This is an article for all the teachers out there! You know how when your student is supposed to be completing independent seat work but instead he’s playing with the action figures he brought from home? Or how during story time he is poking his neighbor or wandering around the room? This is called off-task behavior. Off- task behavior is when a student is doing something other than what he is supposed to be doing, and is a very common problem in the classroom- especially for children with special needs such as autism, ADHD or learning disabilities.
Applied behavior analysis is a science dedicated to the improvement of human behavior. ABA has been used to reduce problem behaviors and teach all kinds of skills to children with autism and other special needs. Here are some ABA strategies to help your student stay on task:
Set Appropriate Goals:
This is a hard one, considering our school system’s one-size-fits-all approach. But it is important to assess whether or not the task given to the child is appropriate for the child’s current level of functioning. Even if you believe the child has the ability to sit at a desk for an hour and complete 4 math pages, if he is not doing so consistently, then something is wrong. ABA emphasizes breaking tasks down and very gradually building up to the goal. So if the child can only sit on average for 10 minutes, then start there. Only move forward when the child is consistently completing 10 minutes of work without engaging in off-task behavior. Setting an appropriate goal is an example of an antecedent strategy.
Antecedent strategies are things that we do to try to prevent problem behavior from occurring- to set the child up for success. For example, a teacher could adjust the seating arrangement so that students who need lots of redirection are sitting closer to the teacher. This makes it easier for the teacher to periodically check in on the student and offer assistance if needed.
You can also eliminate the need for problem behavior by modifying the task, providing a lot of help, and/or giving the student lots of attention throughout the day (note: try to give attention for positive behavior only). Other antecedent strategies include offering breaks, checking in often, clearing the work area of distracting items, and teaching the child to communicate when he needs help or a break instead of getting out of his seat.
A true ABA program always takes into consideration the function of the problem behavior. In other words, what exactly is reinforcing off-task behavior? Is the student engaging in off-task behavior to get out of completing an assignment? Does the child like the attention he receives whenever he wanders around the classroom, or pokes the student next to him? Is off-task behavior a sensory issue?
You can find out what is reinforcing off-task behavior by looking at what consequence usually follows it. For example, if peers laugh, or the teacher usually scolds the child then peer and/or teacher attention might be reinforcing off-task behavior. It isn’t always straight-forward; therefore, consider getting help from a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). After the function of off-task behavior is determined, it’s important to stop reinforcing the child for problem behavior. For example, the student can be redirected back to his work and provided with a break only after 10 minutes of staying on task. Also, peers can be taught and reinforced for ignoring the student’s off-task behavior.
A behavior that is positively reinforced in a way that is meaningful to the child will continue. Examples of reinforcement for good behavior include earning points (to be exchanged for privileges such as extra recess, an item from the “treasure box,” or a pizza party), free time (after work is completed), stickers (a sticker for each time the student stays in his seat for an assignment), or a fun, quiet activity for the student to do once he’s done with his assignment. And don’t forget to praise the child whenever he exhibits good behavior! In fact, for many kids, ignoring inappropriate behavior and praising good behavior goes a very long way!