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Consistency and High Expectations: Managing and changing behavior with students with ASD

Autism Immersed Podcast, Season 2, Episode 1

On today’s podcast, Behavioral Specialist Sean Hanrahan stops by to talk to us about managing students and children in the home with behavioral issues, the importance of expectation and consistency, and how these methods are vital to the practice of Social Immersion.

Sean is a certified teacher of TCI, therapeutic crisis intervention, and teaches and certifies teachers. He is also one of founders of Oakstone Academy, the school that developed and practices successful Social Immersion.

Sean will be speaking at the Oakstone Institute this fall which you can find out more about at oakstoneacademy.org

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Strategy Spotlight: Catch them being good

Many of you familiar with the world of education or behavior management have heard the phrase “catch them being good” in some form or another. The philosophy behind this is simple. If you have behaviors, attitudes, or actions that you want to see more of in class, you identify and positively acknowledge them as you see them happening naturally in the daily life in your classroom. Research in Applied Behavior Analysis shows us that receiving positive reinforcement is the fastest way to promote and increase positive behavior. Receiving that reinforcement from a teacher will cement the skill in a student and encourage others to follow suit.

One of the strengths of the immersion program is the abundance of natural models of academic and social behaviors and skills available for students on the autism spectrum. In our immersion classrooms we often prompt students who ask for help with the phrase “Look at your friends” or with a gesture to their classmates. We may also choose to redirect 1-2 students who are off task by starting to praise or reward those who are on task. Students not receiving any type of reinforcement often will stop and look to see WHY their classmates are being singled out and then adjust their behavior to receive the same reinforcement.  

 

Here are some tips for catching students being good in an immersion classroom

  • Be specific in your reinforcement. Do not simply tell some students “Good job”. In an immersion classroom, you want to make it clear what is being rewarded or reinforced. Phrases like “good looking-eyes” with younger students or “thank you for having your homework ready” with older students serves not only to reward one group, but to remind the students who are still working towards the goal about your expectation or direction.

 

  • Vary your students receiving reinforcement.  If you are always praising the same student, other members of the class or group may believe that the PERSON and not the BEHAVIOR is what is being recognized.
  • Vary how many students you acknowledge. Ideally, you will want to reinforce the first few students to get everyone else moving towards compliance with the expectation or direction. You will not always be able to acknowledge every student who eventually shows the correct behavior, but you do want to make sure that your students who have a long road to go occasionally are being rewarded as well. Remember positive reinforcement builds positive skills, so make sure you are reinforcing those who are still developing the skills!
  • Use proximity. If you have one student in particular who is still developing a skill or behavior, praise and reinforce the students physically nearest that student who is still learning. That draws their attention more quickly.
  • Mix up your reinforcement. The preferred form reinforcement would be verbal praise or a positive gesture, as it is more natural. It is also easier to give, as you always have your smile and voice with you. That being said, don’t discount the power of the occasional sticker, stamp, or even a single M&M, Skittle, or cracker. In my experience, even high school students occasionally like a treat or sticker.
  • Do not engage with students who want to talk about your reinforcement.  Many of our students on the autism spectrum love to argue, look for loopholes, and rationalize things. Don’t allow students to engage you in a debate of your reinforcement choices. Simply reply with something like “I was looking for a couple of people who had their work ready. Now we are moving on. Maybe next time.” This reinforces the direction you were giving, the behavior you wanted to see, and the end of the conversation.
  • Reward good character, not just good academic behavior. Remember teaching good character is the goal of any behavior system. We don’t just want kids to comply with rules, but demonstrate kindness, respect, trustworthiness, and responsibility. Pairing character words with your compliment helps students understand the meaning of these bigger ideas. If you see a student struggling to remain calm in a stressful situation, you can comment, “Nice keeping your hands to yourself” to prompt and reinforce their progress. IF you see a student helping someone else, you can comment what a great citizen that student is being.
  • Catching kids being good benefits adults as well. It feels better to have positive interactions with students. It is more pleasant to compliment, smile, and reward than to reprimand, punish, or take privileges. As someone who works with children who are still learning and developing, it is a joy to be their cheerleader and booster!

Complimenting children on any aspect of play with you, work they are doing, or interactions they engage in should be employed quite a bit. It is easy to fall into playing or doing various other activities with children and forgetting to talk. But at school, we should constantly find ways to give the children positive attention and compliments. Even engaging in some activities is in itself a reason for complimenting the child. These nice, positive interactions with adults are very important to our little learners as well as our oldest students. They sense we are happy. They feel pride in their abilities. They know what is rewarded and what to strive for.  Overall, it engages the children in interactions where they get to feel good just by being there and that more than anything else promotes good behavior.

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You can’t get through it unless you get to it.

You can’t get through it unless you get to it.

This simple phrase is a staple in our approach to behavior. What does this mean? Certainly we are working to help our students extinguish their behaviors that are harmful or exclusionary. This long process can involve a lot of work, both for the student and the adult.

There are no short cuts.

It might not be fun.

But we can not stop at the point where it is uncomfortable. We all have developed new skills in our lives that were hard to do at first. We have mastered some skills through work and practice. It is the same for our students. They can learn. They will learn. We all want the process to be short-lived, but what we are changing may be deeply rooted for the student; often times, we see behavior because it has served a purpose for them. It may get them what they want. It may get them out of what they do not like. In some way, it has been effective for them.

When addressing behavioral hurdles, we need to meet the challenge head on. We want to clearly let the student know “This way that has worked for you in the past is not acceptable.” We are asking them to be socially appropriate. We are asking them to communicate a want or need in a way that does not include those previously learned ways, ways that we may have reinforced (consciously or unconsciously). What we don’t want to do is placate or give them what they want without communicating- in other words, hoping we keep them happy enough so that we never see behavior. This cannot be sustained by the adult and certainly has not taught the child a better skill.  While we may be able to keep a child happy and therefore avoid difficult behaviors, the world will not be as kind. The most loving thing we can do is prepare children to face disappointments and challenges and roadblocks, rather than try to shield them from the hard things. This is true whether your child is typically developing or is on the Autism Spectrum.

We believe in all children’s ability to learn a better way to express themselves and get what they want or need. We will teach them a better way to take a step forward. Real life expectations in the classroom lead to handling similar situations at home and in public in more socially appropriate way. So, with behavior, we set a high expectation and then help the student be appropriate within that framework- not with a separate expectation for a student with Autism. Sometimes, we see behavior getting worse before it gets better. This is expected as you are asking them to change not just an external behavior, but an internal understanding of how the world works.

You may need to find a team to help you. It is confusing to the child to pick and choose when certain behaviors are acceptable and when they are not. It is hard for the adult to try to go at it alone. Find support and use that support, whether it is for the child or for you. Consistency is the key, and a team approach helps you achieve that consistency.

Don’t give up.

Through all of the challenges thrown at your child and you or your student and you, remember your job. Help them know what is acceptable. See the challenging behavior they have and work to help them do better. Push through the times that are tough or uncomfortable. Believe that they can and believe that you are being helpful. We take the steps with them, but we always have a goal of them being able to take steps on their own.

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Managing behavior in Immersion classrooms

Behavior management within the Academic and Social Immersion Model begins with setting the tone of “the community”, where teachers and staff demonstrate acceptance for all students, and define the expectations (or rules) for appropriate behavior within the classroom and throughout the school (which all students are expected to follow, both neurotypical and ASD).  Behavior is deeply embedded within our character education program. Students are taught connections between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors and the six pillars of character defined by the Josephson Institute of Ethics.

Frequent review of expectations or rules with the student along with visual expectations provides supports to increase the likelihood of improving target behaviors.  Visuals may include visual schedules, rule reminders, and social stories. These are used alongside a self-monitoring system to help the student connect the rules to his/her behavior, and is a way to make the behavior concrete for the student.  These systems are paired with positive reinforcements, which may include teacher praise, tangibles, and natural access to social opportunities. The systems are also adapted to students’ cognitive abilities and classroom placement. 

Teachers and staff use “clues” in the natural environment to aid in connecting behavior with the natural environment and to encourage appropriate social behavior.  Pointing out the actions of others compared to the action of the student with ASD (“Look at your friends. They are standing in line without touching their neighbors.”) would  be an example of “clues in the natural environment”.

One example of this at work may look something like this. A student who becomes angry, screams, and kicks his desk because he doesn’t get his way:

  1. Is referred to his self-monitoring system to review the expectation and take accountability for his actions, and to remind him of the “reward” or positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior
  2. Is instructed to “Look at your classmates.  They are not screaming and kicking” to redirect the student to an appropriate behavior model,
  3. Is reminded that screaming and kicking is disrespectful to others in his class in order to connect the behavior to the character pillars.  Teacher then talks with student about RESPECTFUL ways to voice his frustration the next time.

These strategies used in combination can increase the likelihood of success, both social and academic, in the typical classroom environment.  Consistent and appropriate behavior management is crucial to a student with ASD being truly immersed in a classroom. A student left to his or her own devices may alienate peers, making inclusion in classroom activities more challenging. With this in mind, consistent and firm behavior expectations are the most appropriate, effective, and loving strategy to help children with ASD become fully participating members of the classroom and community.

The overall approach in Academic and Social Immersion emphasizes the teaching and learning nature of behavior management. Make a plan for success!