The Art of Skill Acqusition

And there absolutely is an art to it.

I will include TONS of links at the bottom of this post, because it's important to understand this post won't be a paint-by-numbers kind of thing. Teaching a new skill or behavior is not as simple as "Do this-Do this-Do that-Done".

If you took 3 BCBA's and asked them to teach a child to ride a bike, you could end up with 3 different ways to teach that skill. And that's okay.
The expertise, related experiences, and unique professional identity of each BCBA will impact how they design treatment, and how they teach skills. As long as the end result is the child independently riding their bike, then the skill acquisition was a success. The exact path to the finish line is allowed to vary.

Parents and ABA professionals reach out to me fairly frequently to ask "How do I teach my child/client to (fill in any behavior here)". My answer is usually some form of "I'm not going to be able to answer that for you in a brief email". Teaching skills, aka programming, aka skill acquisition, requires thinking/intentional planning by someone with knowledge of the learners individual skillset, deficits, and strengths (professionals refer to this as "assessment").
If you want shortcuts and don't want to think, or you want to rush over planning, or you don't know the learner very well, then you have no business designing treatment for them.

If you are a parent reading this and you work with an ABA team, ask for training in skill acquisition. If you are a parent who does NOT have the help of an ABA team, my first piece of advice is to get that help if you can. Even if you consult remotely with a BCBA for a few hours a month, that would be far more helpful than trying to implement skill acquisition on your own.
Trust me, the BCBA had to learn this skill via graduate level coursework, supervised work experience, and hands-on training with multiple learners. Translation being: skill acquisition is not as simple as it looks.

So to wrap up, if you are a parent needing help teaching your child a new behavior (making a bed, putting shoes on, completing a puzzle, putting toys away, etc.):

  1. Get as much professional assistance as you can afford. Emphasize your need for parent training to that professional
  2. Expect to put time into learning about skill acquisition. One meeting with a BCBA will likely  not be enough
  3. Have a solid understanding of the following: what is the terminal goal (how do you define the skill as being "learned"), how far away is your child from the terminal goal (baseline data), what steps will your child need to have in order to learn the skill (pre-requisite skills), and what concepts do YOU need to know in order to teach the skill (do you know how to prompt? do you know how to reinforce? do you understand motivation?)

*Links: (some great resources here!)

Heflin, J., & Alaimo, D. F. (2007). Students with autism spectrum disorders: Effective instructional practices. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall.

Crockett, J. L., Fleming, R. K., Doepke, K. J., & Stevens, J. S. (2007). Parent training: Acquisition and generalization of discrete trials teaching skills with parents of children with autism. Research in developmental disabilities28(1), 23-36.

Leaf, J. B., Oppenheim-Leaf, M. L., Call, N. A., Sheldon, J. B., Sherman, J. A., Taubman, M., … Leaf, R. (2012). COMPARING THE TEACHING INTERACTION PROCEDURE TO SOCIAL STORIES FOR PEOPLE WITH AUTISM. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis45(2), 281–298.,-maintenance-and-generalisation

Using a Task Analysis for Instruction

  •  Luiselli, J. K. (2008). Effective practices for children with autism: Educational and behavioral support interventions that work. New York: Oxford University Press.

Teaching Tips for Children and Adults with Autism

Secan KE, Egel AL, Tilley CS. Acquisition, generalization, and maintenance of question-answering skills in autistic children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. 1989;22(2):181-196. doi:10.1901/jaba.1989.22-181.

AndersonS. R.TarasM., & O'Malley CannonB. (1996). Teaching new skills to young children with autism. In C. MauriceG. Green, & S. C. Luce (Eds.), Behavioral intervention for young children with autism: A manual for parents and professionals (pp. 181-194). Austin, TX: Pro-ed.

Sundberg, M. L., & Partington, J.W. (1998). Teaching language to  children with autism or other developmental disabilities.  Danville, CA: Behavior Analysts, Inc. 

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