Precision teaching is an evidence-based approach to behavior therapy that can be combined with applied behavior analysis (ABA).
The approach measures frequency and fluency of behaviors, skills, and tasks. Rather than reporting on the “success” through perfection in the first few attempts at skill acquisition, a precision teaching therapist will report on the number of times their client attempts the skill in a more free-ranging environment that allows the client to set the pace for learning. Imperfect attempts are recorded along with perfect attempts. These are reflected on and encouraged so the client hones their skills.
While precision teaching was developed for children with psychosis, using Standard Celeration Charts (SCC) to understand frequency and fluency of new skills is very useful for ABA therapists. They can then understand how well skills are retained and applied to other environments.
How Does Precision Teaching Work With ABA Therapy?
Currently, the best evidence-based approach to treating symptoms of autism is behavior therapy, especially applied behavior analysis (ABA). This approach to therapy uses proven theories on how people learn and change their behaviors to create long-term treatment plans supporting improvements in social, communicative, cognitive, and even motor function.
ABA works very well for people with autism, especially children with autism. When children diagnosed with autism undergo ABA therapy as they grow, the impact of this developmental disorder is often lessened.
There are many subtypes of ABA therapy and several other approaches to behavioral treatment that can integrate well with ABA therapy to support adaptive behaviors in people with autism.
Precision teaching is one approach to supporting a child with autism in a specific learning environment, encouraging positive changes in behavior. Most importantly, precision teaching can measure the rate of change, as the child learns new skills and frequently uses them in this environment.
History of Precision Teaching
Precision teaching is a form of free operant conditioning. This term covers approaches of behavioral therapy in which the student guides the learning process, setting their own pace with few or no limits placed on the environment or learning process by the therapist or teacher.
This form of behavioral therapy was developed in the 1950s by Ogden Lindsley and originally used to improve symptoms in children and adults with psychosis. In 1965, Lindsley switched his focus to special education, including behavioral changes in children with autism.
How Precision Teaching Works
The main focus of precision teaching is to translate the therapy program of learnable tasks into measurable behavioral change that is directly observable. Tasks should be observable movements, or at least framed that way in reporting.
For example, a child with autism who struggles with silent reading may need to take several observable actions toward a process that is inherently hard to observe. They may start by sitting still and reading out loud, but ultimately, the final outcome of reading silently is difficult to measure. However, there are ways to gauge the success of silent reading, such as giving the child a reading comprehension quiz when they have completed their reading assignment.
Precision teaching works to take labels from clients and turn them into measurable improvements. For example, a child struggles with motor skills so they are a messy eater. Rather than trying to measure their adjustments to messiness, the therapist or teacher can observe steps the child takes to improve their physical coordination and then report on that practice.
Frequency of behavioral change is paramount in precision teaching. This approach to therapy allows students to have more control over how they interact with their therapy sessions, but the therapist or teacher measures how often they practice specific skills. While the goal is fluency, when a behavior is both accurately performed and performed often, precision teaching measures the frequency of practicing new behaviors as being more important than perfection of the first few attempts.
For example, many children with autism have speech impediments, which is potentially associated with the developmental disorder causing struggles with motor coordination. A precision teaching session may guide the child toward correct pronunciation, but it will measure the frequency of each attempt at overcoming the speech impediment rather than the perfection of the attempts. Fluent behaviors are retained longer, which means the child needs to practice these behaviors often.
The Celeration Chart
This is the core component of precision teaching, giving it the name precision. The Celeration Chart shows either the acceleration or deceleration of behavioral change.
Teachers and therapists can use precision teaching to measure the improvements in a child’s behavior, along with the regressions. Using the Standard Celeration Chart (SCC), precision teaching can measure how well certain therapeutic approaches work to improve behaviors.
- Stability, or the ability of the child to continue the skill with distractions.
- Endurance, or the ability of the child to perform the skill or behavior for longer periods of time.
- Application, or the ability of the child to apply the skill to other scenarios, so it is more general.
- Retention, or the ability of the child to maintain the skill, typically through consistent use.
Using charting in this way helps therapists understand if the treatment plan works for the client. In precision teaching, the aphorism is that progression upward on the SCC shows that the plan works for the client. When there is a regression or a plateau, the program no longer works and must be changed. It is not a fault in the student but a fault in the approach, as shown in the data.
An Addition to ABA Therapy
For children with autism, fluency of practice has proven one of the most important measurements brought into ABA training through precision teaching.
Fluency is an outcome of frequency, and frequency of practice for any new skill is vital. People who learn to play musical instruments must practice often to become fluent in the skill. In the same way, children with autism must practice new behaviors, such as initiating social contact, using words to interact with others as much as they are able, or practicing fine motor skills like using a pen to write.
When precision teaching is used in ABA therapy for autistic children, the therapist will coach a child through the process so that performance is enhanced in a measurable way through repetition. For example, practice sessions in therapy may start with 10-second sprints. These may increase as the child becomes better at a specific skill or task.
Although ABA therapy is a powerful tool to help people with autism, the highly structured environment and focus on precision of newly acquired skills may be a detriment when that is the sole focus. Adding precision teaching, which creates an environment that allows the child to imperfectly practice new skills, is an important addition to the ABA therapist’s toolkit.
It is also important to provide specific skills training for children with autism, especially young children, and provide rewards for these adaptive behaviors, which is the focus of ABA therapy.
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Precision Teaching: A Brief History. Psychology Learning Resources, Athabasca University.
Precision Teaching: Concept Definition and Guiding Principles. Psychology Learning Resources, Athabasca University.
Comprehensive ABA Programs: Integrating and Evaluating the Implementation of Varied Instructional Approaches. (2005). American Psychology Association (APA).