Frequently, we get requests from family members of our clients to work on extremely worthy goals such as:
- Engaging with other children at the park
- Coming immediately to mom or dad in a public setting when requested
- Reporting their own name when asked
- Answering “what happened at school today?”
- Reporting illness or emotions
While we hope for our clients to achieve all of these goals, one thing can hold us back: the children do not possess the prerequisite or foundation skills necessary to acquire the skill.
Oftentimes, parents may see our supervisors and behavior interventionists (BIs) teach skills to their children they previously thought as impossible or at the very least extremely difficult to teach. Therefore, why not choose some super valuable skills and start working on them asap?? The reason is that there is an underlying order and system to what we are teaching. When the supervisor or BI reports a success, at times it may seem like a random skill and although the parent or family member may be happy with the progress they may wonder why we chose that particular goal. Within quality ABA programs, there is a very solid reason for each and every goal worked on.
Here is an example relating to one of the goals mentioned above:
Clair, a three-and-a-half-year-old girl, has made fabulous progress with language in the past year, progressing from zero words to being able to request a number of food items, videos and toys. She can tact many items in her picture books and she can imitate most words.
Her parents are super excited about her progress and would like to add a goal for her to say her name (and then street address) when asked, for the very real possibility that she may become separated from her parents or even wander out of the yard.
What a great goal! However, for Clair to learn this effectively, she would need to be out of Level I of the VB-MAPP curriculum, which she is not. This skill is an intraverbal (IV) and IVs are not introduced until Level II. The reason for the delayed introduction is that it is a much harder skill than what she is currently doing. It might not seem that way at first glance because, after all, she is naming things, can easily say her name and is making fabulous progress. However, for this new goal, the only clue she has to say her name are the words “what is your name (and where do you live)?” This is technically and skill-wise very different from what she does now. It is very different from repeating her name after someone says it, very different from saying her name when she sees herself in a picture and very different from someone pointing to her or pointing to herself and saying her name. She has not yet reached the level where she is answering any “what” questions at all and when she does, this will be one of the first to teach.
We could most likely teach the skill but it would be very weak (rote) and it would be unlikely to generalize: for example, in a generalization situation such as being actually lost and asked by a stranger for her name and address.
Fortunately, the VB-MAPP is one of the only language assessments that has a curriculum embedded. We don’t have to guess the sequence of skills to teach. Some professionals use their clinical judgement and might go ahead and teach a skill like the one above. As noted, this could possibly be done but our approach is to teach language in the most effective sequence, setting the child up for success (it won’t be too difficult) and doing it when they are ready.
When parents or laypeople observe our programs, it might seem as if we’re working on unusual and isolated skills at times. One might ask, “why are they spending so much time on the silly matching game?” However, the milestones and targets we choose all form the cohesive basis of language, self-care, and appropriate independent and social play.
It would actually be easier if we could pick out the bits and pieces we would like to see and work on them all independently, but just like grammar through high school, there is a sequence of knowledge and skills (on a micro-level) which cannot be ignored before you proceed to the next level. We want to see all of those important goals achieved just as much as family members do and so our focus is on teaching the skills that will make them happen!