Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Teaching Teachers

Henry D. Schlinger Jr., Director of the Graduate Applied Behavior Analysis Program at Cal State Los Angeles, published a very interesting letter in the June 22, 2013 edition of the Los Angeles Times. His position is that “the main thrust of teacher training programs should be how to teach.” To do so, he proposes that schools of education need to “stop relying on trendy but unscientific “theories” of learning and instead focus on those based on good science, such as behavior analysis.” I can not agree more.

He adds that “when teachers actually teach, behavior problems in the classroom decline.” This is because students need to be active and interactive learners.

So now the question becomes how can behavior analysis accomplish that?

One of the core principles of Applied Behavior Analysis is that behaviors are related to the environment in which they occur. B. F. Skinner, the father of Behavior Analysis, sheds some light:

“The subject is always right” (Skinner, 1948, p 240).

“Control the environment and you will see order in behavior’’ (Skinner, 1967, p. 399)
“The task of a behavior analyst is to discover all the variables of which probability of response is a function.”

Applying this to our subject matter, we can conclude that instead of forcing the kids to fit teachers’ way of teaching, teachers need to be able to change their way of teaching to fit their students’ needs. This couldn’t be more relevant than when talking about special education. Children with special needs do not learn the way we teach, so we need to teach the way they learn. Applied Behavior Analysis is a single-subject design. Each student needs an individualized program. That is the idea of IEP’s (Individual Education Plan).   

As a first step, teachers can have more of an impact by learning the art of motivation and the power of stimulating instructional routines and structure.

The art of motivation: Simply put, this means motivating students to perform non-preferred activities. Good teachers motivate their students when they tell them they can have 10 extra minutes of recess if they finish their work on time, or give them points towards a pizza party or a preferred activity. It is important to note that motivation does not always mean a treat, or a prize. Motivating materials (i.e. arts & crafts, music, computers and tablets loaded with educational software, etc.), topics relevant to kids, and a loving, warm, and passionate approach to teaching are excellent tools. Education does not have to be synonymous with boredom. It should be an amazing experience.

In my opinion it’s time to mainstream the concept that people engage in behaviors because they work, we get or avoid something through our behaviors. When we ask children to do something they don’t want to do, we need to motivate them, so they want to do it. Plain and simple.

So, three words: Motivation, Motivation, Motivation. Let’s get out there and motivate our kids instead of forcing them, or just hoping they will comply.
Under the title “The Power of Structure and Routines”, we published a blog on April 28th, 2013, where we wrote “Structure and routines mean a stimulating, predictable and consistent daily schedule (time-space-people in charge). Lack of predictability and down time increase anxiety, which leads to problematic behaviors.” Predictability is what children need, and it should be implemented in the classroom setting. Keeping them busy is part of all this.

Skinner also pointed out that his main contribution was the measurement of behaviors. Behavior Analysis is a data-based decision making process. We need to be certain, through constant measurement and experimentation, that the program is working and it will continue to work. Data should be the indicator to make decisions to continue an educational program or change it. Sustaining an ineffective instructional program is like knowingly keeping a patient on medication that is not working. Doctors (scientists in general) analyze data and make changes accordingly. Teachers should do the same.
But more than anything good teachers share a crucial feature: passion. They are passionate about their jobs. They wouldn’t change it for anything else. Thus, the system should reward them. Parents should acknowledge and thank them.

As Henry D. Schlinger Jr. put it at the end of his letter, “It’s not rocket science, but judged on the basis of how rarely it occurs, one would think it is.”

I could not agree more.

Daniel Adatto, BCBA

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Lovaas Legacy in Autism Treatment

The autism community continues to mourn the loss of pioneer Dr. Ivar Lovaas. Realizing that Skinner’s systematic approach using reinforcement could be instrumental in teaching functional skills to children with autism , Lovaas was one of the pioneers in the implementation of  Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) principles and procedures in the treatment of autism, and in doing so helped thousands of children across the globe. The Lovaas Method of ABA starts with "discrete trials therapy” often referred to as DTT. A discrete trial consists of a therapist asking a child to perform a particular behavior. For example, “Timmy, name the animals in this picture.” If the child complies, he is given a "reinforcer" which is usually a desired prize or reward that is meaningful to the child in order to increase motivation, often times an area of deficit in children in the spectrum. The reinforcer could be a food treat, a high five, stickers in a chart towards earning play time, or anything else that has meaning for the child. If the child does not comply, he does not receive the reward, and the trial is repeated. Prompts are added as necessary to ensure the trial ends in success.  Since ABA is a data-based decision making process, data collection and analysis is warranted in order to continue a specific program or make changes.  

It's important to note that ABA interventions are single-subject designs: the specific content of the discrete trials therapy is based on an assessment of the individual child, his needs, and his abilities. So for example a child who is already capable of sorting shapes would not be asked to sort shapes indefinitely for rewards. Instead his therapy would focus on different, more complex functional skills.

As children master specific programs, therapists will start to take them out of the therapy or home setting and into more natural environments, where they can practice their learned skills in the real world. This is the meaning of “Applied” in Applied Behavior Analysis, which differentiates ABA from other therapies that are implemented only in a contrive setting where the therapist has full control over the variables in place. In simple words, we consider that a skill is mastered when the child is fluent in the real world. This often presents a challenge because the therapist does not have control over the environment when at the groceries store, a restaurant or a play-date at the park. However, research shows that this is the only way to achieve generalization of gains across settings and maintenance across time.   

Additionally, ABA therapists are required to keep detailed records on their outcomes. This means that ABA has been extensively researched and replicated. As such, ABA has a reputation for being the most scientifically researched form of successful therapy available for autistic children.                     

As I said in a previous blog (see “Common misconceptions about Applied Behavior Analysis) I fell in love with ABA when I learned all that. The more I learn, the more passionate I am. ABA gives me the answers I need to do my job effectively.  Everyone who jumps on the ABA bandwagon gets hooked. Have you ever thought about why?


Daniel Adatto, BCBA


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Summer Time and Autism

The summer is already here. Having a child with special needs at home all summer is extremely stressful for parents. As we’ve discussed in previous blogs, this kind of stressful environment often leads to behavioral issues.  

Summer should be a time of joy, sharing and spending time with family and friends. However, for those with family members who have special needs, the holidays can present unique challenges because it can often be overwhelming to children. The comfort and predictability of the school time with its routines and schedules is gone and now there is a lot of free time.

As discussed in previous blogs, being sensitive to your child’s needs and keeping familiar routines in place are the best ways to avoid summer havoc. Let’s review some recommendations to help keep parents sane during the summer. 

Prepare your child for the unexpected event: Explain to your child what is going to happen when there are changes in routines ahead of time. Be specific about every detail that might occur in any given situation, such as meal times, preferred and non-preferred activities, time to come back home, etc. New or unexpected situations can be very frightening for a child with autism and being prepared can help him cope.

Prepare the social event for your child: Avoid long trips whenever possible. Airports, planes and long car rides could be very stressful.

Stick to your normal routine as much as possible. Keep sleep and meal/snack times as close to their usual time as possible.

Keep your child busy: Don’t expect that your child will entertain himself independently. Your role here is crucial. I know that finding activities for kids with special needs can be challenging. However, there are some options available. Consult with your Regional Center or your social services agency. Schools and community centers sometimes offer activities for children with special needs. Try to build a schedule of activities similar to the schedule your child follows during the school year. 
Know the triggers and read the precursors of challenging behaviors, such as facial expressions, changes in breathing, body movements, etc. Look for the signs that your child may be unraveling and retreat to your safe place. Preventing a meltdown is always easier than managing a tantrum once it begins.

Finally, relax and enjoy. You are your child’s barometer and if you are stressed out, he will be too.


Daniel Adatto, BCBA