What behavioral principles should educators be familiar with to understand student behavior?
Page 6 Generalization
Understanding the ABC model—particularly the relationships among antecedents, behaviors, and consequences—can help educators interpret student behaviors and, when necessary, adjust the environment to change those behaviors. Many times, the goal of such behavior change is to simultaneously decrease students’ challenging behaviors and increase desired behaviors. However, newly learned behaviors often only appear under the circumstances in which they were first learned (e.g., in the same place, with the same person and the same reinforcement). As a result, a student who has learned a more desirable behavior in one context may continue to struggle with challenging behavior in another context.
For behavioral change to be successful, students must demonstrate expected behaviors across varied conditions and over time. To facilitate this, educators need to teach in a way that helps students generalize newly learned behavior. Generalization includes:
The process in which a behavior is applied to new contexts. It includes (1) the transfer of the same behavior to new contexts, (2) the maintenance of the same behavior across time and in the absence of reinforcement, and (3) the generation of a new behavior that meets the same needs.
Maintenance of the behavior over time, even when reinforcement is not available
Transfer of behavior to new contexts (e.g., different people, settings, materials)
Generation of similar new behaviors that meet the same needs
For Your Information
Generalization applies to both desirable and challenging behaviors. Sometimes challenging classroom behaviors are transferred from other settings. For example, when an adolescent makes threats at home, the parent usually gives them what they want. The adolescent may generalize this behavior by making threats over time, in other places, or with other people.
Like other concepts in this module, generalization applies to both academic and behavioral learning. Educators recognize the importance of extending academic skills beyond the context in which they were learned. For example, students may be able to memorize multiplication facts and answer correctly given the right circumstances (e.g., a flash card drill). However, students ultimately need to learn to generalize multiplication concepts so they can solve more complex math problems, interpret distance scales on maps, or double recipes, among other skills.
Likewise, students have successfully learned a new behavior when they can maintain it over time, transfer it to new contexts, and generate new, similar behaviors. For example, consider a student who used to push his peers out of the way to get to the computer. The student learned to ask nicely (e.g., “May I have a turn, please?”) and learned to wait for his turn. While the behavior is currently effective in this specific situation, generalization is the larger objective. The examples in the table below show how the student might generalize this newly learned behavior.
Student’s ability to:
Maintain the behavior over time
The student continues to use polite requests for the computer for the remainder of the school year and beyond, even when the behavior is not reinforced.
Transfer the behavior to new contexts
The student begins asking for a turn during other activities (e.g., playing a board game), with other people (e.g., parents, siblings), and in other places (e.g., home, playground).
Generate similar new behaviors that meet the same needs
The student begins using different words (e.g., “Can I go next?”) or actions (e.g., waiting in line) to access a turn.
In the first two interviews, Johanna Staubitz offers more information on generalization, including why it is often overlooked, and she provides guidance on how educators can facilitate generalization. Next, Barbara Allen discusses the importance of generalization, in addition to providing examples of how she facilitates generalization with her students.
Johanna Staubitz, PhD, BCBA-D Assistant Professor, Department of Special Education Vanderbilt University
Generalization is a really important consideration when we’re thinking about behavior change because it’s the whole point. Behavior change really isn’t worth anything if it’s not showing up in the situations in which it’s needed and we’re instead seeing behavior that interferes with progress. We’re hoping that by changing the way a student engages in one situation—the one in which we can reinforce a new behavior or a behavior that’s not showing up as much compared to interfering behavior—that they’ll start using that behavior more often, in more contexts, and ultimately without anyone having to intentionally reinforce it. The way most of us walk around life. So think of generalization as real fluency or automaticity with prosocial behavior. We want a student to demonstrate appropriate behavior across a wide variety of situations. And, in doing that, we have to keep in mind that what “appropriate” means is situationally dependent. So we want students to be able to understand these situations and match their behavior to them. Interactions in the classroom should look different than interactions among friends after school or with family at home. And what a student does really depends on, historically, what the consequences have been for that behavior.
Generalization is often overlooked when we are teaching behavior in schools. And I think the reason for that is that when students have developed patterns of behavior that interfere with their educational progress, we often have to start with really basic skill teaching. Now, with any skill (think single-digit addition) we need lots of practice with feedback to become fluent. And those practice items need to have a lot of different features for us to be able to answer any practice item that requires that skill (think problems can be written vertically or horizontally). If we’re talking reading instruction, we need to throw in capital and lowercase letters in different fonts. So for behavior that is social in nature to become automatic, we need to think about those same things. And here’s the thing: it takes a lot of consistent work over time. We’re talking about really high behavioral effort that has to be sustained for quite a while. And that’s really what makes programing for generalization so challenging. Even though it’s challenging and requires a lot of effort for educators to facilitate generalization and educators are already doing this in so many important ways. So don’t be too intimidated.
Transcript: Johanna Staubitz, PhD, BCBA-D
Even though planning for generalization does require a lot of effort on the part of the educator, educators certainly can facilitate generalization, and they are already doing this in so many ways. I’m going to just briefly describe four general categories that we can think about as we attempt to facilitate generalization. The first is simply selecting behaviors to teach to students that are ones that are likely to be reinforced in the real world that pay off in lots of different situations and with different people. Second, after we’ve selected those behaviors, make sure that there actually are reinforcement contingencies in place for that behavior in as many different situations as possible (think academic blocks, related arts, lunch, recess, study hall) and also within the presence of as many different people as possible. And so, really, universal or Tier I supports are a great way to facilitate generalization. Agreeing upon expectations and rules that are consistent across different contexts and adults in the building, and then having a plan for reinforcing cooperation with those rules, really does this nicely. Third, we need to think about the way we use language with students when we are talking with students about their behavior—and we always should be. Any behavior change procedure should be set up within the context of a meaningful relationship between the educator and the student. We can help them make those connections between their behavior that they’re practicing and real life, including their long-term goals. So if a student is practicing raising their hand and waiting to be called on, we can talk about why that’s helpful in life. How’s that going to pay off in terms of the things that are really important to that individual student? For example, making friends or something else you’ve learned from them in your relationship. Fourth, we need to not provide any more support in the form of reinforcing behavior than is absolutely necessary. So we need to fade those supports as a student is successful, after we put them in place. And so that means, as soon as they’ve mastered that hand raising or waiting to be called on or whatever that new behavior is that we’re reinforcing, we want to start introducing some exposure to times when it doesn’t pay off, that behavior goes unreinforced. And, of course, explicitly teaching the student what to do in those situations.
So, just to recap, there are four ways that may help you facilitate generalization, including:
Identifying behaviors that pay off in real life, are likely to be reinforced outside of this situation.
Make sure that those behaviors do pay off inside of the school building in lots of different contexts and with different people.
Take advantage of the fact that you and your student can have a conversation. Talk with them and help them make connections between new behaviors being reinforced and how they pay off outside of just the fact that you are reinforcing those behaviors.
And, finally, fade supports as quickly as possible, but without going so fast that the student stops using the skill.
Transcript: Barbara M. Allen
The importance of generalization
Initially when I work with a student on a skill, it’s done in isolation with some type of reinforcement. And then you start to make progress there, and you’re going to fade the reinforcer there. But if you’re not generalizing that skill to other settings, you’re probably not going to get the carryover that you think you’re going to get across settings with different people and at different times. And in order to get that, you’re going to have to do it in other settings, not just in isolation. I think it’s often overlooked because expectations are inconsistent. What’s expected in one setting may not be expected in another setting, and it’s okay if you don’t do it there. But in general, we need to learn appropriate behavior for all settings.
I facilitate generalization by teaching it in different settings. Then I try and make it relevant to the student. An example would be a student that has difficulty with socialization. He says things that are inappropriate to peers, and when he says those things, he is ostracized as a result. Well, it will be relevant to him to do something different because he wants to fit. He wants to belong. And teaching him new skills on how to socialize or how to have a conversation is what we actually work on. The generalization would look like the teacher saying, “Okay, you’ve worked with Ms. Allen on this. Would you tell me what you would do in this setting?” Because the student can now tell her, “I’m supposed to have this conversation, and I’m supposed to not say things that might hurt someone’s feelings. I am to look for ways to compliment this person instead.” And the teacher will then praise him. And this is another person, and it’s in a different setting. If I find something they’re willing to work on, they’re more likely to want to generalize that skill and to move it into other settings.
I also try to link prior events. For instance, if this same child has difficulty with, let’s say, a student at lunch. I said, “Okay, remember at lunch you had this difficulty? Here’s another setting that we could practice this in so that it won’t happen at this time.” And it makes sense to them because we’re moving it across settings. I’ve also utilized social stories to help cue the kids in to what the expectations are, because if they don’t know what the expectations are, then they’re more likely to not be successful at interacting in the situation. And then finally, is to do role playing and practice the responses in different situations prior to going into a setting.
Throughout this module, you have learned how the ABC model can help educators understand, address, and change student behavior in the classroom. Although this is a good start, educators must also help students generalize newly learned positive behaviors. In turn, students can more fully participate in classroom learning experiences and interpersonal interactions, leading to greater opportunities for overall success in school and in life.