I mainly work with young children diagnosed with autism.  When I meet a new client I always remember that to them I am a complete stranger; a blank canvas.

I know that to create a willing learner; a child who WANTS to not only spend time with me but also respond to multiple demands I am going to have to work hard to earn their trust and build rapport.

I need to invest the time to teach them that I am awesome – I want that child to be running into my therapy room excited to see me! When I get to this stage I know that I am in a good position to start teaching.

So, what is pairing exactly?

…. the process of building or maintaining rapport with a client. When 2 things are put together; a preferred thing and a neutral thing, reinforcing properties of the preferred thing ‘rub off’ on the neutral thing which over time then turns into something that’s reinforcing.

I need to pair myself (the neutral thing) with all their preferred items (e.g. bubbles, tickles etc).  I need to be ‘the giver of all good things’. Think; Santa, Mary Poppins and a Granny all rolled into one super human being!

I don’t place any demands on the child at this point – I’m simply there to make their life better and make playing with things more fun because of my participation.

Pairing is child-led and unlike babysitting it’s up to me to think creatively how I can make their life better and teach them that people bring value.

It’s very helpful to clear everything away so it’s just me, the child and 1 toy/activity – this way I have less distractions to compete with.

Here are few tips and tricks to remember while pairing:

> Follow the child’s motivation

> Show them new items/ways to play making your interactions more fun because of your participation

> Have items they enjoy with you

> Engage with the child and activity

> Limit demands

Now, switching gears a bit let’s discuss what positive reinforcement is and why it’s an important behavioural principle to get your head around.

People often mistake reinforcement as having the same meaning as ‘reward’.  BUT the technical definition of reinforcement is:

….when a behavior is followed immediately by the presentation of a stimulus that increases the future frequency of the behavior” (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007).

Reinforcers follow a behaviour, in that they come AFTER a behaviour has occurred and by definition makes that specific behaviour more likely occur again under similar circumstances.

We can use this principle to increase behaviours we want to see more of e.g. waiting nicely, playing nicely, asking nicely, listening and responding etc.

For example:

Antecedent = I’m talking on the phone but my child wants my attention

Behaviour = Child says ‘Excuse me please’

Consequence = I respond to my child by giving them attention.

What do you think will happen to future instances of saying ‘excuse me’ under similar conditions? It will increase – reinforcement INCREASES behaviour.

So, we need to start off with lots of pairing when we work with our kiddies and then gradually fade in easy demands using lots of positive reinforcement to maintain their responding.

The first few demands you introduce might be instructions related to playing with a preferred item e.g. “squash the playdoh” or have the child request for something that they want e.g. “say tickle”.

Our goal as teachers is to gradually increase the number of and types of demands whilst maintaining the rate of the child’s responding. But what happens if the child has had enough? We’ve placed too many demands! How do we maintain our boundaries and get our cooperative learner back?!

When I see children start avoiding my demands or engaging in escape related behaviours that’s an immediate red flag. I’ve either misjudged their motivation levels (i.e. I haven’t found a strong enough reinforcer or spent enough time pairing) or I’ve placed too many demands on them.

But what can you do in that moment when you start ‘losing’ your learner. Turn the tap off. The good stuff stops coming – toys/preferred activities are all put away and nothing fun happens until your learner makes the decision to interact with you again.

This may involve allowing your learner to avoid your demand for a period of time but as soon as they decide they want something, either a toy/activity or your attention, place the original demand that triggered the escape behaviour. Basically, you are following through with your demand and teaching your child that ‘you say what you mean and you mean what you say’.

If this type of avoidance happens regularly alarm bells would be ringing and we would need to analyse why this keeps happening.

Are you placing too many or too difficult a demand on your learner?

Are you using positive reinforcement enough?

Do you need to teach the child some replacement skills e.g. asking for a break?

Setting boundaries requires ensuring there are clear expectations and consistent consequences. Remember, we ALL respond favourably to positive reinforcement so take the time to really figure out what interests and motivates your child and invest the time and energy pairing to help create a willing learner.