Tip of the Week: Teaching Language—Focus on the Stage, Not the Age

CHILD IN SPEECH THERAPYTeaching language skills is one of the most frequent needs for children with autism, but also one of the most misunderstood skillsets amongst both parents and practitioners. The desire to hear your learner speak in full sentences can be overwhelming, making it especially difficult to take a step back and consider what it means to communicate and how communication skills develop in neurotypical children. Many times we get hung up on what a child should be capable of communicating at a certain age, rather than focusing on what they are capable of communicating at this stage of development.

Many practitioners and curricula utilize Brown’s Stages of Language Development.* Brown described the first five stages of language development in terms of the child’s “mean length of utterance” (or MLU) as well as the structure of their utterances.

Brown_Grammatical_Structures_ChartFrom aacinstitute.org

 

Sometimes it is necessary to compare a child to his or her same-age peers in order to receive services or measure progress, but it can be detrimental to focus on what a child should be doing at a specific age instead of supporting them and reinforcing them for progress within their current stage.

Research has suggested that teaching beyond the child’s current stage results in errors, lack of comprehension, and difficulty with retention. Here are some common errors you may have witnessed:

  • The child learns the phrase “I want _____ please.” This phrase is fine for “I want juice, please” or “I want Brobee, please,” but it loses meaning when overgeneralized to “I want jump, please” or “I want play, please.” It’s better to allow your learner to acquire hundreds of 1-2 word mands (or requests) before expecting them to speak in simple noun+verb mands.
  • The child learns to imitate only when the word “say” is used. Then the child makes statements such as “say how are you today,” as a greeting or “say I’m sorry,” when they bump into someone accidentally. Here, the child clearly has some understanding of when the phrases should be used without understanding the meanings of the individual words within each phrase.
  • The child learns easily overgeneralized words such as “more.” This is useful at times, but the child can start using it for everything. Instead of saying “cookie” he’ll say “more.” Instead of saying “train,” he’ll say “more.” And he may say “more” when the desired item is not present, leaving the caregiver frustrated as he/she tries to guess what the child is requesting. Moreover, as language begins to develop, he may misuse it by saying things such as “more up, please.”
  • The child learns to say “Hello, how are you today?” upon seeing a person entering a room. A child comes into the classroom and the learner looks up, says “Hello, how are you today?” The child responds, “Great! Look at the cool sticker I got!” Your learner then doesn’t respond at all, or may say “fine,” as he has practiced conversations of greeting.

These are only a few of the common language errors you may see. While you may want your learner to speak in longer sentences, your goal should be to have them communicate effectively. With this goal in mind, it becomes essential to support them at their current stage, which means it’s essential to assess them and understand how to help them make progress.

This is why I always use the VB-MAPP to assess each child and make decisions about language instruction. I need to have a full understanding of how the learner is using language, and then move them through each stage in a clear progression. I may want the child to say “Hello, how are you today?” But when I teach them that, do they understand those individual words? Do they comprehend what today means as opposed to yesterday or tomorrow? Do they generalize the use of “how” to other questions?

As you make treatment decisions for your learner, think about their current stage and talk about how to support your child with both a Speech Language Pathologist and an ABA therapist.

*Brown, R. (1973). A first language: The early stages. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

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.

 

 

Focus on Generalization and Maintenance

On more than one occasion, I’ve been in the situation that a student will only demonstrate a skill in my presence. And I’ve heard from other colleagues that they have had similar experiences. This is highly problematic. When it happens with one of my students, there is only one person I can blame: myself.  A skill that a student can only demonstrate in my presence is a pretty useless skill and does nothing to promote independence.

TeacherSo what do you do when you find yourself in this situation? You reteach, with a focus on generalization. This means that, from the very beginning, you are teaching with a wide variety of materials, varying your instructions, asking other adults to help teach the skill, and demonstrating its use in a variety of environments. Preparing activities takes more time on the front-end for the teacher, but saves a ton of time later because your student is more likely to actually master the skill. (Generalization, after all, does show true mastery.)

Hopefully, you don’t have to do this, though. Hopefully, you’ve focused on generalization from the first time you taught the skill. You may see generalization built into materials you already use, such as 300-Noun List at AVB press.

Another commonly cited issue teachers of children with autism encounter is failure to maintain a skill. In my mind, generalization and maintenance go hand-in-hand, in that they require you to plan ahead and consider how, when, and where you will practice acquired skills. Here are a few tips that may help you with maintenance of skills:

  • Create notecards of all mastered skills. During the course of a session, go through the notecards and set aside any missed questions or activities. You might need to do booster sessions on these. (This can also be an opportunity for extending generalization by presenting the questions with different materials, phrases, environments, or people.)
  • Set an alert on your phone to remind you to do a maintenance test two weeks, four weeks, and eight weeks after the student has mastered the skill.
  • Create a space on your data sheets for maintenance tasks to help you remember not only to build maintenance into your programs, but also to take data on maintenance.

Considering generalization and maintenance from the outset of any teaching procedure is incredibly important. Often, when working with students with special needs, we are working with students who are already one or more grade levels behind their typically developing peers. Failing to teach generalization and maintenance, then having to reteach, is a waste of your students’ 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.

 

 

Pick of the Week: Unstuck & On Target! – An Executive Function Curriculum to Improve Flexibility for Children with ASD

For students with autism spectrum disorders, problems with flexibility and goal-directed behavior can be a major obstacle to success in school and in life. Unstuck & On Target! – a robust classroom-based curriculum book – will help educators and service providers teach these executive function skills to high-functioning students with autism through ready-to-use lessons that promote cognitive and behavioral flexibility. This week, you can save 15%* on Unstuck & On Target! by applying promo code UNSTUCK at check-out!

This curriculum gives clear instructions, materials lists, modifications for each lesson, and intervention tips to reinforce lessons throughout the school day. Topics include:

  • flexibility vocabulary
  • coping strategies
  • setting goals
  • flexibility in friendship
  • and more

…all introduced and reinforced with evidence-based lessons. Lessons will target specific skills, free up the instructor’s time, fit easily into any curriculum, ensure generalization to strengthen home-school connection, and best of all, make learning fun and engaging for students in the classroom. Unstuck & On Target! also comes with an accompanying CD-ROM that contains printable game cards, student worksheets, and other materials for each lesson. This curriculum is targeted for students with cognitive ability and language skills ages 8–11.

Written by Lynn Cannon, Lauren Kenworthy, Katie C. Alexander, Monica Adler Werner, and Laura Anthony. Software operating requirements: Windows 95+ and up, Mac OS 8.6 and up.

Don’t forget to use our promo code UNSTUCK at check-out this week to take 15%* off your order of this new curriculum!

*Offer is valid until 11:59pm EST on October 6th, 2015. Not compatible with any other offers. Be sure there are no spaces or dashes in your code at checkout!

Pick of the Week: Everybody Can Cook – Enriching cooking curricula for children of diverse developmental abilities

Brand new and hot off the press, this cookbook is not your average cookbook for children. With enriching curricula accompanied with adaptations to fit all developmental abilities, this cookbook goes beyond simply providing recipes to use in the classroom.

Everybody Can Cook was developed to allow instructors in both general and special education classrooms to bring hands-on cooking classes to children of all abilities, ages 2 and up, and to foster a positive relationship between children and food.

This week only, save 15%* on your order of our newly added Everybody Can Cook: Enriching cooking curricula with adaptations for children of diverse physical and developmental abilities by using promo code COOK15 at check-out!

Included in the cookbook are 15 recipes and lesson plans, each complete with:

  • shopping and equipment lists
  • related books and songs to enhance learning
  • pictorial recipes
  • adaptations for various physical and developmental abilities
  • ingredient substitutions for dietary restrictions and allergies
  • visual learning cards (pictured below)

DRB_441_Everybody_Can_Cook_Samples

Children strengthen their motor skills, self-esteem, socialization, teamwork, and independence through cooking and practicing basic cooking skills. In addition, they will enhance skills in other traditional disciplines such as reading, mathematics, science, social sciences, nutrition, music, art, history and geography. The Creative Kitchen offers training workshops on implementing the curriculum. Spiral bound, 124 pages, by Cricket Azima.

Don’t forget to use our promo code COOK15 at check-out to take 15% off* your order of Everybody Can Cook!

*Offer is valid until 11:59pm EST on January 20th, 2015. Not compatible with any other offers. Be sure there are no spaces or dashes in your code at check out!

Increasing Play with Unit Blocks – Free Download

Blocks PileSymbolic play refers to a child’s ability to use one object or action to represent a different object or action within imaginary play. The symbolic play skill that involves object substitution typically begins to emerge around 18 months. For example, you might observe a child using an empty box for a “hat” or an overturned bucket for a “drum.” Blocks are a mainstay in early childhood classrooms because the benefits are innumerable. Block play can help to facilitate cooperation, visuo-spatial skills, problem solving ability, social skills, and language development, and is a good predictor of future mathematical abilities.

One hallmark of the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder is a presence of “persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends.” Additionally, rigid thinking patterns may make symbolic play difficult for children with autism as they might view objects in a limited way that makes it difficult to pretend a block is something other than a block. Blocks on ShelfSince unit blocks are a huge component of early childhood classrooms everywhere one could imagine that exposure to them and some level of proficiency opens up huge social opportunities for learners with autism spectrum disorders with their mainstream peers in the classroom.

Some learners will require scaffolding in order to progress from the use of literal props within pretend play to object substitutions. Research suggests that systematic prompting is a common component of successful interventions used for teaching play.  Depending on the learner, various types of prompts will be used as you systematically move from most intrusive to least intrusive prompt levels. Sometimes, a learner begins to respond to natural cues before you have moved through each prompt level. However, for learners that require support froma visual prompt you can attach drawings of objects onto the blocks and then systematically fade them out. Once the learner begins to consistently use the blocks with the attached images you can use stimulus fading procedure to fade out the visual prompt. This can be done by photocopying the image and systematically changing the lightness until eventually the learner is presented with just the block.

Below you will find downloadable images in the shape of unit blocks to help you facilitate symbolic play with a learner who requires visual prompts. The images are to scale and just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all of the possibilities. It is important to teach various object substitutions for each block shape so that the skill is generalized. In a classroom where the curriculum is organized thematically, you could attach a few visuals to various blocks each time the theme changes to encourage symbolic play for the whole class.

Click here to download our Free Unit Blocks Template!

References

Cook, D. (1996). Mathematics sense making and role play in the nursery school. Early Childhood Development and Care, 121, 55-65.

Wolfgang, C., Stannard, L. & Jones, I. (2001). Block play performance among preschoolers as a predictor of later school achievement in mathematics. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 15(20): 173-180.

Smilansky, S., & Shefatya, L. (1990). Facilitating play: A medium for promoting cognitive, socioemotional and academic development in young children. Gaithersburg, MD: Psychosocial & Educational Publications.

Christakis, D.A., Zimmerman F.J., & Garrison M.M. (2007). Effect of block play on language acquisition and attention in toddlers: a pilot randomized controlled trial. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 161(10):967-71.

Pepler, D.J., & Ross, H.S. (1981(. The effects of play on convergent and divergent problem solving. Child Development, 52(4): 1202-1210.

Lang, R., O’Reilly, M., Rispoli, M., Shogren, K., et al. (2009). Review of interventions to increase functional and symbolic play in children with autism. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 44(4), 481– 492.

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall.


Written by Stacy Asay, LMSW

Stacy is a licensed social worker, providing home and school based services to children and their families in the New York City area. With nearly 16 years of experience, her work with special needs children integrates a strengths-based, holistic approach to child and family augmented with the tools of Applied Behavior Analysis, a methodology that allows for reliable measurement, objective evaluation of behaviors, and the systematic teaching of language and learning skills.  This results in an individualized curriculum that equips children with the tools they need for learning and living while honoring their unique spirit.

Pick of the Week: “The Asperkid’s Secret Book of Social Rules” – A teen’s guide to not-so-obvious social codes

It’s not easy for any teen or tween to fit in, but it can be especially tough for Asperkids. Jennifer O’Toole knows this first-hand, and has written a book she only wishes she had when she was a teen with Asperger Syndrome.

This week only, save 15%* on The Asperkid’s (Secret) Book of Social Rules by entering promo code ASPERKID at check out!

In The Asperkid’s (Secret) Book of Social Rules, O’Toole doesn’t offer advice on what Asperkids should not do, but on what they should do with witty and wise insights into baffling social codes. With helpful tips, practice scenarios, checklists, and quizzes, Asperkids will learn how to:

  • Thank people, apologize, and offer compliments
  • Build and maintain genuine friendships and how to deal with bullying
  • Actively listen and have a meaningful conversation
  • Step back and see the “big picture” instead of focusing on the details
  • Make a correction and let go of the need to be right

With over 30 social rules and logical explanations, this illustrated handbook offers information that tweens and teens can truly digest. And having been there herself, the author shares her experience and points out the potential pitfalls with humor and sensitivity.

Don’t forget to save 15%* on The Asperkid’s (Secret) Book of Social Rules this week by using our promo code ASPERKID at checkout!

*Offer is valid until 11:59pm EDT on September 16th, 2014. Not compatible with any other offers. Be sure there are no spaces or dashes in your code at check out!

Tip of the Week: Teaching Language—Focus on the Stage, Not the Age

Teaching language skills is one of the most frequent needs for children with autism, but also one of the most misunderstood skillsets amongst both parents and practitioners. The desire to hear your learner speak in full sentences can be overwhelming, making it especially difficult to take a step back and consider what it means to communicate and how communication skills develop in neurotypical children. Many times we get hung up on what a child should be capable of communicating at a certain age, rather than focusing on what they are capable of communicating at this stage of development.

Many practitioners and curricula utilize Brown’s Stages of Language Development.* Brown described the first five stages of language development in terms of the child’s “mean length of utterance” (or MLU) as well as the structure of their utterances.


From aacinstitute.org

Sometimes it is necessary to compare a child to his or her same-age peers in order to receive services or measure progress, but it can be detrimental to focus on what a child should be doing at a specific age instead of supporting them and reinforcing them for progress within their current stage.

Research has suggested that teaching beyond the child’s current stage results in errors, lack of comprehension, and difficulty with retention. Here are some common errors you may have witnessed:

  • The child learns the phrase “I want _____ please.” This phrase is fine for “I want juice, please” or “I want Brobee, please,” but it loses meaning when overgeneralized to “I want jump, please” or “I want play, please.” It’s better to allow your learner to acquire hundreds of 1-2 word mands (or requests) before expecting them to speak in simple noun+verb mands.
  • The child learns to imitate only when the word “say” is used. Then the child makes statements such as “say how are you today,” as a greeting or “say I’m sorry,” when they bump into someone accidentally. Here, the child clearly has some understanding of when the phrases should be used without understanding the meanings of the individual words within each phrase.
  • The child learns easily overgeneralized words such as “more.” This is useful at times, but the child can start using it for everything. Instead of saying “cookie” he’ll say “more.” Instead of saying “train,” he’ll say “more.” And he may say “more” when the desired item is not present, leaving the caregiver frustrated as he/she tries to guess what the child is requesting. Moreover, as language begins to develop, he may misuse it by saying things such as “more up, please.”
  • The child learns to say “Hello, how are you today?” upon seeing a person entering a room. A child comes into the classroom and the learner looks up, says “Hello, how are you today?” The child responds, “Great! Look at the cool sticker I got!” Your learner then doesn’t respond at all, or may say “fine,” as he has practiced conversations of greeting.

These are only a few of the common language errors you may see. While you may want your learner to speak in longer sentences, your goal should be to have them communicate effectively. With this goal in mind, it becomes essential to support them at their current stage, which means it’s essential to assess them and understand how to help them make progress.

This is why I always use the VB-MAPP to assess each child and make decisions about language instruction. I need to have a full understanding of how the learner is using language, and then move them through each stage in a clear progression. I may want the child to say “Hello, how are you today?” But when I teach them that, do they understand those individual words? Do they comprehend what today means as opposed to yesterday or tomorrow? Do they generalize the use of “how” to other questions?

As you make treatment decisions for your learner, think about their current stage and talk about how to support your child with both a Speech Language Pathologist and an ABA therapist.

*Brown, R. (1973). A first language: The early stages. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

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.

Simplifying the Science: Using Evidenced-Based Practices to Increase Food Variety for Children with Autism

An essential part of ABA is providing evidence-based treatment. Research is consistently being done all around the world to determine best practices for working with learners with autism, as well as addressing many issues outside of the realm of special education. This week, we’re pleased to introduce the first in a new month series: Simplifying the Science. In this feature, BCBA Sam Blanco will highlight one paper from the world of research to help provide you with a deeper resource base. She’ll delve into the study and offer some strategies on how the findings apply to your programming needs. Our hope is that these monthly tips will shed a different light for you on the importance of looking to research for guidance.

_________________________________

When faced with feeding issues, many parents or caregivers may not consider seeking out help from a BCBA or behavior analyst. There is a tendency to associate ABA with sitting at a table and completing discrete trials, but this is only one tool in a behavior analyst’s extensive toolkit. Whether you are providing intervention for feeding issues or seeking more information, it is essential to look to scientific research for help.

There are several studies available about feeding issues, and many of these studies are specific to feeding issues in individuals with autism. One such study was published in 2010 in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA) by Hildur Valdimarsdóttir, Lilja Ýr Halldórsdóttir, and Zuilma Gabriela SigurÐardóttir. “Increasing the Variety of Foods Consumed by a Picky Eater: Generalization of Effects Across Caregivers and Settings” provides one detailed case in which a five-year-old boy with autism refused to eat anything beyond meatballs, fishballs, fruits, and cereal. While his school had had some success with getting him to eat a few new items, the boy’s parents were unable to reproduce the same results at home.

The intervention the researchers used involved multiple steps that would require the assistance of a BCBA or skilled behavior analyst if you wanted to replicate it at home. In order to increase the number of foods this boy ate, the intervention included several behavioral techniques such as escape extinction (not allowing the child to escape mealtime upon refusing to eat or engaging in inappropriate behavior), stimulus fading (setting goals of increasing difficulty), and a schedule of reinforcement (frequency of reinforcement for appropriate behavior) that was systematically thinned as the child experienced success. By the end of the intervention, the boy was consuming 39 new, “non-preferred” foods, including 14 vegetables.

You can read the research study here, which I recommend you share with your child’s ABA provider. I also suggest taking a peek at the references listed at the end for insight into other resources. This particular study is of a five-year-old boy with autism, but you may find studies that are more relevant for your particular child.

In the end, when you’re feeling at a loss for strategies on improving your child’s eating, there is a lot of research out there. It takes time to go through it and set up a similar system for your own child, but the end result can have a huge impact on your child’s health as well as the stress-level in your home during mealtimes. It is definitely worth the effort to attain more information.

Written by Sam Blanco, 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.

Teaching Functional Living Skills to Children with Autism at the Grocery Store

We hear over and over again how children with autism may need hundreds or even thousands of opportunities to practice a skill before acquiring it. It’s important to keep this fact in mind when it comes to functional living skills (e.g. making the bed, cooking a meal, etc.). Many of the parents I work with prefer to focus on academic skills rather than functional living skills. Some feel that by focusing on functional living skills, they’re giving up on larger goals for their child, such as being placed in a general education environment, having the opportunity to go to college, and/or having the opportunity to have a career.

I always encourage parents to focus on both academic and functional living skills. While it may seem unnecessary to start thinking about teaching a nine year old how to grocery shop, it’s really just providing them with many, many opportunities to practice the skill. Typically developing children “practice” grocery shopping from a young age by watching their parents and playing “store” with friends, but children with autism are unlikely to observe their parents while they’re shopping or to play such games as “store” without explicit instruction. By practicing the skill with your child early on, you’re promoting future independence.

You can practice these skills when you are in the grocery store with your child, and you may just find that your child enjoys shopping. (Grocery shopping is a favorite activity for two of my current students.) It may be beneficial for you to just start out with one skill, choosing the one you think your child is the most likely to experience success with or that your child will be the most motivated by.

 BEGINNER SKILLS
  • Choosing if you need a cart or a basket (Is our list long or short? Do we have big or small items?)
  • Using a grocery list (reading the list, crossing off items already placed in cart/basket)
  • Using supermarket signs to find items (understanding categories, knowing where to look for signs)
  • Greeting cashier
 INTERMEDIATE SKILLS
  • Choosing good fruit or vegetables (looking for bruises, identifying ripeness)
  • Giving money to cashier
  • Accepting change from cashier
  • Taking bags when it’s time to leave
 ADVANCED SKILLS
  • Comparison shopping (looking at unit price, comparing prices of two brands)
  • Making sure you received correct change
  • Returning an item that is damaged

You shouldn’t limit these skills to just the grocery store either. All of these skills are useful in department stores, pharmacies, book stores, and more. Your child may be more motivated to use these skills at the book store or a toy store. You can help your child learn the skills there, then generalize them to other types of stores.

If you need help getting started, you should ask your child’s teacher or therapist to accompany you on your first trip. They can help you identify the appropriate steps to put your child on the path to independence.

NEW! Modified Instructions for Games & Toys, Created by Sam Blanco, BCBA

LetsPlay_WormThere are many great mainstream games available out there but it can sometimes be challenging to know if a particular game’s intended uses are feasible for a learner on the spectrum. With a few simple tips and modifications, many of these games can be altered to provide an excellent learning opportunity through play and most of all, fun.

We’ve worked with Sam to select some of our favorite games and toys. She’s field tested all of these with her students and figured out creative and innovative ways to adapt each game to meet the needs of her learners. Our Modified Instructions present 3-4 alternative ways to play the game, in addition to the regular intended uses suggested by the manufacturer. Sam’s Modified Instructions break down each adapted game by:

  • Age/Skill Level
  • Number of Players
  • Object
  • Skills Required
  • Materials Needed
  • Prep
  • Instructions
  • Considerations

This week, we’re introducing the first set of Modified Instructions for S’Match! Memory Game available as a free download at Different Roads to Learning. Just follow the link and click on “Modified Instructions” to download your free copy.

S’Match! is a favorite around here as it presents an exciting new SPIN on the classic game of Memory. This engaging multi-player game challenges players to find matches by the attributes of color, number or category. The game allows readers and pre-readers to learn and play together as the colorful cards feature both pictures and words. Download our Modified Instructions for Use for S’Match! for free today!