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Targeting Executive Functioning Skills Using ABA


Do you realize the skills that it takes just to make sure you’re ready in the morning for work?  There’s a lot that can go wrong if you don’t have good executive functioning skills.  You might not wake up on time, or forget to pack your lunch.  You might even not know what to do if your bus never shows up.  Difficulties in executive functioning can really get in the way of true independence.  Our goal here is to get our students as independent as possible, so it is imperative we make sure they have these skills.
Executive functioning is the ability to make a plan and execute it successfully.  This might sound like a really vague explanation as to what it is.  However, when you look at the skills that fall under the executive functioning umbrella, it begins to make a lot of sense why lacking these skills can cause real challenges in the way our students navigate through life.

So what exactly consists of executive functioning skills?  Quite a bit, and they are all linked together.
Working memory
Sustained attention
Flexible thinking        
Planning and Goal Setting
Problem solving
Self-monitoring
Controlling inhibitions

Even though some of our students might not naturally pick up these skills, they are still able to be taught and learn them.  Good old ABA methodology can be super useful for teaching these vital skills. 

Here’s how you can start to work on those ever-important executive functioning skills:

Identify deficits

Figure out what is tripping up your students.  Do you assign a task, and then have them stare in to the abyss for 10 minutes before beginning, despite how fluent they are at the skills?  Does your student break down every time you take a different route to your classroom?  There are several assessments available, to quick and free assessments to pricey, more comprehensive ones.

Make objective goals

As super skilled IEP goal objective writers (and occasional BIP writers), writing objective goals should not be new to us.  The skill we want to teach should be written in objective terms as well.  This will make data collection easy and remove the ambiguity.

Incorporate reinforcement

Just like any behavior, make sure a reinforcement system is in place.  Your students may need you to be delivering the reinforcement or you may even want to use a self-monitoring system (read this post about how I set up a self-monitoring system for my students).

Chaining

Chaining is breaking down a skill into steps.  This allows our students to learn small steps in order to make a skill attainable.  The type of chaining you use will depend on what type of skill you’re teaching. 

Take data

Of course, you need a data system in place to make sure your student is actually making progress on the skill.  Since many of these skills can be targeted with chaining, using a task analysis can also serve as an easy way to take data.

Okay, so you are probably no stranger to the whole idea of setting goals, taking data, and all that good stuff.  What should we do when we actually put these things into place?

Model

Modeling is awesome for skills that may not be so objective looking.  Depending on what the student’s challenges are, you may have to explicitly model an appropriate response.  For example, I had a student two years ago that got very upset when we couldn’t use the elevator (our room was on the 4th floor, so I couldn’t blame him too much).  When there were times that the elevator was crowded, I would model self-talking myself through not using the elevator.  “Whoops, there’s too many people and it will take too long to ride the elevator.  We’ll just take the stairs, NBD”.  (NBD= No big deal, which was more or less our class motto).    He eventually caught on and would say “you’re right, Ms. Liz. NBD.”

Teach systems

Sometimes, the best way to teach a system is to task analyze the heck out of it.  This removes any ambiguity from completing the task and help our students use a systematic way to complete something.  This is where task analyzing comes in.  Break skills in to steps that a student can follow.  Using schedules in the classroom offer lots of opportunities to teach executive functioning skills, such as task initiation, task completion, and more.  However, many of us spend time teaching our students how to use their individual schedules. 

Play games

Games can be an awesome way to work on executive functioning skills.  A rousing game a memory can really motivate a student to practice those working memory skills.  Fun games like red light green light can be fun for practicing impulsivity.  Using motivating, low-pressure opportunities to practice skills can help students transfer those skills to other areas.

Use curriculum


Personally, I love the Social Thinking curriculum to target many of the areas of self-regulation and flexibility.  I know they are not technically evidence-based, but they certainly lend easy to understand rationales for skills that are not at all black and white.  The Zones of Regulation is awesome to teach students to understand their emotions and appropriate reactions.  The Team of Unthinkables helps students recognize difficulties in thinking and help students develop strategies for overcoming their difficulties.


Back to School Series: Managing Conflict with Staff


Conflict with classroom staff can add a lot of unnecessary stress in our jobs.  Tensions can distract us from getting done what needs to get done.  Unfortunately, dealing with staff conflict is just part of the gig.  And just like the other parts of being a classroom manager, nobody really gives us the proper tools for how to handle classroom conflict.  The biggest challenge is being that we’re in a position of managing, but we can’t enforce any punitive consequences.  We are in a very tricky position as special educators.
This is why we have been discussing heavily the elements of behavior change that rely on teaching and positive reinforcement.  We make our best efforts to avoid these types of situations using antecedent strategies.  However, even the most well-seasoned special educator will have a run-in with a staff member that won’t follow behavior plans, complain in front of the students, or not follow school-wide rules. 

 Teach the skills that are incompatible

We have discussed teaching behaviors so that we can hopefully avoid unpleasant situations.  This works for the stuff that you might witness that we couldn’t foresee when training.  This is for behaviors that are aggravating, but not too big of a deal.  Again, it’s a matter of teaching behaviors, especially teaching those that are incompatible with the problem behaviors.  Things like leaving personal items around the classroom could be an example of something that is unpleasant, but not a pressing issue.

Have a sit-down

Sometimes you have to just be blunt with people.  Tactful, but blunt.  Make sure these conversations happen one-on-one, as opposed to in front of other staff.  Use language that put the onus on you.  For example, instead of saying “you should be….” Start with “I need you to….”  Take the time to train staff if necessary.  In my experience, most paraprofessionals appreciate when the teacher is direct and tells them what they need to have them do. 

Don’t take it personally

There’s going to be times when you must work with staff members that attitudes that just plain suck.  Despite your best efforts, there are just some people that will come in with a not-so-great attitude.  Just keep working to the level you’re capable.  Praise them when they do something right.  Model a positive attitude.  Sometimes there are going to be outside factors that have nothing to do with the classroom that you can’t change. 

When to take it further


Sometimes you might be in a situation where you can’t manage the behavior alone, such as safety issues.  Make sure you document instances and discuss with administration so they are on board.  If your administration is on your side, you can attempt to rectify the problem by having a sit-down with the staff member.  This way, at least your administration has your back if the situation doesn’t improve.  If the situation doesn’t improve, it may be time to have a sit-down with administration.



Conflicts with classroom paraprofessionals can cause unnecessary strain on our jobs.  Read about what to do when you need to manage conflict in your autism classroom.

Back to School Series: Training Paraprofessional in the Special Education Classroom

Training is crucial but often overlooked in special education classroom.  Read about the different steps for effective staff training to ensure that traing is effective and a good use of time.


Training our staff is one of those things that necessary for a well-run classroom that we receive no training ourselves on.  When there’s so much to do in the classroom and getting your students to sit and be engaged feels like you’re herding cats, it’s so easy to see why training falls to the wayside.  Instead, paras end up getting brief and/or vague explanations of systems that frankly, need to be done correctly.  Not being done the way they’re meant to can mean data gets skewed, students are not making progress on goals, and we are not holding out classroom up to a high standard.
So you can see why you NEED to make the time to train.  It can be really hard, but it’s the only way to know for sure that your staff is doing what they need to do the right way.  It may be hard to let yourself carve out this time, especially if you have kids that really need the staff engaged with them to do any work.  I’m giving you the permission right now to let the kids get some time that maybe is not so intensive for the sake of training staff.  If engaging independently means letting your kids on the computer or tablet, that’s okay!  If it means coordinating related service providers to push-in/pull-out your students simultaneously, don’t be afraid to ask for some help.
How do we make use of the time we’re given with our staff?  It definitely helps to make a good plan.  One method of training staff consists of discussing, modeling, rehear, al and feedback. 

Discuss- Explain the skill you will be teaching them.  I find it helpful to also discuss WHY this skill is important to know and master.  You might also want to give them a guide to what exactly you want them to do (such as a task analysis) so they have the steps to refer to.

Model- Show them exactly what it will look like.  Most of us are visual learners and benefit from seeing the skill performed.

Rehearsal- Give your staff ample opportunities to practice.  I can’t tell you how many time I have been in trainings where a presenter discusses and models a skill.  I feels so confidently just observing the skill that I feel like I could do it in my sleep, only to find myself tripping up once we get to the rehearsal part.  This part is super important, because different things might pop in your head when you are rehearsing and the best time for somebody to ask questions and troubleshoot is when the instructor is right there.  Also, you want staff to be doing these skills to fluency

Feedback-  Make sure you tell your staff what they did great and what they need to change.  Make sure feedback is immediate and you are correcting errors as you see them happening, rather than waiting until the end of rehearsal.  You want to be giving ample praise so that they stay motivated and they know exactly what they can keep doing the same.  When giving constructive feedback, make sure you are describing the desired behavior.    Constructive feedback should tell the receiver what they need to be doing differently and why it needs to be done that way.




Parsons, M. B., Rollyson, J. H., & Reid, D. H. (2012). Evidence-Based Staff Training: A Guide for Practitioners. Behavior Analysis in Practice5(2), 2–11.

Read more from this blog series:
Week 3: Training Staff
Week 4: Handling Conflict with Staff



Training is crucial but often overlooked in special education classroom.  Read about the different steps for effective staff training to ensure that traing is effective and a good use of time.

Back to School Series: Increasing and Decreasing Behaviors in Staff

Our classroom paraprofessionals are there to help us.  However, we need to be mindful of how we make sure they are successful at helping us do our jobs.

Hopefully you got some ideas for discovering the preferences of your staff.  This is going to be key to figuring out what motivates them, what activities they find reinforcing.  This will make things much easier once we start thinking about the behaviors we want to increase (and possible and possible decrease!
We have all been there.  Maybe you had a staff member that looked at their phone more often that the data sheet in front of them.  Or you had a para that didn’t run a program the way you explained it.  It’s frustrating, and sometimes, you feel like you are the problem.
When we are thinking about what we want to change in the classroom, we want to keep one thing in mind.  It’s one of those ABA things that should be thinking about with our kids too (so many overlaps).  We should really be thinking about the skills we need to teach rather than the skills we are trying to diminish.  Many times, the behaviors that we don’t want to happen are happening because the individual doesn’t know another skill.

Think about what change you want to see in the classroom, not just the result

Thinking about the effect you want behavior change is important, yes.  However, we want to think about what observable behaviors will make this happen.  Maybe you really want to see your classroom be kept clean throughout the week.  In order to achieve this, we have to think about the behaviors that will cause this type of change.  Maybe it’s having a para sweep during their 1:1’s free time, or having paras make sure they put their garbage in the garbage when they are finished with it.

Setting goals together will definitely help with buy-in from classroom staff.  Like I mentioned before, think about the behaviors in objective terms.   Avoid thinking goals in term of what you want the end goal to be.  For example, assisting a student to complete work in 20 minutes is thinking about the end results.  This can lead to staff not using the best methods to meet that goal, such as over prompting.  Picking one or two goals to target at a time is a great way to keep each other accountable, rather than setting multiple goals.  Kristine from Autism the TeenYears has an awesome post about goal setting with staff. 

Set them up for success

No matter how busy things might be, make the time to TRAIN YOUR STAFF.  This is personally tough for me to wrap my head around after all these years, but really, your staff will have no idea what you want from them unless you spend the time to discuss, model, and give feedback.  I’ll be discussing an evidence-based method to training staff next week.
Once staff is trained, I personally love using self-monitoring to help keep staff accountable.  It is a little less intrusive than having to be continuously taking data and makes staff accountable.  A checklist or task analysis can be great ways to help staff self-monitor.

Celebrate!

Make sure you’re reinforcing staff immediately.  Just like with our kids, feedback is much more effective if it’s immediate rather than delayed.  How you reinforce is going to change based on your staffs’ preferences.

Verbal praise, many times, is going to be the method in which we’re reinforcing our staff.  Make sure praise is specific and enthusiastic.  Nothing is less motivating than a piece of feedback which you don’t even entirely believe the giver actually believes.  If you find staff is really reinforced by attention, you may even want to look for opportunities to let administration know. 



Read more from this blog series:
Week 2: Increasing and Decreasing Behaviors in Staff
Week 4: Handling Conflict with Staff

Our classroom paraprofessionals are there to help us. However, we need to be mindful of how we make sure they are successful at helping us do our jobs.

Back to School Series: Pairing with Paraprofessionals

Just as pairing with our students with autism is a crucial with our students, it's also vital to pair with our paraprofessionals.  Read about how you can pair with paras in order to start the school year off right.


Before we dive into the how’s of training, teaching, and getting out paras doing what we need them to do, we need to talk about the most crucial thing we need to be doing: pairing.
Hopefully, you have some background knowledge on what pairing looks like for our students.  Pairing, in essence, is building rapport with the client or staff are working with.  You are PAIRING yourself as a reinforcer.  It’s a crucial part of the process of making our classroom and ourselves motivating to work with.  For more information about pairing with students, you can read my previous post here
Like I said before, the concepts are the same with our staff as with our kiddos.  We wanted to make the classroom motivating for our paras.  Why?  Because, just like our kids, if they’re motivated and happy, they are more likely to engage in the working behaviors we want to see (this all sounds so familiar)!

 Assessing preferences

Finding out our paras preferences are going to be the key to pairing.  There are three things we should keep in mind when we are trying to understand our paras’ preferences.  Frankly, these things we should be taking into consideration when we’re also assessing our student’s preferences:
  • Don’t assume you know what your paras want.  Preference is individual.  You might love a big juicy hamburger, but as one of those annoying vegans most people can’t stand, if you dropped that same hamburger in front of me, I wouldn’t feel the same.
  • Preference changes.  Maybe you loved sushi in September, but after getting food poison, I’m sure you didn’t feel quite the same way after that incident.
  •  Be careful when using long term tangibles.  Just like when are thinking about the long term with our kids (in that we do not want them to be working for tangibles on the same schedule at 20 years old as they were when they were 4 years old), we don’t want to get in a habit of using less natural reinforcers in order for our paras to work.  You want the classroom to be naturally reinforcing.

So how do we get to know our para's preferences?

The great thing about adults is many times, you can just ask them!  When I am preparing for the beginning of the school year, I like to give them a chance to make choices about the type of responsibilities they like to have in the classroom and have them reflect on what they don’t feel as strongly about.  I will usually hand out a survey similar to the one below.

Want a copy of this para survey?  It's free in The Resource Vault.  Click here to sign up!

I feel like giving the paras an opportunity to voice their opinions and preferences gives paras a chance to see that you are interested in what they have to say about the type of work they’re doing.  It gives them some ownership about the ways they are useful in the classroom.  Of course, there’s always going to be activities in the classroom they’re not so keen on having to complete.  However, keeping in mind what they enjoy doing and implementing that when possible with make them more likely to engage in the activities that they don’t love as much.
Even though we don’t want to become reliant on giving our paras tangibles, I think it is important to take the time to find out what things they like and dislike.  Like in the example I gave before, I wouldn’t be so excited if somebody brought me a Big Mac.  However, I can’t tell you how much it meant to me when my para brought in a vegan cookie she saw in the store (which happened to be my favorite cookie brand!).  It meant so much to me when she remembered my personal preferences.  It helps to pay attention to what your paras just happen to say in passing about food preferences, hobbies, etc.  This will give you great insight into what they like (or dislike!).  

Above all: Build relationships

While researching this topic I found this quote that I really love by Aubrey Daniels, known as the “father” or organizational behavioral management (aka ABA for business):
“To make reinforcement, reward, and recognition effective, you must first develop relationships with people.” (Daniels, 2000)

Although it’s important to assess our staff’s preferences, there are some things most people want from a manager.  Think of any personal relationships we have.  Most our relationship are built because of a mutual respect, trust, and appreciation for one another.  For most of us, a leader who is caring, respectful, and honest will above all with make us much more reinforcing to our staff.  Ask them about their grandchildren, or show interest in something they love to do over the weekend.  Make sure you always treat staff in a way that shows they are valuable to the team.  Don’t fall into the "us and them" mentality that (unfortunately) some teachers fall prey to.




Read more from this blog series:
Week 1: Pairing with Classroom Staff
Week 4: Handling Conflict with Staff


Just as pairing with our students with autism is a crucial with our students, it's also vital to pair with our paraprofessionals. Read about how you can pair with paras in order to start the school year off right.


Back to School Series: Evidence-based Practices for Working with Special Education Classroom Staff

As special education teachers, we rely heavily on our paraprofessionals to help us get everything we need done.  We are put in to the role of manager that, frankly, many of us are not prepared for.  In our Back to School blog series, we will discuss strategies for working with paraprofessionals that will lead to postive outcomes.


Think back to when you were in school to become a special education teacher.  You probably heard a lot about differentiation, quite a bit about behavior, and got good overview of data collection measures.  Try as we might, most of us get thrown in the fire during our first year of teaching.  There is one thing above most else that really throws us for a loop: managing staff in the classroom!
Far and beyond anything else, the one thing I hear concerns about are working with paras.  Most teacher preparation programs haven’t gotten it that managing classroom staff is a BIG part of being a special educator.  Most of us are not ready to be thrown in to this role as classroom manager, while also not really having the authority to dole out formal feedback, implement punitive consequences, or make decisions about keeping staff.  
I had a former BCBA supervisor that used to talk all the time about ABAing people- ABAing your husband to do the dishes, ABAing your colleague to be the one to plan that science unit you just can’t stand.  Most people don’t realize ABA can be used for many things- not just kids with autism (or in my supervisor’s case, your loved ones).  One branch of ABA that I have found fascinating is what is called OBM: Organizational Behavioral Management.  Let me fill you in if you’re not aware: OBM is a branch of ABA that deals with using the same principals of Applied Behavioral Analysis to increase productivity and performance quality in businesses and corporations.  Imagine the possibilities of we all knew how to use these same principles to change our students’ behavior to change our staffs’ behavior.  Of course, it’s not as simple as using some sort of fairy tale princess token board or a visual lanyard, but like I said, the principles are still applicable.
During the month of August, we will touch upon the different methods to increase behaviors, train staff, and make the classroom reinforcing to our paras.  I can’t promise to make everything sunshine and rainbows, but hopefully you’ll be able to get some tips and tricks to managing staff.

Ready to dig in?  Here’s what we will be talking about:




As special education teachers, we rely heavily on our paraprofessionals to help us get everything we need done.  We are put in to the role of manager that, frankly, many of us are not prepared for.  In our Back to School blog series, we will discuss strategies for working with paraprofessionals that will lead to postive outcomes.

How to Plan Field Trips for Students with Autism


Field trips are a part of most schools.  They're a great way for carry over in to the general setting of skills and concepts learned in the classroom.  Here are some tips for taking our students with autism out on field trips.

Ah, field trips.  They can feel like a blessing or a curse to any teacher, self-contained or not.  There are many, many mixed emotions that can occur when it comes to field trips.
I personally feel one of two ways about field trips: generally, I’m really excited about them.  You have a chance to do something beyond the typical routine, and your kids get opportunities to be out in the community.  If you’re like me and my colleagues, you may even have an opportunity to practice skills in real-life situations.   The contrasting feelings I experience usually occur during or after the field trip: exhaustion, anxiety… but it doesn’t last long and I’m typically excited to take my kids on a field trip once again. 
However, there are must-do’s BEFORE the trip in order to make sure I avoid those not-so-great feelings.  The more I prepare for a field trip, the better off my students and myself are.

Go over the rules

Being out of the classroom means we need different rules to follow.  It’s way easier to wrangled 6 kids in a 20x20 classroom, but a little harder in a public area where there so much stimuli to pull them in so many different directions.  Take a few minutes before the trip to go over the important rules.  Have them help you think up rules for more buy-in.

Field trips are a part of most schools.  They're a great way for carry over in to the general setting of skills and concepts learned in the classroom.  Here are some tips for taking our students with autism out on field trips.

Prepare your students

Sometimes field trips tie in perfectly to a unit you’re in the middle of (sometimes it doesn’t, let’s be honest).  Either way, make sure to prepare your students.  For community trips, I really like make social stories based on the skills we will need on the trip and what behaviors are expected.  This is especially important if this is a place/experience your students have never experienced before.

Field trips are a part of most schools.  They're a great way for carry over in to the general setting of skills and concepts learned in the classroom.  Here are some tips for taking our students with autism out on field trips.


Give them an assignment

Lack of direction is a no-no for most of our guys.  Having an aim, such as finding certain animals at the zoo or looking for landmarks.  Hopefully your students will be so occupied completing the task that they will not be motivated to act out.

Keep the reinforcement going

It’s in your best interest to keep whatever reinforcement systems you have in the classroom going during field trips (trust me!).  Since you are practicing new skills, it’s even more imperative to be reinforcing them.  Whether it’s token board, points sheets, or anything in between- keep consistent!


Name tags

This might be an obvious one, but it’s the most important.  Make sure your kiddos have name tags.  For my middle school students, I love making name tags that look identical to actual ID tags and putting them on a lanyard for easy access.  This might vary for the age/abilities of your students.  Younger kids may bode well with a larger name tag.  Older, lower support guys may do great with having an ID that you have them keep in their wallet or on a lanyard.  I like using this website to make photo ID cards.  You can find the website I like to use here.

What are your must-do's before a field trip?  How do you generally feel about field trips?




Field trips are a part of most schools. They're a great way for carry over in to the general setting of skills and concepts learned in the classroom. Here are some tips for taking our students with autism out on field trips.

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