Lesson 6 New Instructor Training


Lesson 6 deals with beginning the therapeutic process, pairing and understanding basic behavioral terminology.  A PDF printable version of this lesson can be found at the bottom of the page.

What is ABA?

ABA is the science of Applied Behavior Analysis. It provides a structure for looking at human behaviors, what causes them and how to make them increase or decrease. It also provides a basic structure for teaching new skills (In other words, teaching behaviors we want to increase!)

 A behavior is anything that can be observed and measured either by the individual or another person.

Examples of behaviors might include: 1) imitating cookie 2)thinking about a cookie 3) asking for a cookie 4) getting a cookie out of a package 5) thinking about a cookie

Discrete Trial Teaching

Discrete Trial Teaching is one technique used in both traditional ABA and Verbal Behavior programs. The technique involves:

 a)breaking a skill into smaller parts

b)Teaching one sub-skill at a time until mastery

c)Providing concentrated teaching

d)Providing prompting and prompt fading as necessary

e)Using reinforcement procedures

Each teaching session involves repeated trials, with each trial having a distinct beginning (the instruction), a behavior (child’s response) and a Consequence (reinforcement or prompt- fade prompt)

Natural Environment Teaching

Natural Environment Teaching is a technique used in ABA/VB programs to promote generalization of skills. The technique involves using the environment the child interacts with on a daily basis to teach target behaviors. It focuses on using the child’s MO/EO in the natural environment to teach target behaviors. Because opportunities don’t always occur multiple times a day, it may be necessary to set-up multiple opportunities in the natural environment, i.e. when you are teaching a child to wash his hands, you may increase the number of messy activities you engage in, so that you have more opportunities to teach him how to wash his hands.


Pairing - The first job of the instructor is to teach the child that when they show up, good things happen! In behavioral terms, you must “pair yourself with reinforcers”. This can be accomplished in many ways but the primary way is to carefully observe the child and interact with him in a way he finds enjoyable. Observe how he likes to be touched, what kinds of voices he enjoys, how he responds to different facial expressions, what toys he prefers to play with. Approach him when he appears bored and unconditionally offer him something he enjoys. Play with him without requiring any responding. It’s sometimes helpful to have a “special” food or toy that’s only available when the instructor is present. This establishes the instructor as a form of “conditioned reinforcer”. You’ll know that you are being successful if the child appears happy when you arrive! Important factors to consider at this stage include:

a)Don’t remove the child from an enjoyable activity when the instructor arrives. For example, it would be best not to have a favorite video on just before the instructor is scheduled to come!

b)Don’t require a response. In other words, don’t give the child any directions to “come here,” “sit down,” “look at this” etc.

c)Interact in an animated and fun way to make the child WANT to be with you.

First Responses

Requiring the first response- Using the Verbal Behavior model, the most important thing to teach the child is how to ask for things they want (manding). This is because the child is typically motivated to communicate for these things (has an “establishing operation”). We typically see a big “jump” in communication skills as a child learns to mand. They learn “I talk, I get” and that gives them a great deal of power. Part of this teaching should already be occurring during the first stage. For example, if you see a child reach for a specific toy (car), you might say, “car”. Hold onto the car for just a second to see if he will echo. If not, give the car anyway. If the child does not have an echoic response under instructional control, you might also try getting a fill-in response that can later be transferred to a mand. You might say, “Let’s play cars!” then repeat, “Let’s play ”and see if the child will fill-in the response. Another useful technique is to have the desired item in view but unattainable without adult assistance and give the child a choice as the adult labels each. “Did you want car or book?” If the child does not respond even if you know he is able to say the word, it may be necessary to teach the child to be cooperative with other imitative activities as you’re teaching verbal mands. The following factors are important to consider when beginning to require responses:

a)Never require a response that you cannot prompt. For example, don’t say “Say car” while holding the car if the child does not consistently imitate. This is because we can’t physically “make him” say the word. We don’t want the child to practice NOT following instructions.

 b)If you give and instruction, such as “sit down”, you must physically guide the child to sit down if he does not do so. Again, we don’t want him to practice NOT following instructions.

c)Be sure the first instructions you give are those that you are sure the child is capable to performing and reinforce heavily for compliance. First response requirements might be non-verbal imitation, “come here” (with another adult present to prompt), “sit down,” “touch __,” match something, put a puzzle piece in etc.

d)Never use a reinforcer as a “bribe”. This means, in essence, teasing the child by holding a reinforcer in full view and requiring a response before you give the child access to it. This does not mean that you can’t use reinforcers as a “promise”. For example, if you want the child to come over to you, have something he likes in your hand and give it to him when he comes!

e)Even for children who are vocal but these vocals are not yet under instructional control, pictures or signs may be helpful in teaching the child how to request things they can say(mand). This is because you can prompt a child to perform a sign or hand over a picture but you can’t physically prompt speech. Typically, the child will quickly begin to use words functionally, if he is capable of producing them, once he understands the “rule” of manding (requesting).

Dealing with Behavior Problems

The child should never gain access to a reinforcer with negative behavior. This is often difficult at the beginning of a therapeutic relationship because, sometimes, the child may have been inadvertently reinforced for negative behavior. It’s common for children to cry and scream when they have a need that is not being met. Because the child is unable to communicate in more effective ways, parents may have tried to figure out what the child wants when he is screaming by offering all of his favored items. This reinforces the screaming and tantruming! Ignoring the tantrum may temporarily increase the behavior (extinction burst) but it’s critical that all those working with the child not “give in” to the tantruming behavior. Try to give no attention to the tantrum if the child is screaming because he wants something. Walk away, take a deep breath, and stay calm! When the child calms down, use pictures, signs or show him things until you figure out what he wants. If you are aware of what the child wants, a counting procedure can be used. Say, “No crying” or something similar and begin counting when the child stops crying, even if it’s to take a breath at first. Start over each time the child begins to cry again. Once the child has stopped crying for a count up to a pre-determined number (3-10), give him what he wants. If the child is tantruming because you have delivered an instruction and he does not want to comply, calmly use the least intrusive prompt that you can to make sure he does as he was told. If you’ve asked him to sit and he screams, guide him gently to the chair, make him sit for a few seconds then let him get up (ONLY when he is not screaming!). The important thing about negative behavior is to learn from it. If the child is tantruming, it means the teaching procedures must be adjusted. Look at the reinforcers, the density of the reinforcement, and the difficulty of the tasks you are asking him to do in order to determine what needs to be adjusted. It’s critical that negative behaviors are not reinforced but the most desirable thing to do is to use good teaching procedures so they do not occur.

Beginning Play

The following teaching techniques have been found to increase the child’s interest in people and/or toys. Remember the goal at this point is that the child “allows you” to enter his play and you become part of the reinforcement he is getting from the situation.

1.Build anticipation- Repeat the same words or sequence of movements over and over in the same manner then pause. Ex: Play “Peek – a- Boo”. Say, “ahhhhhh Boo!” as you gradually move toward the child and take a blanket off your head. As the child begins to attend to you, you will notice a smile and eye contact as you get closer. The child may begin to laugh as you remove the blanket. When you begin to see this happening, stop, right before you say, “Boo!”. The child may fill-in “Boo” or try to take the blanket off your head for you!

2.Do something unexpected - Repeat an activity in the same manner then all of a sudden change the routine. Ex: If the child is eating a cookie, say, “I’m hungry” and move toward the cookie taking a few pretend nibbles. After he has tolerated this a few times, move toward him and make loud, sloppy eating sounds!

3.Imitate what the child is doing then make a game of it. Ex: The child is stomping on pinecones while you go for a walk. You take a turn stomping on the pinecones saying, “I found one! Stomp”. Then tell him, “Your turn. Stomp” as he stomps on the pinecone. As this “game” progresses, perhaps you could find more pinecones and put them in a circle or another pattern to play the “stomp” game. Notice the author is not suggesting imitating stims but turning them into meaningful play.

4.Interrupt the child’s “play” by playfully obstructing- Ex: The child is repeatedly going up and down an indoor slide, crashing into pillows at the bottom. Grab his leg (gently) at the top of the slide and “wiggle” him saying, “Oh, No! I caught you!” You will know whether or not the child finds this “fun” if he’s smiling. Wait for the eye contact before saying, “Let go?” in a questioning manner then letting the child go down the slide. Or, if a child is running around in circles then crashing into the couch cushions, place some pillows on the floor and crash into them instead. Make sure you take turns crashing!

5. Pair words/sounds with what the child is doing- Ex: As the child is drawing by himself, say “draw, draw, draw” or “around, around, around and stop”, or “up and down, up and down.” (Whatever describes what the child is doing.) Use the type of voice (i.e. sing-song, quiet, exaggerated) the child typically enjoys. Just the pairing of these words or sounds with reinforcement make it more likely that the child will use the words/sounds later. (automatic reinforcement)

6. Do something unexpected- Ex: If the child is repeatedly scooping shovels full of sand or rice and watching it flow into a pail, pretend to eat it! Or bring a favorite character (i.e. Elmo? Barney?) over to the play to “eat”.

7. Use exaggerated facial expressions/body movements to make yourself “stand out”- EX: Open your eyes wide, fall down with a big “boom!”, cry with your mouth wide open and your hands rubbing your “tears”.

 8. Create meaning- Even if you don’t think your child said a “real word”, listen to the sounds he’s making and act is if they have meaning. Ex: While drawing, the child is babbling and says something that sounds like “sun”. Quickly pick up a marker and draw a sun as if the child asked you to draw it. (A history of reinforcement creates “meaning”.)

9. Introduce other “characters” into the play. Ex: The child enjoys having you bounce him on a ball. Bring in other toys and let them bounce on the ball. If the child starts pushing these characters off the ball say, “Go away, Elmo” as the child pushes the characters away.

10. Create a pattern where you have a role and the child has a role. Your roles can be the same such as taking turns putting balls into the ball castle or different. Perhaps you had the child the ball and the child puts it in the castle. You can tell the child "gets" that you each have a role when he begins to wait for you or look to you to take your role.

11. Once the basic pattern is established, add 1 thing to it. If you're putting balls into the castle, perhaps your next step would be to knock on the door before opening the door to get the balls out. You're creating motivation for communication and a context in which the langauge can occur.

12. Continue to add steps into the pattern to increase the length and complexity of the play scheme and to give more opportunties for manding.

Basic Teaching Terms

The basic information you need to know regarding the teaching procedures include: shaping, prompting, fading, chaining and differential reinforcement:

 a)Shaping- A process through which we gradually modify the child’s existing behavior into what we want it to be. This is typically done by adjusting the requirements before reinforcement is given. For example, if a child is just learning to say words, he may just be asked to touch and item before receiving it. Later, we may require the beginning sound, a syllable and eventually the word.

b)Prompting- Assistance given by the teacher to promote correct responding. One of the primary differences between most traditional ABA programs and the VB model is the use of “errorless learning” in the VB model and “no, no, prompt” procedures in traditional ABA models. Prompts range in intrusiveness from physical guidance, to demonstration, verbal cues, visual cues, pointing, and within stimulus prompts such as proximity. We should always try to use the least intrusive prompt that will cause the behavior to occur. For example, when initially teaching a child to “touch” a given object or picture, you may need to actually move his hand to the object at the beginning.

c)Fading- This is a critical part of teaching children to NOT become dependent on prompts. Any prompts used are gradually removed as the child becomes successful until he can respond correctly with no prompts. To use the above example, if we wanted to teach a child to touch a ball we may start by physically moving his hand to the ball, and then provide less physical guidance by just touching his elbow, then pointing at the ball etc. until the child was able to successfully touch the ball when told to. (Most children would not require this many prompts to learn to “touch” an object).

d)Chaining- Basically this means that skills are broken down into their smallest units and are taught in small units that are “chained” together. Forward or backward chaining are both techniques that are frequently used in teaching a new skill. An example of forward chaining may be to teach a child to say a sentence, one word at a time. (Say “I”, Say “I love”, say “I love you!”) If we taught the same sentence using backward chaining we would teach it from the end first! (Say “You”, say, “love you”, Say, “I love you”). Chaining is often the procedure used to teach self-help skills. e)Differential Reinforcement- Reinforcement is perhaps the most important part of teaching! It involves providing a response to a child’s behavior that will most likely increase that behavior. The term “differential” refers that we vary the level of reinforcement depending on the child’s response. “Hard” tasks may be reinforced heavily whereas “easy” tasks may be reinforced less heavily. We must systematically change our reinforcement so that the child eventually will respond appropriately under natural schedules of reinforcement (occasional) with natural types of reinforcers (social).

Tracy Vail,MS,CCC/SLP

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