Autism Spectrum Disorder: Supporting Children and Youth – Module 4

Setting Goals and Teaching New Skills


In previous modules, you learned more about the characteristics of children with ASD and the kinds of behavioural differences that result from the disorder. You have begun to think about how the child’s environment can affect their ability to learn, and to learn ways of adapting the child care setting to accommodate a child with ASD. In addition to modifying environments, helping a child with ASD to develop new skills may require a different approach to teaching. The information in this module will help you to adapt how you teach children with ASD, in groups and individually. You will learn to use your knowledge from previous modules to develop goals, guide program development, and facilitate behaviour change and learning for children with ASD.


After completing this module, you should be able to:

  • Identify specific skills to work on with a child and develop short-term learning goals.
  • Break a skill into smaller steps to make learning easier.
  • Identify some basic teaching skills that are effective for children with ASD.
  • Recognize the importance of prompting and rewards.
  • Use prompting and rewards.
  • Record behaviour skillfully so as to measure change.

Section 1: Setting Goals and Basics of Structured Teaching

In Module 1, you learned about assessments and how professionals determine what skills a child has and which areas they need to work on.

In this module, you will learn about choosing skills to teach a child with ASD in your centre. You will also learn basic teaching approaches for working with children with ASD, and how to reward success and provide supports for learning.

1. Deciding Which Skills to Work On

The first task when you are teaching is to decide which skills to target. There are a number of things you will need to consider in order to make that decision.

When both you and the child have had little experience with structured teaching / learning, it’s best to work on only one skill so that you can see progress, get comfortable with teaching, and have some success! As you will learn, success experiences are key!

Here are some guidelines to think about when choosing a target skill to teach:

  • What are you doing for the child now? Think about the typical day at your centre – what are some daily skills that you are currently doing for her that you would like her to learn to do for herself (e.g., finding something to play with)?
  • What do you want to teach? What do you feel is important? Is there a problem area that is particularly disruptive for the rest of the children at the centre (e.g., the child cannot sit for circle time)?
  • What skills does the child’s parent think are important for her to learn? You will need to work together as a team so it’s essential for families to be supportive of the skills you would like to work on.
  • What skills does the child want to learn? Is there a particular skill she is showing interest in? Is there something she is trying to do on her own but is not quite sure how to do?
  • What skill is the child ready to learn? What can she already do, and what might she be ready for next? What would be a next first step? You wouldn’t expect a baby who isn’t sitting up yet to learn to walk right away. Is there a particular skill that the child can do parts of, but not all?
  • What skills are feasible to work on at your centre? Some skills will be easy to teach within your setting (e.g., sitting for a snack), while others will be more challenging (e.g., social skills), or not feasible (e.g., getting ready for bed).

Remember: Choose one skill at the beginning – you and the child you are teaching can see progress, and experience success!

Exercise: Developing Three Target Skills

OBSERVE, THINK, AND TRY: Think of a child with ASD in your setting with whom it might be possible for you to do some teaching. Answer each of the above questions (i.e., see guidelines above) and come up with a list of 3 possible target skills to teach. These can be in any area – communication, social skills, self-help skills, attending skills, early academic skills.
Click here to see a sample answer

2. Developing a Plan and an Outline of How the Teaching will Occur.

In Module 2 you learned about the physical setting of your centre and how space can be arranged to provide an environment that works for structured teaching. In Module 1, you also learned about the importance of individualized programming.

Before beginning to teach you will need to develop a plan for how teaching will occur. Whether you are going to teach a skill one-on-one, or target a skill within the daily routine and activities, you will need to consider:

  • What time of day is best for teaching?
  • What location is best for teaching and what modifications may need to be done?
  • What materials will you need for teaching (including rewards)?
  • What kinds of group activities can be adapted for the child with ASD (e.g., a group craft activity) to include a teaching component?
  • How will you convey to the child that teaching sessions are going to happen during the week (e.g., calendar, transition cards)? Refer back to Module 2 for information that will be helpful here.
  • Where will the individual program plans and other information about the teaching sessions be kept? It will be important for other staff and the child’s family to have access to this information.
  • Whom will you be consulting with in the community regarding the child’s learning and programming (including outside resources, see Module 8)?
Exercise: Developing a Plan for How to Teach

Think about your setting and the child you would be working with. Using the points to consider above, come up with your plan for how you will teach one of the three target skills from Exercise 4.1.
Click here to see a sample answer

3. Beginning Teaching: Task Analysis and Breaking a Skill into Small Steps

To teach a skill, you must first break it down into steps that are small enough for a child to easily manage. Small gradual steps lead to success while big jumps cause frustration or anxiety, making the task difficult (or even impossible) to complete.

Step One: First you need to take the skill that you have decided you want to teach and try it out, slowly. When you do a skill slowly, you will be more aware of all the different steps that are involved in that task.

For example, here is a possible break-down of the steps involved in drying hands: (adapted from Steps to Independence, 1989).

  1. Place one of your hands behind the towel.
  2. Wipe the palm of your other hand with the towel.
  3. Turn your hand over and wipe the back.
  4. Place your dry hand behind the towel.
  5. Wipe the palm of your other hand.
  6. Turn your hand over and wipe the back.

When you think of how to break down “drying hands”, you may have some steps to add or change. There isn’t one correct way to teach a skill, but regardless of this it is important for your skill to be broken down into smaller steps.
These steps now form the basis for what needs to be taught. We haven’t yet talked about how to go about doing it! Remember though, that you want to teach gradually – small steps, one at a time.

You also want to start with a step that is just after the one the child can do. Only move to the next step when he is ready. Too much too soon will be frustrating for everyone.

Exercise: Breaking a Skill into “Small Steps!”

One of the keys to effective teaching is breaking down a larger skill into smaller steps that are more easily manageable for the child. What is one of the skills you would like the child with ASD in your centre to learn?
Skill: ____________________________________________

If you think about this skill, there are probably a number of steps that need to be achieved in order to be successful. It’s likely not “one big skill”, but rather a chain of steps that need to be performed in a particular order. Write down the steps that you think are needed to be successful at this skill:
1. ____________________________________________
2. ____________________________________________
3. ____________________________________________
4. ____________________________________________
5. ____________________________________________
6. ____________________________________________

Now that you have made your “list of steps”, take the time to walk slowly through the skill yourself. Get a shoe, a ball, a book, or whatever you need and just try it! While doing it, think about the steps you have listed.

Are there any steps you have forgotten?

Would you change the order?

The separate skills that you have listed make up your basic teaching program. They tell you “what” to teach. From there, you can next get to the “how”!

Click here to see a sample answer

Examples of Four Tasks in “Small Steps”

The following are examples of how tasks are broken down into their component steps and used to help children know what to do next.

4. Giving Good Instructions

As early childhood educators, you spend a great deal of time working with children and telling them what is expected of them in different situations. As a result, you often give instructions about what to do. This is the same in a one-to-one teaching situation, or teaching in a group. You will be giving instructions that you want the child to follow.

Giving good instructions is an important skill to develop. It sets the stage for the child being able to give a good response! Children, especially preschoolers, have difficulty following instructions, but children with communication disorders have even more difficulty.

What tends to happen when we give long detailed instructions is that children respond by:

  • Staring
  • Not listening
  • Doing something else while you are talking
  • Looking away
  • Making sounds / vocalizing
  • Looking right through you

The following are some suggestions for providing good instructions:

  • Stand near the child (so he can see and hear you)
  • Get down on his level (you want the child to see your face)
  • Look him in the eye (may need to turn his chin to ensure he is looking at you)
  • Say the child’s name
  • Give clear, simple, short instructions
  • Tell him what you want him to do – avoid asking questions unless it’s part of the teaching program
  • Be specific, not vague (e.g., “John, no hair pulling” not “John, stop that”)
  • Use simple familiar words (unless learning new vocabulary is part of the teaching program)
  • Use gestures
  • Associate words and objects
  • Repeat if needed
  • “Do” instructions are more effective than “don’t” instructions (e.g., “walk”, not “don’t run”)

5. Prompting

We have talked about what to teach – the steps involved in the target skill that you have chosen. Now we need to review how to help the child come up with the correct behaviour – how to find the right trigger or antecedent for success!

The first main ingredient of good teaching is instructing the child what you want her to do, and helping her have a success experience.

The helping part, which creates a success experience, is called prompting.

“Prompts” are hints or clues that one can use to help a child come up with a correct response. Feeling that we are able to successfully complete tasks makes it much more fun to practice and learn new skills.

When Would I Decide to Use a Prompt?
Prompts are to be used when you feel that the child would not be able to successfully complete a task or activity. They are used only when needed to facilitate independence and learning.

It is helpful to use the least intrusive, most natural prompt and to fade out the prompt as soon as possible.

What Kinds of Prompts Can I Use?

Tell Me, Show Me, Guide Me!

Tell me something a hundred times and I still may
not understand what you want me to do.

Show me what you mean
– demonstrate clearly and slowly
– just once or twice and I’ll be closer to that goal.

But do it with me
– put your hand on mine and guide me through it
– and I’ll make it!!”

Steps to Independence, 3rd Edition, 1997

There are many different types of prompts to choose from, and you will likely use all of them in various teaching situations.

Prompts fall into the following categories:

  • Verbal prompts – provide a verbal instruction, cue, or model of the correct response.
    “Cup. What is this?” (Models the correct response)
    “What is this?” (Verbal instruction
  • Modeling – demonstrating the correct response to the child
    Showing how to comb your hair
  • Physical prompts – physically guiding the child through all or part of the desired response
    Holding the child’s hand on the comb and helping her to comb her own hair
  • Gestural prompts – actions such as pointing to, looking at, moving, or touching an item to indicate the correct response
    You point to the circle while saying “Point to the circle”.
  • Position cues – the correct item is placed in an advantageous position in relation to the child
    Put the red square closer to the child than the blue square and say “Give me the red square”.

What is the Best Way to Give a Verbal Prompt?

  • Give directions slowly.
  • Give directions only when the child is paying attention.
  • Using the child’s name before the instruction may help to gain attention.
  • Use simple directions.
  • Use directions that take no more than one or two simple phrases or sentences.
  • Use clear and concise directions – they should direct, not distract.
  • When giving directions, use words the child can understand. Does the child know the meaning of the words you are using? Does she understand all the concepts?
  • Verbal instructions may be more effective when accompanied by a demonstration.

How is Modeling Most Effective?
Remember, modeling will only be beneficial if the child is able to imitate.

  • Model each step before you ask the child to do it.
  • Model bigger steps as the child gets better at imitating and remembering.
  • Modeling is most effective when it is done slowly and with careful exaggeration.

How Do I use a Physical Prompt?
Do the task with the child. After your verbal instruction, and maybe your model, take him through the motions of how it works by holding his hands, moving his legs, etc.

At the beginning of using a physical prompt, you are doing all the work. As the child improves, gradually reduce your physical assistance.

For example, you may start with holding his hand tightly, then moving to holding his hand less securely, then you can let go of his hand but keep yours close by in case it’s needed:

How Do I Decide which Prompt to Use?
Many children with ASD need a great deal of physical prompting, particularly when learning a brand new skill. However, you want to start with the least intrusive prompt and move towards more guidance as needed.

  • Verbal
  • Gesture
  • Model
  • Physical – Partial
  • Physical – Hand over Hand

Start with the least intrusive prompt if you are teaching a skill the child has had some experience with and you wish to foster more independence and spontaneity.

Use a physical prompt if this is a brand new skill your child is learning and move towards a physical prompt more quickly if she has had little practice with it.

Modeling and physical guidance are often the most effective prompts at the beginning, particularly for children with ASD who have difficulty with language.

Accompanying a verbal instruction with a demonstration or guidance can be a very powerful teaching tool.

Verbal Instruction + Demonstration or Guidance

How Long Do I Need to Use Prompts?
You want to be careful that the child does not become dependent upon the prompt. Remember that completing a task with a prompt is not as wonderful an experience for a child as completing the task without a prompt. You want to provide plenty of opportunities for independently demonstrating the skill.

If the child can perform a step correctly with only a verbal instruction, you are ready to move on. If not, you need to still use showing and guiding prompts.

What you want to aim for is to use prompts in the initial stages of learning and gradually eliminate or reduce them as progress occurs. This is called prompt fading.

Prompting during teaching is a skill that takes practice! It may feel awkward at first, but it does get easier the more you use it.

Prompts are most often associated with teaching in a one-to-one setting but they can easily be used with your child in a group setting. Some examples of prompting during a group setting are:

  • Encouraging a child to ask another child to play by telling them what to say “Say can I play”
  • Helping a child to participate in circle time by cueing them with a picture as to what is going to happen next.
Exercise 4.4: Listing Prompts

Take the breakdown of the skill you produced in the earlier exercise. Beside each step, indicate whether the child you know needs:

  • A lot of help
  • A little help
  • No help

This will give you an idea of how you will use prompting with this child.

Make a list of the kinds of prompts you think you might use for each step.

Click here to see a sample answer

6. Rewards!

We discussed previously (Module 3) how behaviours that are followed by pleasant/fun consequences are more likely to happen again.

In a teaching situation, we want to reward correct (or close to correct) responses in order to increase the likelihood that the child will respond in the same way again.

Used properly, rewards can be a very powerful tool for changing behaviour.

When Do You Want to Give a Reward?
When you ask a child to perform a task, there are 4 ways he can respond:

  • Do nothing
  • Do something other than the task you are working on
  • Make some attempt at the task – a good try
  • Perform the task successfully

Early in learning, you want to reward the last two points: a good try and performing the task successfully.

What Are Rewards?
Rewards communicate to the child that he has done something you like to see. It also acknowledges his hard work and efforts at trying new things!

We all like working for rewards: praise, a pay cheque, a hug, a night out at the movies. It is important to choose the right rewards that will be motivating for a particular child. One child might like stickers, while another might like time on the computer.

For rewards to work best with kids, they need to be immediate and concrete.

What Kinds of Rewards Are There?
Here are 4 kinds of rewards:

  • Time in
    Time in attention, touching, praise – this involves looking or smiling at the child, commenting on the activity she is doing (“you’re colouring”) or her behaviour (“you’re standing in line”).
  • Snack Rewards
    Snack rewards are very small portions of food or drink.
  • Activity Rewards
    Activities the child likes to do are rewarding. Remember Grandma’s Rule: “First _____ then _______”
  • Using Tokens
    Tokens offer a tangible reward (e.g., stickers, stamps) every time the desired behaviour occurs. These can be traded in later for a bigger reward (e.g., ice cream, a new book).

Key Points to Remember About Rewards:

  • Rewards work best when they are given immediately following the desired response.
  • What works one day might not be rewarding the next day! Interests change… you need to vary your rewards – make them exciting!
  • When you are working on a new skill, reward all the time. You can start fading rewards (as you fade prompts) as the child gets better at the task. Reward only successes, then every few successes, then less often, then rarely.
Exercise: Creating a Reinforcer Survey

Refer to the list of preferred things and activities that you made in Module 3 for a child with ASD in your child care centre. Revise this list, remembering the 4 types of reinforcers above. Your list is now a “reinforcer survey” for this child.

Think about one of the target skills you identified. How would you reward the child for success on the first steps of this task?

Click here to see a sample answer

7. Measuring Change and Keeping Records

Once you start teaching, or trying to introduce a replacement behaviour, you will want to know whether behaviour is improving, and what skills the child is learning. You will want to be able to measure the change that is happening, and keep a record of that improvement.

Describing actions with numbers (e.g., it takes Jacob 10 minutes to get in line and stand quietly) helps you to explain how much of a problem something is, or how much improvement has occurred (e.g., it now takes Jacob 4 minutes to get in line and stand quietly).

Remember that when trying to increase an appropriate behaviour (e.g., eye contact, interacting with other children), more time or more often is the goal. You want it to go UP. However, when trying to decrease an inappropriate behaviour (e.g., pinching or screaming), less time and less often is the goal. You want it to go DOWN.

As you recall, you need to decide whether you want to record how often a given behaviour occurs or for how long it occurs. You need to figure out which kind of measure (how often or how long) will help you to monitor changes, and will give you the best information.

If the behaviour occurs a few times a day, and each occurrence is short, you may want to keep track of them throughout the day.

However, if the behaviour happens very frequently, or takes place over long periods, you may want to choose some specific times during the day when the behaviour is typically observed, and only record during that time.

How Do I Keep Records of Behaviour Change (see Module 3)?
There are many ways to keep records of behaviour change. You can make a graph, keep a tally of counts, keep a general communication book where you write down your observations, or keep a chart with percentages and scores in it.

The important thing is that however you choose to keep track of change, you understand your system and so do others who work with your child and your child’s family. You also want to keep it in an accessible place for you to use easily throughout the day, and for others to read or look over.

The following are examples of recording sheets you might use.


Children with ASD usually have an uneven profile of strengths and weaknesses. As a teacher, you need to select what skills to focus on first. You will probably also need to adapt your teaching style somewhat to meet the needs of the child with ASD. Breaking skills into small steps allows the child to master skills while minimizing his frustration. Good instructions, combined with the careful use of prompts and rewards also help to ensure that step-by-step learning proceeds in a planned fashion. Observation and recording skills will enable you to document the effects of your teaching on the child’s learning.

Developing Communication Skills