Have you ever tried to teach a learner to play on a new piece of playground equipment, to interrupt a conversation appropriately, or to approach a peer and ask to play or hang out?
If you’ve ever experienced some frustration trying to teach these types of skills, or many others, the information I’m about to share will be valuable.
To decide if this is the right strategy to teach a skill to your learner, there are a few key questions to ask yourself:
First, is the skill I’m trying to teach one that involves the learner having to perform a specific behaviour, task or activity?
Some skills are more focused on what the learner “knows” rather than what they can “do.
” For example, passing a history test or singing a song require a particular knowledge base.
The strategy that we’re going to focus on today, however, is meant to address skills where the learner needs to “do” something or perform a specific task or activity.
Second, can the learner already do all of the pieces that make up this new skill?
We sometimes call these the “prerequisite” skills.
For example, if I want to teach a learner with ASD to engage in a back and forth conversation with a peer, I need to determine whether they have the building blocks required to do the skill and how we can teach them to put those building blocks together.
I need to be sure they understand appropriate physical space, that they are able to look at the other person, ask a question related to an appropriate topic, wait for a response, and so on.
Finally, does the learner have the skills needed to learn from an explanation, model, and role-play of how to do the skill?
In other words, does the learner have the vocabulary and language skills to understand an explanation?
Do they have the ability to pay attention to a model, and then imitate the model?
If you’ve answered “yes” to these three questions, a strategy that’s been proven to work is called “Behavioural Skills Training” or BST.
It’s a straightforward, 5-step process to teach a specific skill.
The key steps are: Instruction, which involves describing the skill you want the learner to perform in terms that the learner can understand.
Modeling or demonstrating the skill for the learner.
Rehearsal, or having the learner practice the skill.
Providing Feedback, which includes positive praise for the components the learner performs correctly, and corrective feedback for components that need more practice.
The learner should continue to practice the skill and you should continue giving feedback until the skill is performed correctly, and finally observation in the natural environment, which means that you want to see the learner carry out the skill in the setting in which it would typically be needed.
Remember that there’s a difference between giving information and teaching skills.
Let’s break the BST process down and show you what each step looks like.
I’m going to use Behavioural Skills Training to teach Marcus to ask for help from the teacher appropriately.
The first step is to describe the skill you want the learner to perform.
It’s important to break down the skill into its component parts, or create a task analysis, and to define the steps clearly.
It may be helpful if you write down all of the steps first, and rehearse the skill, following the steps exactly as written, to make sure that you have included all the steps and that they make sense.
Or at least take the time to mentally walk through the steps so you can explain the steps as simply and clearly as possible for the learner the first time.
If the learner can read, providing a simple written description of the steps can also be helpful.
Depending on the learner’s language and comprehension skills, using visual supports could be beneficial as well.
In this video, I will describe for Marcus the steps involved in asking the teacher for help.
TEACHER: Okay, so Marcus I would like to talk with you about, something that your teacher shared with me.
She mentioned that sometimes when you are doing your work, and you get stuck.
You sit there, and sometimes it takes her a little while to notice that you need some help.
So what she would like you to do, is to raise your hand, Just like this, and wait quietly, until she can come and ask you what you need help with.
So, sometimes it might take a few moments before she realizes that you need help, So, what I don't want you to do, is to wave your hand like this.
Or to say her name, because that might be distracting to others in the class So, you just need to hold your hand up and wait quietly until she arrives.
And then you can ask her for help.
you think you can do that?
Now that I’ve described the steps, the learner will need to follow to perform the skill, the next step in the BST process is to demonstrate, or model, how to perform the skill.
There are 2 different ways you can do this.
The first option is to model the skill in a live role-play situation, where the staff member plays the role of the learner performing the skill, while the learner observes.
Let’s take a look at what that could look like.
In this video, you will see me playing the role of Marcus, and I’ll perform the skill of asking for help according to the steps that I just explained.
In some cases, you may have the learner play the role of the teacher or adult in the role-play scenario.
Regardless of the approach you choose, it is important that the learner is paying attention, that they observe the skill being performed correctly, and that the model represents what typical learners would say and do in that situation.
For some learners, it can also be helpful to demonstrate what the skill would look like if performed incorrectly, and to have the learner identify the correct and incorrect examples.
You should decide the best approach for your individual learner based on their unique strengths and needs.
In this video, we’ve chosen to role- play the skill with 2 adults so Marcus can watch the role-play and focus on what I’m doing.
In this example, we are only going to model the correct performance of the skill for Marcus, rather than performing correct and incorrect examples.
TEACHER: So Marcus, this time I'm going to pretend to be you.
I'm going to do some work, and then I'm going to show you what to do when I get stuck.
So remember if we need some help from the teacher, we raise our hand, and we wait quietly until she arrives.
Thomas is going to pretend to be the teacher.
MRS THOMAS: Do you need some help?
TEACHER: Can you help me with this question?
MRS THOMAS: Sure, lets take a look.
Another option for demonstrating the skill is to use a video model.
In this case, you would have somebody participate in a similar role-play scene in advance, and record the scene.
Then you could play the video for Marcus to watch, and this would serve as the demonstration.
The approach you use really depends on each individual learner, the characteristics of the environment, and the available resources.
If your learner is very interested in videos or movies, a video model may be more effective, as they may attend better to the video than to a live role-play.
Another consideration may be the number of times you may have to model the skill for the learner.
If the learner requires several demonstrations of the skills, video recording may be a good idea, as it may allow you to show exactly the same scenario several times in a row.
The main thing is to carefully consider all of the factors, and to make the decision that will be the best fit for each learner and each situation.
There are some commercially made videos that model address specific skills, so you may want to check those out as well.
Once you determine that the learner is ready to try the skill, the next step is to have them rehearse the skill in a role-play situation.
This allows the learner to practice the skill in a safe environment without the pressure and anxiety that may be associated with real-life situations.
In the next clip, you’re going to see Marcus practicing asking for help.
After Marcus practices the skill, I will give him some feedback about the steps that he did correctly, and the ones that he needs to keep working on.
TEACHER: Okay, so Marcus, this time you are going to be the one to ask for help.
So when you get stuck, what I want you to do is raise your hand, just like I showed you, and wait quietly for the teacher to come.
So this time I'm going to be the teacher and I'll be over there.
And when you get stuck, you do what we've been talking about, and what we've been practicing.
You go ahead.
Can you help me with this question?
TEACHER: Okay, so yes I can, but first what I want to say is that, what I really liked about what you just did, is that you held your hand, and you waited quietly.
Then when I told you to wait, then you said my name and waved your hand.
So, this time what I want you do, is to do just what you did at first okay?
So, you're going to hold your hand up and wait quietly for me to come.
Let's try that again, okay?
MARCUS: Can you help me with this question right here please?
TEACHER: Sure, I would love to.
So, that was perfect!
This time when I needed you to wait, you held your hand up, you waited quietly for me to come.
That was a Job well done!
Okay so, you need help with this question?
So let's take a look at this one.
You may have noticed in the video that it took a couple of rehearsals before the learner got the skill just right.
This step is one that may require more time, repetition and practice before the learner performs the skill correctly.
Depending on the complexity of the skill and on the strengths and needs of the individual learner, it may take only one practice run to get it just right, or it could take several.
You can also provide some prompts, if necessary, during this step to help the learner perform the skill correctly.
However, if you provide prompts, be sure that you fade the prompts as the learner becomes more independent with the skill.
No matter what, it’s important to continue the cycle of practice and feedback until the learner performs the new skill correctly, and to end with a successful performance.
The learner should receive lots of descriptive praise for the components of the skill performed correctly, and the adult should help the learner identify how to correct components of the skill that still need improvement.
For many learners, you will be able to go through the process of explaining, modeling, and providing opportunity for practice in one 15-20 minute session.
However, some learners may need more time and more practice sessions to master the new skill.
There’s one more important thing to consider as part of the BST process.
Since you’ve done the rehearsal and feedback in a role-play situation, you will also want to be sure that you see the learner perform the skill in the natural environment.
Just because the skill is mastered in the role-play doesn’t mean that Marcus will necessarily be able to perform the skill perfectly in the classroom setting.
The classroom environment is quite different from the role-play setting, so we will want to see Marcus ask his own teacher for help appropriately in the setting where he will actually need this skill.
This may require some additional opportunities for practice and feedback in the classroom setting as well.
Parents, members of the school team, and other people the learner interacts with can provide more opportunities for practice throughout the day.
Additional reinforcement and strategies such as charts, token boards, or self-monitoring procedures can also be used to encourage the learner to keep practicing the new skill.
As you can see, using a Behavioural Skills Training approach to help your learner build specific skills will take some time and planning, but the results are generally worth the investment.
If you get into the habit of using this process when you want to teach a skill, the learner is much more likely to be successful, and you will end up saving time in the long-run.