Table Time and Reinforcement in ABA | How to Increase Reinforcement
So let’s talk about reinforcement in ABA and the table. As most of you know, the Turn Autism Around Approach thinks very highly of table time. You may have heard of floor time, which is Stanley Greenspan’s model, where it’s a lot of following your child’s lead. I’m not an expert on this model, but it’s a lot of time on the floor and natural environment teaching. I have found over the past two decades as a mom and as a behavior analyst that it’s much easier to teach parents and to teach therapists how to sanitize a room or a corner of a room and how to pair up a table with very strong reinforcement for increased learning.
Because what we know with Applied Behavior Analysis over the years is that kids need a lot of trials and a lot of exposure. Not just chasing them around the room. Saying when they look out the window, “oh, there’s a tree.” Then they go to a toy on the floor. You hold up a cow. “Moo moo says the cow.” And then the child’s off to something else.
What is Reinforcement in ABA?
Basically, what I’ve seen over the years is that floor time therapy – whatever you’re going to call it – used by very well-meaning professionals, is not adequate for most kids who have severe language delays.
It doesn’t even have to be autism. It can be early signs of ADHD, early signs of a learning disability, or just a speech delay. These procedures work even for typically developing children. I’ve taught lots of grandmas and friends of friends where they’ve said they’re a little worried about their loved ones speech. And I always say to get a shoebox, cut a slit into it. Hold up a picture of Mama and say “Mama, Mama, Mama.”
You might think, well, Mama’s around. I could just point to Mama. But there’s something about the repetition. And the reinforcement is actually putting the picture of the mama in the box and it disappearing.
For little kids, these procedures tend to work really, really well to shape up language and to give them, say, 10 trials of hearing Mama. Maybe without them even saying it. And you might think, well, yeah, but my child is sitting at the table now for two weeks or two months, and they’re not talking yet.
Recognizing the Amount of Time Needed for Reinforcement
But watch while they are sitting, if they’re happy, if they’re putting pictures in a box, or watching you as you say head or nose. Maybe they’re not even doing it yet, but this table time is actually a mixture of natural environment teaching and intensive teaching. And we make everything really fun and really reinforcing, especially in the beginning when the child has no reason to think that sitting at the table is going to be fun. We don’t call it work. We call it mommy time, learning time, table time, fun time. Or we call it potato head time or whatever you want to call it. But if the child is not running or at least walking there happily and not sitting and attending, we don’t have enough reinforcement. Remember, it’s not going to happen overnight.
Some of my clients have actually taken me a few sessions to even pair up the table with reinforcement. So when we’re bringing a child to a table or calling the child to the table, we want to make sure that we have a handful of reinforcers.
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I usually recommend edibles or little bites of things you can eat as effective reinforcers. Many times we use an electronic, although kids tend to be very addicted to iPads, which is a problem, and I see it as a bigger problem than I did even a year or two ago. This is based on some of the research by Dr. Ami Klin. I also did a podcast episode about his work. It’s episode number 93.
So a lot of times, instead of an iPad, I recommend putting the table in front of a TV. So the adults can control the reinforcement. We are not watching five minutes of a movie or 30 minutes of a movie, we are showing them small bursts of movies.
You might be screen-free. That’s awesome. Don’t use electronics. Or you have a child that has extremely picky eating and you don’t want to mess with foods at the table. That’s perfectly fine. These are just some ideas.
I have actually found that to get a table even more reinforcing, we should do things like water play, wind up toys, singing songs, and playing games. We used to do things like spaghetti arms with my son. We do three, two, one blast off if they’re small enough that you can pick up and they like that. Really think outside the box. Make it fun. If it’s not fun, we need to make it more fun.
Reinforcing the Behavior
In addition, the rest of the room or the area needs to be not fun. Because if I am competing with things he likes to play with or stim with, it’s not going to go very well. But I don’t ever want to trap a child at the table or make them sit at a table. I don’t want crying at the table. This is a balance, right?
So we want to sanitize. That doesn’t mean clean. That means to get the toys and everything in boxes up on the shelves. This will really also help your child learn to point and request and know that things are organized. So we are able to use these toys to get more language.
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