By Clelia Sigaud, M.S.
bSci21 Contributing Writer
As a Special Education teacher to students with Autism, I was fortunate to attend a training session over the summer on the use of the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). Those who may be familiar with the PECS model know that it involves a system for teaching individuals who do not otherwise functionally communicate to exchange symbols with a communicative partner in order to be understood. This process is broken down into six incremental phases of skill development, going from simple one-word manding (placing a picture symbol for “raisin” into the communicative partner’s hand and immediately receiving a raisin, for example) to much more advanced skills involving full sentences and social language such as commenting. PECS has an excellent research based track record of teaching children and adults to communicate functionally using the principles of ABA and verbal behavior. In fact, many former PECS users eventually learn to use vocal language.
My expectations, therefore, were that I would be exposed to in-depth descriptions of the six phases of PECS and how to implement them. While this was not entirely unfounded, the experience of attending the training was thought-provoking beyond the immediate topic. This was largely due to the fact that, out of a training lasting two days, a full half of that time – one entire day of training – was spent discussing motivation as a key prerequisite to any teaching and learning of communication skills.
As I reflected on the information that had been shared with me during the training, I realized the extent to which it applied to the work that my colleagues and I do on a daily basis. The essence of teaching students with Autism within an ABA framework is the use of functional assessments and interventions to determine why behavior occurs (and hence why certain other behaviors may not be occurring). Nothing could be more relevant to any intervention within the classroom – whether it be addressing a reading difficulty, aggressive behavior, or a social language deficit – than to pause and take a thorough and ongoing look at student motivation. I think it’s very important for educators to know that student motivation depends on us. All students, no matter how significantly impacted, will show us, with their behavior, what kinds of items and/or experiences motivate them. It is not the students role to be “intrinsically motivated,” rather, it is up to us to be interested in the students, build strong therapeutic relationships with them, and establish, build, and remain sensitive to the dynamic process that is motivation.
On the other side of the coin, I was also reminded of some less-than-stellar practices that are sometimes difficult to entirely eliminate in educational settings. Part of the training involved a brief discussion of so-called “forced manding” – the process of fully prompting someone to request something that they may not have any motivation for. Beyond being a flagrant misuse of terms – the essence of manding is motivation – it is a great way to break down therapeutic relationships and decrease further motivation to communicate or engage with others. While most professionals in the field would easily be able to identify “forced manding” as a major misuse of therapeutic/instructional time, the idea of putting the cart before the horse by failing to establish motivation prior to engaging in instruction is all too common. How many of us have given a direction or made a request prior to establishing motivation while working with people with Autism? I certainly have.
As we embark upon the 2015-2016 school year, I am challenging myself, and all educators, to lay a bedrock foundation of high sensitivity to student motivation within our classrooms, and to invest in the time and resources necessary to identify, build, and expand motivation as a true prerequisite to lasting learning gains.
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Clelia Sigaud, M.S. is a teacher to children with developmental disabilities in urban Maine (to the extent that “urban” and “Maine” can be used in the same sentence). She has several years of experience working with special needs individuals, from preschool through age 20, in a variety of settings. Outside of work, she is earning her doctorate in School Psychology from the University of Southern Maine. Her interests include functional communication training, interventions for sexualized aggression/sexually problematic behavior, treatment of self injury, paraprofessional training, and ethical practice within the field of ABA. In her spare time, she enjoys authoring her own social stories.