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.

Pick of the Week: 15% Off Handwriting Tools

Get a head start on helping your child improve their handwriting skills before the school year begins! This week, take 15% off our handwriting programs and tools with promo code WRITE15 at checkout!

Jumbo triangular pencils are just right for the student who is making the transition from using grips to regular pencils. These pencils are fatter and have a soft dot comfort zone for a non-slip grip. The box comes with 12 pencils, all in black lead.

Get your Jumbo Triangular Pencils here!

 

We’ve compiled the Writing & Art Kit to support students in their writing and arts & crafts skills. This kit contains: a pair of child-safe scissors, lined paper for upper- and lowercase writing, and a jumbo grip triangular pencil that improves a child’s grip directly on the pencil.

For the arts, we’ve included triangular crayons, triangular glue sticks, both for a better grip, and glossy colored paper for bright, shining artwork.

Sensible Pencil, by Linda C. Becht, is a handwriting program that contains 200 sequential worksheets to help new writers achieve success quickly and pain-free. Children start with simple horizontal and vertical lines that are presented as fun, and then go on to the other basic lines needed for handwriting skills. The program also includes a progress chart and a manual for teachers and parents. Notebook format.

 

 

View our entire sale here.

*Code is valid for one-time use through August 16, 2016 at 11:59pm. Offer cannot be applied to previous purchases, combined with any other offers, transferred, refunded, or redeemed and/or exchanged for cash or credit. Different Roads to Learning reserves the right to change or cancel this promotion at any time. To redeem offer at differentroads.com, enter promo code WRITE15 at checkout.

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: What Is Reinforcement In ABA?

Sometimes, people hear about ABA and equate reinforcement with bribery. But the two are quite different, and it’s important to understand those differences. First, let’s look at bribery. The definition of bribery is “to persuade someone to act in one’s favor by a gift of money or other inducement.” The first thing to note is that bribery helps the person persuading, not the person completing the action. The second thing to note is that when we consider bribery with children, it’s often implemented when the child is already engaging in an inappropriate behavior. For instance, you might see a child throw himself on the floor in the grocery store and begin kicking and screaming. If the father says, “If you get up, I’ll buy the candy bar,” that would be considered bribery.

What Is Reinforcement In ABA
So what is reinforcement, then? Reinforcement is anything that occurs immediately after the behavior that increases the future likelihood of the behavior. And reinforcement occurs all the time in real life! If I turn on a new radio station and it happens to be playing by favorite song, I am more likely to turn to that radio station again in the future. If I send a text to a friend and she responds immediately, I am more likely to text her again in the future. If my stomach is upset, then I drink a seltzer and it calms my stomach, I am more likely to drink seltzer in the future when my stomach hurts.

Where confusion often sets in is when we plan reinforcement to increase the behavior of an individual. It’s important to understand that the goal in ABA teaching should always be to move from planned reinforcement to unplanned or natural reinforcement. Think of it as jumpstarting a behavior that will benefit the individual. For instance, I have a student that would run into the street if you let go of his hand. Part of teaching procedure was to teach him to stop at the curb. This behavior is obviously a benefit to him and helps increase his safety. When he stopped at the curb, he earned a token. When he had earned five tokens, he earned access to the iPad. After he was successfully stopping at the curb, we taught him the next step was to reach for the adult’s hand. He no longer earned tokens for stopping at the curb, but he did earn tokens for completing both steps. We continued in this way until he was appropriately stopping at the curb, reaching for the adult’s hand, then waiting for the sign to say “Walk,” looking both ways, then walking into the street. It was a lengthy process, but planned reinforcement in the form of tokens was the best method for teaching him to be safe on the street.

A final note about reinforcement: it varies by individual. Some individuals are highly reinforced by chocolate or books or access to music. Others are highly reinforced by playing with a ball or going for a walk. In ABA, we don’t just walk in and give a kid M&M after M&M and hope their behavior magically changes. The first step is to conduct a preference assessment. A common one I use can be found here. This tool will help guide you to the most effective reinforcers for your learner and make your intervention more efficient.

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.

Facilitating Social Groups for Students with Autism

In honor of Autism Awareness Month, we’re pleased to highlight an NYC-based agency called East Side Social this week! Alicia Allgood is a BCBA and co-founder of East Side Social. With her co-founder Kimia Tehrani, BCBA, they organize social groups and also provide a wealth of additional services for both parents and practitioners in the field of autism. Alicia was kind enough to provide some very comprehensive answers to our BCBA consultant Sam Blanco’s questions about facilitating social groups for learners with autism. You can learn more about East Side Social here.


Autism Awareness Highlights: Interview with Alicia Allgood, MSEd, BCBA
Co-founder of East Side Social, New York, NY

Facilitating Social Groups for Students with AutismSam: What prompted you to begin East Side Social?

Alicia: I co-facilitated social groups in San Diego in the early 2000’s with an amazing group, Comprehensive Autism Services and Education. They provided a number of other services, but the social group was the directing psychologists’ pet project, and you could really tell for the quality. It was wonderful to see these quirky, amazing kids that were struggling socially come into this group and make friends. They engaged with one another in significant ways that impacted their sense of well-being and confidence, all the while learning how to be more and more socially appropriate. I was inspired. When I met Kimia in New York, she and I found we worked very well together. I mentioned my interest in starting such a group in New York, and Kimia held me to it. We both saw a need for these services here, but there really wasn’t much being offered at the time, and that which was being offered didn’t have a behavior analytic approach. In our mind, this suggested they weren’t objectively verifying the effect of their programs, nor were they necessarily using evidence-based practiced to teach the skills these kids needed to learn. We saw a need, we were inspired, and so made the necessary movements to begin East Side Social.

Sam: What is the primary challenge to organizing social skills groups? How have you addressed it?

Alicia: We were both private practitioners prior to starting this social group. Starting a business is a whole other beast in its own right, and being a good technician doesn’t necessarily mean you’re prepared to grow that skill into an actual business. We were caught a bit by surprise by all that would be necessary on the back end. From marketing to balancing the budget and handling insurance billing, we were not prepared to take all of that on while maintaining our private clients and actually preparing for and leading the social group. Realizing our deficits along the way, we’ve hired consultants and people to support the back end, and that is what has really made this possible. We couldn’t do what we do without the support of a small group of really wonderful people. It’s also been extremely challenging to find a way to collect data on target behavior during our groups. We’re suddenly extremely sympathetic to classroom teachers who are asked to collect data on their students. We have tried data collection systems into our token economies. We’ve also used time sampling data, and once when feeling highly ambitious and having approval of all parents, we video-taped all groups and spent hours upon hours watching and re-watching these videos, tracking target group behavior and individual learner behavior. This is a continuous work in progress that we feel dedicated to on account of our commitment to ethical behavior analytic practice. It’s also a bit fun to solve this puzzle. Continue reading

“Cooperating with Dental Exams” – Strategies for Parents, by Jennifer Hieminga, MEd, BCBA

This month’s featured article from ASAT is by the Associate Director of the New Haven Learning Centre in Toronto Jennifer Hieminga, MEd, BCBA, on several research-based strategies for parents to encourage cooperative behavior in their children with ASD during routine dental visits. 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 daughter with autism was very resistant during her first dental visit. Are there any steps we can take to help her tolerate a dental exam? We were actively involved in her home-based early intervention program for the last two years and have a working knowledge of ABA. Our daughter’s program is overseen by a board certified behavior analyst.

Answered by Jennifer Hieminga, MEd, BCBA
Associate Director, New Haven Learning Centre, Toronto, Canada

Boy Dental VisitFor many individuals with autism, routine appointments such as medical, dental and haircuts can be extremely difficult to tolerate. There are many factors that may contribute to this intolerance such as novel environments, novel adults, novel or aversive sounds, bright lights, foreign tastes, painful sensations, sitting for long periods of time and physical touch. As a result, many children with autism display noncompliant or avoidant behavior in response to these stimuli or events. Fortunately, there is a growing body of research published in peer-reviewed journals describing effective strategies to target dental toleration. Several different behavior interventions and programs have been used to increase an individual’s tolerance or proximity to an avoided stimulus or event, such as a dental exam. For example, the use of escape and reward contingent on cooperative dental behavior was shown to be effective for some individuals (Allen & Stokes, 1987; Allen, Loiben, Aleen, & Stanley, 1992). Non-contingent escape, in which the child was given periodic breaks during the dental exam, was also effective in decreasing disruptive behavior (O’Callaghan, Allen, Powell, & Salama, 2006). Other strategies such as using distraction and rewards (Stark et al., 1989), providing opportunities for the individuals to participate in the dental exam (Conyers et al., 2004), and employing systematic desensitization procedures (Altabet, 2002) have been shown to be effective. Most recently, Cuvo, Godard, Huckfeldt, and Demattei (2010) used a combination of interventions including, priming DVD, escape extinction, stimulus fading, distracting stimuli, etc. The board certified behavior analyst overseeing your daughter’s program is likely familiar with these procedures.

Clinical practice suggests that dental exams can indeed be modified to teach children with autism component skills related to dental exams (Blitz & Britton, 2010). However, a major challenge to implementing such skill-acquisition programs is the reduced opportunities to actually target these skills. One highly effective way to address this is to create a mock dental exam scenario in your home, as it provides opportunities to teach and practice the skills consistently and frequently. These scenarios should emulate, as best as possible, an actual dental office (e.g., similar tools, sounds, light, reclining chair), making it easier for the skills mastered in the mock teaching scenario to generalize to the dental office exam later on.

Developing a “Cooperates with a Dental Exam” Program
Following is a detailed example of the components involved with creating and implementing a “Cooperates with a dental exam” program.

  1. Speak to your family dentist to identify all the components of the exam with which your child will be required to participate.
  2. Based on the dentist’s input, develop a detailed task analysis outlining each step of the dental exam. See sample task analysis provided in the next section below.
  3. Collect necessary materials required for the exam. Many of these items may be obtained or borrowed from your dentist and may include:
    • Reclining chair (e.g., lazy boy)
    • Dental bib
    • Flouride foam dental plates
    • Electric Toothbrush with round head (to ensure polishing)
    • Dental mask
    • Dental mirror
    • Plastic gloves
    • X-ray plates
    • Flossing pics
  4. Take baseline data to determine your child’s ability to cooperate with each step of the exam and to identify skills that need to be taught. For example, baseline data may indicate there is a skill deficit with tolerating novel noises at the dentist and not with the exam itself. In this situation, a specific program for tolerating novel sounds found in the dental office should be introduced. It cannot be overstated that an intervention to address this area would need to be individualized. However, for the purpose of this reply it will be assumed that your daughter presents with difficulty in all, or the majority of the steps involved in a dental exam.
  5. Lastly, before starting the program, establish highly-potent reinforcers which your daughter will access for correctly responding within this program, and collect the items that you will need to teach this skill.

Continue reading

Pick of the Week: Token Tower– Fun, motivating, and reinforcing!

Keep students motivated and focused with these fun, noise-making Token Towers! Set goals using the colored ring and insert tokens as reinforcement for appropriate behaviors or correct responses. The hard plastic chips with smiley faces make a fun noise as they drop into the containers, which is almost as fun as watching the tokens pile up!

DRP_238_Token_Tower

This week, save 15%* on your set of the Token Towers by applying our promo code TOWERS at check-out.

The set includes four Token Towers – in colors red, yellow, green, and blue – and 140 tokens (35 for each tower). Each Token Tower has target goal levels of 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, and 30, and can hold a maximum of 35 tokens. The towers measure 6½ inches tall, with tokens measuring 1½ inches in diameter.

*Offer expires on March 15, 2016 at 11:59pm EST. Be sure there are no spaces or dashes in your code TOWERS at check-out. Call our friendly customer service team at (800) 853-1057 with any inquiries.

Tip of the Week: Consider Behavioral Momentum in Improving Compliance

If I were to ask you right now, what types of activities does your learner like to do, and what types of activities is your learner resistant to, you’d probably be able to respond pretty quickly to both questions. For instance, you might say, my son loves to practice addition facts, but he is resistant to working on spelling homework. Or you might say, my student enjoys passing out papers in class, but is resistant to lining up with the rest of the class when it’s time to go to lunch.

You can use this information to increase the likelihood of compliance for those tasks your learner does not like. First, let’s call the tasks your learner enjoys high-p tasks (or high probability tasks) and the tasks your learner does not enjoy the low-p tasks (or low probability tasks). Once you have identified high-p and low-p tasks, you can use this information to produce behavioral momentum.

So what might this look like? Let’s take our first example of the learner who liked to practice addition facts, but is resistant to spelling. The conversation might look like this:

Parent: 2 + 4
Son: 6
Parent: 3 + 5
Son: 8
Parent: 4 + 3
Son: 7
Parent: Spell “apple.”
Son: A-P-P-L-E

Behavioral momentum is a quite broad topic. The conversation above is an example of just one element of behavioral momentum: a high-probability (or high-p) request sequence. This is “an antecedent intervention in which two to five easy tasks with a known history of learner compliance (high-p request) are presented in quick succession immediately before requesting the target task, the low-p request” (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007, p. 492).

By providing several sequences such as the one above, you can practice all of the spelling words without fighting him to sit down at the table and practice only spelling for ten to fifteen minutes.

With the example of the young girl who likes to hand out papers but doesn’t like lining up before lunch, it might look something like this:

Teacher: Can you take this paper to Lucy?
Student takes paper to Lucy.
Teacher: Can you give this one to Marcos?
Student takes paper to Marcos.
Teacher: Nice work. Can you stand behind Henry?
Student gets in line behind Henry.

It should be noted that the goal is to move the low-p tasks to high-p tasks. We don’t want the learner to always require two to five high-p tasks before they engage in the low-p task! You can do this by decreasing the number of high-p tasks before giving a low-p task, or by increasing the number of low-p tasks. For instance, maybe the first learner is responding quickly each time his parent gives him a spelling word, so the parent can start giving two spelling words after the series of high-p tasks, then systematically increase the number of spelling words over time.

Overall, the high-p request sequence is an easy-to-implement strategy that can improve compliance and reduce stress for all parties involved.

REFERENCES

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

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.

Pick of the Week: Clue Cards – 5 games in one to teach socioemotional skills

Clue Cards teaches students how to interpret social situations, read facial expressions, and understand metaphorical forms of speech. This week, you can save 15%* on Clue Cards – just enter promo code CLUECARDS when you check out online! Play 5 different games to teach inferencing, faces and feelings, body language, exploring Wh- questions, and a variety of common idioms!

Therapists, teachers and parents can uses the cards and games included in this set to help students perceive and understand the details of social presentation. Because the cards are flexible and adaptable, they can be used with both younger and older children, with mild or sever socioemotional difficulties. There are instructions for 5 different games along with 100 reward chips, targeted for players ages 6–16.

  1. Get a Clue: Players find “clues” in social situations and make inferences based on those clues (15 Social Situation Cards).
  2. Faces and Feelings: Link expressions with associated emotions (20 Feeling Cards, 20 Faces Cards).
  3. Body Language: Matching photos and captions, children explore body language for clues about thoughts and feelings (24 Photo Cards, 24 Caption Cards).
  4. The 5 W’s: Analyze 10 social scenes by asking “who-what-where-when-why” questions (10 Social Scene Cards, 1 Spinner).
  5. In Other Words: Learn the idioms and proverbs that often pop up in social conversation (30 Idiom Cards, 30 Idiom Definition Cards, 26 Proverb Cards, 26 Proverb Definition Cards).

*Offer lasts through March 1, 2016 at 11:59 PM EST. Be sure there are no spaces or dashes in your code CLUECARDS at check-out! Not valid on past purchases.

“Expanding Interests in Children with Autism” by Tanya Baynham, MS, BCBA

This month’s featured article from ASAT is by Program Director of the Kansas City Autism Training Center Tanya Baynham, MS, BCBA, on a variety of research-based strategies to help you expand interests in children with autism. 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 child is doing well with many of his ABA programs, even the ones that focus on the development of play skills. Unfortunately, he doesn’t play with most of the toys that we give him, and he has worked for the same five things since our program began a year ago (marshmallow peeps, Thomas trains, tickles, Wiggles songs, and raisins). What can I do to expand his interests and maybe even get those interests to function as reinforcers for teaching targets?

Answered by Tanya Baynham, MS, BCBA
Program Director, Kansas City Autism Training Center

Little Boy and TrainInherent to a diagnosis of autism is the observation that the child will engage in restricted or repetitive behavior and may also display restricted interests. Expanding those interests, specifically in the areas of toy use and play, is an important programming goal as it can result in a number of positive effects. First, rates of socially appropriate behaviors may increase while rates of inappropriate behaviors may decrease. For example, engaging a child in looking at a book may decrease stereotypic behaviors or passivity (Nuzzolo-Gomez, Leonard, Ortiz, Rivera, & Greer, 2002). Second, interest expansion can lead to new social opportunities for children and promote greater flexibility when bringing them to new environments. For example, a child with a new preference for coloring may be more successful in a restaurant because he will sit and color the menu, or he can attend Sunday school because he will color a picture when directed. Third, the addition of new reinforcers in ABA programs may help prevent satiation or allow you to allocate more highly preferred items for difficult teaching targets and less preferred items for easier targets.

Stocco, Thompson, and Rodriguez (2011) showed that teachers are likely to present fewer options to individuals with restricted interests and will allow them to engage longer with items associated with those restricted interests. The authors suggest one possible reason for this is that teachers might be sensitive to the fact that negative behaviors (e.g., whining, pushing the toy away) are more likely to accompany the presentation of a toy that is not associated with the child’s restricted interest. In general, this sensitivity to the child’s behavior is important in maintaining low rates of problem behavior, but it can potentially limit access to novel experiences or activities. We need to systematically program effective ways to expand a child’s interests without evoking tears and other negative behavior.

Most importantly we, as parents and intervention providers, must make reinforcer expansion a teaching focus and use data to determine whether our procedures are producing change. One recommendation is to first track the number of different toys and activities with which your child engages to identify current patterns. Then, measure the effects of attempts at reinforcer expansion on your child’s behavior. Ala’i-Rosales, Zeug, and Baynham (2008) suggested a variety of measures that can be helpful in determining whether your child’s world is expanding. These measures include the number of toys presented, number of different toys approached/contacted across a week (in and/or out of session), engagement duration with new toys, and affect while engaging with toys. It is sometimes helpful to track changes across specific categories (e.g., social activities, food, social toys, sensory toys, etc.). If, for example, your child only watches Thomas videos, you may narrow the focus to the category “videos” in order to track expansion of interests to different types of videos. Keeping in mind the previous point about a teacher’s role in expanding a child’s interests, you may also want to set goals to ensure changes in adult behavior such as, “Present three new items each day.”

Once data are being taken, it is important to implement procedures likely to expand your child’s interests. One way to expand toy play is to present, or pair, a preferred item with the item you want to become more preferred (Ardoin, Martens, Wolfe, Hilt and Rosenthal, 2004). Here are a few examples:

  • Playing a game: Use peeps as the game pieces in a game you want your child to enjoy, embedding opportunities to eat the peeps at different points during the game.
  • Trying a new activity: Sing a favorite song as you help your child up the ladder of an unfamiliar slide on the playground.
  • Reading a book: Tickle your child before turning each page while reading a book.

A second way to expand interests is to think about why your child might engage in those restricted interests. If he likes Thomas because of the happy face, put Thomas stickers on a ring stacker. If he likes Thomas because of the wheels, present other vehicles with wheels. If your child likes peeps because they blow up in the microwave, put Mentos in a cola bottle or use baking soda to make a volcano. If he likes peeps because they are squishy, use marshmallows in art projects or in a match-by-feel game.

A third way to expand interests is described by Singer-Dudek, Oblak, and Greer (2011), who demonstrated that some children will engage more with a novel toy after simply observing another child receiving reinforcers after playing with it. To apply these findings to your child, give Thomas trains, if they are used as a reinforcer, to a sibling who just played with novel items such as play dough or shaving cream. Continue reading