Generalization: Teaching Loosely

Teaching loosely is a term that most educators are probably familiar with, but it’s a concept that can also be very helpful to ABA therapists. Teaching loosely is a way of intentionally teaching content to promote generalization for the learner. Instead of the typical way of teaching where a child learns a skill and then learns to generalize the skill and maintain it across environments, with teaching loosely generalization is an integral part of the lesson right from the start. Teaching loosely is about randomly and intentionally varying parts of your teaching, including materials, tone of voice, words, facial expressions, seating, room/location, time of day, etc.

Generalization is so important! If you can teach a child or student to say “Hi” to you, but they never greet peers or unknown adults then what is the point of that? How does the skill of saying “Hi” benefit that child? Teaching Autistic individuals should never happen within a vacuum. The skills learned should be intentionally applied across settings and individuals, to help the individual interact meaningfully with their environment.

 There are many ways to generalize, including across time, across settings, and across stimuli.

  • Time- Michael learned to read 15 sight words last October. Today he can still easily read those 15 sight words.
  • Settings- Michael learned to read 15 sight words off index cards in Mrs. McDougal’s 1st grade classroom. Michael can still read those 15 sight words off an index card regardless of the environment (at home, on the playground, during an ABA therapy session, etc.).
  • Behaviors- Michael learned to read 15 three letter sight words. Now Michael is easily reading other sight words that have three and sometimes four letters, and he has started showing an interest in storybooks.

When initially teaching a skill using DTT or VB methodology, it is important to remove unnecessary stimuli, use a clear and simple SD, provide strong reinforcement quickly, and minimize error. What can happen in an ABA program is the instructor or therapist doesn’t fade this intensive teaching style, and doesn’t remember to plan for generalization.  When teaching students with Autism, it is imperative to help the child generalize the material they have learned. If a child is taught to say the word “Mommy” because a therapist holds up a photo of his mother, that doesn’t mean the child will say “Mommy” when his mother walks into the room. Parents often ask me why their child doesn’t display skills outside of the therapy room, or why will they only do XYZ skill with the therapist. The reason why is usually a failure to teach for generalization.

Teaching loosely takes work and planning, and forethought. It would be pretty difficult to properly plan for generalization without a clear terminal goal. Teachers or ABA therapists often make long term and short term goals, but not a terminal goal. A terminal goal answers the question “What do I want it to ultimately look like when the student has mastered this skill”. A long term goal might be to get a child to sit quietly at their desk during transitions, instead of bothering peers, walking around the classroom, or engaging in stims. A terminal goal would be much broader than that, such as expecting the child to choose an appropriate activity to engage in during down time or transitions that doesn’t require adult help. For example, writing sentences in a journal book, reading quietly, or drawing a picture. 

As a professional, any skill that you teach to a client should be done with a terminal goal in mind. Think bigger than teaching a child to talk, toilet training a client, or reducing aggression. Aim for helping that individual become as independent, successful, and productive as they can in a variety of real-world environments.

If you are wondering if your student or client may need more generalization intentionally embedded into instruction, ask yourself: If you removed yourself and someone else taught the student, would learning suffer? If you change the reinforcement, does learning suffer? If you move to a new classroom/setting, does learning suffer? If you change your wording (“Come here” vs. “Hey, stand by me”) does learning suffer? If you find yourself answering yes to these questions, it’s likely there isn’t enough generalization of skills happening.

Cooper, Heron, & Heward have some amazing tips and recommendations for teaching loosely. These strategies would be helpful in a classroom setting, as well as in any quality ABA program (I have implemented many of these strategies over the years, and they are great at promoting generalization):

Choose behaviors to change that will contact reinforcement in the natural environment (such as praise, positive feedback or attention, social approval, etc).

When writing programs or creating goals, think of all situations/settings where the behavior should and should NOT occur.
Teach sufficient examples (don’t just use one photo of “bird”. Use multiple photos, a video clip, and a bird stuffed animal).

Use 1 or more teachers (this is why most ABA programs use 2-3 therapists per case).
Teach from a variety of positions (do you always sit next to the child?? Switch it up!).
Regularly and consistently do “maintenance checks”, where you bring out old material and make sure the child can still perform the skill.

Use an intermittent schedule of reinforcement (start to thin the reinforcement schedule so the student isn’t sure exactly when reinforcement will be delivered).
Ask other people to help you reinforce the targeted behavior(s).
Vary the smells, sounds, and decorations in the training environment (for Autistic clients, they are absolutely learning not just you but also the environment).
Teach at various times of day.

*Recommended Resources:

Lots of specific tips about generalizing skills and concepts- From A to Z: Teaching Skills to Children with Autism by Tameika Meadows

The “White” Book- Applied Behavior Analysis by Cooper, Heron, & Heward

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