Generalization: How teaching strategies and environment affect generalization

Generalization occurs when children learn a skill under one condition (i.e. specific staff, environment, etc) and demonstrate that skill under a different condition (i.e. different staff, different environment, etc.). Many children with autism require specific training to achieve this.

The field of Applied Behavior Analysis offers an abundance of evidence-based teaching strategies, each with its own unique advantages and disadvantages. Which strategy you choose may directly impact your need to plan for generalization of skills taught.


Importance of Generalization Planning for Generalization ABA Teaching Strategies Teaching Strategies and Generalization Using Natural Environment and Incidental Teaching to Generalize Skills Plan for Generalization in the Community 5 Ways to Increase Collaboration to Improve Generalization in School

Importance of Generalization

Children with autism experience a wide variety of deficits across domains, including self-help, communication and social skills. Many of these children learn in a different way than their peers and benefit from a structured learning approach to develop new skills. Often, once children acquire new skills they do not automatically demonstrate them across different conditions.

Without the ability to demonstrate the new skill in a natural environment, the instruction is a pointless exercise. Children with autism must experience success at home, at school and in the community, not just within a training environment. Generalization of skills must occur for this to happen.

Planning for Generalization

Well-developed ABA programs create a plan for generalization along with their teaching plan. This might include instruction in a natural setting with a gradual transition to a reinforcer commonly available within that setting. For example:

You work with a 10-year-old 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. Using a discrete trial format and hand-under-hand prompting, you teach him to make the request in exchange for a fry. In order to generalize the skill, you plan to take him to McDonald’s where he orders his own fries.

In the training environment, your client 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. Once he is able to wait 3 minutes before receiving his fries, you take him to McDonald’s and begin training in the natural environment.

Without the plan to teach the skill in the natural environment, your client likely would not automatically be able to ask for French fries when he walks into McDonald’s. There are many other steps needed to get French fries when you go to McDonald’s. You must walk to the counter, wait in line, ask for fries, wait and then take your fries to the table before eating them. All of these steps must be included in your generalization plan.

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ABA Teaching Strategies

ABA provides several commonly implemented teaching strategies including several naturalistic teaching methods such as Pivotal Response Training (PRT) along with more structured methods such as Discrete Trial Training (DTT). These interventions exist essentially along a continuum from a highly natural teaching environment to a more contrived analog teaching environment.

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)?

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Teaching Strategies and Generalization

Children with autism often learn in ways that is different from their peers, but also different from each other. They require individualized teaching approaches to help each child learn in the way he learns best. A one-size fits all approach is ineffective.

The most effective ABA programs likely include a variety of teaching methods that includes both ends of the continuum, depending on the skill. 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.

When developing your intervention plan, consider the degree to which the individual child 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 client 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

Teaching your client 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 may even be successful in generalizing to restaurants where he is seated first with minimal training.

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

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Using Natural Environment and Incidental Teaching to Generalize Skills

One of the biggest arguments against ABA therapy is concerns over teaching children in an unnatural environment. If children learn skills in a structured ABA program, will they generalize them and use these same skills at home, school and in the community?

ABA therapy offers a wide variety of interventions to meet the varying of children with autism. Some of these do have difficulty generalizing, like Discrete Trial Training. However others, like Natural Environment Teaching and Incidental Teaching, focus on teaching skills in a more natural way. The needs of the child should dictate the type of intervention used, and the goal of the treatment plan should be to generalize skills no matter where the child starts.

ABA Debate

ABA therapy isn’t without its critics. Our post Understanding the Debate about ABA goes into detail about the debate over ABA therapy as a method of treating autism. However, if ABA strategies are applied in a way that maintains the respect and interests of the child, it remains one of the most effective ways to teach these children.

Critics of ABA argue that skills learned as part of a program are difficult to generalize to other environments. Interventions such as Discrete Trial Training is one such treatment option.

Discrete Trial Training

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is a structured method of teaching that works especially well with children with autism. Children with autism thrive in structured, routine environments with limited distractions and DTT provides this. Trials are administered in quick succession in a way that keeps the child engaged and offers many opportunities for positive reinforcement.

Although this method of teaching is highly effective, generalizing skills learned in this environment is a challenge. However, a quality ABA program should include generalization of all skills, even one learned during DTT, as part of the treatment plan.

Generalization and Children with Autism

Children with autism often have difficulty generalizing information. What seems obvious to others, isn’t always the same for someone with autism. From an early age, children learn to line up when leaving the classroom. A child with autism may understand that to leave the classroom she has to stand in line, but may not realize that she is expected to also stand in line to get food in the cafeteria.

Most of us are able to see the connection: we stand in line when waiting for something. For children with autism this is not so obvious.

Part of the challenge children with autism face in generalizing information is the lack of social awareness. While other children pick up on social cues, such as their peers forming a line then giving an angry look at children who jump ahead in the line, children with autism may not.

Children with autism also may lack imitation skills. In the example above, many children will learn to stand in line at the cafeteria simply by imitating their peers.

How to Generalize Skills for Children with Autism

Okay, so generalization is important. Children with autism need to be able to apply a skill to all appropriate situations. But how do you generalize skills?

ABA offers a variety of interventions, including Natural Environment Teaching and Incidental Teaching intended to help children generalize skills in a more natural setting.

Natural Environment Teaching

Natural Environment Teaching is what it sounds like. It applies the principles of ABA to real-world scenarios.

All ABA interventions are structured, however NET is taught in a way that seems less structured to the child. Don’t be fooled though. NET uses a plan that incorporates the ABCs of behavior, and will always include reinforcement of the desired behaviors.

Therapists using NET incorporate trials into their learner’s favorite activities. Their plan will create scenarios typically found in a more natural setting to create learning opportunities. They focus on the specific needs of the child, and combines those with her particular interests.

Whenever possible, activities themselves are used as the reinforcer, but if this proves insufficient for your child other means of reinforcement will be used. Therapists may use pairing to teach a child that an activity, or item is reinforcing. They may also use more traditional forms of reinforcement if that is more effective with the learner. Whatever they choose, reinforcement should be included in their plan.

How to Use Natural Environment Teaching

NET pairs a child’s preferred items and activities with skills being taught. Opportunities are then contrived throughout the day (or session) to practice and reinforce the target behaviors. To do this, a therapist:

  1. Identifies the target behavior
  2. Identifies preferred items and activities
  3. Contrives triggers (antecedents) for the behavior
  4. Uses teaching opportunities as they arise
  5. Reinforces your child for correct responses

Similar to DTT, each NET interaction can be quick and even repetitive. But unlike DTT each trial occurs in a more natural setting and is less structured. Although a therapist may contrive many opportunities throughout the session, other teaching moments will be used as they come up as well.

Examples of Natural Environment Teaching

NET can be used to teach a variety of skills:

  • Making requests (known as mands)
  • Imitating others
  • Making eye contact
  • Identifying colors, shapes and animals

And much more. lets look at an example.

Example: Ben Learns to Identify Colors

Ben is a 4-year-old boy who hasn’t yet learned to identify colors. His parents want him to learn this skill and are working with an ABA therapist to teach him using NET. Together they work on a plan. They:

  1. Identify the target behavior in very specific terms. They will begin by teaching Ben to identify objects that are the color red.
  2. Identify preferred activities and items. Ben loves playing with Play-Doh and dinosaurs so they decide to use these items.
  3. List several possible opportunities to identify the color red using these preferred items.
  4. Plan for reinforcement. Ben’s parents believe that the Play-Doh and dinosaurs will be sufficiently reinforcing, as these are typically the items Ben will choose to play with on his own. However, they will increase the reinforcing nature of these items by removing them and allowing Ben to use them only for this purpose while they are following this plan.

The therapist begins by using DTT to teach Ben what the color red is. He uses this only long enough for Ben to understand that the sound of the word “red” represents the color. He then demonstrates NET using Play-Doh. He begins by taking out two colors of Play-Doh, green and red. He then asks Ben which one is red. When Ben responds correctly he is given the red Play-Doh to play with.

Example: Tips to Use NET

In this video example, Two Tips to Teach Children With Autism in the Natural Environment, Mary Barbera – Turn Autism Around shares two useful tips for NET:

Incidental Teaching

Incidental Teaching is similar to NET, but is even less structured. This intervention happens in the natural environment, where learning is initiated by a child’s interest in an object or an activity. A therapist may follow a child from one activity to the next, then insert learning into the activity the child chooses.

Incidental Teaching incorporates learning opportunities throughout the day. If a therapist is teaching the learner to identify a dog, then throughout the day she will use opportunities for him to do this. If the learner chooses a book that has a dog in it, she might ask him to point to the picture of the dog. Similarly she may have the learner pick out a dog from a variety of toys he is playing with.

Each lesson becomes a natural part of the day.

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Plan for Generalization in the Community

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.

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!

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5 Ways to Increase Collaboration to Improve Generalization in School

Generalization in school requires getting the teacher on board unless the child 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 child 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 child 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 child, 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 child’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 child struggles with independently putting his things away and this is a skill the child has in his repertoire, prioritize this over other skills regardless of what skills you deem to be a higher priority.

Beginning 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.

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. We also have an ABA Parent Coaching curriculum that provides a solid foundation you can use immediate. Altogether, this curriculum offers 16 lessons, each with an assignment for the parent or caregiver. 

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 monthly,” try saying “I meet with all of my parents monthly.” 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 child 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.

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.


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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.

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