Tip of the Week: Build Desirable Behaviors

One of my favorite textbooks about ABA is Focus on Behavior Analysis in Education: Achievements, Challenges, and Opportunities. And one of my favorite chapters in that book is called “Building Behaviors versus Suppressing Behaviors,” which focuses on school-wide positive behavior change This is an often-overlooked key concept in behavior analysis that can have a huge impact on the school environment. Furthermore, when we think of ABA, we often think about individual interventions, but the principles of ABA can be highly effective when applied to large environments, such as an entire school.

The chapter references several studies about school-wide behavior change and offers evidence-based practices for achieving such change. It also outlines social behaviors that should be taught, such as how to apologize or how to make a request, then discusses strategies for rewarding the desirable behaviors. I appreciate that it focuses on getting students involved in making such changes.

Teaching these desirable behaviors can often feel challenging with the additional stresses of a special education classroom. One curriculum I have found effective in addressing this problem is Skillstreaming. I often use Skillstreaming in Early Childhood with young learners, and love that it clearly defines desirable behaviors, such as how to listen or how to offer help (see image below), but provides those definitions in simple terms with visual prompts that help our young learners. It also incorporates positive reinforcement for learners who are engaging in those desirable behaviors.

Listening Skill

In summary, there is lots of evidence out there that focusing on what kids should be rather than what they should not be doing is beneficial for the learner and the general culture of the classroom. Providing clearly defined desirable behavior and building instruction in those behaviors throughout the day is essential. And that instruction may need to be more frequent and more detailed for our learners with developmental disabilities.


Heron, T. E., Neef, N. A., Peterson, S. M., Sainato, D. M., Cartledge, G., Gardner, R., … & Dardig, J. C. (2005). Focus on behavior analysis in education: Achievements, challenges, and opportunities. Pearson/Merrill/Prentice Hall.


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.

Understanding Autism: Tips for Teens by a Teen by Alexandra Jackman

We’re excited to feature some tips for teens from Alexandra Jackman on what it means to understand autism and the perspectives of their peers with autism. You may remember Alex from last year, when we shared an exclusive interview from our BCBA Sam Blanco with Alexandra Jackman. Alex is a 15-year-old New Jersey teen and the creator of the documentary A Teen’s Guide to Understanding and Communicating with People with AutismShe’s also been awarded Hasbro and GenerationOn’s scholarship grant for being a “Community Action Hero” and making a difference in her community through hands-on service projects that create awareness for important social issues. Congratulations, Alex!

Understanding Autism: Tips for Teens by a Teen
by Alexandra Jackman

During summer camp when I was eight, I met a girl named Jaime. I noticed that at lunch she always sat by herself with an aide. I assumed she wanted to sit alone, because she never came and sat with the rest of us. One day I was curious, so I hesitantly asked if I could sit with her and the aide replied “yes.” I learned that Jaime had something called cerebral palsy. She couldn’t speak but communicated through hand signals.

Jaime and I started hanging out outside of camp activities, and I really liked her. Just because communicating wasn’t her strong suit didn’t mean that she couldn’t be a friend. I think our friendship helped others in the camp group realize, “Oh, we can hang out with her,” and they started including Jaime in camp activities.

That was the first time I realized that many people don’t take the opportunity to get to know people with special needs. I almost didn’t. If I hadn’t been curious that day, I would have most likely missed out on the opportunity to get to know someone I really liked.

Knowledge Matters
I think knowledge is so important. As a 15-year-old autism advocate, I often notice how other teenagers interact with people with special needs in my school and in my community. I have found that teens (and adults) often ignore their peers with autism not to be mean, but because they do not understand what is “wrong.” People don’t know what to say because they don’t understand what is different. I think that it is important to change this.

Fortunately, there are many resources to teach people about autism. However, very few of those resources teach middle and high school students about special needs. So, as a teen, I have some tips that I think can help spread autism acceptance and understanding to hormonal, moody, creative, curious teenagers. Well, people kind of like me.

While not everyone with autism will have all of these behaviors, these general tips are important to keep in mind whenever you are speaking, studying, hanging out, or working with a classmate or friend with autism:

Be direct: Social cues can often be difficult for people with autism. It’s kind of like texting in real life. When someone texts “What?!” are they angry, excited or disappointed? Do ALL CAPS always mean that someone is yelling at you? Many people with autism cannot always distinguish the tone of what others are saying to understand the emotions behind words. Imagine how much harder it would be to interact with people if everything said to you was said with a monotone voice and blank facial expression. So, when talking to people with autism, try to say what you mean and be straightforward.

Be specific in your communication. Avoid open-ended questions: It is important to realize that for many people with autism, a question like “Do you want to go hang out in town with me?” can be overwhelming, because there are just so many possibilities. Maybe you are going to Starbucks, a diner, or shopping. Maybe you are going to the doctor’s office for a vaccination or to the dentist. What might be less stressful would be to specify exactly where you would be going. For example, asking something like “Do you want to come to the diner with me for lunch?” or “Do you want to go into town with me to see a movie and then go shopping?”

Don’t judge physical behaviors. You do similar things: Many people with autism make repetitive movements called self-stimulatory behaviors, such as flapping their arms or tapping things. Also known as stimming, these behaviors are a way to handle emotions and keep calm. While these movements might seem weird to you, everyone exhibits self-stimulatory behaviors that help them deal with stress. Do you ever bite your nails, twirl your hair, or bite on a pencil? Yeah, that’s stimming, and it’s how you handle your emotions.

Get past the disability and make a friend: Having an autism spectrum disorder is not who a person is, it is just something that they have. So don’t let autism define a person. Get to know who the person is on the inside. You just might meet someone you really like!


Alex Jackman is a 15-year-old autism advocate and the writer and director of the documentary, A Teen’s Guide to Understanding and Communicating with People with Autism. A high school sophomore in Westfield, NJ, she is currently the peer mentor leader for monthly special needs teen nights and the founder of The Hangout Club, a program at her school to promote inclusion. She is also a special needs volunteer at the YMCA, The Friendship Circle, and Children’s Specialized Hospital. She has received a number of honors for her advocacy efforts and speaks to students, adults, and professionals throughout New Jersey and beyond about autism.

Tip of the Week: School Placement Checklist for Students with Autism

This time of year many parents are researching and visiting schools, trying to find a school placement that makes sense for their child. Here in New York City, parents have many options, while parents living in other places may be presented with very few options. In both situations, finding the right school placement to meet your child’s unique needs can feel impossible.

Over the years, I have visited many potential school placements with the families I’ve worked with. I’ve generated the list of questions below to help those families have more productive, focused, and useful school visits. I recommend that you read through the questions, then prioritize them before making school visits.

Teacher and children sitting on floors with hands raised

The Classroom Environment

  1. How many children are in the classroom?
  2. How many staff are in the classroom? Will your child have enough support as mandated by his/her IEP?
  3. Where is the classroom located? Does it require your child to walk up and down many stairs? Is it too close or too far from an exit? Is it isolated from the rest of the building?
  4. Is the classroom large enough for all students and staff to move safely and comfortably? Is the furniture appropriate for your child’s size?
  5. Does the classroom environment and structure fit the needs of your child?
  6. Are all students engaged in productive work?
  7. Are maladaptive behaviors appropriately addressed?
  8. If your child will be in a Collaborative Team Teaching class, what is the ratio of general education students to special education students?
  9. What academic supports are available in the classroom? Computers? Class library? Centers?
  10. What is the age range of students in the class? Does is span more than three years?
  11. Does the level of academic functioning within the classroom match your child’s needs?
  12. Does the level of language functioning within the classroom match your child’s needs?
  13. Do the behavior management needs of the classroom match your child’s needs?
  14. Do any students have 1:1 paraprofessionals to meet their needs as mandated by an IEP?


  1. What curriculum does the school use?
  2. Is there a specific teaching methodology used within the classroom? If so, what type of training do the teachers receive in that methodology?
  3. Will the teacher need to modify the curriculum in order to meet your child’s needs? If so, what supports will be in place to help him/her modify it appropriately?
  4. How often are student “mainstreamed” into the general education population? What is the school’s typical process for this?
  5. What typically happens to special education students after aging out of the school? What high schools or colleges do they go to? Do they secure jobs?

Related Services (Speech, OT, PT, Counseling)

  1. Are related services provided through pull out, push in, or a combination of both?
  2. Are related service providers assigned to the class on a regular basis?
  3. Do related service providers have enough time in their schedule to meet your child’s mandate?
  4. How are parents notified if sessions are missed or if special concerns arise during sessions?
  5. Are missed sessions made up?
  6. Does the school apply a set level of mandated services for each class?


  1. How close is the school to my home?
  2. Is bus service available? If so, will it be provided by a mini-bus or a large yellow school bus? How long will my child have to spend on the bus? How many students will be on the bus? Is my child the first or last to be picked up or dropped of? Does the bus schedule interfere with my child’s medication schedule? Who will be responsible for taking my child off the bus in the morning and putting him/her on the bus in the afternoon?
  3. Where will my child line up at school in the morning and at dismissal? What is the staff/student ratio for supervision during those transitions?

Preschool children working together on puzzle. Image shot 2009. Exact date unknown.

Interaction with Peers in General Education/Shared Spaces

  1. What age range is represented within the entire school? Is it appropriate for your child?
  2. What opportunities are there for your child to interact with the general education population within the school (field trips, field day, extracurricular activities, etc.)? How often do these opportunities occur?
  3. Are there any social skills or extracurricular programs in which general education students come into your child’s classroom or special education students go into a general education classroom?
  4. How many children will be in the cafeteria while my child is eating there? What is the staff/student ratio of the cafeteria during that time? What age range will be sharing the cafeteria with my child?
  5. What extracurricular subjects will your child receive? Will these be offered in his/her classroom? Will your child need to travel to a separate classroom? Will extracurricular subjects be provided within the same class, or will my child be included with general education peers?
  6. Do students go on field trips? What class field trips have the students recently been on? Do students travel by bus? Are parents able to attend field trips? What is the child/teacher ratio on field trips? Will field trips be provided within the same class, or will my child be included with general education peers? How often do field trips occur?

Communication with the School

  1. What is the application process like? Any important deadlines? Online or paper application?
  2. How will the school stay in contact with me? Daily notebook? Emails?

Pick of the Week: “Fitting In and Having Fun” Vol. 4: High School Life

There are many behaviors that high school students are expected to recognize and display. Students need to be aware of these implicit expectations in order to make good choices, become more independent, and form healthy relationships. This week only, we are offering a 15% discount off of the video modeling program “Fitting In and Having Fun”, Vol. 4: High School Life to help your high school student improve their social awareness. Enter BLOGFITN2* at checkout to apply these savings to your online order.

This video modeling DVD follows a teen named Jon as he learns to navigate high school by becoming more aware of the unspoken rules his teachers and peers expect him to know. The DVD includes the TD Social Skills exclusive “What they’re thinking” insight windows to help students realize the impact of their behavior on others. Actual high school peer mentors who offer advice on how to solve teen problems are also featured. “Springboard to discussion” questions explore each topic further to help students to better understand and improve social exchanges.

Watch the video below for a preview!

Fitting In and Having Fun, Volume 4: High School LifeThe social situations reviewed on this DVD are:

  • Getting Organized
  • Classroom Protocol
  • Sharing Conversations
  • Staying Calm to Problem-Solve
  • Showing Empathy
  • Manners Count
  • Dealing With Stress
  • Embarrassing Situations
  • Falling Head Over Heels

This week only, save 15% on your order of “Fitting In and Having Fun”, Vol. 4: High School Life by using the promotional code BLOGFITN2* at checkout!

*Offer is valid until November 5, 2013 at 11:59pm EST. Not compatible with any other offer. Be sure there are no spaces or dashes in the promo code at checkout!

Pick of the Week: The File Factor Emotional Empowerment System

The File Factor Emotional Empowerment System literally came into stock this morning and we’re thrilled! This is a new tool from TD Social Skills that helps individuals regulate strong emotions and constructively resolve conflicts to advance social learning and emotional growth. The File Factor is a wall pocket filing system that provides a structure to learn self-control. By breaking down complex negative emotions into understandable concepts, users can learn to analyze situations from different perspectives and change unproductive thought patterns to resolve conflict. The idea is for children to ‘file away’ negative emotions triggered by disappointment and highlight the positive events in their day.

You can save 15% on The File Factor through March 15 by entering the promo code BLOGFF11 at checkout.

*Offer expires on March 15, 2011 at 11:59 pm EST. Not compatible with any other offer.

A Coffee Shop in a Middle School Helps Children with Autism Gain Skills and Raise Money

Woodrow Wilson Middle School in New Jersey has set up a coffee shop that their special class for children with autism or multiple learning disabilities is charged with running every Friday morning. The program aims to instill social skills as well as business and life skills to prepare these young students for life outside of the classroom. In addition to providing a service to staff and imparting concrete skills in the children, the program has raised money for field trips and and special activities that have been affected by budget cuts. We’re so impressed with the teachers who put these creative and effective programs together! Read the full article on their program here in the NY Times.


Special Education Funding in the 2012 U.S. Budget

Education is a hot button topic as the U.S. government begins negotiations on the 2012 budget. President Obama’s budget calls for a moderate increase in funding for teacher training, research and early childhood education for an education budget total of $77.4 billion. House Republicans are simultaneously promoting a budget that slashes $5 billion from the current budget and specifically cuts special education, including $1.1 billion from Head Start that would eliminate services for 200,000 children and cut more than 50,000 jobs.

Here are two articles from the NY Times and Education Week that further explain and break down the proposed budgets:

Obama’s Budget Proposes a Significant Increase for Schools

Obama Seeks to Shelter Education in 2012 Budget

Where do you stand on the proposed budget for education services?

In-school convenience store proposed for students with special needs

would house a convenience store inside the school. The goal would be to teach students in special education vocational skills to enhance their future opportunities for employment. Interesting idea! Do you know of any other schools or organizations that offer vocational training such as this?

Children helping children!

I am always moved to learn about inventive developments in the fields of education and intervention for children with autism.  But how often do you hear about interventions being designed for children BY children?  Well that is exactly what Zak Kukoff did when he developed Autism Ambassadors.  Zak, a typically developing 15-year old, created a curriculum that “will engage typical children and children with ASD’s in a mutually beneficial relationship.” There is research that supports the efficacy of using peer models to facilitate observational learning with children with autism but how often have you seen examples where it has been successfully implemented?  We would love for you to share your stories regarding peer modeling or your experience with Autism Ambassadors!

The Eden II Running Club

Eden II in New York has a wonderful Running Club for their students. We love the story behind it, the ease with which they implemented it and think it’s a fantastic idea for any school or agency as a way to get kids into shape and out into the community. Here’s their story:

 In early 2008, Randy Horowitz, Associate Executive Director of Educational Services at Eden II tried to get the staff together to run for better health. Johanne and Chickie, both behavior specialists, thought it could be a good way to include both students and teachers.  And so, the Eden II running club began with a small group of student who were selected by age, weight and the ability to be outside without engaging in difficult behaviors.

 Originally they had seven students aged 10 and above but the program grew as more parents found out about the club and wanted their children to participate in a mainstream activity.  There are now 58 members at two program sites.  A new club, the Pee Wee Running Club for students 5-9, began a year ago and already has 25 members.

Each club goes out once a week.  The older students go out to Clove Lakes Park or to the Eltingville YMCA indoor track, depending on the weather.  For safety reasons, the Pee Wee Running Club trains only at the Eltingville YMCA indoor track. 

 Every parent is asked about her child’s daily routine and current level of physical activity before individual training plans are created.  The goals are kept very simple, “will walk 20 consecutive minutes before stopping to rest”.  A familiar staff person from each student’s classroom is assigned to work with him during training sessions.  That staff person is responsible for keeping the child safe and hydrated as well as modeling and prompting stretching techniques.  Most students quickly adjust to the routine of walking and jogging around a track or along the park’s running path.

 Timers and verbal praise are used to encourage some students to continue walking orjogging until they can take a break. Students with fewer cognitive challenges are also learning about proper nutrition while working with staff during running club outings.   

 There have been a lot of surprises.  It was never expected that some of the kids jogging and even walking without prompting.  The kids genuinely like it and have fun doing it.  Some of them have lost weight, and many of them are a lot calmer for the rest of the day after getting out for some physical activity in the morning. 

 Johannes runs with a particular student every Monday. He loves trying to break his record and feels so proud of himself afterward.  One of the things his mom stressed when he became part of the running club was that he had little to no self-confidence, and she’s very happy that running seems to have helped immensely with his self esteem. To keep him motivated, he is given some kind of award certificate every time he breaks his record.

 Randy, Johannes and Chickie believe this model could work for other agencies, because it doesn’t require anything complicated.  Just keep the goals simple, and as long as safety, transportation and staffing aren’t issues, any school can start a running club.