Pairing – When Learning is Fun!

This guest blog post comes courtesy of the wonderful Giulia Longato, BCBA. She is writing about pairing, and I have seen her first hand pair like a pro! Over to Giulia…

Pairing tastes like my nonna’s cakes, sounds like my favourite professor’s lecture, looks like my parents picking me up from the airport and smells like my friend’s hug. Whenever I have such experiences, I know things will get better.

This is Giulia – our guest blogger!

Pairing is essentially rapport-building and it is the first component to good teaching. When pairing, you want to be the provider of everything your child likes. A marble run, playing chase, tickles, sharing a snack, painting, water play… the list is endless! Find what your learner likes (reinforcers), get into your child’s fun and make it more fun when you are there.

Pairing is based on stimulus stimulus pairing, the process by which teachers, the environment, teaching materials, games (neutral stimuli) are established as positive – i.e. approachable and pleasant – by associating them (pairing) with established reinforcers (your learner’s favourite items and activities).

When pairing, you should give the reinforcers freely, without demands, only with the expectation that the learner stays with you (you can’t build rapport if you’re not together!). You should cleanse the environment – this means the fun stuff should be under your control and the child should access it via your mediation. You should feel like a gigantic toy!

Successful pairing teaches the child that you are fun, and that when you show up good things happen. It leads to the child running to you – not away from – as soon as he or she sees you!

Learning occurs more easily and effectively when the teaching environment has been conditioned as an enjoyable place to be.

A great visual explaining pairing from Behavioral Interventions and Solutions

Here are a few tips to become a pairing master:

1 – Have fun! Be silly and think outside the box. Use the toys and the objects all around you like you’ve never done before. A plastic cup can be spun like a spinning top, rolled down the sofa cushion, used as if it was a skittle, for water play, etc.

2 – Be a giver, not a taker – Be a giver of good things for free. When it is time to get the item back, make something else interesting and offer it while taking the other one back.

3 – Play starts with you and stays with you! You are in control of the reinforcers and the integral part of the game.

4 – Go with the (MO) flow – Follow the child’s lead (motivation), see the world through your learner’s lenses, imitate your pupil’s actions.

5 – Observe and plan – See what your learner does (e.g. what is he/she reaching for, what is he/she looking or smiling at?), plan for some activities where you can incorporate established reinforcers with new ideas.

6 – The more, the merrier – Have a variety of toys available, and remember that you can use everyday items and physical play too!

7 – Be a role model – model words, phrases, signs, and play that you want your child to do more of.

8 – Pairing never ends! Pairing is crucial when you first start working with your student, but remember to pair with him/her throughout every session. Pairing leads to instructional control (when the child follows your instructions willingly) and it should always be the foundation of an ABA programme.

Pairing is the core of any ABA intervention because it is the gateway to finding what your learner likes while establishing rapport. It also creates the basis to work on requesting (manding) and teaching other skills, like play and self-help skills, labelling objects, following instructions and much more. 

Fill your pairing bag up with toys and laughter and get ready for new fun adventures!

Shaping – 3 Key Points

Forgive me for starting with a definition (I know it can be boring). Understanding shaping improved my practise so much. Shaping is the process of systematically and differentially reinforcing successive approximations to a terminal behaviour (Cooper, Heron, Heward, 2007). Simply put, it’s breaking a skill down in to small achievable steps and reinforcing those steps along the way until you reach the end product. I’ll elaborate on some of the key points of shaping.

Differential Reinforcement

It’s kind of like performance related pay (not completely) – but if your child/learner responds better (i.e. closer to what you’re working towards), the more reinforcement they get. Take learning the word

‘bubbles’ for example, when Felix (my son) first said ‘buh’ for bubbles, I blew loads of bubbles and praised him. When he eventually got this to ‘buh buh’ after several trials (a trial is counted as one time he requests bubbles), this was reinforced a lot, and ‘buh’ no longer cut it. The bar had been raised. After several more trials this shaped to ‘bubbles’, this is what received lots of reinforcement and ‘buh buh’ no longer cut it. 

Another common example parents may be familiar with is if a child asks for a drink, and parents hold back until the child says ‘can I have a drink please’  – only when please is used will the parent reinforce the request with providing a drink.

One last example is me getting take away pizza on a Saturday. I set the bar as being able to get this if I exercise three times that week for 30 minutes, and only get it if I do, exercising twice will not get me a takeaway (big reinforcer). Once I’ve achieved this, I will set the bar to 4 times a week for 30 minutes in order to get the takeaway – 3 times no longer cuts it.

Successive Approximations

This is all about systematically shifting the criteria for when reinforcement is delivered for a behaviour (raising the bar little and often). It’s all about breaking down a skill from start (unestablished skill) to finish (established skill consistently done well). How many steps are needed for a behaviour depends on the skills the child already has (pre-requisite skills). Here’s a couple of examples;

  1. My little man learning to walk. We (parents, adults) can play a big part in shaping behaviour, even learning to walk. The first step Felix took on his own we went crazy (cheering, cuddles, clapping, smiles etc). After doing this a few times over the next couple of weeks our reinforcement became less enthusiastic (the magnitude of reinforcement was less) and more intermittent. But if he then did two steps, we went crazy again – reinforcement was still ‘up for grabs’ but the criteria had changed. This continued all the way till he started walking confidently on his own.
  2. Shaping a word. Like the example I outlined above, bubbles are a favourite item for me to use at home and also in sessions. Children who are in the early stages of learning to talk may begin my making approximations of words. My son would say ‘buh’ for bubbles, and the first time we heard this we gave him loads of bubbles! This continued the first few times and as it became more consistent, we systematically faded reinforcement. From this point we raised the bar/shifted the criteria to ‘buh buh’ – this is what would now get him LOADS of bubbles. Once this became consistent, we shifted the criteria to ‘bubbles’ (the terminal behaviour – the end goal).
  3. A teacher shaping writing with a pencil. First a teacher may try to build motivation for mark making with any instrument (paint brush, chalk, crayons etc), once the learner enjoys mark making they may prompt an appropriate pencil grip whilst mark making, from here letter formation, then words, then sentences and so on,

In these scenarios it would have been much harder, even unreasonable, to expect the end goal immediately; shaping was a crucial part of learning the new skill. 

Prompts

Shaping can be a timely process. To increase the efficiency a few strategies can be used alongside shaping;

  • Vocal prompt – this can be a prompt such as a teacher saying ‘pick up your pencil’
  • Physical prompts – for example to shap writing you may prompt the learner hand over hand at first, gradually fading this whilst systematically shaping each step of the task towards sentence writing (at first maybe you give social praise for letting you physically prompt without resisting).
  • Imitative prompts – the same example could be used as above, but you ask the child to imitate what you are doing (‘try this’ – whilst holding the pencil with the appropriate grip).

Any prompts used should be systematically faded – this is important. 

I hope this has been a practical post. Pick a behaviour and get shaping.