Teaching Techniques: Common Mistakes When Teaching Children with Autism

As behavior analysts, teachers, and even parents, we all make mistakes teaching our children and clients with and without autism. Today we’ll be discussing teaching techniques and some of the more common mistakes professionals and parents make when teaching. I know I’ve made all of these mistakes and I’m sure you’ll benefit from hearing these mistakes too.

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Theresa McKeon is one of the creators of TAGTeach, and she has lots of insight on effective teaching techniques, and common mistakes when teaching children with autism. I did a full podcast episode on TAGTeach and effective teaching techniques as well as mistakes to avoid when teaching kids with autism, so you can check that out too.

Let’s start off with labeling something as wrong, and one of the many important teaching techniques of being able to break a skill down. When the teacher has a picture in their mind of what they’re seeing or especially if something’s on the table and you’re doing writing or you’re going to pick up a pencil, you know in your mind what you’re looking for. The learners don’t, and when they don’t do all of those things that you’re looking for, you say that’s wrong. It’s hard for you to break down what’s wrong because it is just second nature. All the movements that you do to pick up a pencil and move it into your fingers and get it in the right spot or pick up a glass or tie your shoes or any of these things where there’s a picture in your mind, it’s hard to break down.

It’s one of the hardest things is if we are teaching, we are probably pretty good at what we do to be the teacher. The very fact that you’re teaching someone else means that you probably do it really well and have forgotten the steps that lead up to doing it. Even when you do think you can break it down it’s still too big and that’s frustrating to go, “but I just told you”, or “I just showed you”, or “how come you couldn’t take your finger and touch that dot, it’s just so easy”. It gets frustrating. That goes across whether teaching factory workers or organizational business or kids with autism or sportspeople. The teacher gets frustrated because we already know what it is we want them to do.

If you’ve ever wanted a child to touch or grab something from you, you may have wondered why they may not do what you’d want them to do. You’re putting it right up in front of their face and then you realize it’s too much but for what reason? Now your job is to figure out why is it too much? Is it too much stimuli? Is it that you don’t understand what they’re doing? Do you need to make this skill smaller or do you need to make the environment quieter? Or maybe both. But that’s one important teaching technique that I want teachers to remember. No matter what you’re using, whether you’re using your technology TAGTeach or fluency, look at the learner.

If they’re learning, great, keep doing what you’re doing. But if not, is it the skill that needs to be broken down? Is it the environment that needs to quiet? And that might include you. You might be too much in the environment for them to practice or feel confident. With adults who don’t have special needs what I’ve found is I can be the stimulus that’s too much. So if I’m looking at you, giving you instructions, all you’re doing is thinking, am I nodding my head right? Am I blinking the number of times? Is my eyebrow the right way? But if I can turn around and talk to you without looking at you, I’ve quieted the environment enough and basically told my learner, I’m going to give you time to think about what I’m actually saying.

I do think that when kids don’t make progress on anything or when I don’t make progress on anything, most of the time it’s that I don’t have the prerequisite skills needed. People are working on single addition math or double addition math. And I’m like, how fluent are they with number identification? How fluent are they with one-to-one correspondence? If they’re working on 2 digits, how fluent are they with 1 digit? “Well, they’re not, but it’s ready to move on. They’re in third grade, get with the program.” It’s like you can’t just pull somebody into Spanish 4 when they haven’t mastered Spanish 1, 2, and 3, it’s not going to work.

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So when people are struggling, you know, even in my business, if there is a struggle, it’s a systems issue. There’s somebody who’s not fluent with something. There’s a breakdown somewhere. So I think a lot of times I just really tell people you need to bring it back. I think TAGTeach also has some type of a rule, three attempts to do something and it’s not working then you’ve got to add a prompt.

One of the other teaching techniques to remember is that for some learners even three tries are too much. I don’t want them to get to the point where they throw it down and go, “I don’t want to do it anymore.” So can I catch it on the first try? Can I catch it on the second try? So just depends on your learner. Me, if I fail three times in front of somebody that I respect, I’m going to be horrified. So don’t let me fail three times, please. Every learner is different and we need to find that fine line.

So I know one of the main challenges of spreading something like the TAGTeach methodology which has lots of great teaching techniques involved, is that parents aren’t up for it. They think I don’t want the same clicker training that’s used for animals. Even a lot of people will have problems with Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) in general. They say ABA is dog training and it’s inhumane. So I tell them, no, it’s the most evidence based treatment for autism. And if you’re seeing not good procedures being done that doesn’t represent what I would consider good ABA or good TAGTeach.

I used to battle with this a lot, mostly in my mind I won’t battle with somebody because if they don’t like it, that’s fine. You can explain to them the science but at this point, they probably don’t want to hear anything about that. I simply can go in without the audible marker and use something that they are familiar with, use an audible marker that they use every day which is “yes” or “good” or something that is typically acceptable. Then you can say you do see the state, right? Or, in a nice way you could say, “yes” is my marker. This is a little faster, a little cleaner and has less stress involved with it. I’m not putting as much pressure on you. I won’t have a tendency to go yes” and do all these weird things that we do with our words. If they’re not accepting of that and I can’t get them to learn then I won’t use that marker. So I won’t fight them. There is nothing about saying “good job” that is any different than TAGTeach. That’s not dog training to them, that’s normal training and that’s what we’ve always tried to say that being clear about what we want and putting parameters around success and then saying, “yes, you’ve done it”. What is dog training about that?

So I hope you enjoyed this short discussion of an excerpt from the podcast about teaching techniques and common mistakes made. If you want more content, check out my autism podcast, Turn Autism Around, where I upload new episodes every week. Wherever you’re watching or reading this, I’d love it if you would leave me a comment, give me a thumbs up, share this video with others who may benefit, and for more information, you can attend a free online workshop at marybarbera.com/workshops and I’ll see you right here next week.

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