Implementing a Behavioral Support Plan? Don’t Forget the Student!
by Jed Baker, PhD
Autism Asperger’s Digest | November/December 2013
Too often behavioral support plans are implemented without much student input, only to find later that the student resists or even sabotages the plan. Many students are in the position of needing assistance or modifications but refuse any help for fear it will make them look different. Getting a student on board is perhaps the most crucial part of a good behavior plan. For highly verbal students, this often involves helping them acknowledge their challenges in light of a longer list of strengths. Once challenges are no longer denied, supports can be more readily accepted. For less verbal students, enhancing their willingness to accept supports involves carefully incorporating the student’s interests and preferences into the plan.
Highly Verbal Students
Often very bright students with learning challenges are exquisitely aware and ashamed of their difficulties, making it hard for them to accept the help they may need. In this case it is crucial to help them understand themselves, particularly their remarkable abilities and talents to shore up self-esteem to a point where they can tolerate the idea of getting some minor support for their challenges (see Baker 2005).
The following outlines a way to set the stage for accepting behavioral supports:
- Have a teacher, counselor, or parent explain that everyone has a profile of strengths and challenges.
- Present his profile of strengths and challenges graphically, highlighting many more strengths than challenges.
- For students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), we can often identify strengths in memory ability, sponge-like ability to absorb knowledge, and subsequent expertise in certain subjects, including their preferred interests. Explain how those strengths can lead to successful learning in school and pursuing a career.
- Discuss a much smaller list of challenges. If the student has difficulty with managing frustrations with work, handling disappointments (e.g., accepting no, having to wait), or dealing with mistakes or criticism, you might just summarize this as one challenge: “handling frustration.” If he has trouble sustaining attention, organizing his work, or remembering homework and classwork, it can be summarized as an “organization challenge.”
- Remind the student that he has many more strengths than challenges.
- Liken this profile to other talented and successful individuals who were frustrated in school (e.g., Temple Grandin, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Thomas Edison), or who had difficulty with attention and organization (e.g., the CEOs [chief executive officers] of Jet Blue Airways, Virgin Airways). These individuals might be considered smarter than the average student, yet they needed some minor help. Sometimes a CEO needs administrative assistance. Sometimes a genius needs someone to help reduce frustration so he can continue genius-level work.
- Introduce the various supports that the student may need to help manage frustrations or stay organized. For example, an aide can be described as an “administrative assistant.” Modifications to work can be described as ways to reduce the drudgery, so the student can focus on the big ideas as a CEO would.
Less Verbal Students
Talking about oneself and one’s future is harder for less verbal students. Actions speak louder than words for these students.
The following are actions one can take to maximize a student’s cooperation with a behavioral support plan:
- Identify rewarding activities and objects. The Autism Center for Excellence at Virginia Commonwealth University has a useful description on its website of how to conduct a preference inventory to identify reinforcers (www.vcuautismcenter.org/resources/content.cfm/934). First, interview the student or those who know him best and observe the student during free-choice times to see what he prefers. Based on this information, create a list of 6 to 10 potential reinforcers including edibles, objects, activities, and social interactions. Systematically pair each item together and allow the student to choose, thus allowing a rank ordering of most preferred reinforcers.
- Pair key people (e.g., an aide) with preferred reinforcers so that the student begins to trust caregivers as the source of pleasurable items and activities.
- Consider lowering demands at first, making it easier to earn reinforcers.
- Modify difficult activities. This is in itself an intrinsic reinforcer, making an otherwise difficult task more pleasurable. One can change the sensory overload of a task, simplify or shorten a task, use visual supports to make it more understandable, start with easier items to build confidence, use preferred activities within the task (e.g., teaching counting with preferred items, identifying letters by stepping on them for kids who like to move), and provide choice within the task. See Baker (2008) for more ways to modify difficult activities.
- Teach the child how to ask for help or a break. Provide frequent breaks upon request so that he begins to trust that frustration can be managed without having to exhibit challenging behaviors.
- As trust and competence develop, try to gradually increase demands prior to providing reinforcers.
Remember, a plan is only useful if received well by the student. The best ideas don’t matter much if our students are not on board.
Baker, J. E. 2008. No More Meltdowns. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons, Inc.
Baker, J. E. 2005. Preparing for Life: The Complete Guide to Transitioning to Adulthood for those with Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons, Inc.
Jed Baker, PhD, is the author of six books, including No More Victims: Protecting Those with Autism from Cyber Bullying Internet Predators, and Scams and No More Meltdowns.
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