I Love Pairing – 9 Tips to Pair Effectively

Pairing is a great chance to get to know what your learner likes, and how they like it. It’s a  time to be creative, and try things you may not usually do.


When I started at Treetops, pairing was the first thing they said I should do. I had no idea what pairing entailed, but they said ‘just have fun’. In the simplest explanation it is ‘having fun’ but it an analytical way (wow, analytical fun sounds boring).


Pairing is a great chance to be a big kid!


You should give reinforcers freely, with only the expectation that the learner stays with you. Place very few demands, keep reinforcers under your control (not freely accessible), and help the learner realise that the most fun can be had when you are around. We want our learners to be running too us, not away! 


There’s no time frame for pairing, it’s taken me 30 minutes before, and with some learners I don’t think I’ve ever fully paired with, each learner is different, and there are many variables to consider. We should adapt to our learners, some children love really enthusiastic therapists, and others prefer calmer approaches.


The process of pairing is based on stimulus stimulus pairing, the process of taking a neutral stimulus (the therapist) and associating them (pairing) with established reinforcers (learners’ favourite items).


Here are 9 tips to help you pair with the learner more effectively;

  • Be fun – if you’re not having fun, chances are your learner isn’t.
  • Relax – you’ll have more fun if you do!
  • Variety – use everything and anything at your disposal (including household items you can make fun).
  • Prepare – to an extent anyway, plan some fun activities, but don’t be disappointed if your learner isn’t interested (which can be devastating if you’ve spent time setting something up).
  • How does your learner like it? – you may set painting up with paint brushes etc, but maybe your learner wants to foot paint?
  • Go with the flow – mostly anyway, it’s important to follow your learners’ motivation, but you also don’t want them to dictate everything!
  • Be a giver not a taker – freely deliver lots of awesome things to your learner (for items such as a bouncy ball, you’re probably thinking ‘how can I get that back?’ Just offer something else the learner wants whilst taking back the bouncy ball, that way you’re still ‘giving’ even though you’ve taken back the ball).
  • Model – whether you work with a vocal learner or a signer, model the sign and/or vocal when delivering the items (remember, it’s not a requirement for the learner to emit a response (mand) during the pairing process, but if they do, deliver lots of the reinforcer).
  • Analyse – make notes of things your learner likes and dislikes, how they like it, how you can build on it, whether you’ll target them as mands etc. get to know your learner!


Another useful point to remember is that pairing isn’t permanent. If you’ve been on a school holiday, your learners not been well, or there’s been a big incident of problem behaviour, then it may be necessary to go back to pairing temporarily. It’s always good to start the session with some pairing. 


Pairing is so important, and shouldn’t be seen as something to rush through and get to the learning. This is the time you’ll get the learner to want to learn! Have fun. Smash it.

Is ABA all about Punishment?


This is a tough piece to write, as it’s a bit of a delicate subject to approach, but I thought I may as well get stuck in. 

There is a common misconception about ABA, that it heavily relies on punishment. This is not true.

Two consequences are reinforcement or punishment. Now, punishment is a word that has many negative connotations, but it shouldn’t. Punishment is a consequence that decreases the future likelihood of a behaviour. Punishment as the field of ABA defines it is not as sinister as the general perception of punishment may be. Most views on punishment are probably misguided, uninformed, and/or outdated. Punishment has helped us thrive as a species,and played a big part in all our lives. 


The misconception is probably because oDoctor_review_brain_imagesf early research in to punishment in the field of
ABA, when punishment was a lot more common. Times when children would still get the cane at school, or you’d get a ‘clip round the ear’ if you did something wrong. But science evolves, ABA has moved a long way since then, just like people’s beliefs have. Science is always advancing, finding more effective ways to get better results; so is ABA. Whilst I was studying, my supervisor (Gina
Tirri, BCBA) spoke of how doctors aren’t treating all illnesses the way they were treated over 60 years ago, and that they use the most up to date treatments available to them, as do behaviour analysts.


Punishment occurs daily for everyone. A punisher is ANYTHING that occurs after a behaviour that reduces the future likelihood of the behaviour;

  • If you eat food that’s too hot and it burns your mouth, and you don’t do the same thing straight after, then the behaviour of eating piping hot food has been punished.
  • If you hit the snooze button too many times and miss your train, and in the future you don’t hit the snooze button, the behaviour of hitting the snooze button has been punished.
  • If a learner is rude to a teacher, they may get a detention, if the learner is less likely to be rude to the teacher again, then the detention was a punisher.


Parents would likely reprimand a child if they misbehave, and so would teachers for that matter, to the end that they want them to ‘behave’ more acceptably, learn more effectively, and be kept safe, so they are well equipped for life in the world. So why isn’t it acceptable to shape children with autism’s behaviour? We should have high expectations for our learners.


51pm2vhyXSL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The first time I used a punishment procedure was with a young learner during a toilet training protocol (I’ll do another post down the line on the toilet training procedure by Azrin and Foxx). Basically, the child receives positive reinforcement for ‘good toileting practices’, and positive practice (a type of overcorrection – a punishment procedure where you get the learner to do the desired behaviour several times) when there is an accident. I remember feeling sceptical initially. Naturally, I asked questions, and read in to the research. Using reinforcement and punishment was such an effective way to toilet train, and being toilet trained is such a valuable life skill. If faced with the option of a couple of negative experiences or being toilet trained, what would you choose? Sitting around in wet/soiled pants is not dignified, so I know what I’d rather.



There are 2 types of punishment, positive (the addition of something – verbal reprimand) or negative (the removal of something – response cost). I have been trained to use reinforcement over punishment if possible, but sometimes, punishment may be necessary to decrease challenging/inappropriate behaviour. These could be strategies such as;

  • response cost (removal of something good, e.g. confiscating a learner’s iPad for a short period, or losing playtime)
  • time out [which is commonly misused] (is the withdrawal of the opportunity to earn reinforcement e.g. sitting outside of the ball pit, away from the fun)
  • verbal reprimands
  • over correction (doing the correct behaviour several times)

There are of course more punishment procedures.


It’s important to remember that something is only a punisher if the target behaviour decreases, so you shouldn’t be using the same consequence over and over with no change, as it’s actually ineffective. If a child becomes upset when you deliver a consequence, but it doesn’t decrease the target behaviour, then it’s not working as a punisher.



If using punishment, we should always be reinforcing a desired alternative behaviour. For example, if there was a punishment procedure used for a learner hitting other children during playtime, then we should also be reinforcing playing appropriately with peers. This way we can say things such as ‘play with ……’ rather than ‘stop ….’; give the learner something to do rather than something to don’t.


One last thing to consider is the delivery of punishment. I’ve seen teachers send children to the headmaster, and the head will give a verbal reprimand, which it turns out the learner loves, thought it was hilarious, so it’s likely the problem behaviour was actually reinforced! Remember, it’s not about how you mean the consequence to be taken, it’s about the effect on the future likelihood of the behaviour, how it’s received by the learner.


I hope this has clarified a subject that is sometimes tiptoed around, and hopefully you will convince others to not jump to conclusions, because in reality, behaviour analysts will only use punishment procedures after careful thought and planning, and always for the benefit of reducing an undesirable behaviour.

What is autism?

So, I know this will be a predominantly ABA blog, but I wanted the first few posts to cover the stages parents encounter from diagnosis to starting an ABA programme, as it is rarely straight forward!

I have recruited the help of parents I work with, and the general consensus is that the first question after analysis (or around the time parents start seeking diagnosis), is what is autism?

It’s a term that most people have heard of, but actually know little about. While I was studying, I had some lectures on this, but a text book definition; ‘Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a condition that affects social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour’ doesn’t actually prepare you for working with, or caring for someone on the autism spectrum.

Statistic 1 – ASD are 4 times more prevalent in males

Now, the below graphic touches on the 3 areas in the triad of impairment which are effected by autism spectrum disorders, with some day to day examples.

Triad of impairment

Here’s a list of some things (by no means extensive) you may observe if you have a little one with autism (based on observations of parents);

  • Lack of eye contact
  • A regression in speech sounds and laughing from about 18 months’ old
  • No interest in other children
  • Self stimulatory behaviour (such as hand flapping)
  • Not responding to their name being called or other sounds in the environment
  • Little to no pointing to objects of interest

As autism is a spectrum disorder, difficulties can present in different ways, and differ from person to person. I feel this doesn’t really do justice to just how differently ASD can impact people. It can vary from people such as Temple Grandin  and Dan Aykroyd (he was in Ghostbusters, awesome film!)  to adults who struggle to meet daily living skills such as eating independently, being toilet trained, and having no functional communication, and everything in between. The spectrum is vast.

Statistic 2 – over 700,000 people have an autism spectrum disorder in the UK.

The cause of autism is unknown. It is suspected that it may be a genetic, environmental, and/or neurological factors. There is NO research that supports the notion that the MMR vaccine causes autism, nor ‘bad parenting’.

Here’s some common misconceptions about autism;

  • The Rain Man myth – it isn’t true that all people on the spectrum are a genius in some area. They may however have a special interest, but are no more likely to be a genius than anyone else.
  • Everyone with an ASD acts differently – not all people with an ASD will engage in uncommon self stimulatory behaviours such as rocking or hand flapping.
  • Children with autism can’t learn effectively – I have personally seen ABA strategies teach children skills I didn’t think they could.
  • People with ASD’s don’t make emotional attachments – Rubbish! I have worked with some incredibly loving children.

I must mention here that a diagnosis of autism is not necessary for an ABA intervention. Behaviour Analysts work with behaviour, not diagnoses. That’s not to say a diagnosis isn’t useful in other situations, as they are often needed to receive the support you are entitled to.

My time working with learners on the spectrum has taught me that each person has unique difficulties, which need to be approached in an individualised way. It’s about finding out what the learner likes (and this isn’t always obvious). It’s recognising that everything the learner does serves a purpose for them, even if it isn’t clear for us, and they don’t engage in problematic behaviours ‘to be naughty’. It’s about finding the best way to teach the learner and adapting to their needs. It’s remembering, even in times of difficulty, that progress can be made.

I won’t drone on anymore (turns out I love typing as much as I love talking!), but if anybody would like some more information about autism, I have some slides that I’ve adapted from an autism introduction, so if you’d like me to send them over, please leave a comment in the comment box below this blog

Thanks for reading!




Autism Spectrum Disorder: The Complete Guide to Understanding Autism (Chantal Sicile-Kira)