INDIVIDUALIZING INSTRUCTIONAL STRATEGIES TO MEET THE DIVERSE NEEDS OF LEARNERS

10/21/2016
LEARNING DIFFERENCES
Helena Maguire, M.S., BCBA, Silva Orchanian, M. Ed., BCBA, and Mary Jane Weiss, Ph.D., BCBA-D

Meeting the needs of learners with special needs is a complex process.  The uniqueness of each individual’s strengths and challenges merits a fully individualized assessment.  Furthermore, designed interventions are as diverse as the individuals themselves.   When working with individuals on the autism spectrum, that diversity is even more pronounced, as the ways in which the individual is impacted by ASD vary widely. 

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To the extent that we can individualize how we assess and intervene with our learners, we can be more successful in achieving meaningful and lasting change. 

Our effectiveness is directly related to the extent to which our work is tailored to the needs, strengths, and preferences of the individual learners we serve. One way to prepare staff members for this individualized planning is to help them to view all interventions as being able to be implemented in a wide variety of ways.  There is not one way to teach matching skills. 

There are many ways to help individuals to learn to request a break.  Curricula can be modified, and instructional approaches can be altered, abandoned, or invented.  While there is a consistency in our instructional approach, goals can be accomplished in a wide variety of ways.  Being open to diverse implementation strategies increases the ultimate outcomes; learners make more gains when instruction is successful and effective.

How does an organization orient staff members toward this end?  One approach is to consider the ways in which learning styles and diverse needs can be included in assessment and treatment.  For example, how might this value be incorporated into assessment, into skill instruction, into communication modality choice, and into behavior management?  How might it apply to our partnerships with families?  In each of these areas, it is essential to understand and tailor interventions to achieve identified goals.   It is more important to consider what will work for THIS learner vs. what will work (for all learners).  In that context, educators can tailor interventions based on learner characteristics and then assess the impact of those interventions through data collection.  Decisions about the continuance of certain programs or instructional procedures can be then based on objective, data-based decision making.

How does this look in the context of assessment?  Most educational decisions can be made with an individualized assessment, and this improves the accuracy, effectiveness, and efficiency of our interventions. Whether discussing decisions about skill acquisition, behavior management, communication modality, or classroom supports, an individualized assessment enhances the degree to which our methods target the identified needs.

How are diverse learning styles accommodated when making recommendations about instructional methods?  Learners vary in the methods and materials that they find engaging, in the degree to which they generalize and maintain skills, and in the instructional formats that are effective for them.  When possible, we provide choices for learners about the tasks they are working on, the order of tasks they must complete, and the rewards they are offered for task completion.  At times, learners might also choose their instructors, their work location, and the materials they are using.  If an individual student has a strong preference for working while standing vs. sitting, and productivity and compliance are improved when permitted to stand, why not accommodate this preference?   If a particular learner elects to wash tables before sweeping the floor at their employment setting, and meets the criteria for task completion with this altered sequence, can we allow this change in the ordering of required tasks?  While these elements of the work tasks may seem trivial, such microscopic analysis of learner preference can make a large difference in both skill acquisition and behavior regulation. Choice about these elements of instruction can greatly increase engagement, productivity, and compliance.

One context in which individualization can be used in instructional methods is the use of group vs. individualized instruction.  Often, students are put into group learning environments based on arbitrary variables such as age, length of time at program, or classroom arrangements.  Group instruction has been shown to have some benefits for learners with ASD, but an individualized assessment of readiness and responsiveness is warranted. At Melmark, we have been working toward a model in which students are assessed for readiness for dyad and group instruction, rather than being placed automatically in group learning environments.  We empirically assess their ability to both demonstrate learned skills and to learn new material in individual and group instructional arrangements.  We also look at ancillary variables including time spent engaged in learning and levels of challenging behaviors.  Students are recommended for group instruction based on their demonstrated success on these parameters.  Teams can then make informed, data-based, objective recommendations about instructional arrangements and teacher-student ratios for individual learners.

How are individualized styles considered in the selection of a communication modality?  This is another crucially important team decision, with long-term implications for all learners.  These decisions are commonly made based on clinical impressions and the comfort level staff members have with different modalities/approaches.  This is another area in which it is imperative to examine the individual’s idiosyncratic responsiveness to the different options.  At Melmark, we examine the differential acquisition of communication responses across several communication modalities.  When effective methods are identified through this assessment, we then examine learner preference (among the effective modalities), to ensure that we are using a system that the learner would also select/choose to use. In this way, we use an objective assessment of the learner’s response to the modalities to determine which system should be made consistently available to the learner.

In the context of managing challenging behaviors, where are the opportunities for incorporating individualized needs?  In this context, the possibilities are limitless.  We consider individual needs and preferences in all elements of behavior intervention planning, including environmental arrangements, antecedent strategies, replacement skills, and consequences. All elements are planned in relation to the identified function(s) of the challenging behaviors, and are designed to teach alternative skills that meet those needs of the learner.

When working with families, how can we incorporate a more individualized approach? Families are just as diverse as individuals are, and it is important to meet families’ needs as completely as possible.  Some families may want to be fully trained in all instructional programs, and work on programs on a daily basis at home.  Other families may wish to be the generalization environment, or may want to work on the maintenance of skills.  Some families may wish to participate in support programs, to mentor other families, or to organize various events.  Other families may not wish to do any of these activities. 

When selecting goals to work on, families should voice their priorities, and should be asked about skills that would make an everyday difference in the life of the family.  When the family is motivated to work on a particular challenge, it is far more likely that the outcome will be successful.  In addition, the change will be self-perpetuating, as the natural consequences associated with the change will maintain the behavior change, both for the learner and for the family.

To the extent that we can individualize how we assess and intervene with our learners, we can be more successful in achieving meaningful and lasting change.  Assessment is a highly individualized lens, and is best accomplished with a thoroughly idiosyncratic approach that has been carefully tailored to the learner.  Skill acquisition programming decisions, behavior reduction plans, and decisions about ancillary supports and instructional methods can all be improved when we approach them in a highly individualized manner.  Exploring questions about approaches is best done in objective, data-based ways, so that ultimate decisions can be supported with data that support THIS approach with THIS learner.

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