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ABA Pairing

Help! I am working with a new client and don’t know where to start!!

We have all been there, whether you are new to the field or an experienced veteran, a good ABA practitioner will start with pairing.

First impressions matter – remember the teachers you loved the most at school? What about the ones you didn’t? For me, one of the factors that contributed to it was how the teacher engaged with me and the class as a whole. Was Day 1 of the syllabus to have three chapters of the textbook already read? Or did the teacher do a fun ice breaker or game? Although teachers are the gatekeepers of homework, which was rarely ever fun as a child, I was more motivated to complete my tasks if I valued the teacher and all the fun and exciting things they contributed to the classroom.

What about that stuffy boss at work? No one wants to put in the extra time if a boss you don’t get along with asks. But if you have a boss who brings in coffee and treats on occasion, leaves letters and notes of appreciation and thanks, or additional time off, you would be more willing to do what is asked, even if it is more of a challenge.

What Is Pairing?

Pairing is the FIRST STEP when you begin to work with a new client. This means that you ‘pair’ yourself with reinforcement. Your goal should be that the client wants to see you – your presence is not just tolerated, but actually enjoyed!

By pairing yourself with reinforcement, you yourself become a conditioned reinforcer. By pairing an already established reinforcer (primary or secondary) with yourself (a secondary reinforcer, or a conditioned reinforcer), your presence then can also act to increase the likelihood of a specified behaviour in the future.

Download our FREE Reinforcer Checklist to help guide you with providing your learner with the most motivating reinforcers for them! Check our blog post on Preference Assessments – learn how to use the the Pairing and Preference Assessment freebies in your ABA sessions!

Why Do We Use Pairing?

Just like our example above about the employee with the fun versus the stuffy boss, people are more willing to do work for someone they like. If the learner finds you reinforcing (your attention, praise, presence, engagement, etc.), they will be more inclined to comply with your demands.

How Do We Use Pairing?

Remember, pairing is the FIRST STEP when you begin to work with a new client (yes, I said this twice, that’s because it is important). If you are familiar with our Freebie Fridays on Instagram and Facebook, then the concept of giving freebies is something you already know about. Give non-contingent reinforcement: that’s right, give freebies (the only contingency should be that they are not engaging in any challenging or non-preferred behaviours).

When engaged with your learner, their experience should be that time with you is more fun than when you are not around. Your learner should only have access to reinforcers if it is through you – you are the gatekeeper.

Your first few sessions together should include very few, and simple demands, if any. Every learner will be a unique experience: you may be able to start placing demands in the first session for one kid, and it may take a week with another. Only after you have paired should you start to gradually add in demands – start with something simple like gross motor imitation or 1-step instructions.

Things To Remember

The first step to working with any new client is pairing!

You will know that pairing is working when the learner is coming to you, not escaping from or avoiding you.

Just because we start with pairing, does not mean that it necessarily stops. An experienced practitioner will continue to provide reinforcement for things their learner does, but will also give freebies every now and then.

Are you a parent in the early stages of therapy? If so, check out our post on Building Rapport and what to expect from your therapists when it comes to pairing.

Not sure about what to do if your learner is not motivated by anything?

Watch our YouTube video on How to Motivate a Child in an ABA Program.


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