Master ABA

Generalization: The Key to Meaningful Programming in ABA

Generalization is a critical aspect of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), particularly for BCBAs working with autistic learners as these learners may not generalize skills without an intentional plan. Ensuring long-term success and positive outcomes for these learners relies on their ability to apply acquired skills and behaviors in various settings and situations beyond the teaching environment (i.e. clinic or home).

Generality is one of the 7 dimensions of ABA and is a vital component of your ABA program. If your learner fails to use skills across different settings and with different people, what you taught them is of no real value.


What Is Generalization?
Types Of Generalization
Why Is Generalization Important?
Planning for Generalization
How Teaching Strategies Impact Generalization
Developing a Teaching Plan That Promotes Generalization
Promoting Generalization Across Environments
5 Ways to Engage Parents to Build Generalization at Home
5 Ways to Increase Collaboration to Improve Generalization in School
Strategies to Promote Generalization in the Community
Common Barriers to Generalization
Ethical Considerations Related to Planning for Generalization
Research Related to Planning for Generalization
References and Related Reading

What Is Generalization?

Generalization occurs when someone learns a skill under one condition (i.e. specific staff, environment, etc) and demonstrates that skill under a different condition (i.e. different staff, different environment, etc.). It involves the learner’s ability to transfer and apply acquired skills and behaviors to new settings, situations, and individuals. It goes beyond rote memorization and mechanical repetition, emphasizing the practical application of skills in real-life contexts.

An important aspect of understanding generalization is recognizing that it is not an automatic process. Autistic learners exhibit deficits in generalization due to the unique cognitive and perceptual characteristics associated with their neurology. They may struggle with recognizing similarities and differences between stimuli or fail to generalize skills beyond the specific contexts in which they were initially taught. This highlights the significance of explicitly targeting and promoting generalization within the framework of ABA therapy.

Generalization is not limited to the transfer of discrete skills; it also encompasses the generalization of principles, strategies, and concepts. By teaching learners broader concepts rather than isolated skills, BCBAs can facilitate the application of those principles across various situations. For instance, rather than solely teaching a learner how to mand for a desired item in a specific scenario, BCBAs can teach the underlying concept of manding, enabling the learner to mand for what they want in different settings and with different people.

To comprehend generalization fully, it is essential to distinguish between the different types of generalization.


Types Of Generalization

There are 2 primary types of generalization: stimulus generalization and response generalization. Stimulus generalization refers to the learner’s capacity to respond to similar stimuli even if they are not identical to the ones used during teaching. For instance, if a learner is taught to identify a red apple, they should also be able to recognize a red ball or a red car as belonging to the same category. Stimulus generalization expands the learner’s ability to perceive and respond to variations of a particular stimulus, ensuring the application of skills across a broader range of contexts.

Response generalization, on the other hand, involves the learner’s capability to utilize learned skills in novel ways or apply them to different but functionally equivalent situations. It encompasses the flexible application of skills beyond the specific instances in which they were initially taught. For example, if a learner is taught to tie their shoes using a particular method, response generalization allows them to apply the underlying principles of that skill to tying other types of shoes or even to tying knots in general. Response generalization enables learners to adapt their skills to varying circumstances, fostering independence and problem-solving abilities.

Generalization should also occur across settings and people. A learner taught to tact common objects should be able to do so at home, school, and in the community. The learner also must be able to demonstrate that skill with different people such as a parent, sibling or teacher.


Why Is Generalization Important?

Generalization is a vital component of your ABA program for a variety of reasons including:

  • It ensures that the skills learned during services are used in the learner’s everyday life. This is essential for the learner’s success in school, at home, and in the community.
  • It increases the learner’s independence. When a learner can generalize their skills, they are less reliant on others for help. This can lead to a greater sense of self-confidence and self-esteem.
  • It makes the skills more durable. When a learner can generalize their skills, they are less likely to forget them over time. This is important for long-term success.

Without the ability to demonstrate a new skill in a natural environment, the instruction is a pointless exercise. Learners must experience success at home, at school and in the community, not just within a teaching environment, for your ABA program to be meaningful. Generalization of skills must occur for this to happen.

Generalization is often referred to in relation to skills like tacting or matching, but it’s even more important when considering skills like tolerance and waiting. Let me give you an example.

I worked with a young boy in a clinic setting. He engaged in serious aggression and property destruction when asked to do something he didn’t want to do or when he was told “no” to something he wanted. Over time, at the clinic, he was able to participate in skill acquisition programs and began to understand which of his favorite items were available in the clinic. He would accept a delay to reinforcement, even using a token board on a VR6 schedule per token with 5 tokens. Eventually, he would wait up to 15 minutes for access to things that he wanted. At home, he continued to engage in high rates of serious behavior despite parent training. The environments were so different that he wasn’t able to generalize what happened in the clinic to what was going on at home and his parents didn’t have the skills they needed to support him. The changes in his behavior at the clinic served no benefit to him at all. Ultimately, I began providing services for him in the home and discovered that the interventions used in the clinic, and even many of the interventions recommended during parent training were not effective in the home environment.

If you want your ABA programs to be meaningful, you must plan for generalization from the very beginning of services.


Planning for Generalization

Well-developed ABA programs create a plan for generalization along with their teaching plan. Your plan outlines the steps that will be taken to help the learner use the skills they learn during services to their everyday life. The plan should include the following information:

  • The skill that will be generalized
  • The settings in which the skill will be generalized
  • The people who will be involved in the generalization process
  • The materials that will be used
  • The strategies that will be used to promote generalization
  • The criteria for success

For example:

You work with a 10-year-old, Trevor, who uses an AAC device to communicate. He loves french fries. You decide to teach him to use his device to mand for french fries. You plan to use a discrete trial format and hand-under-hand prompting while he’s at the clinic. Your plan to generalize the skill includes the following:

  • The skill that will be generalized: Using AAC to mand for french fries
  • The setting in which the skill will be generalized: McDonald’s
  • The people who will be involved in the process: Mom and the employees at McDonald’s
  • The materials that will be used: AAC device, debit card
  • The strategies that will be used: Hand under hand prompting, errorless learning with a time delay
  • The criteria for success: 80% independent for 3 consecutive opportunities

In the teaching environment, Trevor has learned to enter “I want french fries please” into his device. As soon as he does this, he receives a fry. In the natural environment, he must place his order and wait for the fries to arrive before he has access to them. You develop a plan to gradually shape his ability to wait for his fries at home before introducing the skill at McDonald’s. Once he is able to wait 3 minutes before receiving his fries, you take him to McDonald’s and begin teaching in the natural environment.

Without the plan to teach the skill in the natural environment, Trevor likely would not automatically be able to ask for french fries when he walks into McDonald’s. There are many steps needed to get french fries when you go to McDonald’s:

  • Walk to the counter
  • Wait in line
  • Ask for fries
  • Wait for the fries
  • Take your fries to the table before eating them

All of these steps must be included in your generalization plan to ensure your learner’s success.


How Teaching Strategies Impact Generalization

ABA provides several commonly implemented teaching strategies that exist essentially along a continuum from a highly natural teaching environment to a more contrived analog teaching environment.

These strategies include several naturalistic teaching methods such as Pivotal Response Training (PRT) along with more structured methods such as Discrete Trial Training (DTT).

Although DTT is often considered synonymous with ABA, naturalistic teaching methods offer a variety of benefits as well. According to an article by Schreibman et al. (2015), Naturalistic Developmental Behavioral Interventions: Empirically Validated Treatments for Autism Spectrum Disorder, more naturalistic teaching methods are becoming more prevalent with earlier diagnosis of autism.

For more information about DTT and other ABA interventions, read our post Should I Use Natural Environment Teaching (NET) or Discrete Trial Training (DTT)?

Teaching Strategies and Generalization

The most effective ABA programs likely include a variety of teaching methods that includes both ends of the continuum, depending on the skill and the unique needs of the learner. Some research indicates that the more structured and analog the teaching environment, the more difficult it may be to generalize the skill. In their article Using naturalistic procedures to enhance learning in individuals with autism: A focus on generalized teaching within the school setting, Cowan and Allen (2007) discuss the use of more naturalistic teaching strategies if the focus is on generalized learning. More structured approaches may be more appropriate for teaching more complex skills that are needed in a more structured or specific environment.

When developing your skill acquisition plan, consider the degree to which the individual learner requires a structured learning environment to acquire new skills. Keep in mind that skills learned in these more structured ways may require significantly more planning for generalization.

Let’s take another look at the example above from a more naturalistic teaching perspective:

Rather than teaching your learner to mand for french fries in a contrived DTT setting, you decide to attempt a more naturalistic approach. You begin to teach him by taking him to McDonald’s. You create a task analysis of all the steps needed to get French fries and use whole task chaining to help him complete all of the steps:

  1. Walk to the counter
  2. Stand in line
  3. Use device to order French fries
  4. Wait for the fries
  5. Carry tray to an empty table
  6. Eat the fries

By teaching your learner in this way, the need for programmed generalization is reduced. He is more likely to be able to generalize the skills learned to other fast food restaurants and he may even be successful in generalizing to restaurants where he is seated with minimal training.

While most learners benefit from a combination of different teaching approaches, carefully consider how the teaching methods you choose impact your learner’s ability to generalize the skills being taught.


Developing a Teaching Plan That Promotes Generalization

Okay, so generalization is important. You understand the fundamentals, but how do you pull all this together for your learners?

Step-by-Step Guide to Developing a Teaching Plan That Promotes Generalization:

  1. Identify the Target Skill: Determine the specific skill that you want the learner to acquire and generalize. This could be a communication skill, social skill, self-help skill, or any other skill relevant to the learner’s needs and goals. For more information on choosing meaningful skill acquisition goals, read our post: Creating a Meaningful Skill Acquisition Program in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).
  2. Define the Desired Generalization Criteria: Clearly outline the criteria for generalization. Consider the different settings, people, and situations in which the skill should naturally be demonstrated. For example, if the skill is requesting help, specify that the learner should be able to request help at home, school, with different individuals, and in various situations.
  3. Generalization Plan: Develop a specific generalization plan for each skill taught in the analog environment. This plan should outline the steps and strategies to facilitate the transfer and application of the skill to real-life settings. Identify specific strategies, materials, and individuals involved in the generalization process.
  4. Select Naturalistic Teaching Methods: Prioritize naturalistic teaching methods that promote generalization. These methods involve embedding the skill within functional and meaningful activities rather than using contrived or isolated drills. Incorporate the skill into everyday routines, play-based activities, or real-life scenarios to enhance generalization. For example, if teaching responding intraverbally to questions, ask questions during play about things the learner is interested in.
  5. Create a Teaching Environment: Create a teaching environment for skills needed more structured teaching in which you can teach and practice the target skill. This environment should closely resemble real-life settings and situations where the skill is expected to be generalized. For instance, if teaching the steps needed to buy groceries, create an environment that mirrors the natural environment as closely as possible.
  6. Vary the People Involved: Include different individuals as teaching partners during skill acquisition. This could involve therapists, family members, peers, teachers, or other relevant individuals. By interacting with a variety of people, the learner becomes accustomed to applying the skill across different individuals, promoting generalization.
  7. Incorporate Multiple Settings and Contexts: Ensure that the learner practices the target skill in multiple settings and contexts. Gradually introduce different environments, such as the clinic, home, school, community, or vocational settings. Each setting should be systematically targeted to promote the generalization of the skill.
  8. Teach Self-Monitoring and Self-Evaluation: Teach learners to monitor and evaluate their own performance of the target skill. Teach them to recognize situations where the skill is applicable and to self-assess their performance. Self-monitoring and self-evaluation foster independence and self-regulation, contributing to generalization.
  9. Data Collection and Progress Monitoring: Continuously collect data to monitor the learner’s progress in generalizing the skill. Regularly assess the learner’s performance in different settings and situations to evaluate the effectiveness of the generalization plan. Use this data to make necessary adjustments to the teaching plan and generalization strategies.

By following these steps and prioritizing generalization in your teaching plan, you can maximize the learner’s ability to transfer and apply skills from the teaching environment to real-life situations. Remember to incorporate naturalistic teaching methods, systematically fade prompts, and implement a specific generalization plan for each skill. By promoting generalization, you empower the learner to utilize their skills effectively and independently in diverse contexts.


Promoting Generalization Across Environments

Checking a box that a child masters a skill is not enough. Help your learner use the skills you teach in a variety of different environments and contexts. This is the path to true success for the learner. Commonly, you will want to help your learner generalize skills across home, school and community settings.


5 Ways to Engage Parents to Build Generalization at Home

Engaging parents in treatment leads to improved program implementation at home. This leads to more effective generalization at home with less intervention from professionals. Behavioral skills training (BST) provides a framework for teaching parents (Lafasakis & Sturmey, 2007), yet fails to offer a way to ensure parent participation. Five of the best strategies you can use include:

  • Build a Rapport
  • Assess the Parents’ Reinforcers
  • Be Flexible about Coaching
  • Set Realistic Goals
  • Use a Homework Calendar

Build these strategies into a structured parent education program that you can implement again and again with new families as they come in. Johnson et al. (2007) developed a replicable parent coaching system to efficiently teach necessary skills.

Check out our favorite resources for providing effective parent training: 

Being an effective instructor will assist you in getting the most out of these other strategies.

1. Build a Rapport

From the first moment you meet your client’s parents you define your relationship with them. Building a strong, collaborative, supportive relationship with clear expectations on both sides sets the stage for smooth generalization at home. Create a balance between establishing yourself as an authority and becoming a team with the parents.

Try these strategies for effectively building a positive rapport with parents and caregivers.

Let parents know upfront that their participation is part of the process

Set participation as an expectation right from the very first conversation. This lets parents know immediately what they sign on for. While we might assume parents understand their vital role in treatment, many parents walk into your first meeting with a medical mentality. When you bring your child to the doctor’s office for treatment, the doctor does his thing and the parent rarely needs to participate.

Use language that normalizes this participation. Rather than saying “I would like to meet with you weekly,” try saying “I meet with all of my parents weekly.” Make sure that they understand you provide this coaching to all parents.

Set a schedule for coaching from the very beginning

Establishing a schedule for coaching from the beginning develops good habits for participation. Let the parents know that you start with a lot of basic information and you don’t want them to miss out on any of this information so it’s important to get started right away.

When the learner first starts services with you, your focus is on building a skill repertoire or reducing maladaptive behavior. You’re not yet ready to think about generalization at home. Waiting until you are ready for this allows the parents to develop habits of being uninvolved in treatment. Start your coaching from day 1.

Assume they want the best for their child

Often as professionals, we struggle with seeing the parents’ perspectives. We might even assume that lack of participation means they don’t care, are lazy or just want us to “fix” their child. Start with the assumption that your client’s parents honestly want what’s best for their child but they just don’t think they are the best ones to provide that.

It can be difficult to accept that, as a parent, you don’t know how to help your child. Help the parents understand that it’s OK that they don’t know now, but you will help them learn.

Understand their obstacles

There are many reasons why parents fail to participate in services or implement programming to the extent we want them to. Some parents will openly tell you why they struggle. Others may give only hints and clues for you to try to identify their obstacles. Ask open-ended questions to help you gain insight into the challenges they encounter either in following through with appointments or with implementation. Common obstacles include:

  • A rigid work schedule
  • Confusion about how to implement an intervention
  • A lack of understanding of why you want them to do something
  • A feeling of not enough time to do what you ask
  • A sense of hopelessness or overwhelm
  • Difficulty changing a routine or habit
  • Their own executive functioning deficits making it hard to remember appointments or commitments
  • Lack of childcare
  • Insufficient support systems
  • Conflicting loyalties or disagreements between parents as to how to do what you ask

Remember that parents have a full life outside of ABA treatment. Often they experience the feeling of just trying to keep afloat and here you come asking them to take on more.

Show your weaknesses

Parents appreciate knowing that you’re human and make mistakes. Often they are afraid of doing things the wrong way and so resist making any effort at all. Show you can laugh at yourself and mistakes happen. Don’t expect perfection from them or yourself.

Many parents with autism begin ABA treatment with low self-esteem in regards to their parenting skills. Dillenburger, Keenan, Gallagher, and McElhinney (2004) found that after short-term exposure to ABA, parents reported improved self-esteem. Getting the ball rolling is the most important step. As parents begin to develop more confidence, their participation will grow.

2. Assess the Parents’ Reinforcers

Sometimes as professionals we lose sight of the fact that behavior is behavior no matter the subject. Parent behavior is subject to the same rules as the child’s behavior. Providing insufficient reinforcers often leads to lack of follow through.

Parents won’t do what you want for a few minutes with a toy, a high five, or even an M&M. You need to assess what your specific parents value.

While most parents will follow through if assured positive behavior change, often that change occurs very slowly over time. This lack of immediacy allows competing contingencies to overrule this change as an effective reinforcer.

The book Carrots and Sticks by Ian Ayers provides useful insight into understanding the impact of different aspects of reinforcers and will help you understand why parents struggle with follow through without the right contingencies in place.

3. Be Flexible about Coaching

As a busy professional it can be tempting to try to fit parent coaching around our many other responsibilities. We offer choices between our available time slots, usually during the traditional work week. Parents trying to pay for the astounding cost of raising a child with autism squeeze in as many working hours as possible around their child’s needs. Many can’t accommodate schedules that are convenient for professionals.

Become creative and innovative when setting up coaching. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Set up a once per month group parent coaching on a Saturday or in the evening.
  • Offer remote coaching if their payer allows.
  • Consider traveling to their place of employment at lunch or offer to provide coaching during the family’s meal time (this allows the added benefit of an opportunity to model some skills).
  • Offer parent coaching in the community while the parent runs some errands (with the child present you have another opportunity to model skills and provide coaching).
  • Meet for an early morning coaching with the child before sessions start for the day.
  • Conduct 4-8 mini sessions per month that are 10-15 minutes long (you need to make these sessions efficient for them to be effective).

Parents face enormous challenges. Don’t let meeting with you become another one. Make it easy by being flexible and offering choices.

4. Set Realistic Goals for Generalization at Home

Generally, involving parents in treatment should focus on generalizing already mastered skills rather than skill acquisition. Many parents are able to learn strategies needed to teach their child new skills, but unless they express the desire to tackle this, focus your efforts on mastered skills. Ask questions to identify those goals that are most important to the parents. Working toward those goals will get the parents on board far faster than focusing on goals you feel are most important.

Try asking these questions:

  • What’s the 1 thing your child could learn that would make the morning routine easier?
  • What frustrates you most at bedtime?
  • How do you feel about how your child spends his free time at home?
  • If I had a magic wand and could change just 1 thing at home, what would make the biggest difference for you?

Digging down to find those things that have become the biggest problems for the family will likely yield the greatest return, provided that the skill is achievable for the child and family at that time. If the parents want to work on something that the child isn’t ready for, let them know that you hear what they’re saying and will definitely work toward their goal, but for now you want them to pick something the child has already mastered. Offer some choices that relate to their responses to the above questions.

Make it easy for parents to support generalization outside of sessions. The FirstWork App is a great tool that makes it easy for parents to expose their child to learning activities while also limiting access to apps used for reinforcement. The video below demonstrates how the app works.

Learn more or download the app from the App Store!

5. Use a Homework Calendar

Parents are busy people with a lot on their plate. It can be difficult for them to prioritize the things you want them to do. Provide a homework calendar that demonstrates clear expectations for different activities for the month.

In this example, the parent is expected to do 2 different “assignments” 10 times during the month. The goals state clearly what the parent needs to do, but make sure to go over the assignments in person so there are no questions. Not only does this keep the parent on track, it also provides you with some data on the child’s skills at home.

If you have the time and are creative, another fun way to create a calendar is to provide specific activities for practice with some mastered skills. Simply have the parent initial that the “assignment” was completed. Take a look at this example.


5 Ways to Increase Collaboration to Improve Generalization in School

Generalization in school requires getting the teacher on board unless the learner spontaneously demonstrates the skill in the untrained setting. Teachers may resist an outsider offering advice or intruding on the classroom. This makes it difficult to ensure that skills generalize from settings outside of school to the classroom. Here are 5 ways to make this process easier:

  1. Understand the teacher’s perspective
  2. Ask open-ended questions
  3. Be a support, not a judge
  4. Teach basic ABA strategies
  5. Prioritize skills

1. Understand the Teacher’s Perspective

It can be tempting when planning for generalization in school to go into the situation as the expert. After all, you taught the learner the skill you want to generalize. To encounter success, you must change this mindset.

Consider why the teacher may not want to invite you into her classroom or listen to your advice about her student. When you walk into the classroom or sit at the conference table, you tread on the teacher’s home turf. In the school, the teacher is the expert, you are a visitor.

The teacher you want to get on board has her own set of skills and experiences. She runs her classroom based on her past experiences and reinforcement history. Her teaching methodologies have been reinforced in the past. They work for her. When you come into the school and ask her to change her practices, she’s naturally going to assume you don’t approve of her teaching.

Find a balance between insisting she help in your quest for generalization and allowing the learner to continue with “business as usual” once he steps through the door of the school. Take a step back and see how your request might be perceived by the teacher and use this to frame your request to appeal more to the teacher’s needs.

2. Ask Open-Ended Questions

There’s no doubt one thing you and the teacher have in common is a shortage of time. Entering a meeting each of you considers the mountain of other tasks looming. Regardless, make building a rapport with the teacher one of your top priorities.

As you would when first beginning work with a learner, you must take the time to establish that you care about the teacher, her needs, and her as a person. Find some commonality you share. Ask questions to draw her into conversation. Ask:

  • About her favorite thing about being a teacher
  • What her biggest struggle is
  • How long she has been teaching
  • What age group she enjoys teaching most

These questions may be related to the current situation, but doesn’t need to be. It’s more important to focus on the relationship than the information exchanged. Asking questions shows that you’re interested in what she has to say. It makes her a valuable asset to the exchange rather than just the receiver of your wisdom.

3. Be a Support, Not a Judge

When walking into the classroom or a meeting with the intent of discussing changes to a learner’s programming, the teacher naturally feels on the defensive. Who are you to judge her teaching methods?

If the goal of the meeting is to discuss generalization in school, the teacher’s instincts are on alert. Essentially, she expects you to tell her that her teaching methods are wrong and she is waiting for you to tell her to change them.

Surprise her by assuring her you are there as a support, not a judge. Avoid false praise, but everyone has strengths. Point out things she does well that helps the child. Point out any ABA techniques the teacher already implements in the classroom. In her article ABA in Schools -Essential or Optional?, Linbald (2006) discusses how teachers naturally incorporate some elements of ABA in their everyday teaching. Find where this teacher uses ABA and compliment those strategies.

Everyone needs help at some point, but not everyone is comfortable asking for it. The teacher may see asking for help or advice as a sign of weakness or incompetence. Point out some of the ways that you’re flawed or some things you have found difficult. Tell stories about some of your less successful moments and how those moments led you to learn a new skill. When others see that you accept your own flaws or weaknesses then they may become more open to accepting your ideas. It may seem counterintuitive, but often people prefer to take advice from people who make mistakes than people who appear perfect.

4. Teach Basic ABA Strategies

Providing the teacher with some basic ABA strategies she can use to help all of the students in her class may allow her to understand the basis of your recommendations. Understanding why you recommend a specific strategy or ask her to include a specific skill builds her recognition of the bigger picture.

Once you have the opportunity to take the floor and share your knowledge, it can be tempting to provide an info dump. You may feel drawn to impart all the reasons why ABA is superior to other types of interventions. Stick to just the basics. Start out with these foundational skills:

  • ABCs and behavioral context
  • Reinforcement
  • Motivation

Avoid forcing this information upon her. Presenting too much information all at once or before she’s ready may backfire and make her more resistant.

Refrain from appearing to have all the answers to any challenge she presents. Many times teachers present excuses or reasons why your ideas won’t work in their situation. Acknowledge the teacher’s feelings about this and don’t tell her she’s wrong. Offer a choice between strategies that are likely to achieve similar results. This will likely receive a better response than insisting she must implement the strategy you present.

5. Prioritize Skills

When generalization is your main objective, you likely go into the school with your own agenda and list of skills you want to target. To get the most buy-in from the teacher, find out what skills would make the biggest change in her day and make those the priority. For example, if the learner struggles with independently putting his things away and this is a skill the learner has in his repertoire, prioritize this over other skills regardless of what skills you deem to be a higher priority.

Begin with skills that are most likely to positively impact the teacher’s day. As her everyday teaching experience improves, so will her openness to your ideas. By making those skills most likely to improve her day, you tell the teacher that she matters. You enforce the idea that you’re a support for her. She will then welcome your feedback and ideas.


Strategies to Promote Generalization in the Community

Many factors affect the need for active intervention to improve generalization in the community. Some learners 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 learner demonstrates the skill when needed.

Some learners 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 autistic learners don’t spontaneously generalize skills to untrained environments, some learners 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 learner 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 learner 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 learner require for success?
  • How much teaching has the learner 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 learner’s ability to demonstrate skills in different settings. One key feature in most settings in the community is unpredictability. Many autistic learners 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 learner’s favorite book.
  • The register at the local grocery store your learner insists on going to is closed.
  • Someone brought a dog to the park despite the signs saying “no dogs allowed” and your learner’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 learner through the haircut.

Even when changes aren’t a problem, many other elements of a community setting impact a learner’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

Learners 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 learners may generalize in the community with less training than learners 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 learner 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 learner accesses the reinforcers contingent on the behaviors you’re targeting.

Level of Sensory Stimulation

Each autistic learner processes sensory information in their own way. Some learners 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 learner’s ability to perform that skill. Avoid setting the learner up for failure by beginning with environments that aren’t a good match for the learner’s sensory needs.

Amount of Distraction in the Environment

Although a highly stimulating environment may be distracting for many learners, that’s not always the case. For learners 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 learner’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 learner 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 learner responds differently to other people in close proximity. Many autistic learners find large crowds aversive or distracting. Other learners 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 autistic learners 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 autistic learners to learn in unless you first build a routine within that environment.


Common Barriers to Generalization

In an ABA program, there are several common obstacles that can impede generalization. These obstacles include:

  1. Stimulus Overselectivity: Stimulus overselectivity occurs when learners become overly focused on specific features or elements of a situation or stimulus, making it challenging for them to generalize the skill to other similar situations or stimuli. For example, a learner might learn to identify a red ball in the clinic but struggle to identify a red apple or a red block outside of the teaching setting.
  2. Restricted Contextual Control: Autistic learners may have difficulty transferring skills from one context to another. They may learn and demonstrate a skill effectively in one specific environment or with certain individuals but struggle to apply the same skill in different settings or with different people. This limited transfer of skills can hinder generalization.
  3. Insufficient Variations in Teaching Conditions: If the teaching conditions in an ABA program are too consistent and lack variations, learners may have difficulty applying their skills to different situations. It is crucial to expose learners to a range of settings, people, and situations during teaching sessions to promote generalization.
  4. Inadequate Naturalistic Teaching Strategies: ABA programs that primarily rely on contrived or isolated teaching methods may hinder generalization. If learners are not given opportunities to practice skills in natural, everyday contexts, they may struggle to apply those skills outside of the therapy setting. Naturalistic teaching methods, such as embedding skills within functional activities and real-life scenarios, are crucial for promoting generalization.
  5. Limited Generalization Instruction: If generalization is not explicitly targeted and taught as part of the ABA program, learners may struggle to apply their skills in new contexts. It is essential for BCBAs to incorporate specific strategies and instruction to promote generalization throughout the therapy process.
  6. Lack of Caregiver Involvement: Caregivers play a vital role in facilitating generalization. If caregivers are not actively involved in the ABA program and do not provide opportunities for learners to practice skills in different settings and situations outside of therapy sessions, generalization may be hindered. Caregiver involvement is crucial for reinforcing and generalizing skills in naturalistic environments.
  7. Failure to Address Response Maintenance: Response maintenance refers to the learner’s ability to maintain and continue using the acquired skills over time. If skills are not practiced and reinforced consistently after the initial acquisition phase, learners may experience a decline in generalization. Ongoing practice and reinforcement of skills in various settings and situations are necessary to promote response maintenance and generalization.
  8. Lack of Generalization Assessments: Without regular assessments to evaluate the learner’s ability to generalize skills, it becomes difficult to identify and address any obstacles to generalization. It is important to systematically assess and monitor the learner’s performance across different settings and situations to determine the effectiveness of the generalization plan and make necessary adjustments.

Addressing these common obstacles requires careful planning, incorporating naturalistic teaching methods, systematically fading prompts, involving caregivers, and conducting regular assessments. By actively addressing these challenges, ABA programs can enhance generalization and promote the transfer and application of skills in diverse real-life contexts.

Here’s are are some strategies to help you overcome the common obstacles to generalization in an ABA program:

Stimulus Overselectivity– Gradually introduce variations in the stimuli used during training
– Use fading procedures to generalize responses to similar but slightly different stimuli
Restricted Contextual Control– Systematically vary the teaching context
– Incorporate generalization targets across multiple settings and situations
Insufficient Variations in Teaching Conditions– Incorporate teaching sessions in different environments (e.g., therapy room, home, school, community)
– Use a variety of materials and props during teaching sessions
Inadequate Naturalistic Teaching Strategies– Embed skills within functional activities and real-life scenarios
– Promote generalization by practicing skills in natural settings relevant to the learner’s everyday life
Limited Generalization Instruction– Explicitly teach and discuss generalization as part of the ABA program
– Use explicit instruction to explain how and where skills can be applied in various contexts
Lack of Caregiver Involvement– Provide caregiver training to ensure their active involvement in generalization
– Collaborate with caregivers to create opportunities for skill practice in different settings and situations
Failure to Address Response Maintenance– Incorporate maintenance and review sessions in the ABA program
– Develop strategies to reinforce and maintain acquired skills over time
Lack of Generalization Assessments– Regularly assess and monitor the learner’s ability to generalize skills
– Collect data across different settings and situations to evaluate generalization progress

By implementing these strategies, ABA programs can effectively address and overcome the common obstacles to generalization, facilitating the transfer and application of skills in various real-life contexts.


Ethical Considerations Related to Planning for Generalization

The table below presents some important ethical considerations when planning for generalization. The table includes specific action steps to help you ensure you practice in an ethical way.

Ethical ConcernDescriptionAction Steps to Ensure Ethical Practice
Limited environmental variationsRestricting learning opportunities to a narrow range of settingsProvide exposure to diverse environments for skill application
Insufficient maintenance strategiesNeglecting to reinforce and sustain learned skills over timeDevelop maintenance plans to support skill retention
Inadequate assessment of generalizationNot assessing generalization during skill acquisitionRegularly assess and measure generalization of learned skills
Inconsistent application of skillsFailing to apply learned skills across different contextsProvide opportunities for skill practice in varied situations
Lack of naturalistic teaching approachesOver-reliance on contrived settings during skill acquisitionIncorporate naturalistic teaching approaches into interventions
Limited stakeholder involvement in planningExcluding key individuals from the generalization processInvolve stakeholders in planning and decision-making
Failure to address individual differencesIgnoring individual needs and characteristics in generalizationTailor strategies to individual strengths and challenges
Cultural bias in generalization planningOverlooking cultural and diversity factors in skill transferConsider cultural relevance and adapt strategies accordingly
Incomplete consideration of skill complexityOvergeneralizing simple skills to complex real-life situationsTeach skills in a progressive manner to account for complexity
Lack of ongoing data collection and analysisNot monitoring and evaluating generalization progressCollect and analyze data to assess the effectiveness of methods
Inadequate staff training on generalizationInsufficient knowledge and skills in promoting generalizationProvide training on generalization strategies to all staff
Unrealistic expectations for generalizationSetting goals beyond the individual’s capabilitiesSet realistic and attainable goals for generalization
Failure to address environmental barriersNeglecting to modify the environment to support generalizationRemove or modify environmental barriers to skill application
Inconsistent reinforcement across environmentsVarying reinforcement contingencies across different settingsMaintain consistent reinforcement practices across environments

These concerns and corresponding action steps aim to promote ethical practices in teaching and ensure that learned skills are effectively generalized across various settings and contexts.


Research Related to Planning for Generalization

Below is a table summarizing research articles related to planning for generalization. The table includes important action steps to help you put these ideas into practice.

Article TitleSummaryAction Steps for Application
Cowan, R. J., & Allen, K. D. (2007)The article focuses on using naturalistic procedures to promote generalized teaching and learning in individuals with autism within school settings.Implement naturalistic teaching strategies in school settings to facilitate generalization.
Dillenburger, K., Keenan, M., Gallagher, S., & McElhinney, M. (2004)This study examines parents’ perceptions of outcome for home-based behavior analytic intervention after receiving parent education.Provide parent education and support to enhance home-based behavior analytic intervention and improve outcomes.
Johnson, C. R., Handen, B. L., Butter, E., Wagner, A., Mulick, J., et al.The article describes the development of a parent training program for children with pervasive developmental disorders and discusses its implementation and effectiveness.Develop and implement parent training programs to empower parents and enhance their skills in supporting children with autism.
Lafasakis, M., & Sturmey, P. (2007)The study investigates the effects of training parents in the implementation of discrete-trial teaching on generalization of parent teaching and child correct responding.Train parents in the implementation of discrete-trial teaching methods to promote generalization of skills and correct responding in children with autism.
Schreibman, L., Dawson, G., Stahmer, A. C., Landa, R., et al. (2015)This article reviews naturalistic developmental behavioral interventions as empirically validated treatments for individuals with autism spectrum disorder.Implement naturalistic developmental behavioral interventions as evidence-based treatments for individuals with autism spectrum disorder.
Whalen, C. (2009)The book discusses strategies for successful generalization in natural environments for children with autism spectrum disorders, providing practical guidance and examples.Apply strategies for promoting generalization in natural environments to facilitate real-life progress for children with autism spectrum disorders.

These articles provide valuable insights into promoting generalization and improving outcomes for autistic learners through various approaches such as naturalistic teaching, parent education, and behavior analytic intervention. The action steps outlined can be utilized to inform and guide interventions and support the generalization of skills in clinic, school and home settings.


References and Related Reading

Ayer, I. (2023). Carrots and sticks: The science of motivation. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Cowan, R. J., & Allen, K. D. (2007). Using naturalistic procedures to enhance learning in individuals with autism: A focus on generalized teaching within the school settingPsychology in the Schools44(7), 701-715.

Dillenburger, K., Keenan, M., Gallagher, S., & McElhinney, M. (2004). Parent education and home‐based behaviour analytic intervention: an examination of parents’ perceptions of outcomeJournal of Intellectual and Developmental Disability29(2), 119-130.

Johnson, C. R., Handen, B. L., Butter, E., Wagner, A., Mulick, J., Sukhodolsky, D. G., … & Scahill, L. (2007). Development of a parent training program for children with pervasive developmental disordersBehavioral Interventions22(3), 201-221.

Lafasakis, M., & Sturmey, P. (2007). Training parent implementation of discrete‐trial teaching: Effects on generalization of parent teaching and child correct respondingJournal of applied behavior analysis40(4), 685-689.

Schreibman, L., Dawson, G., Stahmer, A. C., Landa, R., Rogers, S. J., McGee, G. G., … & McNerney, E. (2015). Naturalistic developmental behavioral interventions: Empirically validated treatments for autism spectrum disorderJournal of autism and developmental disorders45(8), 2411-2428.

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

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