Increasing learning effectiveness

Planning for generalisation



I was talking to a teacher the other day about Applied Behaviour Analysis and early intensive interventions. An important part of any ABA intervention is planning for generalisation of new behaviours across people and environments.


We both agreed that in mains t ream teaching, generalisation is often assumed or its importance is under estimated. Contextual teaching or teaching for a purpose such as setting up shops in the classroom for maths or a writing corner with different types of paper, is probably the closest we get to acknowledging the need for a child to be able to perform the task under different conditions. Writing and maths are frequently seen as needing to be

taught in context. Another way teachers currently attempt generalisation is asking parents to assist with homework and to do maths in the supermarket or read signs when out shopping or on trips. I would suggest however that generalisation is not deliberately taught or structured.


Stokes and Baer wrote a landmark paper in 1977 that provided applied behaviour analysts with the ‘ ingredients ’ for generalisation. Today, generalisation defines the effectiveness of ABA teaching and is generally programmed into any intervention.


If the child or client is unable to perform the task outside of the classroom, for example, one would question the effectiveness of the procedure. So what is generalisation, what does it mean for classroom teachers, and how do we plan for it. Generalisation is the process by which a student learns to perform the same task or sequence of tasks in a variety of locations, with a range of teachers or peers, using a variety of stimuli under different conditions.


Probably one of the most common failures to generalise behaviour, occurs with relief teachers. We refer to this as the children playing up or misbehaving, however the reality is the students have failed to generalise their behaviour within the classroom behaviour to a variety of teachers. The more a class experiences other teachers working with them the more they generalise their behaviour. The classroom itself becomes a signal to ‘behave’ in a certain way which also explains students misbehaving on trips outside of the classroom.


Again we will say ‘oh they’re just playing up’, but this can be addressed by regular outings, stipulating the requirements and planning to teach appropriate behaviour in a variety of locations with different adults. It might seem like a lot of hard work but the important thing to remember is if we want different results we need to plan for it and expecting a behaviour taught in one environment under certain conditions to naturally carry over to other more complicated, distracting environments is expecting too much!


So what are some suggested ways to plan for generalisation that relate to the classroom? According to Stokes and Baer, here are the key points followed by some practical suggestions;

  • Teach using a variety of stimuli

A basic example that we use already might be when teaching number counting we use counters, objects, fingers, and then count things outside of the classroom such as other children, trees in the playground and cars in the car park. Writing exercises might include using pens, pencils, crayons and felts

  • Teach loosely

This is an interesting one as it implies that there are no hard and fast instructions if you want to achieve generalisation. For example if you want the student to get used to responding to a variety of teachers giving requests for attention they need to be able to respond to variations in instructions. This might go some way to explaining why some ‘play up’ for the relief teacher. If your class only stops and listens to you when you use certain phrases or signals, they may well ignore any other attempts to get them to stop and listen – yep it’s that simple! So try teaching them to respond to a variety of signals and phrases and try to catch them out! Remember to heavily reinforce their responses at first to get them tuned in to you and then notice how more observant they become to your every word!


  • Provide enough examples

Teach the students to respond appropriately to a variety of teachers and a variety of requests to stop and listen. Begin by teaching them a range of requests given by you and then start to include other adults in your classroom such as support staff, parent helpers and the teacher next door – you will be amazed how quickly this can be achieved with the right reinforcement!


  • Teach using indiscriminable contingencies

Again back to our relief teacher example – students easily discriminate between the contingencies present with one teacher versus another and behave accordingly. A contingency states the rules for reinforcement – when you do this, you get this. Using intermittent reinforcement, or reinforcing every now and again rather than every response, once it is learned, is the best way to maintain responding. The children are never quite sure when they will receive reinforcement. Stokes and Baer suggest that if the contingencies are indiscriminable for either punishment or reinforcement then generalisation is more likely to take place.


We all remember the strict teacher at school that everyone behaved for…we knew the contingencies! With this in mind shake it up for your students, once they listen to a variety of people asking for their attention, reduce the reinforcement to one every second or third response.


  • Introduce natural maintaining contingencies


This entails moving towards less giving of stickers and house points as reinforcers and more focus on praise and more common contingencies. For example if someone asks you as a teacher for your attention and you look at them they are highly unlikely to give you a sticker and more likely to say thanks!


If we want behaviour to generalise to other situations in the ‘real’ world outside of school we need to teach students to still respond when the stickers and awards have been removed. This requires a slow transfer process. Pairing stickers with praise is a great start and gradually reducing the stickers and house points, but maintaining the praise. You may still give them out but you gradually eliminate the need for them, in order to maintain the behaviour over time.


Generalisation is often taken for granted and considered a by-product that naturally occurs during teaching (Stokes & Baer). They demonstrated however that generalisation needs to be planned for and built into any teaching programme in order for teaching to be considered effective and for any new behaviour to be maintained over time. The ability for children and adults to generalise is essential for successful living; otherwise we would have to learn every separate move under every different condition. For example imagine learning to brush your teeth at home in the morning as a child and not generalising that skill – this would mean teaching you to brush your teeth in the evening and at different locations as well. The more you think about it the more amazing it is how much we do generalise skills. However having said that, we often don’t and knowing how to set the training or teaching environment up to enable generalisation to occur means we can help reduce needless repetitions and assist children to capitalise on their learning experiences.

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