Reinforcement at Home


All Students Can Learn

When I was teaching, one of my greatest assets was believing that all students can learn. No matter a child’s IQ, no matter what type of narrative was presented with a new student; I believed each student could and would learn. Something I miss about teaching is the creativity that came with problem-solving. When a student struggled, my team and I would collaborate and think outside the box until we found interventions that worked.

In the video below, one of my favorite students is reading. As he is reading, you can tell he has memorized the words to the story. Watch, though, as he goes back to self-correct when he is not pointing at the correct word as he reads. At the end of the video, I ask him reading comprehension questions. These are not questions I had rehearsed with the student prior to this recording.

Beside him is a behavior tool that helped him monitor behavior. On the top of his folder are written rules: 1. Follow directions. 2. Ask before you leave. 3. Quiet voice. 4. Answer your own why and what questions. This was a student who continually asked, “What’s your name?” or “Why are you…” when he already knew the answer. We were teaching him to use conversational skills other than his rote/learned conversational questions. The bubbles on the bottom of the folder were “popped” when the student did not follow one of the rules. At the end of the day, if bubbles remained on his folder, a para or I blew and popped bubbles with him.

I realize this is not a positive behavior support. I know I was taking something away, instead of the student earning towards something. This student, however, cognitively understood this system much better and he learned to self-monitor (to a degree) using this system. This emphasizes my philosophy that if all else has been exhausted, use what works!!

One of my Favorite Behavior Tools!

Toni’s Contingency Map

The image above is called a contingency map. This is a method for helping students understand the consequence of choosing an action. To create the contingency map, first identify a behavior to support. Decide what the consequence will be if the student chooses to display the negative behavior. In the image above, I first define the situation. I then specify what the preferred choice is in green and the consequence for the preferred choice. In red, I specify the non-preferred choice and the consequence for the non-preferred choice.

For students who are not yet readers, or those who have difficulty processing words when they are escalated, pictures with words or pictures without words, may be used in each box.

I created the contingency map above for one of my students who ran away when the timer sounded to go inside for recess. The first box states the situation. The green box describes what the green (preferred choice) is: “I line up with my class.” The next green box displays the consequence for the preferred choice, “I can play outside again.” The first red box describes the non-preferred choice: “I run away” and the consequence for making the non-preferred choice: “I have to play inside for my next recess.”

How many teachers have students who love to work for the iPad as a reinforcer but the student has a huge behavior when it is time to put the iPad away? Instead of completely removing the iPad as a choice, teach the student that his actions will determine if he receives the iPad as a reinforcer. The contingency map above uses only pictures to describe what will happen. When using this, a teacher should define how long the student will lose the iPad (one hour, one day, one week?). It is important to remember that students may not have strong executive functioning skills. Because of this, losing the iPad for more than the rest of that day, may be too long of a time period for the student to remember and understand why the iPad was taken.

When I use a contingency map, I go over it with the student promptly before the student may display a behavior. If the student chooses to work for the iPad, I would go over the contingency map after it is earned. Say, “you earned the iPad. Remember, when the timer goes off, you need to put the iPad in the crate. When you do, you will get to work for the iPad again. If you choose to pinch when the timer goes off, you will lose the iPad for the rest of the day.” When the timer goes off and the student chooses to put the iPad in the crate, pull the map out again and point out that he made a green choice and now he can work for the iPad again.

If the student chooses to pinch, bring the map out and point to the red box that indicates he will not earn the iPad again for the rest of the day. This is not typically a good time to use any words. If the student moves on and asks to work for the iPad again, pull the map out and point to the red box indicating no iPad. The fewer words used, the less likely more behaviors will arise. I have also found that using the word “no” may cause the behavior to intensify. By pointing to the picture with the red on it, you are telling the student “no” without saying the word out loud.

Remind the student that whatever behavior he chooses, it is HIS CHOICE; this is very important. The more cavileer you act about the student making a non-preferred choice, the better this will work. You should provide no emotional reaction to a red choice. I have had students who would reach towards me, as if to pinch me and I would only respond with, “your choice” and point to the map. This takes your personal feelings about the student’s actions out of the equation. The student should believe that it doesn’t matter to you which choice he makes because the consequence for the action is already on paper.

A side note… any time you ask a student to end time with a preferred item, designate a specific place in the room where it belongs. When I first started this behavior tool, I would indicate that the student put the ipad/toy/fan/ect. in my hand when the timer sounded and once it was in my hand, I would turn the timer off. One Thomas the Train to the face made me change this practice! Designating a space in the classroom not only protects you from physical harm, it also detaches you from being the person taking something fun away from the student!

When I was teaching I also carried around a blank map that was laminated. When I anticipated a behavior brewing, I would either write in words using a dry erase marker or I would draw pictures in the boxes. Most students don’t care if your contingency map is publishable material. Use whatever you have to create this type of visual to distinguish choices and consequences.

Creating Independence

It is the goal of most parents to raise independent children and the goal of teachers to promote independence in students. No matter how a child is impacted by a disability, the goal is that the student will grow into an adult who can live as independently as possible, guided by his or her preferences. The National Longitudinal Study (2010) conducted by the National Center for Special Education Research found that only 19% of young adults with autism will live independently. Providing choice and creating opportunities for independence should begin at a very early age.

Prompt Dependency

Students with the most profound needs are surrounded by adults each day who work hard to keep the student safe and to help the student learn. Many times students become dependent on adults to guide them through routines and activities that they could otherwise do independently. The following is a scenario of a student who is learning to be dependent on adults.

A student gets off the bus and an adult takes his hand and holds it walking into the building. As the pair walk into the classroom, the adult tells the student, “hang up your backpack” and guides the student’s hand to the hook. The adult then tells the student, “get out your folder and put it in your cubby.” Next, the adult says “let’s go make your lunch choice” and helps the student decide what he wants for lunch and moves his choice visual for him. The adult then holds the student’s hand to walk to the visual schedule and manipulates it hand-over-hand. Then, still holding the student’s hand, they walk to circle time together and sit down beside each other.

Throughout every step of this scenario, the adult is using the most invasive prompts to guide the student. Students, especially those with autism, are creatures of habit. Once the habit of hearing a directive before acting is in place, it is incredibly difficult to fade those prompts away. Visual and gestural prompts are much less invasive and should be utilized instead of verbally and physically guiding a student through a routine. The chart below, created by Jean Brodie, demonstrates the various levels of prompting and the spectrum of invasiveness that occurs with each prompt. The less invasive a prompt, the easier it is to fade; leading to greater independence for the student.

As teachers and parents, it is difficult not to prompt students. It is in our nature to be helpful. Prompting occurs during routines, when opening doors, putting on clothing, washing hands, completing academic tasks, walking down the hallway or tying shoes. If an educator or parent is sure a student is capable of completing a task independently but the student refuses to move through the activity without prompting, the student has become prompt dependent.

How to Create Independence

It is important that all educators understand a student’s proficiency level with tasks. Most kids (with or without an exceptionality) are masters at getting people to complete tasks for them! Educators should rarely hover near students (exceptions are made for safety reasons). Hovering increases a student’s dependence on adults, decreases peer interactions, increases stigma, creates a loss of control and may increase behavior problems (Feldman & Matos, 2013). Educators should also ask the following questions:

  • Can the student do this on his/her own?
  • How can I teach this student to do the task more independently?
  • Can the student be supported with: a peer, a visual, a less-intrusive prompt?
  • Would the student complete the task independently with a higher level of reinforcement?
  • Does the student understand and have the ability to complete the task?

Behavior Skills Training

Students can become more independent learners by implementing behavior skills training. This consists of: instruction, modeling, rehearsal and feedback. When working with a student, the educator should first give the directive. Next the educator models the task for the student. Guided practice is next; moving the student through the task with the least prompts possible. Last, the student practices independently. When the student is practicing, redirection should occur (with a gesture or visual) before a mistake is made. Students with autism learn best with perfect practice. Repeat guided practice and feedback until the student is independently proficient.

Peer Support

Peer support is another technique to promote independence. I love, love, love using peers to support students! Shifting prompts from adults to peers is invaluable. We want our students to react and orient to their friends rather than adults. To implement this strategy, collaborate with general education teachers to determine students who are a good fit to model behavior. Send home a permission slip for parents to sign, explaining that their child will not be in their classroom for short periods throughout the week. Choose peers who have good social skills, who are positive and willing to participate in activities, who follow adult directions and who have good attendance. Utilizing peers works great for game groups, teaching sharing, providing assistance and giving encouragement. Peers can also be utilized to teach conversational skills and basic social interactions.

Active Shooter Realities

No parent wants to think of their child being in the presence of an active shooter. No teacher wants the heavy responsibility of keeping children safe during an active shooter event. The reality of our world does not allow parents or teachers to make this choice. In 2017, there were 24 school shootings that resulted in 35 deaths and 79 injuries. The physical and mental toll this takes on our children will be determined in the years to come.

How can we plan for students who do not have the ability to sense danger, who do not intuitively know when to be quiet because of a dangerous situation, who cannot follow rapid instructions? There are ways to teach safety skills if, God forbid, they are put into an active shooter situation. These skills will not be acquired simply by participating in active shooter drills. The following are tips to prepare for this type of situation.

  • Use words the student will understand. If “danger” has been taught as a safety word, use “dangerous person” instead of “active shooter” or “gunman”.
  • Determine where your class’s safe spot will be within the classroom. Mark it off with painter’s tape or some type of visual on the floor.
  • Practice spending quiet time in this area. Use it for weighted blanket and bubbles time or iPad with headphones. Only do quiet, preferred tasks in this area. Make sure all needed materials are nearby.
  • Practice moving to the area quickly. Use a social narrative or visual to give students a cue to move quickly to the predetermined spot. Practice moving to the area multiple times throughout the year (not only during active shooter drills).
  • Practice different interventions to help students remain quiet – especially those who are typically noisy. Lollipops, gum or soda may give input and deter noise. Objects that are made to chew on should be part of the materials in this area. During each practice session, try different tools to determine what works best.
  • Keep headphones nearby for students who are bothered by loud noises.
  • Ensure staff members know how to safely move students from wheelchairs to the floor, if necessary.
  • Make a plan for students who have mobility issues, if at any point everyone is directed to run.
  • Clarify how staff members will communicate with students who have hearing and visual impairments.
  • Practice moving from other areas of the building to a safe spot. If students are eating lunch in the cafeteria or using the bathroom, they must receive explicit instruction in what to do during a dangerous situation. Teach the student to carry a small bag of calming items in every area of the building. Ask paraprofessionals to keep a social story or visual that cues students to move to a specified location.
  • Talk with parents about active shooter drills. Gain input on ideas of ways to keep their child safe in a dangerous situation. Alert parents when there has been a drill and update them on their child’s performance.

Don’t Be a Rock Brain!

“Asperger’s is like a vise on your brain. And each unexpected event is like another turn on the vise…it just keeps building until you feel like you’re going to explode! Sometimes when you explode, it comes out the wrong way.”

A 13-year-old with ASD describing what it feels like to “get stuck”

Flexibility is an executive function that is often impaired in students with autism. The inability to be flexible makes it difficult for these students to move from one activity to another or to veer from a routine or predictable schedule. This inability to be flexible can also manifest in difficulty with the following behaviors:

  • adjusting to unexpected events
  • accepting different interpretations of the rules
  • coping with strong feelings
  • responding to the needs or interests of others
  • negotiating and compromising
  • accepting different viewpoints
  • changing behavior when a situation is not going well (Kenworthy, et al., 2014).

Rock Brain is a character included in the Superflex curriculum by Stephanie Madrigal and Michelle Garcia Winner. Rock Brain gets stuck on his own ideas. He is unable to be flexible or adjust to find solutions to problems. Rock Brain doesn’t consider other people’s points of view or feelings. This program teaches students how to practice skills to become more flexible like Superflex!

Bubble Gum Brain, by my favorite Julia Cook, also teaches students skills to be flexible thinkers. Bubble Gum Brain likes to “chew on my thoughts, bend and stretch my brain. I make great mistakes that help me learn.” Brick Brain is similar to Rock Brain. He has a fixed mindset and doesn’t like to try new things.

Solving Executive Function Challenges by Lauren Kenworthy and crew (2014) is a great resource for teachers and parents with information and tips for teaching executive function skills. This book in combination with the Superflex Curriculum and Julia Cook’s fabulous books are incredible resources for teaching executive function skills.

“If You Fail to Plan, You are Planning to Fail” Ben Franklin

Isaac is my middle son. He is my 15-year-old sweet boy who does well in school, is a phenomenal football player, watches his little brother and sister for me while I run errands and voluntarily plays cards with his little sister. He is also my kid who forgets everything! I ask him to put the clothes in the dryer – he does this, but forgets to turn the dryer on. I ask him to take the trash out – he makes it to the garage, but not to the trash bin. I ask him to make sure he turns in his FACS project – he takes it with him, but leaves it on the bus. Isaac has weak executive functioning skills. Like many other kids with ADD, high functioning autism, or just a wandering mind; he has difficulty envisioning the end result of a task, and therefore, doesn’t finish completely.

Executive function refers to a set of brain-based abilities that help people control behavior and plan, set and reach goals (Kenworthy, et al., 2014). Some of these abilities manifest as a lack in cognitive ability (academic tasks) while others manifest as a lack of behavior skill (actions).

Students with weak executive function struggle to visualize the outcome of tasks. For example, when a teacher says, “let’s get ready for recess”, a student with strong executive function skills will begin visualizing what they look like when they are ready for recess. This student pictures himself on the playground. He sees some snow on the ground and the wind blowing the flag. This triggers the student to remember to put on his coat, hat and gloves. Additionally, the student thinks about the classroom routine. The student pushes in his chair, goes to his cubby to put on his outerwear and finds his place in line.

To the contrary, a student with poor executive function skills hears the word “recess”. Instead of visualizing the steps needed to get ready for recess, this student runs to the front of the line. His chair is out in the aisle of the classroom, he has no coat and he is not in place in the line.

A common intervention for students who have weak executive function skills are checklists. For many students, these lists work well to prompt necessary actions. Another intervention that may be even more effective is helping students visualize what it looks like to be ready for an activity. Instead of saying, “let’s get ready for recess” and teacher may say, “imagine yourself at your cubby, what do you see yourself doing?”. This will prompt students visualize going to the cubby and putting on the necessary clothing. A teacher might also quietly address and individual student and ask, “what is your plan in getting ready for recess?”. This allows the student to practice self-talk as he works his way through the process.

Sara Ward is a speech-language pathologist who presents on executive function. She suggests taking a picture of your student completely ready to go to recess, standing in his spot in line. Put that picture at the student’s desk so he has an actual visual of himself ready to go to recess. This is brilliant for a plethora of situations. At home, parents can take a picture of: their child brushing her teeth, standing at the bus stop ready to go to school, and their child ready to go to soccer practice.

This can also be used to provide a visual for chores. When my son “cleans” his room, it is never my definition of clean. Instead of telling him (every time) that he needs to get the dirty clothes out of his closet and he needs to empty his trash can and he needs to put his clothes inside the dresser, I could just take a picture of the room clean to my satisfaction. Then, when I tell him to clean his room, he can refer back to the picture to make sure every part of the task is complete. The same accommodation works for having all of the necessary items to take a shower, having all of the items needed to study, having all of the items to set the table. All of these pictures help the child visualize the end product of the task.

Another brilliant tool Sara Ward suggests is the use of an analog clock and a dry erase marker. Students who have issues completing tasks in a certain amount of time need to have a visual of the passage of time. Using the dry erase marker, put the end time that the task must be completed on the clock first. Working backwards, shade in slices of the clock with specific parts of the task broken down until reaching the start time. The first section of the clock include time for, “get ready, do, done.” Within the “done” section of the clock a second sliver is dedicated to “get done.” This is the part where the student actually turns in the completed project! Build in check-points so the student is prompted to check in with the teacher during the project to stay on task. I highly recommend looking up Sara Ward’s work at

Another fabulous teaching tool for this concept is Julia Cook’s book, Planning Isn’t My Priority…and Making Priorities Isn’t In my Plans! Cletus is the main character in this book about executive function. He goes to the swimming pool without his swimsuit, he goes camping with no tent and he has no idea how to prioritize for a large class project. This book is full of opportunities to talk about visualizing what students need to do before beginning a task. The project that Cletus and his cousin work on in this book is a perfect example of setting up a “get ready, “do”, “done”, “get done” plan.

Game Groups

Playing board games is one of my favorite activities for teaching social skills. When I was teaching, I targeted two sets of skills: cooperative play skills and conversational skills.

Game playing requires the ability to follow rules, take turns, share and win or lose. I targeted conversation skills and game chat such as, “good job”, “your turn”, “thanks” and “good game”. To remind students (and adults) of the targeted skills, I used a 5X7 visual (shown right) and placed it in a plastic frame so it could be easily viewed.

Organization is a must in making game groups a success. I placed this visual, the game and a framed skill reminder in each game spot around the room. The name of the game and each student (including the peer model) was written on this visual.

I invited students in upper grades to join the groups so students in my class had a peer model. I spoke to the peers in advance so they understood what to expect and how to react if students said or did something unexpected.

A paraprofessional or I joined the game groups as well. As students became more proficient at playing games, we faded out our presence and allowed the peer model to guide students.

I took data during the game groups, but if I were still teaching, I would create a rubric in collaboration with the speech-language pathologist (SLP). Many times the language goals of the special education teacher and SLP are shared.

My favorite games to use during these groups were those with clear directions and a moderate length of play time. Connect Four, Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, Operation, Jenga, and Memory are a few favorites.

If you would like to receive the Conversation Visual, sign up in the email subscription box below!

Mama Bears

I have worked with many Mama Bears over the years. Some Mama Bears are angry and ferocious. Others are kind and quiet – with the understanding that wrath will be released if her baby is hurt. Typically developing students have the ability to go home and tell their Mamas every part of the day. For those who are not typically developing, the Mama Bear must rely on the teacher to relay anything about their child’s day. These Mama Bears trust on a whole different level.

I have learned so much from Mama Bears throughout my years in education. One Mama was the reason for my drawer full of bleach pens, wet wipes and art smocks. This Mama sent her baby to school looking pristine and she was insistent that he be sent back to her looking the same way. This kiddo had a nicer wardrobe than mine and every article of clothing matched – even those articles you could not see. There were definitely moments of frustration for me, as the teacher. I would think to myself, “shouldn’t she care more that he is learning to play with other kids instead of being angry when he comes home with dirt on his shoes?”. Then I took a step back and I thought about all of the things this Mama Bear could not control. She could not control when – or if – her baby would ever speak. She could not control his outrageously loud burps. She could not control his inability to play with his peers. She could, however, control the way he looked. She could control that his clothing matched and ensure he look absolutely gorgeous every day. I learned to give that Mama…and many who followed, more grace. More understanding that I, as the teacher, would never understand how it feels to be the parent of a child with autism – no matter how much I love the kids. I had no place to judge decisions any Mama made for her child.

Another Mama taught me about perspective. I was so excited that her little guy was going to perform with his class in the first kindergarten performance. He stood alongside his peers, and although he did not sing or do any of the dance movements, he was able to remain in place and play the maracas on one song. During the daytime performance he did so well that I spoke with her before the evening performance. I told her how excited I was that he was able to participate in this performance with his class. After the evening performance, I called her to ask her how it went. She said it went well, but something in her voice told me otherwise. The next morning, she told me that although he did magnificent, it was the first time she had observed him alongside his typical peers. She was heartbroken to see the stark difference between her child and his peers. I know this Mama loved her son just as he was and it never occured to me how much this would hurt her. This was a tough lesson learned and one I will never forget.

I know one Mama Bear in a different way – she is my Aunt Connie. Timmy is her son. He is a beautiful, funny, smart boy – and he has autism. Timmy has blessed our entire family in ways that we didn’t know we needed. In the video below, I read a tribute she wrote to Timmy on his birthday.

This is the rest of Timmy’s tribe.

As teachers, we must remember that these Mama Bears, vicious or mild, all have the same ultimate goal: their children are safe and loved. As educators, we must give grace and show empathy to all of the Mama Bears.