your visit. An easy way to do this is to use a calendar. Record specifics about when the aggression happens, what the behavior is like, how long it lasts, and whether you have noticed any recent changes. It is difficult for anyone to recall these details accurately, especially if the behaviors happen frequently, so writing them down will help you to share the most meaningful information you can with your health care provider. If your son’s school team is not already collecting data, perhaps they should start as well.

In addition to information about the current levels of the behavior, be prepared to describe how the school and your family are addressing the behavior and how long that plan has been in place. Has your son’s team considered or tried Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to treat the behavior? Research supports ABA as an effective intervention for decreasing problem behaviors such as aggression as well as for teaching children with autism new skills. It is important to be sure that a qualified behavior analyst is supervising any ABA interventions, as they must be implemented correctly to be effective. Your health care provider may be able to refer you to a local ABA provider, or you can find a list of board certified behavior analysts at the Behavior Analysis Certification Board’s website.

Before your visit, prepare a list of the names and doses of any medications your son takes, as well as any over-the-counter medications, vitamins, or other supplements. If your son receives other therapies, share what they are with your health care provider. He or she will want to ensure that any new medication is safe to take and will not interact with other medications.

If you and your health care provider decide to start your son on a medication, decide what the goal is. How will you know when the medication has been effective? How will you know if it is ineffective? Be specific and write the goal down. Schedule a date when you will check in with your health care provider on your son’s progress. He or she may have specific suggestions about what type of data to keep.
Finally, there are some important questions that you should have the answers to before you leave. Make sure that you ask any questions you have—a responsible health care provider will want to know that you understand how to use the new medication correctly. If you think of questions later, do not hesitate to call and ask your physician, nurse, or pharmacist.

Key Questions:

  • What is the name of the medication?
  • What is the medication used for?
  • When and how should I give it to my son, and how much do I give?
  • Should I give this medication with food?
  • What effects should I expect to see?
  • What are common side effects?
  • How long will it be until I notice the desired effects and side effects
  • What side effects are serious, and what should I do if I notice them?
  • Will side effects lessen over time?
  • Is there anything I should avoid giving my son while he is on this medication?
  • If I decide that I would like to stop giving him the medication, what should I do?
  • What should I do if I miss a dose?

Please note that there is information about research related to medications elsewhere on the ASAT website.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Megan Atthowe, MSN, RN, BCBA, LBA, is a registered nurse and behavior analyst who has worked with people with autism and other special needs in educational, home, and healthcare settings for over 15 years. Currently she consults to educational teams who serve students with autism in public schools.

How To Prepare To Reinforce Appropriate Behavior

Often when we’re working with children with autism there are two areas we focus on: communication and play. However, due to the nature of your day or a specific activity, you may unintentionally punish spontaneous communication or play. So before we learn how to prepare to reinforce appropriate behavior, let’s consider a couple of examples:

How To Prepare To Reinforce Appropriate Behavior

Julie is a teacher in a first grade classroom with six children with autism. One of her students is Marcos, who rarely uses spontaneous language. While Julie is running the morning meeting, Marcos suddenly interrupts and says “I like elephants.” Julie says, “It’s quiet time, right now, Marcos.”

David is a teacher in a fourth grade inclusion classroom. Jaylene is a student with autism who rarely initiates interactions. He is speaking with another teacher when Jaylene approaches with a puppet, hands it to David, and says “puppet.” David tells her, “In just a minute, Jaylene.”

 In both of these instances, the teacher has not done anything wrong. In fact, we have all done this from time to time in the midst of busy days in which we’re managing multiple tasks. But there’s an argument to be made here that both Marcos and Jaylene missed opportunities for reinforcement of the behaviors we most want them to exhibit.

One thing that can help is to prioritize your goals. If the primary goal for Marcos is to use spontaneous language, then when we start out we want to provide a continuous rate of reinforcement. This means that it will sometimes interrupt other tasks, but if it is the biggest priority, that’s okay! The long term gains of reinforcing Marcos’s spontaneous language likely outweigh the frustration of an interrupted lesson.

The second thing that can help is communicating the priorities to other adults and staff. If David lets other teachers and administrators know that Jaylene’s foremost goal is to initiate interactions related to play, then a brief interruption in a conversation should not be an issue. Again, the long term gains of reinforcing Jaylene’s initiation of play likely outweigh any issues around an interrupted conversation.

Finally, try to plan ahead. Think about instances in which the child is most likely to engage in the targeted behaviors and talk with staff about how to ensure reinforcement takes place. The last thing we want to do is to unintentionally punish the desired behaviors.

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.