I Love ABA!

Welcome to my blog all about Applied Behavior Analysis!

This blog is about my experiences, thoughts, and opinions on ABA. My career as an ABA provider is definitely a passion and a joy, and I love what I do.

This is a personal blog: The views and opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of the people, institutions, or organizations that I may be affiliated with.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The "Off Task" Learner

Photo source: www.gettyimages.com


*Recommended Reading: Gaining Learner Attention

To all the educators: raise your hand if you could use some help dealing with “Daydreaming David”, “Out -of -seat Olive”, or “Fidgeting Franklin”? Oh my, that’s a lot of hands in the air :-)

I go into classrooms fairly regularly as part of my job, and I also collaborate and discuss treatment plans with educators. One pet peeve I have is when educators use vague or subjective language when describing the progress of my client. For example, “Today was rough”, “She had a defiant look about her”, or the dreaded: “He was SO off task all week”.

Can you define “off task”? What does that mean? The problem with terminology like this is while you absolutely know what you mean when you use it, the person you are speaking to may not. Across my clients, many of them struggle with on task behavior at school. I can also tell you that across my clients, being “off task” can look completely different from one individual to the next.

This is a term that does not have just one meaning. In order to select and implement an intervention, it is critical to first define the target behavior. My suggestion is to focus on what the learner should be doing, instead of what they are not doing. For example: “When the teacher presents a demand, Felicia will independently respond to/complete the demand within 10 seconds”. So step 1 is to clearly define the target behavior well enough that anyone could observe in your classroom and measure each occurrence of Felicia being “off task”.

Focusing on what the learner SHOULD be doing will also help you to really narrow down how to help the learner stay focused on a specific task. Which also happens to be step 2: determine when the target behavior is most, and least likely to occur. In other words, when is Felicia off task?  You may be thinking, “well….she’s off task all the time”. I can almost guarantee you that isn’t true. Most learners have no problem attending or staying on task at recess, during free play, or while eating in the cafeteria. Further close observation will often reveal variations in attending depending on:
  • The teacher
  • The classroom
  • Which peers are present
  • Time of day
  • Subject matter (math, writing, etc.)

What you are looking for are patterns of behaviors to reveal what settings or stimuli tend to make it the most difficult for this learner to remain on task.

Finally, step 3 is to set the learner up for success based on the information you have gathered. This is where the individualized intervention should be created. Emphasis on “individualized”. Something I see far too much of in schools, is pulling from a few methods and expecting them to work for all learners. Such as moving the learners seat closer to the teacher. I have some clients where it wouldn’t matter if they sat on the roof of the school building, in the teacher’s lap, or on a throne, they would be just as inattentive in each location.

Since I can’t suggest individualized interventions (since I don’t know all of your learners), here are some helpful recommendations to help you create your interventions. Good luck educators!


  •          The first changes should always be to the environment – Always assume the environment is "wrong" before assuming the learner is "wrong".  Modifying the environment could mean adding in play breaks after their least preferred subjects, pairing the learner with a high performing student as a peer assistant, or placing highly preferred/highly distractible items inside cabinets or high up on shelves.
  •  Are your expectations clearly established? – Are you sure the learner knows what you expect? Do they understand what “pay attention” means? What about “neat work”? Or “quiet work”? Does no talking mean no humming? Does sit still mean no finger tapping? Make your expectations crystal clear.
  •      Is the available reinforcement clearly established? – What can the student earn for their hard work of staying attentive? What do they earn if their work is submitted on time, but messy? Or if their work is submitted on time, but incorrect? Can they lose their reward once it has been earned? All of this must be made crystal clear.
  •  Does the learner have a true skill deficit? – Lack of focus/attending can often stem from a learning deficit. I am not a math person, so if you sat me down to do some Calculus problems I would check out on you so fast! Have you evaluated if the work you are presenting is at the learner’s current ability?
  •  Try breaking the task down into small chunks – I do this one all the time. There is usually no reason why the work in the classroom can’t be divided up across the day, or even across multiple days. Also, frequent opportunities to complete a demand = frequent opportunities to contact reinforcement. It’s a win-win.
  •  Make timely, focused work completion exciting! – Applause is free, and I use it often. There is also specific praise (“Jonathan I just LOVE your neat handwriting! Keep it up), high fives, “call outs” (“Class, I see that Grace and Tia are working with quiet feet. You girls are rock stars”), and class wide reward systems (like a token economy system). For many of my clients who struggle with staying on task I also like the “Beat the Timer” game. If the learner completes the task before the timer goes off they get a special prize.


Saturday, April 30, 2016

School Selection Merry-Go-Round




Photo source: www.rhythmlift.com, www.treehugger.com 


Round and round and round, without actually going anywhere. For many parents, that is what the school selection process can feel like.

As part of what I do, I have helped lots of families make decisions about ideal school placement for their children. It is always an emotional discussion, full of more questions than answers. While I am sure every parent wishes their BCBA knew of the local schools that are just PERFECT for their child, in reality the best we can do is equip parents with information to make a solid choice.

I was recently talking to a family I work with, and the father stated that he wished there was some type of list to help parents know which school choices are the best for children with Autism. The mother then stated that even if such a list existed, that doesn’t mean it would be applicable for their child. In other words, there is no list of “Perfect schools for Allison” or “Perfect schools for Marcus”.

It’s so tough seeing parents wrestle with school decisions, especially if their options are limited. There are many variables that can limit your options of ideal school placement, such as lack of funding/income, the child has significant behavior issues, living in an international location, or minimal experience with advocating within a school system. So just to be clear, this post is not a guarantee to finding the perfect school for your child. Instead the purpose of this post is to help parents understand how to think about school placement, how to evaluate their options, and how to let go of the search for “perfect” and instead search for “ideal”.

Below is a summary of the information I would share with any client who asked me, “So where should David/Caleb/Jazmin go to school next year?”:

  • Tip #1 – With the help of your ABA team, first develop an understanding of your child’s needs. Is the goal to do a ½ day of intensive ABA and a ½ day of school? Is the goal to have your child in a culturally diverse school rich with social experiences? Is the goal to have your child in a rigorous school that will challenge them academically? Is the goal to have your child in a school that offers specialized services (such as Speech Therapy)? Understanding what your child needs will point you to an understanding of what kind of school they need to be in. I usually start this discussion with parents by asking “What is MOST important to you about a potential school?”
  • Tip #2 - Gather as much intel on potential schools as you can, through the school website, by meeting with administration, by observing in a classroom, etc. Other parents will be a great resource to you as well. If you neighbor has a 5-year-old with Autism attending the elementary school up the street, ask about their experiences. What are the pros? What are the cons? What treatments or services does the school offer? This leads me to my next tip…..
  • Tip #3 – What’s good for the goose may in no way possible be good for the gander. While it can be helpful to talk to other parents about their experiences, all kids are unique. Just because ABC school down the street is supposed to be perfect for kids on the Spectrum, it could be a horrible fit for your child. Avoid making quick decisions based entirely off of what other people have experienced. I see this happen more often with special needs schools; all it takes is one unique situation that the school isn’t equipped for and suddenly the “perfect school” starts getting a bad rep. So whether good or bad, do not make school placement decisions based only on what others have experienced.
  • Tip #4 – The “Big 3” as I like to call them, are the main criteria you need to have for evaluating a potential school. Ready to hear the 3? Okay: Allowing the ABA team inside, Behavior Plan, & Active Collaboration. Let me explain this a bit by saying that I usually am having this school conversation with a family who requested my services. So by nature of requesting my services that means their child is receiving ABA therapy, and has some significant behavior concerns. So if that is not the case for your child, then the Big 3 may not be so relevant. However, if the Big 3 are indeed relevant for you then keep reading. It is imperative that the home ABA team have collaboration and open communication with the school. That could mean classroom facilitation, it could mean taking the child out of the classroom for 1:1 therapy, or it could mean the BCBA attends every IEP meeting. The home behavior plan must be included in the IEP, and needs to be implemented at school. The teacher needs to be able to contact the BCBA with concerns, and vice versa. Everyone has to be one big Brady Bunch kind of family, or all kinds of problems and skill/behavioral regression can occur.
  • Tip #5 – My last tip is intended to save you lots of stress, worry, and heartache when it comes to selecting a school. Let go of the idea of perfection. Just wave bye-bye to it, and drive away. I don’t know of any parents (of special needs or typically developing kids) who can say “I just LOVE my child’s school 100%!”. If you can say that about your child’s school, congrats…..but I don’t know of any parents who can say that :-). You will have to deal with some things you don’t like, some policies you don’t agree with, a few “dud” teachers (they won’t all be great), some tense and awkward IEP meetings, etc. As long as your main concerns are being addressed (refer back to Tip #1), and your child is progressing, consider the school to be a great placement for your child. The sooner you can let go of the mythical perfect school, the sooner you can get off the school selection merry-go-round.


**Recommended Reading: