ABA Training Technique – Learning Through Observation

In a recent series of videos, we discussed three main reasons why children are not able to follow teacher’s instructions at school . Those reasons include:
  1. Children are not aware of the instructions delivered
  2. Children do not have the language ability to understand the instructions
  3. Children lack learning motivation
Learning through observation is a very important replacement skill. It is quite common to see children with ASD get distracted in class, engage in self-stimulatory behaviors and do not understand instructions and teaching content. Therefore, observational learning is a crucial replacement skill to teach. When children have such skills, even when they are a bit distracted or do not understand some of the teaching content, they are still able to follow other students and copy what they are doing.
This way, they are less likely to just give up and engage in merely self-stimulatory behaviors in class.

For your reference, below are some guidelines to teach children such skills :


1.Learning language through observation
  • Phase 1: Immediate (student answers teacher’s question immediately after getting the answer through observation)
  • Phase 2: Delayed (after getting the answer through observation, there is a time delay of listening to other information or doing other tasks, prior to using that answer)
2.Learning targeted behaviors through observation
  • Phase 1: Immediate
  • Phase 2: Delayed

  1. Provide informative feedback. E.g., when the child encounters unknown words or instructions and independently observes others, praise him/her “Good job. You did the same!” .
  2. If needed, a token system can be used during training phase, to motivate children by letting them know when will the practice finish.
  3. At the beginning of the training, find an adult for the child to observe. Given adults can slow down/exaggerate their actions, as well as their articulations are clearer, it would facilitate children’s acquisition of skills. Then, in the next phase, systematically move on by finding a peer for the child to observe, because observing and imitating another child is really want your child will need to do in the school setting.
  4. Increase children’s motivation to observe by issuing general instructions or asking them something that they do not know. For example, “Come get the coloured paper” while the paper is placed at somewhere that is not easily noticed or the children do not know where they can find the paper.
  5. When children have shown to use their observational skills consistently, gradually move on to the classroom . You may need help from school teachers or shadow teacher to provide reinforcement. Also, given there are many students in a classroom and they can be doing many different things at any given time, children may get confused as to who they should observe and imitate. Therefore, setting a specific target for your child to observe is crucial. We usually find a peer that is sitting right next to your child so he or she can easily see or hear from.

Information provided by:

Christy Lai, MSc, BCBA, Behavioral Consultant
Ms. Christy Lai is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst with a Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis from St. Cloud State University and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Ms. Lai joined Autism Partnership (AP) in 2011 and she has extensive experience in working with children with ASD. Ms. Christy Lai currently take lead of the case supervision in the new established AP Beijing center. At the same time, she oversees the Little Learners program in Hong Kong and Shanghai and consults families in Asia. She directs overseas training to staff in the Train the Trainer program and provides parent education to families with children with ASD. She also conducts Jumpstart and PIIP programs locally and internationally. In additions, she is keen to take part in overseas ASD conferences and take lead of the design and production of AP teaching materials. Moreover, she helps with producing ABA training videos and articles in the APSPARKS website for public education.

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