Despite the title, this is actually going to be a relatively long blog post!
I was thinking about the way I wanted to approach this blog, and as with everything I do, I’m sure it will change over time, but I thought a good way to go was to link a lesson/concept learned during my work, with a story as an example. And I have lots of stories as examples, so I think I will start with a good thing to remember :)
I have been working with children with Autism and their families for many years now, and honestly, I can’t even remember how, or when, I consciously made the decision to head in this direction, but I really didn’t have any idea what I was doing, or what I would end up doing, way back at the beginning of my career.
I remember being not only very new, but very young, and reasonably naive. One of my very first kids I worked with, I was shadowing him for social skills help in the playground at school. He really didn’t want me there, and really didn’t want me in his space, asking him to do things at lunch time that involved a whole bunch of kids he really didn’t want!
I remember before I’d even started with him, all the big goals I had in mind, and a timeline of what I wanted to be doing and when. I am a big planner, I love to plan ahead, and come up with ideas, and work out a way to achieve those ideas. So it kind of makes sense that I have always done that, even in my beginning days.
I had a little support in implementing, but considering I was quite new to the whole idea, not a huge amount of input from the supervisors of his program. The teachers (who were AMAZING at their job and fantastic team teachers) were really great and supportive, and it was such a surreal experience for me, going into a classroom, every week, and getting paid. Previously, I had only been in classrooms on prac, so this was very different.
So I would go in every week, at morning tea and lunch, and when I arrived, my kid would be at the top of the play equipment, spot me and scream, angrily “GO AWAY LAUREN!!!” (he was only kidding … I hope!) But each week, I stayed and we did a whole bunch of activities at morning tea and lunch.
Probably after around 2 terms of this, plus at home ABA therapy after school, I had a more realistic expectation of what we were able to achieve. I knew my kid a whole lot better, I knew the resources and set up of the school a whole lot better, and I had a lot more skills – I learned about ‘Task Analysis’ – the process of breaking a skill into smaller, more manageable steps in order to teach the skill. (Task Analysis)
I learned to adjust my goals and still aim high, but think about smaller, shorter goals to aim to achieve in the meantime – all apart of the bigger ‘end’ goal.
At the end of our time at that school, my kid did actually enjoy being around a few of the other kids and had a lot more skills to use in social situations. I still see him today, and he doesn’t yell at me to go away when he sees me, so I am counting that as a win!
This concept of “Short and successful” is something I am constantly discussing with families today. It can be very hard to ‘break’ down a goal, a particularly big one, say for example, sitting at the table and eating what is on the plate. (I’m pretty sure my parents had that goal for me when I was younger :P)
Sometimes, people can get caught up in the bigger picture and just focus on “He won’t sit down to eat, I have to feed him, he only eats rice!” If our only goal is “sit down and eat what is on the plate” it will probably be very hard to achieve.
If we can set shorter goals, and have smaller aims to achieve, we are actually going to set our kids up for success. In the example of sitting at the table and eating dinner, we could break that down to achieve smaller goals in a few different ways.
We could aim for sitting at the table for a certain period of time, starting small, and building on that success – e.g. using a timer, sitting for 1 minute and eating.
We could aim for eating a certain amount of food at a time, and only have that on the plate – e.g. 5 spoonfuls/bites, or three 1cm x 1cm potato pieces.
We could aim for trying and eating new foods, by putting different foods on the plate to ‘try’ as well as something we know they will eat – e.g. “First try carrot, then you can have chocolate yoghurt!”
With all of those goals, there is a lot of work to do, particularly if we are starting small and setting up our chances of success. We can build on that by reinforcing success, and increasing the goal systematically over time.
If we have goals that are reasonably attainable, and we provide opportunities for our kids to practice those goals, and then we reinforce them for attaining that particular goal, we will be able to teach them new skills, and increase the chance that they will be able to achieve those small goals we have laid out, and be successful. We can then build on the successes, and get to the bigger picture!
For the individual, it is motivating, and builds their self esteem, particularly if they find certain tasks difficult. For the therapist and family, it is also motivating, and you feel successful because you know the little steps that are being taken, are leading to bigger things.
It is something that can be hard to navigate, and it can be difficult to potentially break tasks down as small as possible, but there are some good resources out there to help with this (which I have attached at the end of this post.) Sometimes it helps to sit down and attempt the task yourself to see exactly what is involved in the task.
And like with all the good things I love about behaviour analysis, applying it to real life situations. I use task analysis quite often. In particular, when I have to write reports.
I break down the format of a report, and I set myself goals of what I have to achieve in a certain time frame. I start with the intro and graphs, then I have a break (reinforcement!) Then I do the written analysis of the graphs, then I have another break. This section involves a lot more thinking and writing. Then I do the strategies and recommendations, as well as the summary, and then I am done! I actually get to practice this because I usually have more than one report to write. However, by setting myself smaller, easier goals at first, and achieving those goals, I am more motivated to move onto the next ‘goal’ to achieve.
Of course, I have other things motivating me i.e. I need to get the report completed, but in general, this principle of choosing small goals to be ‘short and successful’ is applicable to many different facets of everyday life – running 5km, losing weight, or saving for a house deposit.
Regardless of what I am applying this technique to, I use it frequently, and love explaining to parents how we can apply it, and see successes, while always reiterating, the bigger goal and the bigger picture, but for us to get there, we do need to start small, in order to be successful.