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The Importance of Generalization

main1.jpgIn our teaching and learning endeavors with children, we often are driven by the ultimate outcome and functionality of a skill without even realizing it. Behind this motivation for teaching is the value and importance of generalization, we want our students to be able to learn something in an instructional setting and apply it in a functional setting. Think back to the days when you learned the alphabet. Now think of how easily you were able to learn that A is A, no matter what color it is, how tall it is, what kind of paper it is on, if it was on the fridge or in a book, or who might be asking you about it. And notice how you did not forget that A is A once you mastered the skill. This is generalization.

            Difficulties with generalization of skills are well-known in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and to those who work with them. These difficulties often will mean that generalization will not just occur, but rather will need to be explicitly programmed and planned for in educational and therapeutic settings.  Thus, it is important to think of generalization issues as being the responsibility of the teacher, rather than as a deficit in the child.   Individuals with ASD frequently cannot functionally use what they have learned in a structured teaching situation and be able to apply it to other similar settings or with different materials and people. Often times children with ASD will need specific planning for maintenance of a skill and programming that can naturally embed learned skills into functional activities so that the skill is constantly and systematically reinforced over time.  It is absolutely essential to program and plan for generalization, the “train and hope” approach (just teaching the skill and hoping it will generalize), is not sufficient.

            If you are interested in more information on generalization, start with this article: Stokes, T. F., & Baer, D. M. (1977)Gen Webinar Photo 15.JPG. An implicit technology of generalization. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 10, 349-367, available for purchase at http://seab.envmed.rochester.edu/jaba/. Please note that this website has lots of full text articles available as well as abstracts for their articles going as far back as 1968. They have a great search feature so that you can get right to the information you are looking for. For example if you search for autism, you will get a list of links to abstracts and full text articles having to do with studies conducted relating to autism all the way back to 1968.  Here are some strategies for programming for generalization from the Stokes & Baer article:
1) Use naturally reinforcing and occurring materials - Seek to change behaviors that receive reinforcement in the student’s natural environment. For example - learning colors because the child has a favorite color of Popsicle, M&Ms, and ice cream flavor is likely to be more maintained and generalized than learning colors by sorting colored blocks into color bowls.
2) Train Loosely - Adding variety to skills being taught. This will include using a variety of materials in a variety of ways and in a variety of situations. Ideas and approaches used in incidental teaching or naturalistic ABA tend to foster better generalization because these instructional environments more closely resemble the ultimate outcome. Studies have shown that the more naturalistic instructions and presentations of SDs tend to have better learning outcomes to intensive instruction.
Gen Webinar Photo 11.JPG3) Train Sufficient Exemplars - Providing many examples of the target response. An example of this is the computer-assisted instructional program, TeachTown: Basics , which has many examples incorporated into every lesson.  You will notice many examples of one particular vocabulary word. You will also notice that pictures used in the pretest and posttest are different from the pictures used in the training lessons. Additionally, in the off computer activities there are many ideas that include the use of materials found around the house or classroom.
4) General Case Programming – Use many examples of stimuli, use many teachers, try different settings, and lots of materials.
-Using a vending machine at local community center, using similar vending machine at school, using another similar one at the grocery store…
-When teaching car, you would consider pictures of cars, different cars, toy cars, riding in family’s cars, labeling cars on the street, etc.
-When teaching social skills like saying hi, saying hi to people where you know a name for them, saying hi to people when you don’t have a name for them, pretending to say hi to stuffed animals, pretending to say hi to pictures of friends, having dolls say hi to each other, etc.
 

            Generalization should not only be planned for in the teaching situation, but measurement of generalization is critical so plans should be made up front for how to assess it.  This can be 31212475_thb.jpgdone by taking a skill that was taught and try it with new materials, go on an outing into the community (the zoo, park, beach, grocery store, etc.), and most importantly try it with mom, dad, and/or siblings. It is critical that generalization is assessed everyday with each newly acquired skill. If the child isn’t showing functional use of the skill in naturally occurring activities and routines, stop adding new programs and goals and focus planning and programming for generalization for his/her recently acquired skills.  If the skill has not generalized, the skill cannot be considered truly mastered!

            Although the term “generalization” is often heard in the ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) literature, there is no intervention in which generalization is not important, regardless of the philosophy.  In seeking interventions for a particular child, it is essential to ask the treatment providers how they will program for and measure generalization, or real outcome.  Regardless of the impressive statistics of a treatment program, if the children do not demonstrate generalization in the real world, the results of the treatment program may not be as impressive as they seem.  A good resource for learning more about generalization, the research, and strategies for various interventions is Real Life, Real Progress for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Strategies for Successful Generalization in Natural Environments (Whalen, 2009). 

Real Life, Real Progress for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders Strategies for Successful Generalization in Natural Environments

Real Life, Real Progress for Children with ASDReal Life, Real Progress for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. A book edited by our own Christina Whalen, Ph.D., BCBA has been released this month. To order your copy today click on the book icon.

“The best hands-on guide to the most important part of intervention for children with autism spectrum disorders: helping the children take the skills they learn in intervention and use them whenever and wherever they need them.” —Tristram Smith, Strong Center for Developmental Disabilities, University of Rochester Medical Center

Generalization is the key to effective autism intervention—when children can apply new skills across settings, they’ll make broad, long-term improvements in behavior and social communication. The first how-to guide to generalization is finally here! Practical and reader-friendly, this is the book that helps professionals take today’s most popular autism interventions to the next level by making generalization an integral part of them.

Pre-K–Grade 8 special educators, early interventionists, SLPs, and other professionals will

  • enhance 6 widely used autism intervention models with specific, evidence-based generalization strategies
  • get dozens of easy activities that really help children use new skills consistently—no matter where they are or who they’re with
  • learn about generalization from the experts who know best, with contributions from top autism authorities like Ilene Schwartz, Carol Gray, Andy Bondy, Laura Schriebman, and Bryna Siegel
  • provide positive, supportive parent education so they can be active partners in promoting their children’s generalization of skills
  • weave generalization strategies into every phase of intervention planning, not just at the end after skills have already been learned
  • modify generalization strategies for different settings, so children can achieve their ultimate goal: applying their skills successfully in school, at home, and in the community
  • assess the effectiveness of generalization strategies at multiple stages of instruction

Case studies and vivid examples bring the strategies to life in every chapter, and forms and checklists help professionals plan interventions, track children’s goals, and monitor their progress toward generalization. With this urgently needed guide to one of the most important facets of autism intervention, readers will help children generalize social behaviors and communication skills—and ensure better lives and brighter futures.

Make generalization strategies a part of these popular interventions:

  • Pivotal Response Training
  • Discrete Trial Instruction
  • Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
  • Social Stories™
  • Computer-Assisted Intervention
  • JumpStart Learning-to-Learn

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