4 Ways to Use a Sneaky Elf to Create Language Opportunities in Your Classroom


By Jennifer Fisahn, M.Ed, BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Teachers!  Have you heard?  The elves are back!  Elfie, Buddy, Jingle, Chippy, La La, and Snowflake are probably whooping it up at a few of your students’ homes right this very second!  Some elves will move to and from a set number of (boring) places (my house) while others will engage in wild shenanigans each and every night (not my house).  Regardless of which activity track an elf takes, he is likely to be loved and adored by his child host.  Let’s capitalize on the reinforcing value that this little guy (or gal!) holds for some of our students.  Read on to learn how you can use a sneaky elf to create language opportunities in your classroom!

1.  Use your smart phone to provide a picture prompt when teaching intraverbals. – If intraverbal training is part of an individual student’s program AND they are smitten with their elf then this idea may be useful!

  • Have a parent email you a picture of their elf in the daily hiding spot or engaging in the daily activity.  The student must be able to tact the location and/or the activity depicted in the picture in order for you to use it as a prompt (tact-to-intraverbal transfer).
  • With the picture ready on your smart phone (behind your back), ask the student a question (“Where was your elf hiding today?”, “What was your elf doing today?”, “What did your elf do last night?”, etc.)
  • If the student doesn’t answer within the expected time frame, show the picture on your smart phone so they can tact the elf’s hiding spot or action. If they tact the picture correctly, provide praise and remove the prompt.
  • Ask the question again without the picture present and provide praise for a correct response. 
  • Since the elf’s location and/or activity changes daily, the answers to the questions will not be the same every day.  This can serve as a fun way to practice question answering and ‘remembering’ in general.

For more information regarding the tact-to-intraverbal transfer procedure as well as other prompting tactics to establish intraverbals in children with autism, see Kodak, Fuchtman, & Paden (2012), Ingvarsson & Hollobaugh (2011), and Ingvarsson & Le (2011).

2.  Create discrete trial training (DTT) materials starring an elf. – If a student has welcomed their elf back this week, chances are they will be elated when he pops up during a teaching session.  Add some FUN to your DTT sessions by creating additional stimulus examples to jazz up the mastered skills materials. Mastered skills will differ from student to student and should be based on assessments and ongoing data collection.  These skills may include tacting, listener responding, and matching-to-sample. For example, if your student has mastered tacting ongoing actions as well as tacting actions in pictures, let the elf have a spot in those materials!  It will take fast camera work on your part but try to catch an elf engaging in actions (eating, drinking, clapping, etc.) that have been mastered as tacts. For some students, it may be necessary for the elf to have the same attire on in all pictures and to be in front of the same background to control for irrelevant stimuli.  So if the elf gets cold, make sure he’s wearing his parka in ALL of the pictures…not just in the ‘clapping’ picture!

3.  Put together a book featuring an elf. – Perhaps a few (or all) of your students just LOVE their elf. GREAT!  You now have the perfect scenario for a group book activity.  Consider creating a book of an elf’s adventures in your classroom.  Get your camera ready and snap away as that sneaky elf paints in the art center, reads a book in the library, bounces on the exercise ball, or pledges the flag in the morning meeting area.  Based on individual levels, you can use the book to provide many opportunities for students to practice language including:

  • manding for items and actions (“turn” page).
  • tacting items and actions (“What is this?”; “What is he doing?”).
  • tacting two-component verb-noun/noun-verb combinations (“What’s happening here?”).
  • responding as a listener by selecting items (“Show me the elf.”).
  • responding as a listener by selecting actions (“Find the picture that shows the elf painting.”).
  • imitating (mimetically and vocally).
  • responding intraverbally by answering questions (“What did the elf do in the library?”).  Picture not present.

4.  Let the ‘Weather Bear’ hibernate and replace him with an elf. – Consider skipping the weather thing altogether (for this activity)!  Depending on where you live, this time of year could require students to select the same old clothing for months!  Where’s the fun in that?  Try this instead.  Create a large version of an elf in his signature red suit and laminate it.  You can borrow the bear’s clothes or create new ones specifically for the elf.  He’s very stylish and has been spotted in a tuxedo, matching scarf and boots, denim, a sports jersey, and even a chef outfit.  Get creative!  Add some flare with a Minecraft or Stampy Cat graphic tee and make this an instant favorite during morning meeting time!  Based on individual student levels, provide opportunities for your students to:

  • mand for specific clothing items (Let the students choose!).
  • tact clothing items and/or their features/parts (“What is this?” – coat, zipper, button, etc.).
  • identify as a listener clothing items and/or their features/parts (“Find the hat.”; Show me the buttons.”).
  • identify as a listener clothing items by their features or function (“Give me something with sleeves.”)

Try some of these elfy suggestions in your classroom and share your own ideas in the comments below.  Also, consider subscribing to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Ingvarsson, E. T., & Hollobaugh, T. (2011). A comparison of prompting tactics to establish intraverbals in children with autism. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 44(3), 659–664.

Ingvarsson, E. T., & Le, D. D. (2011). Further evaluation of prompting tactics for establishing intraverbal responding in children with autism. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 27(1), 75–93.

Kodak, T., Fuchtman, R., & Paden, A. (2012). A comparison of intraverbal training procedures for children with autism. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 45(1), 155-160.

Jennifer FishanJennifer Fisahn, M.Ed., BCBA has worked with individuals with autism and their families for seventeen years.  She is a certified Teacher of the Handicapped, Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA®), and parent of a child with autism.  Jennifer has public school experience teaching preschool through high-school aged students as well as extensive experience as a school district consultant, direct service provider and supervisor for home-based ABA programs.  She currently serves as the training coordinator for the Foundation for Autism Training and Education (FATE) and conducts workshops on the topics of ABA and autism.  Jennifer regularly contributes to a resource-rich blog for teachers, therapists, and caregivers and also created the S.T.A.R.S. Network, a group aimed at supporting teachers and paraprofessionals working with individuals with autism.  You can contact her at jfisahnvbn@gmail.com.

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