Using Mini Schedules and Task Organizers to Help Students with ASD In Classroom Settings

There are many types of visual schedules that can complement children’s daily tasks and activities by providing more specific cues about those tasks and activities. Mini schedules are used to provide specific information about the task at hand. These mini schedules can be highly individualized based on the individual’s skill level to meet the requirements of a given task. For example, if a student needs support on steps necessary to complete a math task, a mini schedule would be used to help identify step-by-step instructions of the task.

A mini schedule can also be designed to provide opportunities for choice making. For example, a mini schedule for an art lesson would direct a student to the stages required for drawing and coloring an object. At specific points along the mini schedule, the student would be required to make a choice between two or more items to create the art project. In this application, the mini schedule provides both the structure and the opportunity for decision-making.

Another visual schedule – the task organizer, can be used to add more structure to a lesson or activity depicted on the mini schedule. Task organizers provide a task analysis, or breakdown, of the steps required to complete activities. In the case of a math lesson, a task organizer could be used to further describe the steps within a specific activity, such as writing odd or even numbers.

Mini schedules and task organizers should only be used when a student needs extra structure for understanding activities, or to provide opportunities for decision-making to help a student perform at the most appropriate, independent level. For example, some students require minimal external structure and would need only a daily schedule to keep on task. However, those students who need more assistance to complete a task on their daily schedule would benefit from a series of mini schedules for each major activity.

Remember that a mini schedule or task organizer is usually not enough to help the student be successful. Most often, each of the steps in the mini schedule would need to be taught by repeatedly prompting and correcting attempts by the student. Last, remember that you will need to reinforce (reward) the student’s correct performance of the steps in the mini schedule or task organizer.

How Do Attention and Learning Rates Play a Role in a Child’s ABA Program

Children with autism can be easily distracted and may require a high level of assistance in order to attend to tasks and activities. Their attention span is typically shorter than that of their typically developing peers. When this is the case, an ABA program will begin teaching concepts by breaking them down into simple teachable steps in a distraction free environment, such as in their bedroom or in a quiet room in the house. For example, it may be too difficult for a child with autism to learn to count from 1-10 all at one time. Therefore, each number in the sequence will be taught one by one, at the pace of your child’s learning (chaining). On Monday, they may learn the number ‘one,’ on Tuesday, if they still maintain the memory of the number “one,’ they will be taught the number ‘two,’ on Wednesday, if they still maintain the memory of numbers ‘one’ and ‘two,’ they will be taught ‘three,’ and so on. While this may seem like a very slow learning rate, a child will be taught at the rate they are capable of learning.

With shorter attention spans, it is also important to note that clear, concise, and simple instructions are typically more effective in producing effective learning opportunities. This is why simple and clear language is often used in ABA programs. For example, the instruction, “point to number 1” is a much clearer instruction than “can you please point to the piece of paper that has the number 1 written on it?” and therefore, more likely to produce the desired response. However, it is also important to note that with continued success, and as attention and learning rates increase, language and instructions should be modified to include more complexity. This will help to promote generalization.

Children with autism typically need to not only learn in small steps, but require much repetition until the skill comes easily to them. Therefore, in an ABA program, the learning environment is structured so that it will allow as much repetition as a child needs while maintaining their motivation  and interest in learning. When children begin ABA programs, they may need many repetitions on the concept before learning or mastering the concept. However, it is common to find that over time as a child learns “how to learn,” that these repetitions become fewer and fewer and learning rates increase. Some describe this phenomena as “learning to learn”.

What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)? An elaboration

Applied Behavior Analysis is the applied science of behavior formalized by B.F. Skinner. It is sometimes referred to as Behavior Modification, ABA, or Behavior Analysis. The theories, laws, and techniques have their foundations in years of basic research and describe some of the most fundamental things we know about behavior. Some early influences on the field of ABA include Watson, Thorndyke, Pavlov, and groups of psychologists, philosophers, and scientists in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that pursued empirical science.

Contemporary hallmarks of ABA include the Law of Reinforcement, functions of behavior, contextualism, and determinism. Let’s briefly look at these areas to get a better understanding of the field of applied behavior analysis.

Simply put, the Law of Reinforcement states that behavior that is reinforced will continue to occur or will occur more often in the future. Conversely, a behavior that is not reinforced will not occur or will decrease in occurrence over time (though, sometimes we see a short increase after reinforcement is discontinued for a behavior that has been previously reinforced).

Through a great deal of clinical experience, it has become apparent that one challenge with really applying this law and understanding its fundamental truth relates to a not having a good understanding of what reinforcement is or can be. Some general misunderstandings include the assumption that consequences most people would describe as positive or pleasant will function as reinforcers. For example, most people would assume that receiving a thank you note would be a reinforcer for a job well done. In practice, this is not the case. There are individuals that would have no interest in a thank you note, but would rather prefer a pay increase. There are, of course, some that would.

Often times, people attribute what they would find reinforcing to another person. Life shows us, this is not the case. Conversely, when we talk about reinforcement, something that we think may be reinforcing may in fact be punishing (a consequence that causes a behavior not to occur or to decrease in the future). Similarly, reinforcers can vary in their magnitude or effectiveness dependent on the environment and on what has happened in the time before the reinforcer is being used.

One final thought is that behavior is often under multiple schedules. Some of the schedules are reinforcing and some of them are punishing. The effects of the reinforcers and punishers that are a part of each schedule vary. This makes it challenging for all but only the most skilled Behavior Analysts to have a good understanding of reinforcement, reinforcers, and schedules of reinforcement. The field of Behavioral Economics is making strides in empirically describing these concerns. However, the law of reinforcement remains one of the important concepts in Applied Behavior Analysis.

One of the more recent (relatively speaking as it dates back to the very early ’80’s) concepts in Applied Behavior Analysis is behavioral function. Previous to this notion, the field was more commonly known as behavior modification and behavior was mainly changed by modifying consequences (e.g., reinforcers and punishers).

Research in the early 80’s demonstrated functional relationships between problem behavior and the conditions that reinforced it. This research led to the concept of behavioral function. Simply, a behavior must be analyzed in terms of what function (i.e., purpose) the behavior served for the individual performing it.

Nowadays, we commonly look at the inappropriate behavior that children with autism perform in these terms. We ask, “are they performing this behavior for attention? Are they performing it to escape or avoid something that they do not like? Are they performing the behavior to get access to something that they want? Are they doing it because it gives them some sort of pleasure?”

Additionally, there are two questionnaire-based assessments, the Questions About Behavior Function (QABF) and Motivation Assessment Scale (MAS), that assist users with determining the function of the behavior in question. The QABF was developed with adults with developmental disabilities and the MAS was developed on children with developmental disabilities.

Contextualism is a concept somewhat close to behavior function. In short, contextualism refers to analyzing behavior in terms of the context that it occurs. What are the characteristics of the environment? Is it loud? Quiet? Hot? Who is there when the behavior happens?  What happens right before the behavior occurs? What happens earlier in the lead up to the occurrence of the behavior? What happens after?

All of these questions are things that we ask when we analyze behavior. Taking these things into consideration is why we refer to Applied Behavior Analysis as contextual.

Our final hallmark of ABA is one of the more ephemeral concepts. It is complex and philosophical in nature and often times needs to be reflected on to really get a grasp of it. This is the concept of determinism. This is also one of the more controversial concepts in ABA. Essentially, the concept of determinism says that our behavior is under the influence of our learning histories, the antecedents that occasion the behavior, and the consequences that reinforce or punish it. We are not operating under the umbrella of free will.

Like was said earlier, this is a controversial concept. Some say that our verbal behavior (i.e., thoughts) can control our behavior. In some cases, it may mitigate our behavior and, of course, it is behavior and therefore is under the same influences of antecedents, consequences and learning history. However, with the exception of the species-specific behavior we are born with, we are products of our learning histories and present environmental factors.

Applied Behavior Analysis is an elaborate science of behavior and it has been applied in many arenas (businesses, animal training, individuals with developmental disabilities, individuals with Traumatic Brain Injury, etc.,). There are many laws and principles and even more techniques based on these laws and principles. Some of the main hallmarks remain those referenced above (i.e., reinforcement, functions of behavior, contextualism, and determinism).

Why Does ABA Help Children With Autism?

Why is Applied Behavior Analysis treatment helpful when teaching children with autism?  What is it about these principles and techniques that seem to be a good fit in helping improve the lives of those affected with autism? These are very important questions to ask and their answers are imperative to understanding why individuals with autism often need specialized teaching environments to learn.

We all know that typically developing children learn throughout all waking hours, even when they are not being formally taught. Typically developing children watch other children, watch adults, watch TV, learn from school, and incorporate what they have learned into their repertoire.  Often times they only need to see something once or twice before it comes easily to them. Parents are often amazed at what their children are learning and frequently ask, “where did you learn to do that?” Furthermore, when children acquire language, they often begin to ask questions of others in their environment. From the basic “why” question that parents so often get asked to more elaborate questions about “How this thing works, or how that thing works”. They become their own information seeking beings.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for the majority of children with autism. Children with autism learn much less from their environment. They have a weakness in what’s called observational learning or learning via imitation, that is, watching someone else do something, and learning to do it themselves without any specific teaching.  Children with Autism typically have decreased language skills and thus attend less to others, or they understand less of what is said to them, or they ask fewer questions of others. For most children with autism, you cannot expect to put them in a classroom setting and have them learn and absorb what the teacher is saying, mainly as a direct result of the characteristics of autism.

However, ABA programs create a very structured environment where conditions are optimized for learning, and over time, this very structured environment is systematically changed so that it mimics what a child could expect if and when they are placed in the classroom. In other words, initially, an ABA program will create a somewhat unnatural or atypical learning environment for a child, such as teaching them in a distraction free, one-to-one environment in their home, but over time, this environment will slowly change so that it looks like every other classroom that a child may encounter in their school years.  It is important to note that the main premise of an ABA program is teaching a child, “how to learn,” so that they will no longer need such structured and specialized services.

Also, ABA programs take into consideration generalization and maintenance and plan accordingly for these issues. That is, another common challenge with children with autism is that they don’t easily apply something that was learned in one environment into another environment (e.g., if something was taught at home, the child may not do it at school). Last, it is sometime difficult for children with autism to remember something that was taught at some time in the future. That is tough for all of us sometimes. However, it is essential for children with autism as their programs often are composed of skills that build on one another.

Individualization in the Treatment of Children with Autism

In ABA programs, the individual’s behavior is the primary focus when it comes to intervention development, execution, and monitoring. As such, the design and implementation of all ABA programs must be individualized. This is not only an ethical requirement, but also clinically relevant because each child has their own strengths, skill deficits, environments they spend time in, learning histories, and a unique biology. These factors must be considered during the design of an ABA program. Autism is a spectrum disorder and that means there are a lot of differences in the characteristics that each individual may have.

To illustrate, the goal of teaching pretend play skills to a child who has limited pretend play skills might be a high priority goal. However, the same goal might not be a high priority goal for a different child who already demonstrates age level pretend play skills since he or she already has this skill in their repertoire. In the case of the latter scenario, it may be more clinically appropriate to teach ways in which the pretend play skills can be expanded upon, generalized, or to target different curricular areas in which there are deficits. This is an example of how one particular goal may not be clinically appropriate for two different children.

As mentioned earlier, individualization should take a learner’s strengths and skill deficits into consideration. With this, a learner’s strengths can be built upon while the areas of deficit are strengthened. Remember, ABA is never ‘one size fits all’ and a good program should rely on assessment tools such as observations, interviews, clinical assessments, and collaboration with the learner’s family to establish individualized goals that are in the best interest of the client.

Below are a few ways in which individualization can be achieved in an ABA program:

  • Consider the interests and preferences of the child. Create ways to incorporate these in to the ABA program.
  • Consider the sociocultural values of a child’s family, along with their top concerns as they relate to behavior challenges and skill deficits.
  • Through use of validated clinical methods, explore the child’s strengths and deficits as they relate to major domains – socialization, communication, self-care, motor skills, etc.
  • Promote collaboration between a child’s family members, other professionals (teachers, speech therapists, occupational therapists) in the child’s life, and the ABA provider.

Though the list above is not exhaustive, we hope this post has provided you with some information about individualization in ABA programs!

Some Considerations and Strategies for Students with Autism in Classroom Settings

When creating an educational program for students with ASD, each student’s unique characteristics present unique challenges for administrators and school support staff. An effective classroom must include a physical structure that enhances learning opportunities and instructional approaches that facilitate learning, language acquisition, behavior management, social skills, and academic goals. We can apply many of the basic principles of effective instruction that are used in within the general education classroom as we work with students with autism and Asperger Syndrome, however, there are certain strategies that have been proven to be particularly effective. These strategies provide structure and predictability to the learning process, allow students to anticipate task requirements and setting expectations, and teach a variety of skills across content areas in the natural environment, enhancing the likelihood of generalization.

Predictability and sameness are significant factors throughout student’s daily lives. One way to address these elements in the classroom is with “Environmental Supports”. Environmental supports help students organize the physical space in ways that help our students predict any changes in their daily routines or deviations from typical expectations that may take place during the school day; different activities or events, a substitute teacher, or fire drills. We can help students understand expectations, and in general, make sense of their entire environment. Researchers have defined environmental support as “aspects of the environment, other than interactions with people, which affect the learning that takes place”. Examples of environmental supports are: Labels, Boundary settings, Visual schedules, Behavioral-based education tools, Activity completion signals, Choice boards, and Waiting supports.

All of these environmental support strategies are a simple yet effective way to help a student respond appropriately in their day-to-day activities throughout their school day. Environmental supports can be effectively utilized across all environments and all settings to help support individual with ASD. Additionally, environment supports have been shown to increase student independence, and help stimulate language.

The physical organization of the classroom can be a crucial element for them enhancing success. Structure and predictability facilitate the students understanding of the environment, which can help decrease worry or agitation the student might have. This is really important for students with autism who tend to react negatively or really that difficult time with changes and unsent uncertainty in their environment. Something as simple as labeling furniture and objects in a classroom can have numerous benefits for students with autism; label boxes or containers with visual representations such as icons or hand-written labels. Students can then be taught to match the label on the container to the label on the shelf, allowing independents in retrieving or returning an activity to its appropriate place in the classroom.

Again, we want to emphasize that each student is unique and the strategies used need to reflect their unique needs.

What is ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis)?

Applied Behavior Analysis is a scientific approach to understanding behavior. Behavior Analysis is a theory with principles and laws that are derived from research. All of the practices in Applied Behavior Analysis are derived from basic research. ABA is considered an evidence-based practice, which means that ABA has passed scientific tests of its usefulness, quality, and effectiveness. When such principles and laws are put into practice, it is said that behavior analysis is being appliedbehavior analysis helps us to understand how behavior works, how behavior is affected by the environment and how learning takes place, thus the term APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS or ABA for short.

Simply put, applied behavior analysis is a science concerned with the behavior of people, what people do and say, and the behavior of animals. Behavior analysis attempts to understand, describe, and predict behavior – why is it we do what we do and how did we learn to do what we do? The goal is to increase behaviors that are helpful and decrease behaviors that are harmful or affect learning.

The years of basic research in Applied Behavior Analysis have given us many Laws of Human Behavior that we can apply to the treatment of children with autism.  ABA has its roots in behavior therapy since the 20th century. The earliest behavior analysis on children with autism spectrum appeared in the early 1960’s and 1970’s in the USA.  ABA requires implementation of established principals of learning, behavioral strategies and environmental modifications to improve and teach new behaviors. Applied Behavior Analysis is founded on 7 core dimensions.  This means that all interventions that are provided through ABA services should fall within these 7 categories.  The 7 dimensions are, Generalization, Effective, Technological, Applied, Conceptually Systematic, Analytic and Behavioral. Generalization is when skills and or behaviors occur in environments other than where they were taught. Effective interventions are monitored to evaluate the impact on the target behavior.  Technological procedures are described clearly and concisely so that others may implement accurately. Applied is when socially significant behaviors are selected. Conceptually Systematic interventions are consistent with principals demonstrated by literature.  Analytic decisions are data based. Behaviors targeted are observable ad measurable.

It is important to understand that Applied Behavior Analysis is not only limited to autism. There is a variety of populations and fields that ABA can be applied to. The interventions that have been developed based on ABA principals are used in every walk of life and every profession.  Different types of people use ABA in their jobs and in their lives. Parents, teachers, psychologists and these ABA principals can be used in education, weight loss, animal training, sports and within many other fields and activities.  The ultimate goal of Applied Behavior Analysis is to establish and enhance socially important behaviors!

Observational Learning and Children with Autism

One of the main obstacles to learning that many children with autism face is a lack of observational learning skills. What is observational learning? It is learning that occurs without explicit teaching and by observing another person do something and simply doing what they do. Children with autism have difficulty learning by watching someone else and absorbing that information incidentally. For example, a typically developing child may look across the classroom and watch another child building a house using blocks. The next day at school this child may then build his or her own house using blocks without specifically being taught this task. This child simply watched another child, observed what the child was doing, was able to retain this information in his or her memory, and then accessed this information the next day in order to build a house. On the other hand, parents of typically developing children sometimes complain that their children are learning bad habits at school. This can also be observational learning at work. A child with autism may lack these imitation skills and so when they are in an environment filled with peers from which to learn, often times very little learning takes place. Opportunities for observational learning occur throughout the day and may contribute to a considerable amount of what we learn. Just think, was everything that you know explicitly taught to you? Chances are you answered “no”.

In an ABA program, one of the first skills taught to a child with autism is the skill of attending and imitating. Initially, this imitation might be as simple as imitating a handclap, or a wave. Over time, these imitation skills will expand so that the child can imitate complex behaviors such as how to watch a child from afar and build what they are building, how to play T-ball, how to draw pictures, or how to engage in self-care tasks such as brushing their teeth simply by watching, absorbing, and imitating. Imitation is one of the basic foundational skills needed for any child to be a successful learner. Therefore, there is much emphasis placed on imitation in ABA programs, particularly in the beginning stages of programs.

Why Do Some ABA programs Use Basic Language When Working with Children with Autism?

We know many children with autism typically have difficulty understanding language. These difficulties can be subtle. For example, a child may have difficulty understanding humor. In other cases, they may be more pronounced. That is, a child may respond to little or no language that is spoken to him or her. Taking this fact into account, most ABA programs will teach a child using simple and concise language at the beginning stages of the program. For example, if the goal is to teach a child to imitate a ‘clap’ the teacher would simply say, “Do this” or “Copy me” while demonstrating the action. The instruction would be limited to as few words as possible (in this example, two words and then a demonstration of the action). The teacher would refrain from using a longer instruction that contains more words such as, “okay, now I’m going to do something and I want you to watch me and then copy me after I’m done. Are you ready?” For a child who has difficulty understanding language, this instruction is laden with words that are unnecessary to complete the instruction and probably will include many words that the child does not presently know. Another example of this can be seen with one-word instructions given to children when attempting to teach them to perform actions. With this type of program, an instruction to the child may include something like “clap” or “stand up” and the child would perform the action. The general idea is here is to use fewer, and simpler words to evoke the desired response from the child.

Therefore, in the initial stages of an ABA program, the more concise and simpler the instruction, the more successful the child will be. It is important to note that the simplicity or complexity of language used should be based on the child’s language repertoire at the time of assessment. Over time, and with success, simple and concise instructions will be elaborated and more language will be incorporated into the instruction.

The Advantages of Applied Behavior Analysis (Podcast Episode)

A team of knowledgeable professionals from The LeafWing Center share their expertise about applied behavior analysis. They discuss the basics of the technique, what a good ABA program entails, reasonable expectations and the many benefits to be gleaned from this type of treatment. This is an in-depth tour of what ABA is and how it works.

Listen to the Podcast Episode here:
The Advantages of Applied Behavior Analysis Podcast