In our classrooms, there are many opportunities to teach a student to become independent across the day. Let's look at part of my class schedule and the times during the day a student should be independent and the skills needed:
- Entry Routine - remove backpack, coat and shoes. Put on indoor shoes, unpack backpack and put items in their designated location. Checking their schedules and going the first activity.
- Morning Seat Work - getting their morning work book, choosing a spot to sit and completing the work in their book. Putting their book in the "All Done" basket. Checking their schedule and going to next activity.
- Morning Meeting - ensure they have their communication device, choosing a spot to sit, getting a fidget toy if needed. Remaining seated, answering questions, taking their turn when required. Checking schedule when morning meeting is finished and going to next activity.
- Independent Work Stations: getting their work binder or work bins, getting a dry erase marker if needed and putting it away, completing their work, and putting their binder or bins away. Checking their schedule and going to the next activity.
Now, let's just look at the skills that are required during mealtimes to be independent.
- Student must know it's time to eat.
- Student must be able to wash his/her hands.
- Student has to be able to get his/her lunch bag and bring it to the designated eating area.
- Student must be able to open their lunch bag.
- Student must be able to open the containers and packages in their lunches.
- Student must be able to feed him/herself.
- Student must be able to wipe their mouth and hands.
- Student must be able to remain seated while eating.
- Student must be able to wipe up any spills.
- Student must be able to throw away trash, close containers and put them back in their lunch bag.
- Student must be able to close their lunch bag.
- Student must be able to return their lunch bag to the correct storage place.
- Student must be able to know what to do next.
How many of these can your students do independently? How many are they missing? Our goal as educators goes beyond teaching information and skills...ultimately we want all our students to be able to participate as independently as possible in all facets of their life.
Why does the goal of independence elude some students and educational teams?
Here are some common reasons:
Prompt DependenceStudents with ASD can easily become prompt dependent. That is, they are willing and able to do what is asked but have not learned that they can or should do tasks without being asked! Educational teams need to systematically reduce prompting and reward independent completion of steps in a task.
A Focus On Accuracy Over IndependenceTeams that value accuracy over independence can inadvertently instil a mindset of incompetence. If someone is always helping the student to do a task faster or better by doing it for them, the student lacks the opportunity and eventually the will to try to do things on his own.
Failure To Fade ReinforcementSome students come to expect that every action will be followed by a tangible reinforcer or by verbal praise, and will not do a task independently because there is no one to deliver the reinforcement if they work alone.
Lack Of Visual Supports
Students with ASD often have difficulty planning, managing their attention and processing or remembering verbal instructions. And many educational teams provide the adaptation of one to one adult support to help them accomplish particular goals. They fail to realize that visual supports can help the students complete a task without an adult to prompt and remind them.
What can we do to correct this?
Be alert to the level of prompting you are providing to get students with ASD to do a task.Be particularly aware of how much verbal prompting you are providing. We want the student to use natural cues to recognize what they are to do next rather than only moving on to the next step when they hear the voice of the adult at their elbow. If you need to prompt, use gestural prompts over verbal prompts when possible (they are easier to fade). Give the student time to respond before prompting (wait 5 – 10 seconds). Visual supports can greatly assist you in fading prompting.
Be sure to praise efforts and attempts over accuracy.How important is it that the student’s product look identical to his peers? Does he really need to complete all the math problems or would he be better to complete half all on his own? How important is it that his socks are put on right side in? The problem of demanding accuracy over independence can be particularly problematic in the case of the student with ASD who is intellectually capable and may be expected by his parents or teachers to perform at grade level or better. The pressure to keep up academically may cause the team to provide a lot of one to one support to help the student complete the required work at the expense of teaching independence. We must not lose sight of the fact that independence is also an important goal. Today's technology allows many students to compensate for the executive function deficits that may impede their organization of or attention to tasks. Teach them how to use the technology so they can do assignments on their own.
Avoid reinforcement dependencyTo avoid the development of reinforcement dependency, teams must systematically fade reinforcement to the level of intermittent reinforcement when teaching a task. For initial learning, the child may need reinforcement for each attempt to complete a step. If the team is using a tangible reinforcer (e.g., a toy or an edible) they should pair verbal praise whenever they provide the toy or food. Then, the toy or edible can be provided for every third or fourth correct response while verbal praise continues. Finally, the toy or edible is only provided once in a while (intermittently) and verbal praise is also faded to a lower level.
Use visual supports... we all use them!
For the student who can’t read, picture symbols are available to help him see the steps necessary to completing a target. For the student who does read... provide written checklists, visual organizers and time lines. Teach him how to create his own visual supports so that he can stay organized and remember what to do. I have written about the effective use of visual supports here. Visual supports can be used to break down the steps of any task. When the steps are put into pictures on a strip, the person with autism now has those for a handy reference. I’ve used this idea for routines like getting dressed, toileting, hand washing and brushing teeth. There are some great ideas for breaking down routines on the Do2Learn website. Thinking this forward, these tasks strips could be used for doing laundry, dishes and other household chores.
Start small and build on success.
When teaching a new skill, it is important to break down the skill into smaller steps. This is called Task Analysis. You can either write your own or you get them online. Once you have completed the task analysis, or read it, you can do a baseline on your students' current skills. Knowing what steps your student can independently will allow you to know where to start teaching. Often, backwards chaining or forwarding chaining are used to teach students to independently complete tasks like washing hands or operating a computer. However, this teaching method isn't used for all tasks in which a student should be independent.
Let's look at a common scenario in my classroom. Most of my students come into my classroom without the ability to open their food packages during mealtimes. When teaching a student how to open packages when eating, we begin with teaching him/her to ask for help. Once they have mastered the skill of asking for help, we focus on the skill of opening the package. Once they request help, we only open the package a tiny bit, so that they have to open it the rest of the way. Once they have mastered opening a portion, we teach them to open it from the beginning using modelling and physical prompts if necessary. If a student doesn't have the physical strength to open some packages, then we teach them to use scissors to cut the package open. We start by handing them the scissors and then teach them to go and get the scissors on their own.
Some things to think about...
- At your next team meeting, or on your own, come up with a list of all of the times throughout the day when your student relies on the adults in the room to do something for them. Or when the adult automatically does something for the student, eg., get the student a pencil to complete a worksheet. Take frequency data on this to help you and your team realize how many times this is actually happening.
- Identify times of the day when you want your students to be completely independent, then identify the skills that are necessary to achieve this.
- Do you have visual reminder strips posted in your classroom? Do you have enough? Think beyond personal care skills such as washing hands. Do you have reminder strips for completing a worksheet? For turning on a computer and logging in?
How do you teach your students to be independent? What are your biggest challenges? I'd love to know! Thanks for stopping by!