Archive for January, 2012

An elementary school has come under fire in Connecticut for using “Scream Rooms” as a method of discipline. If you haven’t heard, you may learn more about it here, here, and here.

What is a Scream Room

According to reports, parents described the rooms as 6-by-4-foot spaces with concrete walls used to isolate students with special needs who are disruptive in the classroom. As best as we can tell, Scream Rooms is simply another name for a Time Out Room or more specifically, a Seclusionary Time Out Room.

So what is a time out room? Let us first define time out.

  • A time out is a period of time when opportunities to access reinforcement are prevented.
  • Most people think of a time out as sitting in a chair and not being able to play.
  • Time out may also be missing recess for 5 minutes.
  • Time out may also include losing TV time after dinner.

Time out may be administered within a classroom so that the student does not lose instructional time. For example, the child may be asked to sit at the back of the class where she can still hear instruction but where she may not interact with others. This type of time out is called inclusionary time out.

Seclusionary time out is when the student is removed from the instructional setting and placed in isolation so that minimal or no interaction with others is allowed.

Thus, a time out room or a seclusionary time out room is a room where someone might go so that no other forms of reinforcement may be accessed (e.g., no social interaction, no music, no toys).

What is the Purpose of a Scream Room or Time Out Room?

Historically, time out has been used as a consequence to challenging or disruptive behavior as a type of punishment. The underlying philosophy is that if the child is engaging in behavior to gain attention, placing the child in isolation for brief periods of time immediately after the challenging or disruptive behavior will teach the child that acting out will not result in attention.

While this method has been supported with substantial research, the technique is often used incorrectly. Before a time out may be planned as part of an intervention for a student, a behavior analyst must first assess the behavior and determine why the child is mis-behaving. This is called a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) and we have talked about it here, here, and here.

Once the assessment is completed, an intervention is developed based on the assessment results. If the child engaged in challenging behavior to gain attention, a time out from attention following challenging behavior may be part of the behavior plan. If the child engaged in the challenging behavior to gain access to preferred items such as computer time or television time, then a time out from computers or television following challenging behavior may be part of the plan. If a child is engaging in challenging behavior as a way to get out of non-preferred activities such as school work or home work, time out from school work would be inappropriate and ineffective.

When time out is used as part of a treatment plan, its use must be carefully monitored with data collection and ongoing analysis to verify if the intervention is working as planned. All staff who use time out as part of a treatment plan must be trained to use the procedure. Additionally, the time out procedure must be supervised to ensure that staff are implementing it correctly.

Sadly, it does not appear that time out is being used in this way in this particular school. Based on the reports we have read, it seems as if staff sent children to these rooms to “calm down”. Based on the reports we have read, staff were not following carefully developed behavior plans. Instead, teachers appeared to be sending children to these rooms when teachers became frustrated with student behavior.

Rules for Restraint and Time Out

Currently, no federal legislation exists preventing schools from using seclusionary time out or time out rooms. However, federal legislation has been proposed. We used Wright’s Law(a helpful website for parents and teachers alike) to find additional information about seclusionary time out rules in each state. Many states have specific rules so parents, teachers, and behavior analysts should become familiar with the rules in their states. These states include: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington.

Connecticut has specific rules regarding the use of seclusionary time out. You may read the rules here.

The rule states that “no provider shall involuntarily place a person at risk in seclusion (there are two exceptions). This means that a child may not be placed there against his/her will (with those exceptions).

The state went on to define seclusion as the confinement of a person in a room, whether alone or with staff supervision, in a manner that prevents the person from leaving.

Seclusion may be used in an emergency. But remember, an emergency does not happen daily as described in these news reports. The rules also state that if seclusion is used, “it must be part of the IEP of that person AND that other less restrictive, positive behavior interventions appropriate to the behavior exhibited by the person at risk have been implemented but were ineffective.”

The rules also state that if seclusion as a behavior intervention is repeated more than two times in any school quarter, the IEP team must meet to review the use of seclusion, consider additional evaluations or assessments, and may even revise the child’s IEP.

Most importantly, when a student is placed in seclusion, school staff must attempt to notify the parents on the same day or within 24 hours. They may use phone, email, or a note home. Parents must receive a copy of the incident report within 2 days. The state even provides a sample of the incident report form that could be used.

And finally, the rule states that any staff who uses seclusion must be trained in that technique.

Please note that this rule applies only to students who have an IEP. Students who do not have identified disabilities do not have the same rights.

What Should Parents Do to Prevent the Use of Scream Rooms/Time Out Rooms?

If your child does not have a disability, then you should meet with your principal to discuss the use of such procedures. Again, your child does not have the same rights as children with IEPs.

If your child has an IEP, then you should:

  1. Learn your state’s rules about seclusionary time out
  2. Review your child’s IEP to be certain that it does not include seclusionary time out
  3. If you have concerns about your child’s behavior, you should request the IEP team to complete a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA)

We hope that none of your children have experienced these rooms. We also hope that we have helped you prevent the use of these rooms on your child.

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Hi and welcome to “What Works Wednesdays” where we share a success story from one of our clinical cases. All names have been changed to preserve the privacy of the child and family. Our intent is to show readers how successful ABA can be.

Today’s success story is about Grace and Sophia, two school-aged girls (7 years an 10 years) who were giving their parents and after-school tutor headaches. The girls engaged in a screaming, tantrums, fighting, back-talk, and non-compliance. Their behaviors were so bad that the tutor had threatened to quit if something didn’t change fast.

A quick observation of the scene on two or three different days allowed us to see some antecedents and consequences that may have been contributing to the homework headaches. First, the girls came off the bus without any plan. Sometimes they played outside, sometimes they watched television, sometimes they had snack, and other times they started homework right away. Second, when the girls misbehaved, each of them received a great deal of attention from the tutor as she lectured them about how and why they needed to behave. When he behaviors escalated to a high enough point, one or both parents swept in to save the poor tutor. The parents intervened by threatening loss of consequences, yelling about how badly the children behaved, or simply instructing the children to “cut it out and get to work”.

Once we assessed the situation, we developed a plan. All good behavior plans consist of antecedent modifications (antecedents are the events that happen before the behavior), the identification of target or replacement behaviors, and modifications of consequences (the events that happen after the behavior).

Antecedent Modifications

Right away, we asked the parents to develop a consistent homework routine. Because of their ages and different needs, one child ate her snack first and then played for 30 minutes before starting homework. The older child ate her snack while organizing her homework. Both girls had the responsibility of putting backpacks, shoes, and lunch boxes away prior to commencing any other activity.

We asked the parents, if they were home and not on a conference call, to come in immediately after the bus and give lots of positive attention. We instructed the parents to remain out of the room during all outbursts, tantrums, an inappropriate behavior. We also asked the parents to come in and give the children praise for any good behavior they observed (sitting, working, staying on task, etc).

Target and Replacement Behaviors

Instead of focusing on how rotten or awful the children were, we asked the tutor to focus on how wonderful the girls were. We identified several behaviors that she wanted to see more of:

  • sitting during homework
  • attending during instruction
  • working when asked
  • working without yelling
  • asking for assistance without crying or yelling
  • putting personal items away without being asked

Changes to Consequences

We implemented a token system for the girls. Each girl had a sticker chart. When the sticker chart was full, the girls could trade it in for $.50 they could deposit in to their bank account. Stickers could be given out freely by either parent or the tutor. We asked that whoever awarded the sticker to take extra care and identify exactly which target behavior resulted in the sticker award.

  • “excellent Sophia. You started work without yelling.”
  • “wonderful Grace, you put your lunch box away.”

We implemented a brief time-out procedure for Grace, who loved television. We made 10-minute TV Time coupons. Each day at the beginning of homework, the parents identified how many minutes of TV time were available (30 minutes or 60 minutes). Each time that Grace involved in yelling, screaming, tantrumming, back-talking, or non-compliance, the tutor removed one of the coupons.

Within 2 days, the frequency of inappropriate behaviors decreased to zero! The behaviors have maintained for 6 weeks with no signs of reversing. Congratulations to Grace and Sophia for your homework progress. Congratulations to your parents and tutor for helping you do it.

Readers, please share. What strategies do you use during homework sessions? What works for your children? Behavior analysts, what strategies have you used? How well did they work?


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I have to start this post with a confession: today’s post has nothing to do with Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

Today’s post is a rambling of my (Missy) own issues with being a parent (or bonus-parent if you want to be more precise). Last night, our youngest (also known as Baby Cakes) wrote a letter to the tooth fairy. Here it is:

And now I feel like a big fat liar.

How sweet is that letter? Baby Cakes is an angel and she is ridiculously sweet. It kills me that we have led her to believe that this person/thing exists. When she finds out there is no tooth fairy (or Santa, or Easter Bunny) she will never believe anything we tell her.

Have any of you had this same dilemma? How did you handle it (besides drinking loads of wine)? Please share because my heart is breaking.

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Hi and welcome to Ask Missy Mondays where I respond to email questions from readers who have questions about behavior. Today’s question comes from Suzanne, who asks:

“Hi, Missy. I feel so embarrassed to ask this question because, as a parent, I feel that I should know how to get my children to do homework. However, in our house, we struggle with homework every day. Please help us!

One of our kids has a meltdown every time he sees how many pages of work he has to do. Our other child actually starts his homework right away but he cannot stay focused. He is up and down constantly. No wonder it takes hours for him to finish! Last but not least, our youngest doesn’t have homework yet because she is still in kindergarten. She runs around the house making so much noise that the other two have a hard time focusing. Clearly, I am not up for Mother of the Year Award. Any help you can provide will be appreciated.”

First, Suzanne, you have to stop beating yourself up over this. Please understand that what you have described is identical to scenes from many other houses. Parents just do not want to share the horror stories for fear of being judged a bad parent. I am certain that those parents are thanking you for asking about this on their behalf.

I have a few tips to help get you started. Please let me know how it goes and I can make adjustments to the plan as they progress.


One of the most important things you can do to help your children is to establish a homework routine. Depending on after school activities (e.g., sports, music, play dates), the routine may change from day-to-day. None the less, the routine should be the same once it starts.

  • In our house, we like to get a healthy snack in before the work starts. This gives children the energy to stay focused and it prevents them from getting too hungry before dinner.
  • Next, we organize the homework so we know exactly what needs to be done.
  • We use a “to do” list or an agenda to identify each of the activities that should be completed. Our children take great pride in crossing items off that list.
  • I allow the children to choose which items they work on from the list. This allows them to have some control over the situation.


What advice could possibly come from a behavior analyst that doesn’t include the use of reinforcement? Of course you must spend a great deal of time reinforcing the behaviors that you want to see more. Depending on the age of your children, they may be able to practice some self-management strategies so that they reinforce themselves rather than you having to do all the work.

The reinforcers that you use during this time need to be individualized to your children. One child may be ready for a token system, while another child may need verbal praise. Ask your children to help identify reinforcers that they are willing to work for. Keep in mind that outrageous reinforcers such as cars, iPads, or computers should not be used. However, working for access to such items is completely appropriate (e.g., earn access to the car on the weekend, earn access to TV time).

  • Consider using stickers on a sticker chart. At the end of the week, cash the completed sticker chart in for a bigger reward (e.g., pizza night, movie)
  • Consider using coins and a bank as reinforcers. This helps the child learn about money and it also teaches the child to save. At the end of the week, your child can cash in his savings
  • Give your children attention and praise for engaging in the correct behaviors (e.g., “I love the way you are getting so much done!”)
  • Have a reinforcer available at the end of each homework session. This could be TV time, electronics time, or Wii Time. Make it brief (30 minutes or less) but it should be available immediately after each homework session.

Work Breaks

The behavior analysts who read this blog will immediately recognize that this, too, is another form of reinforcement. In behavior analysis we call work breaks “negative reinforcement”. There is not enough space in this blog post to explain the difference between positive and negative reinforcement. I promise to distinguish between the two at another time. But for now, please know that work breaks are important for children to remain focused during homework time.

  • Set a timer so your child knows when the break is coming
  • Work breaks are brief. 5-10 minutes–tops
  • Work breaks are free choice activities as long as no other house rules are broken (e.g., climbing on furniture or running in the house)
  • All children are on a work break together so they do not disrupt each other on break

Educational Support

I believe that all homework should be supplemented with manipulatives and other types of support.

  • Our children use the iPad to look up words in the dictionary. They use the iPad to practice their sight words. They use the iPad to practice their math facts.
  • When our oldest was learning to add fractions, we made it real by finding recipes and doubling the batch. We brought out the measuring cups and spoons and it made the math more real for her.
  • There is no better way to learn about geography, weather, or science than by scouring the internet for videos, photos, and other multi-media.

Planned Activity

Last but not least, I have to address the needs of your child who does not yet have homework. Homework time is an excellent time to start teaching the homework routine to her. I feel strongly that all children should read every day. Thus, she needs to spend part of homework time reading. If she cannot read yet, then you should read to her. You could also rent or download books on tape so that she can listen to a book. Additionally, there are many interactive books available for the iPad. If you don’t have one in your house, I recommend saving up for one as there are so many educational applications available to help each of your children with their homework.

After your daughter does her “homework” then find an activity for her to keep her engaged.

  • This can be special time with you or it can be an activity that she needs to do independently.
  • We love using the Wii for exercise and engagement. She could entertain herself for hours on a number of games.
  • You could also give her house chores so that she feels important. She can help unload the dishwasher, she can help with the laundry, or she can dust furniture

Suzanne, thanks for writing. I hope these tips help. Please let me know how it goes!

Readers, do you have anything to add?

If you have a behavior question or problem, email Missy at askmissy at appliedbehavioralstrategies dot com.

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In the course of our clinical work, we experience of number of odd rituals or strange feeding behaviors in our clients. One of the behaviors we address through the course of intervention is tantrumming, crying, or refusing to eat food after it has touched another food.

Remember, we serve children with and without disabilities so today’s post is not just about autism. To prove it, we have two cartoons. You see, cartoons demonstrate that these types of behaviors are common place–or how else would the theme end up in a cartoon?

Please share? Is this your child? Do you have plates with compartments to prevent meal time tantrums? Do you cook extra food in the event that you have to replace “dirty” or “contaminated” food?

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We recently received a request to discuss how to teach academic skills. Thanks Ann! It was a great idea! Yesterday, we described one child’s progress toward academic goals. So today, we thought we would review a peer-reviewed research study on teaching academics.

Kristen Mayfield and Timothy Vollmer authored the article titled, “Teaching Math Skills to At-Risk Students Using Home-Based Peer Tutoring”. The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis published the study and you may find a copy of the article here. The Journal published several studies on academics in that same issue so if you like this article, you may also enjoy the others.

The authors stated two purposes for their study. The first purpose was “to evaluate whether academic gains could result from a peer-tutoring intervention that did not include many of the common structured components of effective classroom-based peer tutoring.” The second purpose was to “implement peer tutoring with previously maltreated children.”

Four children participated in the study. Two of the children lived with relatives while two other children lived in group homes for children placed out of home. The children ranged in age from 9 years to 16 years. The children were enrolled in general education, special education, and special/alternative schools. An interesting twist in this study is that the children served as tutors to each other.

Throughout the study, the children received a penny for each correct answer on a worksheet. Towards the end of the study, one of the children needed more reinforcement and she received $1.00 per worksheet with 100% correct responding. The children used their money to buy preferred items from the experimenter.

In baseline, the experimenter asked the children to complete worksheets. The children received no formal instruction but they did receive pennies for correct responding. During intervention, called tutoring by the authors, the experimenter tutored a child on a skill using prompting and reinforcement. When the tutoring session ended, the child completed the worksheet. When the child completed the worksheet with 100% accuracy, the child then became a peer tutor and taught another child in the same way.

The authors used an experimental design called multiple baseline. This design proves that the child responds to the intervention but it also proves that no other intervention is responsible for the change.

All 4 children showed an increase in skills as a result of intervention. Additionally, the children maintained their math skills even after intervention stopped.

Techniques in Applied Behavior Analysis are effective for teaching a variety of skills and they are effective with everyone, regardless of age or ability.

Please share, do any of your children receive tutoring using ABA techniques? Are any of your children working on academic skills as part of their ABA program?

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Hi and welcome to “What Works Wednesdays” where we share a success story from one of our clinical cases. All names have been changed to preserve the privacy of the child and family. Our intent is to show readers how successful ABA can be.

Today’s success story is about Nathan. We have already written about Nathan’s success with feeding intervention. But today, we will focus on Nathan’s success with academic intervention. We cannot take full credit for Nathan’s growth as he attends The Speech Academy during the day. We know he is working on reading and math there.

None the less, we teach specific academic skills in the afternoons and evenings and we use ABA to do it. In the area of math, his parents want him to learn basic addition. An observational assessment revealed that Nathan was not able to count out a specific number of items. Nathan, can however, count items and correctly identify orally how many items exist. So, we set out to teach Nathan to count items. We started with “make 1”. We place a 1 at the top of the instructional area and we give Nathan stimuli with an instruction to “make 1”. When Nathan places one item under the 1, we ask him to count. He counts the 1 item and we reinforce. When Nathan was able to do this 90% of opportunities with no prompts, we moved on to “make 2”. When Nathan was able to do make 2 correctly with no prompts, we began presenting “make 1” and “make 2” in random rotation.

For reading, we started Nathan on Dolce grade 1 sight words. We started with receptive identification. We took the words and placed them in a field of 2. We asked Nathan to point to ____. When he was able to successfully identify words in a field of 2, we moved the word to a field of 3. Nathan has learned to identify almost all the words on the list. Our next step is to have him read the words he knows receptively. We taught this using most to least prompting to ensure success. We systematically faded prompts until he could identify the word independently. We also used reinforcement when he correctly responded. We faded reinforcement so that Nathan received a token for correct responding. When he earned 5 tokens, he could take a brief break.

In addition to sight words, we are teaching Nathan phonics. We have started with the “at” family. We first taught him to read the word “at”. Then we started teaching him how to make different words by adding a letter. We gave Nathan a field of 3 letters (including the letter b) and asked him to make “bat”. Initially, we prompted to ensure 100% correct responding and then we faded prompts until he could do the skill independently. We used reinforcement as we described with sight words.

Nathan has made such great progress since we started ABA with him in July. He is speaking loudly and in longer sentences. He is counting and correctly identifying numbers 1-15. He is learning to read. He is completely toilet trained with almost no accidents. He is learning to dress himself.

We know this is all hard work for Nathan, his parents, and his therapy team. They all deserve a loud cheer for their hard work. Keep up the great work everyone!

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People without formal training in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) may have misconceptions about what it is and how it may be used. Thus, today we will list some of those misconceptions and explain why they are inaccurate. We must first, however, credit Mary McEvoy (Missy’s doctoral advisor) for first discussing these misconceptions.

The Goal of ABA is to remove problem behavior.

Sadly, many people often think that the goal of ABA is to simply remove problem behavior. Certainly, one goal of ABA is to address challenging behavior but there are other goals. Specifically, behavior analysts strive to increase desirable behaviors. These behaviors may include language skills, social skills, and academic skills.

Behavior analysts also strive to maintain behaviors. Our goal after teaching a new skill is to get that skill to maintain over time without reliance on teachers or other adults.

Finally, behavior analysts are also interested in getting behaviors to occur in new settings, with new people, and with different materials. We call this generalization. New skills are not helpful if the new skills are not used in all possible settings and contexts.

In summary, behavior analysts have goals of increasing new appropriate behaviors, decreasing challenging behaviors, maintaining appropriate behaviors, and generalizing behaviors.

In ABA, we have to give children things they like.

Some people believe that behavior analysts only give children things they like. This is partially true. When we first begin teaching a new skill or behavior, we often use reinforcers (things children like). Early in an ABA program, we may rely more heavily on frequent reinforcement (e.g., after every teaching episode). However, a good ABA program will work to fade out reinforcement so that reinforcers are not used all the time. For example, a child may be given a token for work and after 10 tokens are earned, the child may have a short break to play or relax. Eventually, the child will learn to work without any tokens and this is commonly seen in school when a child completes a worksheet before taking a break to play on a computer.

Behavior analysts also remove things that children do not like. If a child is offered a cookie and the child says, “no thank you”, the cookie would be removed. Many children do not enjoy work. Thus, work is often removed for a brief period following appropriate behavior.

We would be remiss if we did not mention that behavior analysts also give children things they do not like and we remove things they like. Both of these strategies are often used to address challenging behavior.

In summary, behavior analysts are givers and takers. We give children things they like, we take away things they do not like, we give children things they do not like, and we remove or take away things they like.

ABA is really just bribery.

First, we would like to define bribery for our readers. Bribery is the offering, giving, receiving, or soliciting of something of value for the purpose of influencing the action of an official in the discharge of his or her public or legal duties (the free dictionary dot com).

Clearly, we are not bribing children. We would also like to point out that each and every one of you who holds a job receives payment for your work. You are not bribed to do your job, you are paid. As much as you may enjoy your job, you would not show up to work day after day if you did not receive a paycheck. Behavior analysts call that reinforcement. Your work is reinforced by the money you receive in return for it.

We use the same principles for children. We teach them to work for a specific consequence. Ultimately, we want them to do their school work because they enjoy receiving good grades but even a grading system is contrived.

ABA is only used for people with disabilities.

Applied behavior analysis is a technology that has been used successfully on children with and without disabilities. The technology has also been applied to adults with and without disabilities. Good behavior analysts use techniques on their own children, spouses, and family members. ABA providers should also use ABA techniques with their employees and clients.

Most people think of ABA as an intervention for autism. However,  ABA has been used in a variety of areas. For example, an entire group of behavior analysts exist who use ABA techniques in the work force. You may read more about Organizational Behavior Management here or here.

ABA and “The Lovaas Method” are the same.

Many people wrongly assume that when a person uses ABA they are essentially doing the Lovaas Method. We want to clarify that ABA is a technology that incorporates a variety of strategies including prompting, shaping, chaining, reinforcement, data collection, and data analysis. Typically, when people refer to the Lovaas Method, they are referring to the use of Discrete Trial Training in an intensive manner (e.g., 40 hours per week). We do not want to imply that the Lovass Method does not use other principles of ABA. Any good ABA program will utilize all technologies available.

ABA can be learned simply by reading about it.

Finally, some people believe that they can learn about ABA by reading a good book on it. While reading about ABA will certainly help you understand it better, you will most likely not be proficient in its use. We recommend a complete training program (e.g., such as one listed on the BACB website or a formally accredited program) combined with extensive practice in the implementation of ABA procedures. The experiential program must be supervised by a behavior analyst with training and experience in the same area of practice as well as with training and experience supervising new behavior analysts.

We hope this helps dispel some of the myths about ABA. Are there others? Please share them with us!

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