Slow & Steady

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*Recommended reading: Progress IS Success

I will generalize a good bit in this post, because if I listed all the different types of learners and their possible rates of learning this post would be 60 pages long, and none of you would read it. 

When working with whats often referred to as Early Learners, usually those “learning how to learn” skills are being taught: eye contact, following directions, problem behavior reduction, adaptability to change, etc. Early learners are often those individuals who may be nonvocal, engage in near constant self-stimulatory behaviors, have minimal self -help skills (feeding, dressing, toileting, etc.), and learn at a slow pace.

With these learners, progress is often subtle and slow.
Like, pouring out molasses slow.

For professionals who choose to focus on early intervention, it can often be because we LOVE the quick progress and seeing new skills emerge so rapidly (I know that’s why I love early intervention).
It’s extremely reinforcing to a professional to teach a client 5 new words in 1 week. For parents, its extremely gratifying and exciting to see the results of quality, intensive early intervention.

So when a learner doesn’t have that quick pace of skill acquisition, they don’t generalize skills well, and they don’t maintain learned skills easily, what impact does that have on parents and professionals? Well, I would say the impact is pretty similar: discouragement, self-doubt (“Am I doing the right thing?”), and frustration. 

I notice that my early learner clients often frustrate and confuse the direct staff much more than other clients do. Staff come out of a session with an early learner sweaty, tired, possibly with a few bruises or scratches, and feeling incompetent.
Staff burnout can occur more frequently with early learners, and from a professional’s perspective it can be harder to get parents on board with treatment when the child is an early learner. The parents don’t see rapid progress, so they think the ABA is ineffective or the BCBA doesn’t know what he/she is doing.

Not that you asked, but I simply love working with early learners. I think because my first few clients when I joined this field were the typical moderate to severe early learner, something tugs at my heart when I meet an early learner client. I just want to jump in and get to work and help that family, even though I know it will be difficult and slow going. Another reason I love working with this population is that I have learned over the years to look at progress through a unique lens. Yes, I have those clients who are only mildly impacted by their diagnosis,  working on advanced skills like reasoning, self-care, problem solving, conflict resolution, academics, etc. I also have those early intervention clients who quickly move from babble, to Echoics, to spontaneous Tacting, in a nice little progression that makes you feel like you are the most amazing BCBA ever! (who says BCBA’s don’t need immediate gratification?)

But I have learned not to let my slow learners frustrate me and cause me to doubt my abilities. So my gift to you today, whether you are a parent or a professional, is to let you borrow my unique lens so you can view early learners the way I do.
Print this post out and put it up on your refrigerator, and read it to yourself whenever you have been painstakingly teaching a skill for week after week…..after week, and feel completely without hope.

Tips for Teaching Early Learners

  • Have you remembered ICEL? When a learner is not making progress or has plateaued, we don’t first blame the learner. Look at your teaching first (Are you moving through targets too quickly? Are you over prompting?), the curriculum next (are your programs flawed or poorly written?), the environment next (is the reinforcement schedule dense enough?), and the learner LAST.
  • Are you looking at the BIG picture? When you collect quality data, you will be able to see gains and progress that may be invisible on the surface. To put it another way, the direct staff who work with the client day after day may feel like no progress is being made. This is because they are too close to the situation. As the supervisor who comes in less frequently, I can look at the data as a whole and see that tantrums are decreasing from 10 minutes a day, to 9 minutes a day, to 4 minutes a day, etc. I stay focused on the small and the big picture, so I know that we are making progress.
  • Are you focused only on the programs you run? This is a big error I see direct staff make. Yes, the programs you teach day after day are important and it can be highly frustrating to see slow progress with those programs….but therapy is more than just the goals we target. Therapy is also teaching learners that interacting with people brings about good things, and learning can be fun. My early learners may make slow progress with their programs, but often their ability to attend improves like crazy, or their ability to stay calm if a peer starts tantrumming next to them, or their ability to stay dry and have minimal accidents each day, or their willingness to try new foods. I see these changes and improvements, and I know that what we are doing IS benefiting that child.
  • Are your expectations too high? Do you know what I expect from my clients? That they learn. That’s it. I know that some learners will progress very rapidly, and some won’t. Some learners will be very impacted by their Autism, and others will be only minimally impacted. As long as learning is occurring, thats what matters. This isn’t a race, and constantly comparing your child/ client to others will only lead to disappointment. You may need to adjust your expectations so you can appreciate the baby steps.
  • Lastly, are you sure you’re doing ABA? Seem like a silly question? It’s not. I consult with schools or families all the time who proudly show me their “ABA” program that I have to explain to them is not actually ABA. ABA requires ongoing data collection. ABA requires training and oversight to implement correctly. ABA modifies the environment to make certain behaviors more likely to occur. ABA is rooted in reinforcement and motivation, not punishment and coercion. ABA is the application of evidence supported strategies, not pulling from a bag of tricks. If you are experiencing persistent slow, or no, progress with your learner, maybe you need to check out the 7 Dimensions of ABA  to make sure you haven’t missed the mark.

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