Teaching new skills to learners with complex conditions sometimes requires more than a verbal explanation or even a demonstration.  Everyone has their own set of strengths and challenges, which means that one teaching approach doesn’t always fit all. Let’s review some teaching strategies to help you get the most out of every learning opportunity. Learning should be fun, and these tips can help focus your learner’s attention on you, build their confidence, and help make it a positive experience for everyone.

Are you ready? When it’s time to learn, can your learner sit or remain still? Make or maintain eye contact with you? Wait quietly until you give instructions? Watch what you’re doing if you’re showing them something?  If not, then make it a point to build that into your teaching session. “Show me you’re ready” can mean we teach our students to sit, wait, and make eye contact and then watch when it’s time to learn. Giving this direction, supporting them to show these behaviors, and giving ample praise means you’re teaching them a pivotal skill.

No room for mistakes. Errorless learning is an excellent strategy for teaching a new skill or helping a student get over a habit of answering incorrectly (while waiting for you to correct them). Give your initial direction or ask the question, then provide immediate support (i.e. prompting) so your learner answers correctly. Prompting right after you give a direction means they have no room to make an error. If they do begin to make an error, immediately guide them to the correct answer. Then give ample praise! This builds confidence and makes learning a positive experience.

Prompt Fading:  When you see that your learner has gotten familiar with a task or activity, but still needs support, you should immediately begin planning how to fade that help so they can be independent. Prompt fading is the gradual change in how you support someone that requires some advanced consideration.  If your learner is successful with hand-over-hand help, prompt fading can mean touching the back of their hand, then eventually their wrist or elbow. If your learner looks for you, point or touch the correct answer (or object), fading can mean pointing while keeping your hand closer to your body, or waving your hand quickly in the direction of the correct answer, or even giving an exaggerated nod of your head. If your learner waits for you to say the correct answer before repeating what you say, utter the first syllable or two, then maybe just the sound of the first letter of the right answer. When fading prompts, it’s important to go slow. If you’re seeing a lot of errors, go back to the prompt they were successful with to practice more, before trying to fade again.

Extra practice makes perfect. Teaching skills when they are naturally needed is a great way to ensure your learner will know what to do, when to do it, and where to do it. But we may only have a few opportunities throughout the day to teach skills that are important. Consider building in extra practice moments for your learner when it makes sense – this may mean having them answer a question 1-2 more times, or practicing a part of a skill again. If your learner has to point to an answer or say a word to respond, consider saying, “wow, that was great! Tell me one more time, which one is red!”  Or, if your learner is working on turning off the water after washing hands, turn it back on and say, “you did SO great turning off the faucet, let me see it again!” It is important to keep this practice fun and positive – always follow up with more praise for all that extra work, which brings us to…

WOAH, that was awesome! You got it right! Being enthusiastic doesn’t just make learning more fun. Some learners have a hard time interpreting when we approve of what they do.  A quick ‘good job’ can be totally lost on your learner’s ears. Changing the tone of your voice, your facial expression, and the words you use all help your learner understand they did the right thing. It may sound silly, but it’s part of the fun of teaching and it gets great results!

Written by Jenny Foster, MS, CAS, LBA, BCBA, Behavior Analyst at The Center for Discovery®. 

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