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4 Things You've Wondered About Token Economies but were afraid to ask

Token economies: If you have even spent a day inside an autism classroom, it’s more than likely not your first rodeo using token economies.  Token economies are used so often because they are so versatile: you can target reinforcement of several behaviors at once, you can run them so that students are using them independently or in a dependent or interdependent fashion, and it allows for students to earn whichever type of reinforcement their little hearts desire.

However, I think the versatility and simplicity of token economies sometimes lends to us making some mistakes when using them.  You might be in the middle of working with a student, and all the sudden you’re at a lost for how to administering the token economy in the moment, or worse, it seems like the token economy is not working at all to change your student’s behavior.  You second guess yourself for a minute.

Well, I am here to clear the air about some of the things you might have silently asked yourself while using a token economy.

This is a great question that I don’t think people ask nearly enough.  It seems like common sense to most of us to just show a kid a token board and they’ll magically understand that they can earn stuff.  Not the case many times!  Yes, often you can get away with explaining the token economy, the schedule of reinforcement, and possible backup reinforcers.  However, there are some students that need somebody to actually TEACH them.  How to do so?
Tokens should be paired with tangible reinforcers at first.  To do this, a token should be delivered at the same time as the tangible reinforcer.  So for a while, you might have to hand over a cookie or give them a moment with an iPad and simultaneously slap a token on their token board.  It might be a nuisance to do this, especially since you are probably using a token board for the whole ease of it.  However, if tokens aren’t reinforcing to the student, there will be no point of even using them!

Nah, son.  Pretty much anything tangible can be used as tokens to exchange for backup reinforcers.  I have seen blocks, marbles, even simple tallies on a piece of paper.   If you think your guys might be too big for token boards, things like paperclips, poker chips, and other small items can work.  If you want to stick to a whole-class system, you can make it super functional and use (fake) money as tokens where students have to “pay” for their backup reinforcers.  If you want to up the ante and make it really fit life skills application, you can have your students use a balance that they have to use to keep track of their tokens.
If you have students that you can rely on to administer tokens to themselves, you can also put a self-monitoring system in place.  Not only does it take the onus of administering tokens to the learner, but it also teaches students to taken responsibility of making sure they are exhibiting desired behavior.  Read more about how I use self-monitoring.

The term “fading” seems simple enough, but there are some things to keeps in mind when fading a token economy.  First, you want to make sure you’re not doing it too abruptly.  Just because Johnny was able to earn tokens in 3 minute intervals on Monday does not mean they should be moved up to 5 minute intervals on Tuesday.  Make sure to wait to increase the intervals/ratios after the student has been earning consistently.  Take data so you are not second-guessing about whether the learner is ready or not.

I have seen token economies run like this.  However, do make sure that it’s made known to the student about which behaviors will cause them to lose tokens.  It’s not fair to threaten a student that they will lose a token because they are acting up without defining to them what “acting up” is.  Make sure that if there’s a system of punishment, they are made aware and it is ALWAYS paired with a system of reinforcement.

Have any other questions about token economies or anything else behavior related?  I have something in the works and I would LOVE to answer any and all questions related to behavior.  Click below and shoot me an email!

How to Encourage Your Students to Take Ownership of Their Learning with IEP Goal Tracking

Learning should not be a one-track conversation for students, and that includes our students with disabilities.  Imagine being at work and having no knowledge or input on what your yearly goals were?  How weird!  You wouldn’t even know what was expected of you, or in you were headed in the right direction.  This should be no exception for our students.  As a matter of fact, having the opportunity can really help with student's executive functioning skills  
Last year, I began to focus on having my students reflect on their learning.  I was pleasantly surprised at how much they could do, and how it motivated them to keep working towards their goals.
This is why I developed my IEP Goal Tracking and Self-reflection pack.  I knew our kids would be able to reflect, even if it was in a super simple, straight forward way.
There is a myriad of reasons our special education students should self-reflect on their learning: it helps them learn important executive functioning skills, makes them aware of what goals they are working on, and gives them ownership of their learning.  Read about how I help my students take control of their learning.

Here is how I set up my students’ IEP Goal Tracking binders:

First, I give it a cover.  Not the most important step, but a cute cover makes everything a little better.
There is a myriad of reasons our special education students should self-reflect on their learning: it helps them learn important executive functioning skills, makes them aware of what goals they are working on, and gives them ownership of their learning.  Read about how I help my students take control of their learning.

Second, I fill out an IEP Goal Sheet for each student’s goals.  It also allows you to list the objectives of each goal.  No lie, my students get ridiculously excited when they can check off that an objective had been met.
There is a myriad of reasons our special education students should self-reflect on their learning: it helps them learn important executive functioning skills, makes them aware of what goals they are working on, and gives them ownership of their learning.  Read about how I help my students take control of their learning.

Third, we fill out our data tracking sheet.  We use this to track our scores and how we were assessed.

There is a myriad of reasons our special education students should self-reflect on their learning: it helps them learn important executive functioning skills, makes them aware of what goals they are working on, and gives them ownership of their learning.  Read about how I help my students take control of their learning.

Next, we fill in our self-reflection sheet.  Students reflect on how they were assessed and how they feel about the direction they’re headed in in terms of meeting their goal.
One of my students took the liberty of adding some of his own reflection option, haha!

Lastly, we add a brand new data point to our data graph.  There are a few graphs included, since of course, not every graph is measured by percentage and not all our students have mastered translating a score in to a percentage.
There is a myriad of reasons our special education students should self-reflect on their learning: it helps them learn important executive functioning skills, makes them aware of what goals they are working on, and gives them ownership of their learning.  Read about how I help my students take control of their learning.
To reinforce the idea of reflecting on our learning, we use the Self-reflection exit tickets daily during Teacher Time to reflect on our understanding of what we learned that day.  I love seeing how honest my students are in their reflections.  Best of all?  These exit tickets are easy to attach to a permanent product or data sheet.
My result with implementing our IEP goal and self-reflection binders?  My students are taking ownership of their learning.  I have one student who has made the biggest impact personally.  This is a student that had so much trouble with failure.  In the beginning of the year, the mere thought of not knowing something to mastery was aversive to him.  I’m taking about negative self-talk, walking out of the room, and basically a total meltdown whenever he didn’t perform to the level he wanted.  He still has his moments, but being made aware of his goals and having a system to track them has seriously desensitized him to the idea of not knowing everything.

You can find my IEP Goal Tracking and Reflection kit in my Teachers Pay Teachers Store.  Click below to see it!

There is a myriad of reasons our special education students should self-reflect on their learning: it helps them learn important executive functioning skills, makes them aware of what goals they are working on, and gives them ownership of their learning.  Read about how I help my students take control of their learning.

Tips for Getting Through a Personal Crisis as a Special Educator

As special education teachers, we go through a lot emotionally to help our students. When personal crisis hits, it can be really hard to manage.

We experience some serious ish as special education teachers.  How many people can say thy have dealt with the things we deal with?  From aggression to changing diapers, there are some things most people could never imagine.  We may even have kids dealing with so much more than their special needs: like poverty or living in foster care.  It’s unfathomable how some of our neediest students have so much more going on than just disabilities, and we are witness to that.
As much as we might be exposed to when working in a field like this, most of us can manage dealing with these things.   We may absorb some of this, sure.  However, most of us are blessed to come home to our own families, a safe and comfortable place to call home, and the security of knowing we’ll be able to afford essentials. 
But just when you think things are going great, life outside of work can throw you a curve ball.  Life happens to us too.  Take it from me: this whole summer, all I could think about was new classroom work tasks, and how I would coordinate my classroom with my new Astrobrights paper.  A week before the start of school, my mom was diagnosed with cancer.  I’m so thankful to say we’re at the end of her treatment and she will be back to her usual self in a few months.  However, since the diagnosis, my mindset has shifted extremely.  School years previously, I didn’t bat an eye at spending money on printer ink or snacks for the classroom.  Now I limit my spending “just in case”.  Last year I didn’t think twice about taking a day to get personal business finished.  Now I ration my personal days carefully to make sure I’m available to take my mom to doctor's appointments.
I’m not going to lie, it can be overwhelming to deal with things like family illness or divorce when working with some of the neediest of needy kids.  However, over the past few months, I have learned some tips and tricks that help me cope.

Devote yourself to being present

Going in to this school year, this was the one goal I had for myself.  I never dealt with anything as close to this and I had no idea how I would handle it.  I knew, however, that my students deserved all of me when I was at work.  Whatever is going on outside of work, not bringing your whole effort during school hours will not change it.  Getting myself in to this type of mindset also helps because work can serve as a great distraction.  Being productive makes difficult times a little manageable.  There are days I wake up and there is nothing less I want to do than get up and spend the day at school.  However, once I am there, I am so happy to be engaging with my students and staff and I am seriously thankful I did get my butt there.  Life will still move forward even in times of personal difficulty.

Ask for help

Hopefully you all are as blessed as I am to work with exceptional staff.  One of the things that has lifted me up this year has been my paras.  On the first day of orientation, I let them know off the bat what was going on.  Don’t be afraid to make your classroom staff aware of what is going on.  I don’t mean to divulge in uncomfortable details or let conversation take over your classroom, but let them know.  Prepare them in advance in case you may have to take a day unexpectedly.  My paras know exactly what to do on the days I have had to be out to be with my mom.  I also made the point to my staff that seeing them work hard is going to make me want to give my best.   If they see I am having a tough time, they know to spring in to action in order to help us all do what needs to be done.

Get your ducks in a row

If you are in a situation like mine, you may find yourself in a position where you need to take more time off than you normally would like.  If there is that potential, make sure you you are well prepared.  See what the rules are about taking several days.  Discuss with your union rep about the process of FMLA.  Even if it's hopeful you won't be in the type of situation, it's still a good idea to get this stuff sorted out before it's an issue.  You should also be prepared with lessons and sub plans in the event you have to be out.  

It’s totally okay to not have money or time to spare

Time and money are valuable.  If you are going through a rough patch, you may be limited with both.  You are under no obligation that you MUST spend either your time or your money outside of work for work.  If you need money or time to make whatever you’re going through manageable, take care of yourself and your family first.  Your classroom will still run if you don’t spend all Sunday planning.  Your kids can have great learning experiences just because you didn’t shell out money for classroom materials.

Make sure your needs are being met

I know us special ed teachers are notoriously good at throwing the whole “put yourself first” thing to the wind.  During this time, though, you better take that advice.  You may be stretched thin, so it’s especially important to make sure you’re taking care of yourself: Get enough sleep, eat your veggies, and devote some time to making sure you can handle it all.  If you're stretched thin, you're even more apt to end up sick, so it is imperative to keep yourself healthy so you can keep taking care of it all.

If you're going through a tough time, please know I am routing for you.  It's not easy to have such an emotionally taxing job and be going through a tough time, but your kids, their parents, and I are thankful for you pushing through it!

Xtra Math: Why It's a Powerful Tool for Self-Tracking

Self-assessment has been a hot topic recently in classrooms.  I'm not even talking exclusively about general education classroom, special education classrooms as well!  Frankly, our kids should be aware of how they're doing and given the opportunity to think about how they want to improve.  There are quite a few skills that can go in to self-tracking and reflecting: problem solving, planning, and flexibility are just a few!

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably heard of the website Xtra Math.  You may have heard it is a great tool to teach fluency of math facts on a way that is more fun that a regular old worksheet.  You may have been witness to that great bald guy in the red shirt directing your kids through math drills.

Xtra math is all of this things that you have seen and heard.  It’s really just a no-frills, yet motivating way to teach fact fluency.  One of the best features of the website is that it tracks your students’ progress in a simple, easy to read little graph on the website.  It also displays a little weekly calendar with color-coded boxes to indicate how accurately the student answered.  It does much of the data tracking work for you, and let’s be real, I am all for anything that takes data for me.

However, this year one of my main goals for my class is to get my students to track their own data and reflect on their work.  This can be tricky when you have a couple of students that are quite aversive to the idea that they ever do anything wrong!  Despite this, the fact that Xtra Math is so motivating paired with the more aversive self-reflection has lead to more self-directed goal monitoring.

For my classroom, I set up an Xtra Math Data Tracking Binder.  After my students finish Xtra Math for the day, they independently (after some modeling and prompt fading) track their scores.  When they have extra time, they graph their data.  The data is kept on their individual work bulletin boards: blaring evidence of self-tracking, and a graph for their portfolios.  I am seriously getting a lot out of this whole routine!

If you would like to use my self-tracking sheet so that your students can monitor their data, download the freebie here!  In you're on Instagram, I would love to see the ways you use this sheet to self-track.  Or, if you have another idea for self-tracking, tag me in your picture @theautismvault.  I always love seeing how other special education teachers have their students self-tracking!

Do you use Xtra Math in your classroom?  How do you use it to your benefit?

How to Promote Social Language in Students with Autism

Many students with autism are not naturally reinforced by socializing with their peers. As a matter of fact, they may find socializing aversive. Read about how I work to make my students reinforcing to one another to promote social language.

When we start off working on communication with our less advanced students, we might spend a lot of time teaching the basic functions of language.  However, once our students have mastered most of the ins and outs, we need to start thinking about how we can get them socializing with each other.  You would think it would be easy enough.  Give them some sort of fun game (Uno, or Jenga anyone?) only to find students that are less than interested and trying to find any and every way to get the hell away from each other.  Or you may set up some sort of really (to be honest) boring set up in morning meeting where everyone says hi to one another, or asks about their weekend.  Yawn, right?  I have done plenty of this myself, so no hate! Having experience with this, it can get a little predictable and is not very exciting after a while.  And personally, I think if it’s not so motivating to you, it’s probably not motivating to your students.
So how do we get our students engaged in social stuff?  Well, we must make it reinforcing just like anything else.  However, we want to try to keep the reinforcement at natural as possible.  The way to do this is to make our peers reinforcing.  Here are some of the ways I have been working on social language and making my students reinforcing to one another.

Peer Tutoring

Nothing’s more fun than playing teacher, right?  You can always set up instances where students can play teacher.  This year, I have found my fluency station to be perfect for this.  I have three students that are practicing fluency phrases.  I specifically made a data sheet with a task analysis of instructions for the instructor/data collector.  This give students a chance to work together on something academic, yet reinforcing. 

Cooking Lessons

It’s really easy to get caught up in doing a cooking lesson as a whole group and generally guiding students through the cooking lesson.  However, if you have more advanced students, you can always throw caution to the wind and let your students lead the cooking lessons.  If you have two or three students can monitor the cooking lesson, put them in charge and guide their classmates through the cooking lesson as the “leader”.  This gives your more advanced students a chance to work in a leadership role, while giving your less advanced students a reason to ask them questions (“where’s the measuring cup?”)  Of course, food is always motivating, so it works really well in that it pairs something reinforcing (food) with something that may be not so reinforcing (peers).

What if my students are just not reinforced at all by their peers, no matter how cool or interesting the activity is?

It’s common to run in to this problem, so don’t feel like the worse teacher ever if this does happen.  If this happens, it’s okay to implement a less natural reinforcement system.  A group contingency is a great way to do this.  This just means a reinforcement system where the group works together for a common goal.  For example, we have probably all seen examples in general education classrooms such as the entire class earning points based on the whole group’s behavior rather than an individual token economy.  Make sure you are using a group contingency where students are earning more as opposed to losing.  This works well to pair reinforcement with their peers during games or activities that may not be so naturally reinforcing at first.

Do you find your students to be reinforcing to one another?  How do you work through it in order to teach social language?

5 Ways You May Be Causing Behaviors in Your Classroom

Our classrooms may be the cause for behaviors more than we realize.  Read about some considerations to keep in mind when teaching in an autism classroom.

None of us are strangers to undesirable behaviors, amiright?  We would not have the jobs that we do if they didn’t happen.  We do our best to help our students with autism learn the replacement behaviors that will get them their wants and needs safely and effectively.  However, I think it is super important to take the onus on making our classrooms a place where our students with autism feel safe and comfortable.  There are so many factors that can play on to our students’ management needs.  Several of these needs may not even come to minds.  It’s easy for us to forget, as it’s safe to say that most of us are neurotypical and not experiencing the same things our students might.

Not Enough Structure

The unknown is the antithesis of learning for our guys.  This is why we have individual schedules and predictable routines.  I have used this analogy before, but it will make sense to those of us who have been substitute teachers: think about the difference between being a substitute that’s going to a different school every day versus having a permanent job.  You’re not familiar with the route to get to the school, the protocol for clocking and signing in, your schedule, or your students.  When you have a permanent placement, everything is on autopilots and lends itself to be a lot less anxiety inducing.  For our students, when they can be on autopilot, their anxiety is reduced.  This will allow them the brainspace for more learning.

Too Much Overwhelming Stimuli in the Classroom

One thing I have realized my scoping out people’s teacher Instagrams and looking through Teachers Pay Teachers is this: people (specifically teachers) really like rainbow.  I get it: there’s something about looking at a picture where every part of ROY G. BIV is making a bold presence.   I think it is stimulating to most neurotypical people?  However, for our students with autism, it can be kind of overwhelming to be surrounded by so many colors.  I personally like to stick with cooler, calming colors, which are supposed to, obviously, help with staying calm. 
Frankly, too much crap on the walls in general can cause issues too.  There’s so many places to look and see that it can be a lot.  Make sure any posters and visuals serve a purpose and are used in a way to help the student.  Back to colors, use colors in a way that is meaningful (such are color coding each student’s classroom items or giving each center a color).

Tasks are too hard/easy

It can be a slippery slope in a special ed class.  Your instructions can go in so many different directions that it’s so likely that you could be in a classroom with students that can’t identify letter mixed with ones that can write 4-5 sentence paragraphs.  Tread lightly on giving work that is super taxing, even if a para is readily available to work.  In contrast, be careful not to give stuff that is so easy a student whizzes right through it or does not feel challenged.  Find the balance between alternating easy tasks with more challenging ones.

Not making expectations and directions clear

When it comes to behaviors, academics, whatever…always be clear and consistent what needs to be done and what will earn the goods (aka reinforcers).  Students should be aware of what behavior will earn them and which will not.  When giving directions, make sure you are explicit as possible.

Not working enough of functional communication

It pains me to write this, but I have seen it wayyyyyyy too often.  Students that are have pretty significant behaviors, but when you inquire on what method of communication they use, it’s “none”.  This is frankly unacceptable, and will make less than desirable behaviors a viable option to get out of work/gain attention/get a favorite item (you get the idea).  Work on building the understand that communication (however that may look for a student) will get them the good stuff more quickly and easily than the less desirable actions.

Can you think of anything else that should be added to this list?

The Road to Becoming a BCBA: the Things That Surprised Me the Most

The road to becoming a BCBA can be a really tough road. There is schooling, supervision, and other hurdles. However, it is worth it and I am pleasantly surprised about some things I have learned becoming a BCBA.

After years of schooling, supervision, after-school behavior therapy, and slaving away studying the entire summer, I’m officially a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA for short)!  When I found out I passed the exam, I felt more shock than anything.  I constantly hear stories about people who need to take the test 4-5 times before passing.  The time, money, and mental exhaustion where things I wasn’t sure I would be able to handle for a second time.  Knowing how challenging it is to retain all that there is related to ABA and its application, I honestly wasn’t so confident that I would pass.  Not going to lie, passing on the first try was a big confirmation that I knew this stuff all along.  However, it wasn’t always so clear that I would land in this field.
My first exposure to autism classrooms was when I was in undergrad and worked as a substitute aide in special education schools.  Like most people that have never been exposed to the ways that children with autism learn, the whole thing was very new to me.  The teacher in the classroom would always set me up in a station and I would usually just play with the student that was with me.  I didn’t entirely know at first what was going on, but I would overhear directives, a short pause, followed by a “good job! Here’s a M&M” or “nice try, try again” coming from the other stations.  There would be thick binders and little craft organizers with different snack foods broken in to teeny tiny pieces.  This was what I thought ABA was for many years.
When I was considering going back to school for my post-master’s credits, I struggled with deciding the best route for me.  I wanted to do something that would further my career, but I sure as hell didn’t want to be an administrator.  I was hesitant about ABA because all I remembered was my stint as a sub aide.  It seemed really dry and boring.
To add to my own personal (yet limited) anecdotes against ABA, I had heard horror stories which highlighted how ABA didn’t teach real skills, how it was not mindful of students, and how some practices were downright abusive. 
I didn’t make the decision until I was discussing it with a colleague one day who was starting an ABA program.  Her explanation made a lot of sense.
“I think it breaks down learning in to a way that makes it understandable to our kids”.
The irony of these words is that, after completing the program, my friend had no interest in doing anything related to ABA (including working with kids with autism).  However, the words stuck with me enough to go through with the program.  I am really glad I did.  The process has really solidified my knowledge of working with our students.  I have learned really great techniques for not only working with our students, but managing staff in my classroom.  Here is a short list of some of the things I found most surprising about the whole process and the science of ABA as a whole:

There is a huge emphasis on ethics

Big enough that there is a twenty something page guide as to ethics that BCBA’s are expected to follow.  This covers everything from picking appropriate reinforcers, not misguiding people in to thinking ABA is a “cure-all”, and maintaining appropriate relationships with clients.  I’m not allowed to speak too in depth about the exam, but I can say there were many questions where ethics were laced in to the answers.

Socially significant behaviors are the focus of ABA

The science of ABA is meant to change socially significant behaviors.  I feel like this goes hand-in-hand with the ethics and making sure to do right by our clients.  What is important to our clients is the cornerstone for choosing goals.

There is a lot of stuff that falls under the ABA umbrella

There are some aspects of ABA that you see constantly talked about, such as my initial encounter with discrete trials.  However, there is way more to it.  Ever complete a self-paced course? ABA.  Ever have a student use a behavior contract?  ABA.  As you can see ABA covers a huge span.  To say ABA is simply token economies and discrete trials and very, very limiting.

Teaching for generalization and in the natural environment is hugely emphasized

Discrete trials definitely have their place in ABA, but there are many other ways to teach that generalize skills.  Naturalstic teaching, pivotal response training, and function communication training are methods of teaching that use the natural environment and naturally occurring reinforcers to reach goals.

ABA can be applied to many different environments

True, treating those with autism and other disabilities makes up a majority of the ABA field.  However, the same science is used in many arenas, from animal training to managing businesses.  Remember my post about pairing with reinforcement?  This concept is totally applicable to managing the staff in your classroom (speaking from personal experience, my para did a hell of a job of pairing herself with reinforcement the other day when she brought me a vegan cookie).

By the way, if you are not following me on Instagram, I am starting to post my favorite little behavior bits lately.  These are just little tidbits and reminders to think about when working on behaviors.  Click below to follow me!

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