Tip of the Week: Using Economy of Language in Your Teaching

Sometimes our learners don’t comply with instructions simply because they don’t fully understand what we are asking of them. At times, I find myself making the error of using too many words when I give directions, especially if I’m in a rush during a transition. For instance, I might say “Grab your shoes, put them on, and meet me by the door.” A few seconds later my learner meets me at the door, but with no shoes.

Using economy of language in your teaching. I may feel frustrated or irritated, but ultimately I realize my instructions are provided in a poor manner. I am at fault! It would have been more effective to point towards the shoes and say “Shoes on.” In his book Teach Like A Champion, Doug Lemov refers to this as Economy of Language, a phrase that essentially means the fewer words you use, the clearer your message. (It should be noted here that Teach Like A Champion is written for ALL teachers, not just special education teachers. This is a strategy that works across the board!) This is especially true when working with learners who struggle with listening comprehension, attention, or multi-step directions.

Here are a few suggestions to help you with economy of language:

Plan ahead. I actually write out instructions that I will be providing often and plan precisely how I will be giving them. I might plan a few variations, but, especially when working with young learners with autism, I want to provide lots of opportunities for success, then build to more complex instructions.
Consider hand signals. I often pair a hand signal with an instruction. For instance, one of my current students often sticks his fingers in his nose during instruction. I pair “Hands down” with a hand motion in which I move my hand from about shoulder-height to my lap (down). This is helpful because the learner also comprehends the signal, and I can begin providing the signal without the vocal statement. This allows me to provide instructions without interrupting the lesson.
One step at a time. Be aware of your learner’s listening comprehension and attending skills. If you notice that your learner is often only completing the first or the last thing you asked, this is a good indication that you provided too many instructions at the same time.
Avoid lengthy explanations. Sometimes I’ll hear an adult say something like “You need to hurry up and put your shoes on because your father is going to be here in a moment and we need to meet him outside and get in the car quickly so you’re not late for swim practice.” This is an easy trap to fall into, especially if vocalizing the explanation is helping you remember everything you need to do during a transition, but it may result in inaction from your learner.
Take a deep breath. If your learner is not responding correctly to instructions you’ve provided, step back, take a deep breath, and think about how to simplify the instruction.

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.

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.

Tip of the Week: How to Maintain a Fast Pace of Instruction

How to Maintain a Fast Pace of InstructionThere is a common misconception that individuals with special needs require a slower pace of instruction. While they may require a slower pace through a curriculum, this does not mean that individual lessons should be taught at a slower pace. In fact, slowing the pace of instruction not only wastes precious instructional time, it may increase the occurrence of problem behaviors.

Higbee (2009) writes that “appropriately paced instruction helps students to maintain attention to the instructor and instructional materials. Though student attention can be lost when instruction is happening too rapidly, it is most often lost when the pace of instruction is not rapid enough” (p. 20).

So how can you maintain a fast pace of instruction that is appropriate for your student? Here are some things to consider:

  1. Prepare! Set out your materials in such a way that they are easy to access quickly. I keep all the mastered skills on index cards so I can easily add maintenance questions into instruction. Organization is often the simplest way to increase efficiency in your session.
  2. Take data. You want to increase attention and decrease problem behaviors. Try different paces of instruction and measure the behaviors you are wanting to change. For instance, if I have a student who is often grabbing for my shirt during a session, I may try a pace of instruction that includes 15 questions each minute, then try a pace of 20 questions per minute, another of 25 per minute. Next, I will compare the rates of grabbing for my shirt with each pace of instruction. Remember, these aren’t 15 questions for the target skill; some mastered skills will be intermixed.
  3. Record a session. By taking video of yourself working with a child, you may see opportunities for increasing efficiency on your own. You may also observe specific times at which problem behaviors tend to increase, then be able to target those specifically. For instance, perhaps problem behaviors occur when you turn to write data in a binder, but didn’t recognize that pattern until you watched a recording later.
  4. Use reinforcement effectively. Usually, pace of instruction in and of itself will not change behavior. Instead, pair it with reinforcement and be systematic with how you implement reinforcement. We’ve talked about reinforcement here on the blog a lot, so you can read about that in more detail here.
  5. If possible, get input from supervisors or the individual you are working with. Supervisors may be able to observe your session and provide insight on how to increase your pace of instruction. And the individual you are working with may be communicating that they are bored through misbehavior, stating “I’m bored,” or nonvocal behaviors such as yawning. This may be an indication that you need to provide more challenging material or increase the pace of instruction.

REFERENCES

Higbee, T. (2009). Establishing the prerequisites for normal language. In R. A. Rehfeldt, Y. Barnes-Holmes, & S.C. Hayes (Eds.), Derived relational responding applications for learners with autism and other developmental disabilities: A progressive guide to change (7-24). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

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: Keeping Up With the Science

A major tenet of Applied Behavior Analysis is that it is evidence-based. For decades, our field has conducted research about behaviors we can observe in the environment, and worked to create positive behavior change. But keeping up with research or determining what is actually evidence-based can be quite challenging.

One way that some organizations and schools address this is by having a “journal club” of sorts. An article is selected each month, staff read it, and then everyone comes together to discuss it. This is a great way to get people talking about evidence-based procedures, help introduce people to new concepts, and create an environment that relies on science rather than anecdotal information.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Poll your participants. What topics might they be interested in? What dates and times work best for them? What is something they want to learn more about? You can use this information to get off on the right foot.
  • Sweeten the meeting. Make it fun with snacks or themes. It’s amazing how free food can draw people in.
  • Create questions for consideration. When you hand out the article, provide five or six questions for participants to consider as they read. This will help guide their reading and your conversation when you meet.
  • Make it applied. Think about how the information in the article can be used in your own setting. Have people discuss what it would look like if they tried out the interventions themselves.

Finally, take a look at Reading Groups: A Practical Means of Enhancing Professional Knowledge Among Human Service Practitioners by Parsons & Reid. This article demonstrates the utility of such groups, as well as important variables for implementing them successfully.

Good luck, and happy reading!

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.