When I was a classroom teacher, I didn’t always have the tools or knowledge to effectively deal with learning or behavioural challenges. It was frustrating! Soon after I graduated with a Masters in Education, I was given a group of 4-year-old preschool children; and, despite my years of studying, I was unprepared. There was one student that kept me up at night: He struggled academically and socially and his language wasn’t at the level of his peers. I tried hard to help him, but my efforts always fell short due to my limited know-how. I wished I knew then what I know now as a BCBA.
I sought out the world of behaviour analysis as a solution to a problem – I wanted to be able to reach these children in their early years before it was too late. Today, I’m regularly invited into classrooms – ones like yours – to observe students with learning and/or behavioural challenges and to share strategies with teachers like you. If you’re at a loss with how to foster certain pupils, then keep reading for helpful suggestions. Here are the ABA principles I wish I knew when I was a teacher.
5 ABA Principles
To promote a positive classroom environment and get every student learning
1. Practice Positive Reinforcement: As a teacher, I didn’t understand how to effectively change my students’ behaviour. I thought that having one big sticker board would magically make all of them take on the actions of angels. My reward system was inconsistent in its effectiveness.
Positive reinforcement is the best way to shape more desirable behaviour in your students, providing you do it properly (unlike I did). When a child does something you’d like to see more of – for example, keeping his hands to himself during circle – immediately pair the behaviour with praise, a sticker or a small treat. Keep reinforcing “hands to yourself” every time Johnny does it and “quiet hands” will soon become a habit. Positive reinforcement is one of the most helpful ABA principles to implement in the classroom!
2. Functions of Behaviour: Did you know that your students’ negative behaviour can be narrowed down to a few simple functions (Attention, Escape, Sensory and Tangible)? I had no clue that when my 4-year-old student was not listening to my instructions, it could have simply been because the friend next to him gave him a big laugh. Using something as simple as an ABC chart can tell you a lot about the patterns of negative behaviour and the possible reasons for it. For example, if Johnny has to leave circle time every time he pushes his friend, he could actually be trying to escape the demand and removing him is reinforcing it!
I also wish I knew how to teach language to replace negative behaviour. Getting students to use their words and ask for what they want is a useful life tool. So, for example, if my student was fidgety because circle time lasted too long, I would have taught him to tell me that he needs a break.
Figure out WHY students are misbehaving with our ABC chart:
3. Teach Young Children Across All Language Domains: They need to experience things, see things, point to things and then talk about things. Kids’ verbal skills and abilities to answer questions develop at different rates, and some need to be more supported than others in learning. I wish I knew that just because my preschool student couldn’t answer certain questions (“What do you wear?”), didn’t mean that he wouldn’t have been able to answer it in a different format (“Find the picture of something you wear?” or “Go get something you wear so we can go outside”).
4. Use visuals in ALL areas of teaching. This will help ensure that all your students – whether they are visual, auditory or tactile learners – understand your message. Verbal instructions alone are lost on some kids; words disappear and pictures last. When we give directions as a visual, it’s something they can continue to visualize and reference during uncertainty. This is especially true for children who struggle in the classroom. I’ve seen so many times where a simple visual schedule was enough to ground a student who felt lost in a busy learning environment.
5. Importance of social play: This last of the ABA principles is as important as the other four! So often as teachers, we focus on the academic accomplishments of our students. Generally, we don’t give nearly as much priority to teaching communication, problem-solving skills, executive functioning, empathy and emotional understanding. These are life skills that students actually need! If I knew then what I know now, I would have, for example, coached my students while they talked out an argument and came up with a mutually beneficial solution.
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