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How to Use Pairing to Build Relationships with Students

Pairing is a critical step in ABA so that a child will want to come work with you. This video blog is all about how to use pairing effectively.

What is Pairing?

Pairing is all about relationship building. If you think about any relationship in your life that you’re looking to build on, you don’t start with the goal. You start with getting to know them. Think about dating. You don’t meet someone for the first time and say, do you want to move in with me? Or do you want to get married? You court each other, you get to know each other, and you build a relationship. 

It’s the same thing for our kids. Our goal is to go in there and teach them skills, yes. But without building that relationship, we don’t just come in and start with the skills. We need to start with a relationship and then be able to teach those skills.

Someone told me a long time ago that kids should be running to you, not away from you. And if you’ve got students who are saying “goodbye Shayna, bye Shayna, bye Shayna,” you obviously know you haven’t paired effectively. I think it’s great to get language skills and have them express their needs, but you want them to be running towards you. You want them to be saying, “what do you have in your bag today? What are we doing today? Let’s play.” You want to be a signal of reinforcement to the students.

Pairing is so much more than just taking the first few sessions to get to know each other or to be the giver of good things. Pairing is ongoing. Sometimes we get the question of how long do I pair for? The answer is: always. The relationship needs to be there. Pairing is not something that you could say, well, I’ve paired for two hours and now I’m done. It’s about having a relationship where there’s trust, fun, and where you both understand each other. None of those are behavioral terms. But it’s so important that the child really feels comfortable with you. You have to understand them. Sometimes, especially if they’re non vocal or they can’t express themselves, you learn to understand their body language or their gestures and to be able to make them feel comfortable with you.

How to Use Pairing and Finding the Right Balance

You also don’t want to just pair by itself. You want to have some demand because if you pair for too long, and then you go to put even one demand on, kids aren’t going to want to do that. But at the same time, if you always start with that demand and you never pair, then your learner is going to go, whoa, wait a second.

Pairing does not mean that they get to wreak havoc and have complete control over everything that goes on. It really doesn’t. It just means letting them guide the relationship a little bit. Take cues from the student, see what they’re comfortable with, start to get to know what their preferences are, and start to offer those preferences with very little demand. 

If the student really likes to color, let them color without first making them do something first. Start to offer those good things and do things that they enjoy together so that you become part of that fun activity.

When I go into someone’s home, or if they’re coming to me in a clinic setting, I typically have a bag of tricks so I can see what their preferences are. Do I do a formal preference assessment on the very first day I meet somebody? No, absolutely not. I pull items out of my bag or pull bins off the shelf and open them up and show the individual I’m working with so I can really get a sense of what they like.

Sometimes they may not like coloring but when the crayon flies up in the air and I catch it and (or not catch it because I typically don’t) and they laugh well, then all of a sudden, they like the crayon. So it might not be about the activity of coloring, but it might be about making that fun somehow. Sometimes it’s not about playing with toys, but it’s about how do I make this toy fun with me being involved? 

How to Use Pairing to Make Student Comfortable

As adults, we like to talk a lot and ask questions when we pair with others. But pairing doesn’t have to have a lot of language. Sometimes that comes across as a demand. So don’t think that you need to meet your student and all of a sudden ask, what’s your name? What’s your favorite color? What’s your story? Where do you live? You might be trying to make conversation, but that could be aversive. 

Think about pairing as just your presence. Your presence is enough. Be fun, safe, calm, and comfortable. This is your chance to start to understand the child’s body cues, their body language, and how they’re feeling. You’ll begin to know when to take a step back because they might be feeling a little nervous, and know when to push a little bit. Your goal should be that slowly, over time, you can start to bring in more teaching, more skills, a little bit more demand as they’re comfortable, and know when that dance is up. 

Pairing should also be individualized to the learner. Some learners love over the top silliness. Other learners can’t tolerate loud noises or any type of surprises whatsoever. You really do have to judge the learner. Just asking the parent or the caregiver ahead of time, “what do they like?” can help you out during that initial pairing session.

When to Repair and Rebuild Relationships

We have a student who we’ve been working with for years. And even though we paired with him at the beginning, we are now seeing that he has a lot of challenging behavior. Instead of choosing to push through with demands, we decided to back off and re pair the relationship. We know this is an ongoing process, and something might be falling apart in the relationship if we’re seeing some of this challenging behavior. So our decision was to rebuild that relationship, to do what he wants to do for a little while. That might seem counterintuitive. But the relationship is more important than having the student follow demands. 

I typically pair at the beginning of every session for even two to three minutes at a time. When a student comes into the center, they don’t just sit at the table to do work right away. We might do a play activity first, or I might let them play on the floor and I’ll gently offer arm squeezes because I know the student likes deep pressure. And then I get into things. 

I often see therapists, once they’ve paired with a student, send kids off during their break. They have the student go play by themselves and go off and organize, take data, etc. But that’s such a great opportunity to continue that pairing process. Some kids need their own time sometimes. But a lot of the time, it’s a chance to have fun together. And how cool is that? That’s what you get to do for a living – play with kids.


Today we talked about why pairing is so important and why it will really make your sessions a lot more successful. We also talked about how to approach pairing and really how to sometimes take a step back and repair or rebuild that relationship when you’re teaching skills.

Our reinforcer checklist is a great tool you can use to see what a student likes when you begin pairing. Download the reinforcer checklist at the link below.

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