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A Guide to Understanding the Skills Needed to Succeed in a General Education Setting

Starting school is a significant milestone in a child’s life. Many parents eagerly await the day their child is ready for this first big step in their educational journey. For parents of children diagnosed with autism, sending their child to school may come with more apprehension and concern. As your child gets older, you may wonder, “Is my child ready for school?” It’s normal to question whether your child will be successful in an educational setting. Understanding the skills needed for school may ease your concerns and help you decide when they are ready.

How do I know if my child is ready for school?

Choosing to send your child to school can be a big decision. There are many factors to take into consideration before you decide. You should first assess your child’s unique abilities and areas of need to determine whether they are ready to begin attending school. Consider the following skills your child may need to learn effectively in a school setting.

Observational learning: A necessary skill for success in a general education setting

One of the most fundamental skills children need to thrive at school is the capacity to learn through observing others. In group settings, there is typically less 1:1 instruction provided to the learner. In a public school classroom, the ratio can be as high as 20 students to 1 teacher. As such, children need to be able to learn by watching what is happening around them. Many social norms and expectations are learned in this way.

An ability to learn by observing others is a common area of delay in children with autism. Observational learning encompasses many individual skills. Lacking these skills can make it more challenging to learn in a traditional educational setting. Many families choose to target these prerequisite skills before sending their children to school.

Some of the component skills needed to learn through observation include:

  • An ability to imitate the behavior of others
  • An ability to discriminate between responses based on the observed consequences
  • An ability to attend to stimuli, peers, and educators
  • An ability to recall information
  • An understanding of facial expressions and non-verbal cues

Let’s further elaborate on each of these skills. Consider your child’s abilities in each of these areas.

Imitation

Imitation is an essential element of observational learning. This is the ability to copy observed behaviors, both vocally and physically. Imitating others’ actions allows children to learn a wide range of new skills. These may include language and communication development, social interaction skills, and other adaptive behaviors that support a child’s educational journey.

Discrimination

Imitation and discrimination go hand-in-hand. While an ability to imitate others is crucial for observational learning, so is the ability to discriminate between behaviors that should and should not be copied. Discrimination requires the child to attend to the consequences of observed behaviors. By doing so, they learn to imitate behaviors that result in positive consequences. For example, copying peers running outside at recess but not copying peers running down the hallway. A strong capacity to discriminate also allows children to differentiate between appropriate behaviors and those inappropriate for the given setting, time, or situation. Not only will this help your child learn appropriate skills in school, it will also help them stay out of the principal’s office.

Stimulus Generalization

Stimulus generalization occurs when an individual engages in the same behavior in the presence of different yet similar stimuli. For example, imagine a child who learns to ask his classroom teacher before leaving class to go to the bathroom. They demonstrate stimulus generalization by asking to leave before going to the bathroom when in gym or art class or when they are with a substitute teacher. This skill allows a child to learn more in fewer teaching opportunities, which is needed in a school environment where there are not 1:1 teaching opportunities throughout their entire day.

Attention and Attending Behavior

To learn through observing others, a child must first be able to attend. Attention to peers, teachers, and stimuli are all necessary. Learning through observation often requires attending to many stimuli at the same time. For example, a child who is in a group lesson will need to be able to focus on his teacher talking, the teaching materials she is using, questions she is asking the class, and their classmates’ responses. It is important that the child doesn’t get distracted by stimuli in their environment that aren’t relevant to the current activity, such as noises other children are making, something happening outside the window, or objects they have on their desk.

Recall of Information

In addition to attending to people and stimuli, a child must also be able to recall learned information. Remembering information is essential for learning and participating in an educational setting. The teacher might give out information in the morning that is needed for that afternoon or even the next day and without recall the child may not succeed at the educational activity without additional supports.

Non-verbal Cues

A great deal of our communication with others is done non-verbally. Understanding non-verbal behavior, such as facial expressions and body language, is necessary to engage effectively in classroom interactions.

Some examples of non-verbal cues that children may need to be successful at school include:

  • Nodding to indicate yes or approval and shaking head to indicate no or non-approval
  • Raising one’s hand to talk or ask a question during class
  • One finger up to communicate, “Wait”
  • Backing up or moving away to indicate a desire for personal space
  • Thumbs up and clapping to show approval
  • Rolling one’s eyes or looking away to communicate annoyance or a desire to be left alone
  • Facial expressions that indicate how one feels–angry, sad, happy, frustrated

Recognizing School-Readiness Behaviors at Home

As you reflect on your child’s ability to learn through observation, consider whether your child demonstrates the following skills at home.

Imitation–Does your child copy behaviors that you, their siblings, and other family members or friends engage in? Can your child follow various instructions when you model them? For example, if you show your child how to play with a new toy, will they copy your actions to make it work correctly?

Discrimination–Does your child understand what behaviors are okay to imitate and those that should not be copied? For example, if their sibling throws a ball in the house and gets scolded, would your child recognize that throwing in the house is not allowed and thus not copy that behavior? In addition, can they recognize different situations when it’s not appropriate to engage in particular behaviors? For example, it’s okay to yell while playing outside but not okay to yell while indoors. Or undressing is appropriate at home but not in a public setting.

Sustained attention–Will your child attend to tasks and stay focused for age-appropriate lengths of time? For example, can they sit at the table to eat a meal without getting up or attend to one play activity for a few minutes before shifting to another?

Recalling information–Does your child recall past events and conversations? Can they maintain skills learned after they’re no longer being actively taught? For example, if you teach your child how to wash their hands, when you stop directing them through the process, will they continue to wash their hands the way you first taught them? Can they recall activities that you completed with them the day before?

Understanding non-verbal cues–Can your child interpret the facial expressions, gestures, and body language you or others in the home demonstrate? For example, if your child comes running to you while you’re on the phone, do they understand when you hold one finger up that you are telling them to wait?

How can center-based ABA therapy prepare my child for school?

ABA therapy can play a vital role in supporting the development of academic readiness skills before your child begins attending school. Your therapy team will create a tailored plan unique to your child’s needs. Center-based ABA programs offer an enhanced opportunity to improve school-readiness behaviors that prepare your child for an educational setting.

Areas of focus that center-based ABA therapy may offer that prepare your child for school include:

Imitation–Depending on your child’s current imitation skills, their therapist may start with teaching basic imitations, such as simple motor movements like clapping and waving, to develop an understanding of how to learn through copying others. As progress is made, imitation expands to more advanced skills like imitating two to three step actions to complete an activity. Vocal imitation is also crucial to learning how to communicate. Your child’s ABA therapy team can work on vocal imitation that leads to successful communication skills so your child can advocate for their wants and needs when they transition to the school setting.

Promoting independence–School settings rarely provide direct 1:1 support, so increasing independence is important before transitioning to an educational setting. Your child’s therapists can help foster independence by teaching a wide range of skills and fading their support as your child progresses toward mastery of their goals. A center-based therapy can help imitate the school environment with 1:1 support to ensure that they are prepared before fading out 1:1 support.

Reduction of interfering behaviors–If your child engages in behaviors that may interfere with their ability to learn, learning alternative behaviors and coping strategies via 1:1 therapy can be immensely beneficial before transitioning to school. Engaging in behaviors that are disruptive to a classroom often leads to children being removed from the classroom environment in the public-school setting. A center-based ABA therapy setting can work on decreasing those behaviors while teaching new behaviors at the same time.

Improving attention–ABA therapists will work with your child on systematically increasing their attention to and engagement with stimuli, people, and tasks. They can also work on teaching your child what they should be attending to in their environment versus what is not important to attend to during that specific task to promote learning.

Preparing for transitions–Transitions can be especially challenging for children diagnosed with autism. In a general education setting, children are expected to move about frequently throughout their day, from activity to activity. ABA therapy can help your child prepare for this by increasing their understanding of transitions and developing coping strategies and communication skills to work through difficult transitions. In school settings children need to transition independently through multiple environments to be successful.

Social engagement–One advantage of clinic-based ABA therapy is the availability of peers to target social interactions. Helping your child develop the essential social skills needed to be successful in school can make this transition much more enjoyable.

Improving communication–To be successful at school, your child will need a solid foundation of communication skills. Everyone communicates differently–some speak, others use American Sign Language (ASL), and some children use picture icons or communication devices. Regardless of the mode of communication, everyone deserves a voice. ABA therapy may support your child in developing a range of communication skills, from requesting desired items to answering questions and holding conversations.

Set the Stage for Educational Success

Whether you are eager or apprehensive about sending your child to school, it is important to understand and thoroughly assess your child’s academic readiness skills before making this decision. Through early intervention and a tailored approach to care, center-based ABA therapy can significantly enhance your child’s readiness for school, empowering them to achieve their full potential. Nonetheless, every child’s journey is unique. It’s important to consider whether they have the skills needed to learn through observation before sending them to school.

If you’re ready to start your child’s journey toward a lifetime of learning, contact us today at (800) 931-8113 or start@biermanautism.com to learn how our services can help set the stage for your child’s future educational success.

References

Taylor, B. A., & DeQuinzio, J. A. (2012). Observational learning and children with autism. Behavior Modification, 36(3), 341-360.

MacDonald, J., & Ahearn, W. H. (2015). Teaching observational learning to children with autism. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 48(4), 800-816.

About the Author

Chrissy BaroskyChrissy Barosky, Ph.D., BCBA, LABA (MA, TX, UT), LBA (RI), joined Bierman in 2013 as a Behavior Analyst and is now the Chief Clinical Officer. Chrissy has been working in the field of ABA as a practicing Behavior Analyst since 2008, and before that, in the field of developmental disabilities since 2005. Before working in the center-based settling at Bierman, Chrissy worked in home-based ABA settings, consulted in schools, and as a special educator. In addition to overseeing all clinical operations at Bierman ABA, Chrissy is also Adjunct Faculty at Simmons University and Endicott College, where she teaches masters level courses on verbal behavior, behavior analytic methodologies, and organizational behavior management (OBM).

Chrissy obtained her bachelor’s degree from Northeastern University in Human Services, her master’s degree from Columbia University in Applied Behavior Analysis and Education, and completed her Doctorate in Behavior Analysis at Simmons University. Chrissy’s research interests are in Verbal Behavior, specifically in early language acquisition and how it ties into joint attention and staff training and its impact on client outcomes. Chrissy has presented at a variety of local and national conferences, including the Association for Behavior Analysis International.

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Author

  • Chrissy Barosky, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LABA (MA, TX, UT), LBA (RI)

    Chrissy Barosky, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LABA (MA, TX, UT), LBA (RI), joined Bierman ABA in 2013 as a Behavior Analyst and is now the Chief Clinical Officer. Chrissy has been working in the field of ABA as a practicing Behavior Analyst since 2008, and before that in the field of developmental disabilities since 2005. Prior to working in the center based setting at Bierman ABA Chrissy worked in home based ABA settings, consultation in schools and as a special educator. In addition to overseeing all clinical operations at Bierman ABA, Chrissy is also Adjunct Faculty at Simmons University and Endicott College where she teaches masters level courses on verbal behavior, behavior analytic methodologies and organizational behavior management (OBM). Chrissy obtained her bachelor’s degree from Northeastern University in Human Services, her masters degree from Columbia University in Applied Behavior Analysis and Education, and completed her Doctorate in Behavior Analysis at Simmons University. Chrissy’s research interests are in Verbal Behavior, specifically in early language acquisition and how it ties into joint attention, and staff training and its impact on client outcomes. Chrissy has presented at a variety of local and national conferences including the Association for Behavior Analysis International.