One of the fundamental principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the focus on applied behaviors, behaviors that are essential for that particular learner’s functioning in their everyday life. That focus on learner specific behaviors means that there is a natural variability between individual’s sessions. That being said, there are some similarities that can be expected for a preschool aged learner when starting services.
When starting services with any aged client the primary focus is on “pairing”. Pairing is the process of pairing staff with reinforcement. During this process the staff works on finding activities, toys, or games that the learner enjoys. For younger learners, or learners with not many reinforcers, edibles (i.e. goldfish, strawberries, cut up fruit snacks, etc.) will be used. When edibles are used they are typically paired with other reinforcers. Often times staff members will have a “magic bag”. This bag involves a series of novel toys and games that are only available to the learner when the staff comes for session. Due to the infrequent access to these items it often makes them more valuable. Through this process the learner often sees the staff member as “the bringer of good things”. When they come the learner gets to engage in their favorite activities, gets to play with new toys, and is receiving frequent attention. This makes the staff member very valuable to the learner. Once pairing has occurred the learner is more likely to engage in challenging tasks (i.e. programs that are being targeted). Pairing is very important when beginning sessions, however pairing is consistently happening throughout all sessions in order to keep up that positive association with the staff member.
Children at the preschool age are still developing a communication repertoire. ABA breaks communication down into several categories. The five categories most targeted at this age would be mand (requesting), listener responding (following a direction), tact (labeling), intraverbals (filling-in the-blank, answering questions), and echoics (repeating sounds). Behavioral Perspective specifically chooses to focus on the mand first. A learner can mand for many things. They can mand for a toy, food, a drink, to use the restroom, an activity, for someone to stop engaging in a behavior they don’t like, or even for information. Being able to request something from another person is not only a necessary skill but is often the basis of social interaction. Mand training occurs first in order to help the learner receive reinforcement quicker, help with the pairing process, and start building a social repertoire. Manding is a vital part of any ABA session. In addition to manding, a combination of echoics, tacting, listener responding, and intraverbals might also be worked on depending on the learner’s skill level.
Pairing, manding, and Natural Environment Training (NET), are the three main components of a preschool aged learner’s session. NET is the process of learning to use a skill in the environment you would expect the skill to occur. For preschool aged children, most of their time outside of school is spent in play. Most children starting services have difficulty engaging in play, only play with a couple toys, have a regimented way they engage with items, have difficulty sharing, or are unable to play independently at all. During the NET the learner will work on developing play skills as well as continuing to work on language (i.e. manding) and generalizing the skills they learned during discrete trial training. Depending on the learner they will have different play goals. All ABA goals are determined based on a developmentally appropriate assessment and careful observations.
Discrete trial training (DTT), often referred to as “table time”, is a structured style of teaching. This involves the learner sitting at a table (or similar space) with the staff member working on a specific set of goals. ABA uses evidence based strategies such as prompting hierarchies, task interspersal, ratios of reinforcement, as well as other strategies to teach the learner a specific skill in isolation. Once taught, the skill is then generalized to other settings (i.e. during the NET) and/or people. While most preschoolers will work up to having “table time”, it is not introduced right away. Just like staff members pair themselves with reinforcement, the table environment also needs to be enriched with reinforcement. Learners that require ABA commonly have an aversion to structured teaching environments due to their previous learning history. It is the staff’s job to overcome that aversion by making the table a “fun” environment. This may start out by simply engaging in preferred activities at the table, then adding in simple demand (i.e. “pass the playdoh” or manding), and then slowly working in more difficult demands. Once more difficult demands are being placed and learners are compliant then table sessions can be added regularly. Typically, a preschool aged learner would spend about 80% of their time in the NET and 20% of their time at table.
Depending on the learner’s needs, behavior reduction or activities of daily living (ADL’s) might also be incorporated into session. This will vary from learner to learner and would look different based on the behaviors of the learner, skill set, and the family’s needs. Behavior reduction programs might often include functional communication training or other antecedent strategies. Typical ADL’s that might be seen in a preschool aged learner’s program might be utilizing silverware to eat, washing hands, toileting, or dressing. While behavior reduction and ADL’s are not a part of every session, they are very common.
Specific programs are tailored to each learner’s individual learning history and skill set. Despite these differences, pairing, mand training, NET learning, DTT, behavior reduction, and ADL’s are typical aspects of an ABA session for a preschool aged learner. For more information on any of the programs mentioned look out for our other postings or contact Behavioral Perspective for more information.