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  • Nikki Gray, MA, BCBA

School or ABA: Top 7 Things to Consider



Many parents are conflicted at the start of each school year on which setting is best for their child on the autism spectrum. Below, I’ll offer a guide of the barriers to assess when discussing what is in the best interest of your child.


1. Problem Behavior is the most common barrier to a child not being able to learn in a public school setting. Behavior that impedes the learning of the child and of others is the first barrier to consider when discussing school placement. If behaviors are a risk to the child and/or others (self-injurious behavior, aggressive behavior, property destruction, or elopement) ABA placement is recommended. ABA Therapy can help to determine the behavior function and to write a plan that can decrease problem behavior. As behavior severity and frequency decrease, the plan can be generalized to home and school settings.


2. Schedule of Reinforcement. School placement would be recommended for clients who are able to work (individually or in a group setting) for a minimum of 20 minutes without requiring a break (ie, reinforcement). Clients who require more frequent breaks are often times better able to get their needs met in a 1:1 setting where additional breaks can be given and increasing the amount of time the client can work independently (and within a group) can be targeted.


3. Rate of skill acquisition. Students who are able to model the behaviors of peers, follow a teacher's instructions within a group setting, and who can acquire skills without requiring a lot of trials/practice, would be recommended for school placement. Learners within our center may sometimes require 200-500 trials to obtain a skill and the 1:1 instruction that is provided allows for repeated practice of skills until fluent. Clients who are in a general education school setting and failing in some or all subject areas is a possible sign that more practice is needed with the material in order for them to know the material fluently.


4. Requesting. A silent barrier is when a child does not make their needs known within the school setting. Examples of this are when a child doesn’t ask for help, clarification, or assistance when work is too hard. These students don't request bathroom breaks or let the teacher know if they are hot/cold, thirsty/hungry, in pain or attempt to have their needs met. Additionally, they will not ask for removal of aversive stimuli (ie, someone is bullying them). Children who do not request for their needs to be met are seen as socially withdrawn in the school setting. ABA Placement is recommended in order to teach the child self advocacy skills so that they can become more successful in requesting for help to meet their academic and social needs within the educational setting and to reduce the likelihood that they will become victims of bullying.


The lack of requesting ability is usually closely tied to high severity and high frequency problem behavior as well. When a child does not request, an ABA program can be beneficial in establishing a mode of communication for non-vocal children.


Children who are assertive and will request (using full sentences) what they need and want as well as their likes and dislikes would most likely be recommended for school placement.


5. Labeling. The ability to label items plays a critical role in conversation and language arts skills. Children with a fluent foundation in labeling (including naming the parts of items, categorizing and naming the function of items will have a stronger foundation to build on for reading, reading comprehension and later writing composition activities. Another blog post goes into more detail about how labeling is critical for a child who is in the school setting.


A client who can name items as well as talk about them in conversation is more likely to succeed in a school setting.


6. Social. We would recommend ABA placement for children who are socially withdrawn and do not engage with peers. ABA can work 1:1 with the child to increase social skills so that the child in successful in initiating and sustaining play and conversations so that they can make and sustain friendships. Social skills are also an important variable because a child who has strong social skills is less likely to be singled out and bullied.


7. Daily Living Skills. Children who are not independent and fluent in completing daily living behaviors are often recommended for ABA Therapy. ABA can work to increase independence in toileting, toothbrushing, showering, and other hygiene routines. Research shows that individuals who are not able to complete their own hygiene routines and require assistance are more susceptible to become victims of physical and/or sexual abuse.


This list is in no way a complete list, but what I have experienced to be some of the most obvious barriers when assessing school readiness. Always consult with your child's BCBA when planning a transition to school. Your child's BCBA will be able to assist you with assessing your child's specific needs in order to be successful in the school setting and to work with you to develop a plan for transition.





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