RBT Exam Study Guide Unit C: Skill Acquisition

This page of our free RBT Exam Study Guide covers skill acquisition. This is based on Section C of the RBT Task List, which includes the following tasks related to the acquisition of skills:

  • Identify the essential components of a written skill acquisition plan
  • Prepare for the session as required by the skill acquisition plan
  • Use contingencies of reinforcement (e.g., conditioned/unconditioned reinforcement, continuous/intermittent schedules)
  • Implement discrete-trial teaching procedures
  • Implement naturalistic teaching procedures (e.g., incidental teaching)
  • Implement task-analyzed chaining procedures
  • Implement discrimination training
  • Implement stimulus control transfer procedures
  • Implement prompt and prompt fading procedures
  • Implement generalization and maintenance procedures
  • Implement shaping procedures
  • Implement token economy procedures

Significance of skill acquisition in ABA: When people think about ABA, oftentimes, behavior reduction is what initially comes to mind. However, there is so much more to ABA than simply reducing interfering behaviors. Teaching clients new skills is a primary component of the RBT role. Skills that you may work on with your clients are endless—communication, social skills, learner readiness/pre-academic skills, independent living, vocational skills, safety skills, etc. Section C of the task list goes over the different methods for teaching and reinforcing new skills.

RBT Task C-1: Identify the essential components of a written skill acquisition plan

ABA therapy addresses deficits in a wide range of skill areas, from communication and social skills to daily living activities and more. Skills taught, and how they are taught, are individualized to what the learner needs.

Skill acquisition plans are written for each skill that a therapy team is targeting for a learner. These plans outline the skill that is to be taught and how it will be taught. This is important for ensuring consistency across everyone in teaching the skill. You may have multiple clients who are working on the same skill, but the procedures are different, so it’s important to know each client’s individualized plans.

 Skill acquisition plans should include the following information:

  • A definition of the skill that will be targeted
  • The specific teaching procedures explaining how to conduct the program and what constitutes a correct response
  • Teaching materials and reinforcers needed
  • Prompting strategies and hierarchies to use
  • How to respond to errors and how to reinforce correct responding
  • Data collection procedures
  • Criteria for mastery
  • Generalization and maintenance plans/guidelines

RBT Task C-2: Prepare for the session as required by the skill acquisition plan

You’ll need to set up your teaching environment at the start of each session based on the information outlined in the client’s skill acquisition plan. Your BCBA may also have a session procedure written up, which condenses the information needed to set your sessions up for success.

Preparing for your session may consist of:

  • Reading through skill acquisition plans
  • Reviewing current targets and preparing any teaching materials needed for those targets
  • Preparing reinforcers, token boards, first-then boards, etc. as applicable
  • Prepping your data collection materials—make sure your data sheet(s) and/or device(s) are easily accessible (See A-1).
  • Reading through any BCBA notes and session notes from other RBTs, if applicable.

RBT Task C-3: Use contingencies of reinforcement (e.g., conditioned/unconditioned reinforcement, continuous/intermittent schedules)

Contingencies of reinforcement describe the relationship between a particular behavior and the reinforcers used to strengthen or increase the behavior. Behaviors can be reinforced on a continuous or intermittent schedule.

Continuous reinforcement occurs when reinforcers are provided every time an individual displays a particular behavior. For example, each time your client requests a toy or snack using their picture icons (I.e., PECS), this behavior is immediately reinforced by providing access to the requested items.

Intermittent reinforcement occurs when reinforcers are provided only some of the time when a particular behavior is displayed. For example, imagine a child is learning to tie their shoes. Praise is used as a reinforcer for this skill on an intermittent schedule of reinforcement. Thus, sometimes, when your client ties their shoes independently, you offer behavior-specific praise. Other times, you provide no praise.

Intermittent reinforcement is then further broken down into four schedules of intermittent reinforcement. These schedules give you more information about how often to reinforce a particular skill or behavior.

The four intermittent schedules of reinforcement are as follows.

Fixed interval (FI) schedule of reinforcement: Providing reinforcement after every X number of minutes. In a fixed interval schedule, the interval is the same each time. The most common example of a FI schedule of reinforcement is working for a paycheck. You typically receive reinforcement in the form of a paycheck, which is received on a consistent and reliable schedule. For example, every two weeks, you receive your paycheck for working the previous two weeks.

Fixed ratio (FR) schedule of reinforcement: Providing reinforcement after every X number of occurrences of a target behavior. In a fixed ratio schedule, the number of responses required to receive reinforcement stays the same each time. For example, a paraprofessional gives her student a token every five pages they read independently. The number of pages the student must read to get one token does not vary.

Variable interval (VI) schedule of reinforcement: Providing reinforcement after a varying amount of time. In a variable interval schedule, the amount of time that must pass before receiving reinforcement varies but averages out. For example, a VI-5 schedule would consist of reinforcing roughly every 5 minutes. As such, you would reinforce around every 4-6 minutes. An example of a VI schedule is when a child asks for a snack, and her mother says, “wait”—sometimes, she has to wait for only 1 minute. Other times, she might need to wait 4 or 5 minutes.

Variable ratio (VR) schedule of reinforcement: Providing reinforcement after a varying number of occurrences of a target behavior. The number of responses required to receive reinforcement varies in a variable ratio schedule. For example, an RBT requires her client to complete 2–4 programs before earning a break in the playroom.

Tip: To remember these schedules of reinforcement, keep in mind:

Variable= Changes

Fixed= The same

Interval= Time-based

Ratio= Based on a number of occurrences

Unconditioned and Conditioned Reinforcement:

Reinforcers can be either conditioned or unconditioned. Unconditioned (primary) reinforcers are those that are innately valuable to all people from birth. Think of things that are necessary for survival—water, food, a regulated temperature, and sex. Conditioned (secondary) reinforcers are those that become reinforcing by pairing with other reinforcers—for example, books, toys, money, and tokens in a token economy.

RBT Task C-4: Implement discrete-trial teaching procedures

Discrete-trial teaching (DTT) is one teaching method commonly used in ABA. It is considered a structured method of teaching new skills. While DTT is often conducted at a table, it can also be implemented away from a table. This is a common misunderstanding.

DTT has three primary components:

  1. The SD/instruction (and prompt if needed)
  2. The learner’s response
  3. The consequence (i.e. reinforcement for correct response, or a correction if incorrect)

After each response, there is a short pause to record data, followed by another trial.

DTT Example:

RBT shows client a picture of a dog & asks, “What is it?” —> Client says “dog” —> RBT says, “Great job, it is a dog!”

RBT Task C-5: Implement naturalistic teaching procedures (e.g., incidental teaching)

Naturalistic teaching is usually less structured than DTT. This type of teaching occurs in a learner’s natural environment. A natural environment could be areas of the learner’s home, community settings such as stores, restaurants, or playgrounds, or the learner’s school or daycare. When conducting naturalistic or incidental teaching, you target goals using your client’s motivation. This is often more client-led than DTT, which is more therapist-led.

For example, your learner has a goal of manding for preferred items using picture icons. This is an excellent goal to target naturalistically. Manding can be targeted in the natural environment by prompting your learner to mand when they demonstrate an interest in an item you have control of.

For another example, imagine a learner who has a goal of following safety instructions such as “come here” and “stop.” These could be taught in your learner’s natural setting using their motivation. Perhaps your learner is motivated by bubbles. You could stand across the room, holding the bubbles, while instructing, “Come here.”

RBT Task C-6: Implement task-analyzed chaining procedures

A task analysis is a procedure for breaking down a complex task into small, individual components. Think about brushing your teeth or getting dressed. How many individual steps are involved in those types of skills? Let’s just consider brushing your teeth. To learn this skill, you need to master each of the steps involved—get your toothbrush and toothpaste, open the toothpaste, put toothpaste on the brush, wet the toothbrush, thoroughly brush the top left, top middle, top right, and so on. A task analysis shows each of the steps needed in the process.

You can teach complex skills through chaining procedures after completing the task analysis. These involve teaching each step individually through a systematic process. Let’s review a few of the chaining procedures you may use with your clients.

Total task chaining procedure: This is often used for skills that the learner has some competency demonstrating but has not mastered all of the steps in the chain. In this chaining procedure, the learner is allowed to complete the steps independently, while the therapist supports with prompts only on steps that the learner hasn’t yet mastered. In other words, prompts are only used as needed. In the brushing teeth example, the client might independently get their toothbrush and toothpaste and open the toothpaste. Then, the therapist prompts them to wet the brush. Next, they independently start brushing, with prompts along the way on the remaining steps as needed.

Forward chaining procedure: This is conducted by allowing the learner to demonstrate the first step independently, then the therapist prompts (or demonstrates) the remaining steps of the chain. For example, the learner would get the toothbrush independently, followed by the therapist prompting the remaining steps. Once the learner mastered getting the toothbrush, they would add another step in (i.e., getting the toothpaste) that the learner would do independently. This would continue until the learner masters all steps of the chain without any prompting.

Backward chaining procedure: This is conducted by prompting the learner through all of the steps of the chain until they reach the final step. At this point, the learner demonstrates the last step independently. Once they master the last step, the therapist prompts until the second to last step, followed by the learner independently demonstrating the last two steps. Again, this continues until the full chain is mastered.

RBT Task C-7: Implement discrimination training

Discrimination training consists of teaching a learner to differentiate between stimuli. For example, if you lay out an array of picture cards and say, “find the bed,” if your learner can look at all the pictures and select the bed, they are demonstrating discrimination. Discrimination is taught through systematic reinforcement. By withholding reinforcement for behaviors when certain stimuli are present and delivering reinforcement in the presence of other stimuli, you can teach your learners to discriminate.

Using the previous example, if your learner selected a picture of a car when the instruction “find the bed” was delivered, you would not reinforce this behavior. Instead, you would only reinforce when they selected the correct picture of a bed. Through the process of discrimination training, stimulus control is developed.

RBT Task C-8: Implement stimulus control transfer procedures

Stimulus control transfer procedures are strategies for fading prompts to transfer the control of a response from one SD to another. When a therapist prompts a correct answer, the response is under the control of that specific prompt. Ideally, we want to transfer stimulus control to the naturally occurring stimulus so the learner can be independent and not prompt-dependent.

For example, imagine a client is learning to follow 1-step instructions, such as “get your cup.” When you first target this goal, you would provide the instruction while prompting them to get the cup. The exact prompt type would depend on the individual learner.

Let’s use point prompting as an example. The ultimate goal is for this learner to independently get their cup when a caregiver or therapist asks them to. Therefore, once they master getting their cup when the instruction is provided with a point prompt, we must fade those prompts to move them closer to independence. We would systematically fade the prompt (See RBT Task C-9) until the naturally occurring stimulus (I.e., the instruction “go get your cup”) is enough for the learner to independently and accurately follow the instruction by picking up their cup.

RBT Task C-9: Implement prompt and prompt fading procedures

Prompts are strategies to help the learner evoke or demonstrate the correct response. You can provide a prompt before, during, or directly after the SD/instruction. However, a prompt cannot come after the learner responds. For example, imagine you are teaching your client to label items in their environment. You would first provide the SD “what is this?” and then immediately prompt by verbally stating the correct answer. The client would then respond by repeating the correct response. It would look like this:

(SD) “What is it?” while showing the client a cup + (Prompt) “cup”—> (Response) learner says “cup”—> (Consequence) reinforcement

Prompts are always individualized to the skill and the learner. Some learners do best with intrusive prompts, which are faded to less intrusive ones. Other learners who acquire skills quicker or are prone to prompt dependency may do better with less intrusive prompts from the start.

Prompts are an essential component of teaching skills. However, there needs to be a plan in place to fade them. If we continuously prompt the correct response, our learners won’t become independent with the skill, as they will learn to rely on prompts. This is known as prompt dependence.

Types of prompts:

  1. Gestural prompts: Pointing, gazing your eyes, or in some other way gesturing to guide the learner to the correct response.

    Example: Telling your learner to pick up a toy while pointing to the toy on the ground.
  2. Verbal prompts: Vocally stating the correct response.

    Example: Asking your learner what their name is, then vocally providing the correct response— ”What’s your name? Bob.”
  3. Physical prompts: Providing physical assistance to evoke the correct response. Physical prompts can range widely from partial physical to full hand-over-hand (HOH) prompting. Physical prompts can be effective for many skills but are the most intrusive. They may also be more aversive for the learner than other prompts.

    Example: Telling your learner to wave, then physically guiding their hand to wave.
  4. Model prompts: Demonstrating the correct response. Model prompts can be done live or via video modeling.

    Example: Demonstrating tying your own shoes while instructing your learner through the steps.
  5. Positional prompts: Putting the correct target item or picture closer to the learner than other items.

    Example: Placing a field of 3 pictures in front of a learner. The correct picture is up close, and the other two pictures are in the back.

To fade prompts, you will systematically reduce and eliminate the prompts until your learner is independently responding accurately. The two most common methods for prompt fading include:

  1. Most-to-least prompt fading: The most intrusive prompts are used initially to teach the skill. As the learner demonstrates an understanding of the skill, the prompts slowly fade to less intrusive prompts. For example, imagine you’re teaching hand washing, and you start with a hand-over-hand prompt. Fading could consist of going from HOH to partial physical prompts (E.g., guiding at the wrists or elbows), then a gestural prompt, then no prompt.
  2. Least-to-most prompt fading: A less intrusive prompt is used initially to teach the skill. If the less intrusive prompt does not evoke the correct response, you move to a more intrusive prompt. For example, when teaching your learner to wash their hands, you start with a gestural prompt. This is not successful, as they do not respond to this prompt. You then move to a partial physical prompt, which they are successful with.

RBT Task C-10: Implement generalization and maintenance procedures

A primary goal of ABA therapy is for our learners to be able to demonstrate learned skills in the environments and with the people where these skills matter the most. In other words, we want our learners to demonstrate essential skills with their parents and caregivers at home, in the community, at school, etc. If our clients can only demonstrate new skills in a contrived therapeutic setting or can only demonstrate the skill when using specific stimuli, then they have failed to generalize the skill.

Generalization occurs when an individual demonstrates a trained behavior in different conditions and novel ways. For example, they exhibit the behavior with new people, in various settings, or with different stimuli. This is called stimulus generalization. If a client learns to label a sink in a picture and then goes on to be able to label other examples of a sink, they have generalized this skill.

Another type of generalization is known as response generalization, which occurs when an individual learns a behavior and then is able to engage in other similar behaviors. For example, you teach your client to greet you by saying “hi” upon your arrival. Once they master this, they learn to greet you in other ways, such as saying “hi (name),” “hey,” “hello,” “what’s up,” etc.

Maintenance occurs when a learner demonstrates a skill after the intervention has been removed. For example, you teach your client to use “please” and “thank you” when manding and receiving preferred items. When they master this skill, you are no longer actively teaching, prompting, and reinforcing it. Nonetheless, they continue to mand using “please,” followed by saying “thank you.” Therefore, this skill was maintained after the intervention was discontinued.

BCBAs create skill acquisition programs with plans to promote generalization and maintenance. RBTs are responsible for implementing these plans. Some of the strategies you may use to help a learner generalize and maintain skills over time include:

  • Use several different stimulus examples. For example, if you’re teaching a child to identify clothing names (e.g., shirts, socks, pants, shorts), you would teach this skill with multiple pictures of shirts and/or actual shirts that are different sizes, colors, patterns, etc.
  • Teach in different environments. As a child learns skills in a contrived therapy environment, you can promote generalization by targeting the skills in different environments. For example, if you’re teaching a child to follow the instruction “come here,” you would teach them to follow this in a therapy room, in other rooms in their home or clinic setting, and then perhaps outside, at the park, or in a store.
  • Vary your instruction. It’s important to teach children to respond to the same instruction when presented differently. If a child is learning to wait, some generalized instructions could be “wait,” “hang on,” “wait for a second,” or “give me a minute.”
  • Encourage and reinforce different responses. You want to avoid encouraging rote responding, which prevents your learner from generalizing skills. As such, encourage and reinforce when your learner responds in different ways, as long as each response is accurate. Remember, there are often many ways to do something and many possible correct responses.

RBT Task C-11: Implement shaping procedures

Shaping is a teaching procedure where you systematically reinforce approximations toward an end goal. For example, imagine you have an end goal for your learner to be able to respond to their name when they are across the room from their therapist, parent, or teacher. The goal involves them saying “what?” when their name is called. They will be much more successful if you start with a lower approximation of the end goal rather than initially targeting the end goal.

In other words, instead of attempting to teach them to respond to their name when you’re across the room from them, you would start by teaching them to respond when you are right next to them. When they respond to this instruction, you provide reinforcement. Once they master this target, you move the distance further away. Now, they need to respond to their name being called a few feet away in order to receive reinforcement. The distance could increase a bit with each subsequent target until the end goal, responding to their name from across the room, is achieved.

RBT Task C-12: Implement token economy procedures

A token economy is a reinforcement procedure to increase adaptive or desirable behaviors. This is done by giving your learner tokens, which are generalized conditioned reinforcers. Through pairing with other reinforcers, tokens become reinforcing.

A token economy involves the following steps:

  1. The BCBA will identify the tokens, behaviors, and reinforcement schedule. Each learner’s token economy can look vastly different. Tokens can be coins, stars, poker chips, tallies, or stickers, to name a few. You’ll likely start with 1-3 behaviors targeted in the token economy to help your learner identify exactly what behaviors earn tokens. As they improve on those behaviors, the BCBA may add additional behaviors.

    The BCBA on the case will create a thorough write-up of the token economy procedure so you know exactly how to run it with your client.
  2. You will deliver tokens to your learner when they engage in the target behavior(s). Typically, you’ll start with a continuous reinforcement schedule (See Task C-3) and move toward an intermittent schedule once your learner understands the expectations. Use behavior-specific praise when delivering tokens, emphasizing what they are earning the token for.
  3. The learner exchanges tokens for backup reinforcers. These are reinforcing items or activities. Each backup reinforcer will have a specified number of tokens the learner needs to cash in for it. For example, one thing might require cashing in 10 tokens, while another requires 20.

Sometimes, a response cost is used with a token economy. This means the learner loses earned tokens when they engage in an inappropriate target behavior. A response cost should not be used as a first resort, as it is a punishment procedure.

RBT Skill Acquisition Review Quiz

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