Generalization and Maintenance of Skills

Generalization and Maintenance of Skills

This article is authored by Emily Bellovin, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst with Scholastic Intervention Solutions.
What does the Generalization of Skills mean?

For a skill to be considered to be generalized, it must occur across various settings, people and stimuli as well as over time. This is a crucial component of skill acquisition and if it is not occurring then a skill should not be considered mastered.

What does the maintenance of skills mean?

Maintenance or response maintenance means that a child has learned a skill and continues to demonstrate this skill after teaching has been discontinued.

How do I ensure that generalization of skills is being targeted?

There are various strategies that should be followed o ensure that generalization is a focus of the program.

  • Aim for natural contingencies of reinforcement – It is important to address behaviors that can be maintained by the natural environment. The behaviors that are being targeted should be age-appropriate for the student, as well as culturally acceptable. Behaviors that are naturally reinforcing for the child to exhibit are more likely to be maintained and generalized.
  • Teach Enough Examples – It is important to teach many examples of targeted stimuli. For example, if a student is being taught to label a “dog” there should be varied materials should be  used.  These could include pictures in a book, puzzle pieces, and pictures of various types of dogs. This will help ensure that the student can label any ‘dog’ that he/she observes. As part of this category, a student should be taught with many different instructors as well as settings.
  • Program Common Stimuli - Common stimuli refer to materials that can be found in the natural environment and are similar to those that will be observed. The more that the stimuli resemble something a student would witness, the more likely that they will be able to display the same response they were taught.
  • Train loosely -This strategy refers to varying any dimension of the program/target that is not critical to the teaching of the skill  For example: varying the tone of voice when presenting the instruction, varying the choice of words, presenting the stimuli from different angles, perhaps using a whiteboard or on the table.
  • Use Indiscriminable Contingencies - This strategy refers to the schedule of reinforcement that is used to teach a skill. If a skill is taught only using a continuous reinforcement schedule (CRF) once that reinforcement is removed, the skill will most likely falter. It is important to use an intermittent schedule of reinforcement to help maintain the skill. In the natural environment behaviors do not receive continuous reinforcement.
  • Teach Self-Management Techniques  -If a child is able to learn when and how to use their learned skills in the natural environment then it is likely those behaviors will continue. It is not enough to teach a child various phrases to request an item without teaching them when they should request the item versus obtaining it independently.

How do I assess if generalization of skills is occurring?

As with data collection on all skill acquisition programs, the only way to truly ascertain generalization is to collect data. All programs should have something called a generalization probe built into them. Generalization probes can assess the use of various settings, various people and various stimuli. The generalization probes should never be taught — only assessed. If a student is working on labeling animals embedding a set of novel pictures could be considered the generalization probe. The rationale would be that if the child is learning to label a “cow” and a novel picture is presented, he/she should recognize it as well if the skill is mastered. If the generalization probe is taught then it cannot be considered novel. Data should be collected and graphed on the generalization probe as well as the target set. This can be helpful in assessing if a skill is being generalized to home or with other instructors. Generalization probes should be a separate data point on graphs.

How do I properly maintain skills?

Skills should be naturally maintained daily, not on separate days referred to as “maintenance days.” As a child is mastering sets, the materials should be kept within the new materials and interspersed. This will help provide opportunities for the child to be reinforced if you are presenting items that he/she knows. For example, if a child is learning to receptively identify shapes and he has mastered the circle and triangle, those shapes can be used in the field of the new targets. In addition, most programs are pre-requisites for other programs so those will be naturally maintained. For example, a student must be able to match pictures and objects before he/she can work on sorting. Once sorting is introduced, matching is being inherently maintained. Other examples could include a program that is following a chaining procedure such as shoe tying. If the first step of crossing laces has been mastered any step after will automatically maintain that prior step. It is important to note that if skills do not seem to have maintained well they might need to be reintroduced.

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