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Autism Spectrum Disorder: Supporting Children and Youth – Module 4

Setting Goals and Teaching New Skills


Children with a diagnosis of ASD have a profile of strengths and challenges. An understanding of the child’s current skills and the setting of educational goals are necessary first steps to be taken prior to addressing the building of new skills. The plan will include the prioritized skills selected for focus on and the adaptations necessary to meet the needs of the child. Breaking the learning of skills into smaller steps allows the child to achieve success while minimizing frustration. Clear and meaningful instructions will support the child’s development and ability to establish the skill.

Setting Goals

Setting Initial Priorities

When developing the educational plan, the first step is to determine the priority goals for the child. The team should be comprised of parents and educators. Avoid developing goal plans with unrealistic goals so that you and the child can see progress and experience success.

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

  • What skills has the child achieved in each area of development? The next natural step is to build upon the existing skills in a developmentally appropriate pathway. For example, a child can sit on a trike and push him/herself forward using his/her feet on the ground. The next step would be for the educator to place the child’s feet on the pedals. The adult can support the turning motion of the child’s feet.)
  • What skills would the family like the child to learn? It is very important to consider the family’s goals so that they can be incorporated into the learning environment. Working as a team will provide consistent strategies which will benefit the child. Generalization will more easily occur between settings when there is a shared approach by all team members.
  • What are some everyday tasks and routines that require support?
  • What skills would you like the child to learn? What do you feel is important? Is there a particular behaviour that you would like to change? For example, sitting for circle time.
  • Some children have particular interests that may provide an opportunity to expand skills. Keep in mind that if the interest is restrictive and/or repetitive, you will want to expand the child’s skills to include other aspects. For example, if a child chooses to play with trains only, you may want to add people to the trains, or trains to the sensory table, or another creative activity.
  • What skills can be taught at the program? Some skills may take longer to establish while others will be easily acquired.

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

When working toward specific goals, an educator should keep in mind the following points:

  • What time of day is best for teaching a particular skill?
  • What location is best for teaching?
  • What modifications may be needed?
  • What materials will you need for teaching (including reinforcements)?
  • What kinds of group activities can be adapted 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 support 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 in order to be consistent.
  • With whom will you be consulting regarding the child’s learning and programming (**including outside resources, see Module 8).

Task Analysis

What is the best way to teach these new skills? While all children are unique, we know that many children need support in the following areas when learning a new skill:

  • Organizing the steps
  • Sequencing the steps
  • Mastering the steps
  • Gaining motivation to master the steps
  • Generalizing the new skill to new people, places, and conditions

Organization and Sequencing through Task Analysis

It is sometimes necessary to break down a complex skill into smaller steps or actions in order to meet the learning needs of the child. The number of steps involved in a task analysis and the instructions used will depend on a child’s ability. Skills that have already been mastered do not need to be included as part of the task analysis. Provide the child with adequate time to master each step in the sequence.

For example, a task analysis for a spoon-feeding chain could be:

  • pick up the spoon
  • put spoon into the food in the bowl
  • scoop food onto the spoon
  • lift spoonful of food from the bowl
  • put the food into the mouth

While the above may work for one child, another child might need much more detailed steps. For example:

  • reach for the spoon
  • grasp the spoon
  • pick up the spoon, etc.

Once you have a task breakdown that is workable and yet flexible enough to change as you get a better sense of the child’s learning style you are almost ready to get started. First you will want to learn more about the proven teaching technique known as Chaining.


Teaching a skill using chaining is commonly recommended if the child can only perform some of the steps, consistently skips steps, or is completing steps out of order. Backward chaining refers to teaching a skill beginning with the last step and then teaching the immediately preceding steps one at a time until the entire skill has been mastered. For example, when teaching a child a new 4-piece puzzle, leave 3 pieces intact in the puzzle and have the child place the last one. Once the child successfully places the last piece, present the puzzle with 2 pieces missing for the child to complete. Finally, provide the child with the puzzle with 3 pieces missing. Forward chaining involves teaching a skill beginning with the first step, and then teaching each successive step one at a time until the entire skill has been learned. For example, have a child place the first piece into a puzzle (with the other spaces blocked off). Once this is established, provide the puzzle with two pieces to be placed and so on.

Giving Effective Instructions

Tell me and I forget.
Show me and I remember.
Involve me and I understand.
Chinese Proverb

As educators, adults spend a great deal of time telling children what is expected of them in one-to-one teaching situations or in groups.

Giving effective instructions is an important skill to develop. It sets the stage for the child to be able to respond appropriately. Younger children with ASD, or those with limited language, often have difficulty understanding instructions which can make it harder for him/her to respond or act as expected.

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

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

The following are some suggestions for providing effective instructions:

  • establish that the child is paying attention
  • be in close proximity to the child
  • give short, simple directions (e.g., “walking feet”)
  • give one direction at a time
  • state the direction in a positive manner
  • give extra assistance if necessary and allow the child time to process the instruction
  • tell, do not ask (e.g., “Time for bus” rather than “Want to get on the bus?”)
  • repeat, practise and praise – make this approach a habit or routine as it will assist the child in acquiring the skill


“Prompts” are hints or clues that can be used to help a child respond appropriately. When a child feels able to successfully complete tasks it will be more fun to practise and learn new skills.

When to Use a Prompt

Prompts can be used when the child is not able to successfully complete a task or activity independently. 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.

Types of Prompts

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. Remember to use statements rather than questions.
    “Puzzle or shape sorter” (Verbal instruction)
    “Want puzzle” (Models the correct response)
  • Modeling – demonstrate the correct response to the child
    Show how to comb your hair
  • Physical prompts – physically guide the child through all or part of the desired response (hand over hand)
    Hold the child’s hand on the comb and help to comb his/her hair
  • Gestural prompts – actions such as pointing to, looking at, moving, or touching an item to indicate the correct response
    Point to the circle in a group of shapes while saying “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”

Giving Verbal Prompts

  • State the child’s name before giving the instruction.
  • Give directions only when the child is paying attention. Get down to his/her level.
  • Give directions slowly.
  • Use directions that take no more than one or two words or simple phrases.
  • Use clear and concise directions as they should direct, not distract.
  • When giving directions, use words that the child understands.
  • Verbal instructions may be more effective when accompanied by a gesture.

Using Modeling Effectively

Modeling will only be beneficial if the child is able to imitate.

  • Model each step before asking 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.

Using a Physical Prompt

At the beginning of using a physical prompt, the educator is doing all the work. As the child improves, gradually reduce the physical assistance.

For example, gain eye contact with the child, let them know that you are about to hold their hand and supportively move them through the motions you are teaching. As time progresses and the child begins to understand the requirements of the task, you can move to holding the child’s hand less securely and less often. Continue to gauge the amount of support that the child requires. You may then only need to touch the child’s wrist, or forearm until the skill is established.

Determining Which Prompt to Use

Many children with ASD need a great deal of physical prompting, particularly when learning a completely new skill. 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 previously experienced and you wish to foster more independence and spontaneity.

Use a physical prompt if this is a new skill for the child, or move towards a physical prompt more quickly if s/he 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.

How Long to Use Prompts

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

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

  • Encouraging a child to ask another child to play by modeling “Can I play?’”
  • Helping a child to participate in circle time by giving them a gentle touch on their arm accompanied by saying “Your turn.”

It is important to ensure that the child does not become dependent upon a prompt. The ultimate goal is for the child to complete this task independently without the dependency of needing a prompt. Once a child is able to complete a task independently, it will build their self-esteem and confidence to try other tasks.


In a teaching situation, we want to reinforce appropriate responses in order to increase the likelihood that the child will respond again in the same way.

Used properly, reinforcers can be very powerful tools for changing behaviour.

When to Give Reinforcement

When asked to perform a task, there are four ways a child can respond:

  • Attempt to escape the demand
  • Avoid the demand
  • Make some attempt at the task, require more support
  • Obtain positive feedback for performing the task

If you reinforce the child’s attempts when introducing new skills, the attempts are associated with positive feedback which continues to motivate the child.


Types of Reinforcers

  • Social Reinforcers
    Attention, touching, praise – this involves looking or smiling at the child, commenting on the activity the child is doing (“You’re colouring”) or (“You’re standing in line”) and give a “high five”.
  • Edible Reinforcers
    Very small portions of food or drink. Many programs do not allow this type of reinforcer. It is typically used when a child has no known activity preferences.
  • Activity Reinforcers
    Activities that the child likes to do are reinforcing. A successful teaching strategy is to employ the use of: “First, less preferred activity, then preferred activity.” For example, “First shoes on, then bicycle.”
  • Using Tokens
    Tokens offer a tangible reward (e.g., stickers, stamps) every time the desired behaviour occurs. These can be exchanged later for a bigger reward (e.g., ice cream, a new book).

Key Points to Remember About Reinforcement:

  • Reinforcers need to be meaningful for the child in order for them to modify behaviour. For example, if you give a child a “high five” for cleaning up but “high fives” are not that exciting to the child, this will not be motivation to maintain that cleaning up behaviour you want to see again.
  • Reinforcers are most effective when they are given immediately following the desired response.
  • What works one day might not be reinforcing the next day. Interests change and you need to vary your reinforcers and make them exciting.
  • When you are working on a new skill, reinforce it all the time. You can start fading reinforcers (as you fade prompts) as the child gets better at the task. Reinforce only successes, then every few successes, then less often, then rarely.

Measuring Change and Keeping Records

Once you start teaching, or trying to introduce a replacement behaviour, you will want to know whether the behaviour is improving and what skills the child is learning. You will want to be able to measure the change that is happening and to 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 challenge 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, interaction with other children), more time or more often is the goal. When trying to decrease an inappropriate behaviour (e.g., pinching or screaming), less time and less often is the goal.

Decide whether you want to record how often a given behaviour occurs or for how long it occurs. If the behaviour occurs a few times a day, and each occurrence is short, you may want to keep track throughout the day.

If the behaviour happens very frequently, however, 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.

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 the records percentages and scores.

The important thing is that however you choose to keep track of change, you understand your system and that those who work with the child and the child’s family understand it as well. You also want to keep it in an accessible place for easy use throughout the day.

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