Plan for Generalization in the Community

You work hard to help a child achieve goals and learn new skills. But you’re not done yet. Once a child masters much needed skills, you must have a plan to help that child generalize those skills in other natural environments. Have you heard the quote “those who fail to plan, plan to fail?” This is true when it comes time to plan for generalization in the community. Avoid making the assumption the child will spontaneously use the skill across environments.

Checking a box that a child masters a skill is not enough. Help the child use that skill in a variety of different settings and in different ways. This is the path to true success for that child. When creating a plan for generalization in the community, carefully consider a variety of different components.

While you should celebrate every victory and all progress the child achieves, the learning process shouldn’t stop once the child masters a skill. Make sure the child succeeds in all environments and with different people. Ensure that you develop a plan that addresses the various components of generalization.

Factors That Impact Generalization in the Community

Many factors affect the need for active intervention to improve generalization in the community. Some children generalize skills more readily while others require more thoughtful intervention. Some skills may be easier to generalize in some situations than in others. Although a wide variety of factors impact generalization, make sure to consider the following:

  • Similarity to teaching environment
  • Needs and abilities of the learner
  • Type of skill
  • Skill of the interventionist
  • Elements of the community setting

Similarity to the Teaching Environment

The more similar the new environment is to the teaching environment, the more readily generalization may occur. For example, if initial skill development took place in the library at the school, generalizing that skill may occur more quickly in a public library than in the grocery store. Due to vastly differing conditions in many community settings, it’s likely you need to plan for generalization across many of these settings to ensure the child demonstrates the skill when needed.

Some children may benefit from teaching in a variety of these settings simultaneously or sequentially progressively becoming less similar to the teaching environment.

Needs and Abilities of the Learner

Although it is common that children with autism don’t spontaneously generalize skills to untrained environments, some children require less teaching than others during generalization. Baseline data from a variety of different environments help you determine the needs of your specific learner. Answer the following questions when developing your plan for generalization in the community:

  • How often (or how long, or at what intensity) does the child demonstrate the skill in different settings? Collect data from at least 3 different relevant settings such as the park, a store, and the library.
  • Does the child demonstrate the skill in some situations or with some individuals and not others? Collect ABC or scatterplot data if this is the case.
  • What type of reinforcement does the child require for success?
  • How much teaching has the child required to generalize other skills in the past?

Type of Skill

Some skills may generalize more naturally and more quickly than others. Skills that simple , not contextually dependent or produce high rates of natural reinforcement (i.e. zipping a jacket, functional communication, physically accessing reinforcers, etc.) may require less intensive intervention to achieve generalization in the community. More complex or highly contextually dependent skills (i.e. getting a drink of water, engaging socially with others) may require more specific teaching within different environments.

Skill of the Interventionist

The skill of the interventionist impacts not only skill acquisition but also generalization. A highly skilled interventionist that incorporates different SDs during teaching, for example, may experience a faster rate of generalization across a variety of skills. Parents with minimal training may need to spend more time teaching skills in different environments to accomplish this task.

Elements of the Community Setting

Many factors impact the child’s ability to demonstrate skills in different settings. One key feature in most settings in the community is unpredictability. Many individuals with autism struggle with changes to their routine or when they don’t know what to expect. No matter how familiar the setting, unexpected changes pop up at unforeseen times. Consider how the following changes might impact a child’s success in an environment:

  • The library decided to reorganize and moved your child’s favorite book.
  • The register at the local grocery store your child insists on going to is closed.
  • Someone brought a dog to the park despite the signs saying “no dogs allowed” and your child’s afraid of dogs.
  • While swimming in the public pool, the lifeguard suddenly announces that the pool must be cleaned and everyone needs to get out immediately.
  • The hairdresser that you always use is out of lollipops that you rely on to help your child through the haircut.

Even when changes aren’t a problem, many other elements of a community setting impact a child’s ability to demonstrate a skill in that environment. When planning for generalization consider the following elements in the environments you choose:

  • Availability of reinforcers
  • Level of sensory stimulation (i.e. noise, light, etc.)
  • Amount of distraction in the environment
  • Proximity of other people
  • Presence or absence of a structured routine

Availability of Reinforcers

Children who develop generalized reinforcers or who have a wide reinforcer array are likely to encounter reinforcement in a variety of different settings. Skills for these children may generalize in the community with less training than children who have limited reinforcers.

Similarly, some environments are naturally more reinforcing for children than others. The playground, for example, is likely to offer access to abundant reinforcement while clothing stores often do not. The availability of reinforcers specific for your child can significantly impact how quickly skills generalize in that area.

Sometimes environments with reinforcers that are too readily available pose a different challenge in that it can be difficult to ensure the child accesses the reinforcers contingent on the behaviors you’re targeting.

Level of Sensory Stimulation

Each child with autism processes sensory information in their own way. Some children acclimate to different levels of sensory stimulation without a problem. Others either seek more sensory input or shy away from too much stimulation.

Similarly, some environments provide a high level of sensory stimulation while others offer low amounts of stimulation. From a sensory experience, consider the difference between a quiet community environment such as the library and a very active community environment such as an amusement park.

When trying to generalize skills in community settings, consider how the sensory stimulation in that environment may impact your child’s ability to perform that skill. Avoid setting the child up for failure by beginning with environments that aren’t a good match for the child’s sensory needs.

Amount of Distraction in the Environment

Although a highly stimulating environment may be distracting for many children, that’s not always the case. For children whose special interest is a character from a book or the alphabet, the library may be very distracting, but a busy shoe store may not be.

Think about the child’s specific response to what goes on around him. Is he generally distracted by movement or noises or does he find the presence of items of special interest distracting? Each child is unique and is distracted by different things. Think about this when choosing environments for generalization.

Proximity of Other People

As with the other elements previously discussed, each child responds differently to other people in close proximity. Many children with autism find large crowds aversive or distracting. Other children enjoy the movement and activity. If you want to target generalization in an environment that’s often crowded like a busy grocery store, consider beginning your plan at a time that’s less busy and building gradually to more active times, if possible.

Presence or Absence of a Structured Routine

Many environments lend themselves to a structured routine. The grocery store is designed for you to travel the isles sequentially. A fast food restaurant offers a standard pattern and routine. Many children with autism benefit from this type of structured routine as it helps them know what to expect. This can open them to learning other skills more easily.

Environments that are less structured and more chaotic such as a playground or mall can be more difficult for many children with autism to learn in unless you first build a routine within that environment.

What to Include in Your Plan

Your generalization plan should consider the above factors and include the following information:

  • Targets
  • Baseline data
  • Teaching strategies
  • Reinforcement strategies, including a plan to transition to reinforcers commonly available in the environment
  • Data collection methods
  • Mastery criteria
  • Plan to respond to challenging behavior

Let’s take a closer look at each of these below.


Make sure to identify which targets and in what sequence you are planning for generalization. While you can include multiple targets in your plan, ensure that they are all appropriate for the environments you’re including in your plan.

Baseline Data

Collecting baseline data allows you to determine the need for intervention and assess progress. If the child performs the skill in the community setting you chose, there’s no need for intervention. If you must intervene, baseline data allows you to determine if your interventions are effective.

Teaching Strategies

Will you use the same teaching strategies that were initially effective in teaching the skill or is a different strategy more appropriate to the environment or the child’s abilities?

Reinforcement Strategies

How frequently should the child receive reinforcement? Will “artificial” reinforcers be used or will you begin with only those reinforcers naturally available in the environment?

Data Collection Methods

When generalizing skills to community settings, you may choose to use a different data collection method than you use in other settings. The logistics of collecting data while in the community are quite different than in more controlled settings such as clinics or homes. You also must consider whether internet access will be available if you typically use an electronic data collection system.

Mastery Criteria

How will you determine if the child has actually generalized the skill? What criteria will you use to decide to move to a different setting or different target?

Plan to Respond to Challenging Behavior

If the child has a Positive Behavior Intervention Plan, evaluate its appropriateness for the community settings you plan to target for generalization. What works in one environment may not be appropriate for another. Make sure you have a written plan for how to respond to challenging behavior if it occurs. Even the most familiar setting can present some unexpected challenges or changes. Consider how this might affect the child’s behavior.

Implementing Your Generalization Plan

Implementation of you generalization plan is much like implementation of any other behavior analytic plan. As you conduct your sessions, ensure your data are as accurate as possible. Evaluate your data frequently, but recognize that any of the factors discussed here could impact the child’s ability to demonstrate the skill at any given moment.

It’s likely you will see more variability in your data than is typical for the child. make note if there are changes in the environment that may have impacted the child’s performance during any session. Make adjustments to accommodate for any of these factors that inhibit the child’s progress, if possible and persevere! The result is worth the effort!

Generalizing skills across environments is a critical element of a child’s success. Learn more about generalization by reading our article:

References and Resources

Whalen, C. (2009). Real Life, Real Progress for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Strategies for Successful Generalization in Natural EnvironmentsBrookes Publishing Company.