Transfer of Learning

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*Recommended Post: Teaching Loosely

I have talked about the need for teaching with intentional generalization on my blog before, but as a refresher here is a definition for Generalization:

The act or process whereby a learned response is made to a stimulus similar to but not identical with the conditioned stimulus

I see the pitfalls and learning errors from a failure to teach to generalization all the time, so this is something that’s definitely need-to-know information for ABA therapists/instructors. This post is specifically about generalization across environments---home to school, school to work, and especially self-contained classroom to inclusion classroom.
 If you have a client or student who can only perform a specific skill this way, in this room, with those flashcards, then can they really perform the skill? The answer would be: No….they cannot.

I think about this issue a lot when I’m traveling. I travel often for work, and find myself in unfamiliar airports. Inevitably, at some point I have to do some problem solving to locate a bathroom, or to find my luggage, or to get to my gate. Fun fact: I don’t like to stop people and ask them for help. So how do I problem solve in an unfamiliar setting? Well, I combine what I know with cues from my environment. If everyone gets off the plane and starts veering to the left, I should probably veer to the left too. If I see a blue sign with a suitcase symbol on it, then I can reasonably expect that we are all walking towards baggage claim. 
So I am able to build upon existing knowledge of airports I am familiar with, and transfer those skills appropriately based on the new setting. I often wonder, “Could any of my clients do that? If they were dropped off in a new setting, and unable/unwilling to communicate with others, could they find their way?”

There are SO many different ways inability to transfer skills can exhibit itself in learning situations. A big one I see often is learners who have spent months or years only receiving 1:1 intervention (either early intervention, ABA therapy, or maybe a school shadow in a special education classroom), and then must transition to a general education classroom. What happens to the kid who has been in the “Autism” classroom for 2 years, once he is plopped into a typical classroom?

Planning for generalization is really about planning for Transition.
There is always a next step, a next goal, and a next challenge in the lives of the individuals you serve as an ABA professional. To fail to plan for generalization is almost like saying “This individuals life won’t change, vary, or improve at any point so I don’t need to prepare him/her for that”.

For most ABA professionals, we know to ask ourselves “can the learner perform this skill to fluency”, “can the learner perform this skill with me and with mom/dad”, and “can the learner perform this skill when I vary the materials”. Go beyond these questions, to ask yourself if the learner could perform the same matching task they do at the DTT table, inside of a Wendy’s restaurant. Or if they are learning to brush their teeth at home, can they brush their teeth inside a school restroom? If they are learning to follow a bedtime routine at home, can they also follow that routine at a hotel when the family goes on vacation?

There are many ways to help ensure that the individuals you serve don’t just learn skills, but that they can transfer those skills from familiar to non-familiar environments. Successful teaching doesn’t occur in a bubble; it spreads and pops up spontaneously in new settings.

Tips for Promoting Generalization
1.       Plan for it – Well, this seems like an obvious tip. Do you intentionally plan for generalization when selecting skills to teach? How? There should be a clear and measurable system for ensuring generalization is embedded into teaching, and all the staff who work with the learner need to know what the system is. There are no specific rules here, just think about the scenarios in which the learner may need to perform the skill. Let that guide you. For example, if you are teaching labeling colors what about labeling colors of objects? Labeling colors of animals? Labeling colors outside at the park? Labeling colors when the stimuli varies (knowing that “pink” can be light or dark)? Labeling colors while standing in the checkout line at the grocery store? If you have taught a few colors during DTT using some flashcards, you definitely are not done until generalization has been planned for.
2.       Vary where you teach- Sometimes providing ABA in the home environment can cause a disadvantage in this area because often you are teaching skills the learner needs to perform in their home. Working in school and center environments automatically helps promote generalization because teaching can occur outside of the setting where the skill must be exhibited. As much as possible, vary where you teach. Run trials outside, in different rooms, at public settings, and plan trips into the community. I regularly plan “Fun Days” with my clients where we go out and do things, and on the surface I’m sure it can seem leisure motivated and just about a good time. But in reality, when we ride in a car, cross a public street, walk through a store, or enter a Burger King, multiple skills are being targeted and generalized to new settings.
3.       Talk to the parents/caregivers- In order to successfully embed generalization, you need to know where your learner is going. Are they transitioning into a new school? Transitioning out of intensive, in home ABA? Transitioning out of the use of a school shadow? Each transition can benefit from intentional generalization. I mainly work with early intervention kiddos, and before they start school I talk to the parents about helping the learner adjust to learning in a typical classroom environment. My instruction needs to mirror classroom instruction more and more, as that learner gets closer and closer to their transition into school. Otherwise, the HUGE differences between 1:1 ABA and learning in a classroom could trip my learner up and cause him/her to regress.
4.       Think about the Experience each setting offers- This is similar to point #3, but the generalization lightlbulb came on for me when I started putting myself in my clients shoes, by thinking about how the experience of setting A differs from the experience of setting B. Let’s compare learning play skills at an ABA clinic environment to learning play skills at a park. At a clinic, most likely staff won’t exceed 5-10 people, reinforcement is immediate and visible, there’s air conditioning, the space is relatively quiet, and the children sit and play on carpeted floors. Now let’s look at a typical park/playground: there are multiple adults and multiple kids present, reinforcement may be discreetly tucked away/hidden or even back at home (“You can have ____ after we leave the park”), its hot outside, there’s planes flying overhead and cars driving by, and the children sit on sand or dirt. Just examining the environmental changes, gives so many clues as to why all of a sudden the learner cannot perform a skill at the park that they readily perform during ABA therapy. Add to this possible issues with sensory processing, and it makes even more sense.

This is one of those teaching distinctions that can help consumers differentiate between a low quality ABA provider, and a high quality one. How is the provider you are working with planning for generalization? How are skills intentionally transferred across environments/settings? Generalization is a part of mastery, so a skill can’t be truly mastered until the learner can appropriately generalize.

For example if the learner is learning to wash hands, can they perform this skill at home, at school, and inside the bathroom at Red Lobster? Are they readily able to use a towel, automatic air dryer, and paper towels to dry their hands (as the materials in the bathroom usually vary from location to location)?
 If not, then that’s an error in teaching, and not to be blamed on the learner.

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