How to Promote the Generalization of Skills in ABA Therapy

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Imagine a child who has mastered counting from 1 to 10 in their ABA therapy sessions. They can confidently count objects correctly in a controlled environment, but struggle to apply this skill when counting items at a grocery store. This is a common challenge in ABA therapy – the need for generalization. Generalization refers to the ability to apply learned skills across different settings, people, and situations. Let’s explore ways to both encourage generalization and monitor progress.

Different Types of Generalization in ABA Therapy

Before we dive into the strategies to best promote generalization, let’s look at the different ways a skill could be generalized.

Response Generalization ABA

Response generalization involves the ability to perform a similar response to different stimuli. For example, if a child learns to request a preferred toy by saying “I want the truck,” response generalization would involve them using the same request to ask for a different toy.

Studies have shown that by teaching response generalization, learners can acquire a broader range of communicative skills. For instance, a study conducted by Schreibman demonstrated that teaching response generalization in children with ASD resulted in increased spontaneous language use across different settings.

Stimulus Generalization ABA

Stimulus generalization is the ability to apply a behavior learned in one situation or with one stimulus to similar situations or stimuli. This means that once an individual has learned a particular behavior, they can use it in different situations, making it more practical and functional. This may include:

  • Setting Generalization: This refers to the ability to generalize skills across different settings or environments. For example, a child who has learned to follow instructions in the therapy room should also be able to follow instructions at school or at home.
  • People Generalization: This involves the ability to use newly learned skills across different individuals. Such as a child who has learned to request a preferred item from a therapist, also learning to make the same request to a parent or caregiver.
  • Time Generalization: Time generalization refers to the ability to generalize skills across different time periods. It involves being able to demonstrate a learned skill consistently over time and not just in the immediate context of the ABA therapy session.

These different types of generalization play an important role in ensuring that skills learned through ABA therapy are not limited to specific stimuli, settings, or people, but are applicable and useful in various real-life situations.

Try These Strategies to Promote the Generalization of ABA Skills

  • Teach skills across various settings: One important aspect of helping individuals generalize their skills is to teach them in various settings. For example, if a child is learning to follow instructions at a therapy center, it would be beneficial to gradually introduce similar tasks at home or in a school setting. This would allow the child to associate newly learned tasks with different environments, helping them generalize their skills.

Example: Emily, a 5-year-old diagnosed with ASD, struggled with transferring her play skills from the therapy center to her home. Her therapist began incorporating play sessions in her home environment gradually. Over time, Emily started displaying the same play skills at home.

  • Include a variety of people in practice sessions: Introducing different people into practice sessions can help clients generalize their skills. However, some clients might feel uncomfortable involving others in their session, especially if they have a strong rapport with their provider. Although learner’s might be hesitant to take this next step, try encouraging them to do so at a pace that’s comfortable for them. This exposure to different communication styles and behaviors can help clients practice their skills with different individuals, such as therapists, family members, and peers. It fosters the ability to generalize skills, which is essential for their growth.

Example: Sam, a teenager with ASD, was proficient in answering questions when prompted by his therapist. However, when presented with questions by his mother or teacher, he struggled to respond. To address this issue, Sam’s therapist invited his mother to participate in therapy sessions. Gradually, Sam began answering questions from his mother with increasing confidence.

  • Develop generalization plans: It’s important to have specific plans that outline how and when to introduce new environments, people, and stimuli, as well as strategies to gradually fade out prompts and supports.

Example: The ABA team working with Daniel, a child with ASD, created a generalization plan for targeting his language skills. They introduced new settings like the grocery store, where the therapist prompted Daniel to label fruits and vegetables. Gradually, prompts and support were faded, allowing Daniel to independently use his language skills. The team provided training and visual supports to Daniel’s mother, who helped reinforce the skills in different settings. Through regular monitoring and feedback, Daniel successfully generalized his language abilities beyond therapy sessions.

  • Incorporate naturalistic teaching strategies: Naturalistic teaching strategies, such as incidental teaching or play-based interventions, can enhance generalization by providing opportunities for real-life applications of skills in a natural setting.

Example: Hannah struggled with generalizing her social skills to the playground. Her therapist introduced naturalistic teaching strategies by organizing playdates with her peers. By encouraging Hannah to practice her social skills during these playdates, she gradually began using her newly acquired skills in the unstructured environment of the playground.

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How to Monitor Success

Implementing the previously discussed strategies is only half the journey. Now, it’s important to monitor the effectiveness of these strategies to assess progress and identify areas that require further attention. Here are some ways to monitor success:

  • Data collection: Continuously collect data on skill acquisition and generalization across different settings and stimuli. Analyzing this data helps identify patterns and areas that may need additional support. Utilizing data collection software can help improve the accuracy of this process by using automated graphing, progress reports, etc. Plus, a centralized hub for collecting data ensures easy, timely input by all team members.
  • Regular progress review: Schedule regular meetings with the ABA team, caregivers, and educators to review progress, identify any challenges with generalization, and make necessary adjustments to the treatment plan. This collaboration is important because different individuals have varying insights into our learner’s capabilities and behaviors.

Increasing Collaboration to Promote Generalization

Collaboration among ABA professionals, therapists, educators, and caregivers plays a significant role in promoting skill generalization. By combining varying expertise and aligning learning strategies, professionals can create a cohesive therapeutic environment that better supports generalization.

To learn more about increasing collaboration with other professionals, download our e-book, How to Successfully Collaborate with Non-ABA Professionals.

To hear expert Sheila Hartley, MS, BCBA, LBA speak on improving parent collaboration, watch our free CEU webinar ABA Parent Collaboration: Designing Parent Training Goals to Improve Behavior & Skill Acquisition.



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