Priming in ABA

My 3-year old niece was starting swimming lessons, and what we thought would be met with excitement was actually met with anxiety. She was hesitant to go for her first lesson. Like any good aunt with a background in behavioural analysis, I decided on an antecedent strategy: priming. We sat together and looked at pictures of the new swimming school, talked about the sequence of events, what we would see at the pool, as well as role played what we could do for our first time in the pool.

What Is Priming?

Priming is an antecedent strategy. Although we do not have a crystal ball and cannot predict the future, one strength of behavioural analysis is data collection: use data collected from past performances from similar situations. It is important to know what situations typically trigger your learner, common errors they are likely to face, and how your learner will react based on previous performances.

Why Use Priming?

As an antecedent strategy, priming is used to set the stage for a desired response, or to reduce the likelihood of a challenging response.

Although priming can be used for challenging behaviours, it can also be used for practicing skills in situ. As such, priming can be used for triggering events (losing a board game), transitions (moving from preferred activities to less preferred activities), new situations (first swimming lesson), and outlining expectations (first, then).

How To Use Priming?

As an antecedent strategy, priming occurs before the event. Immediately before the triggering event, so it is fresh in mind, take the learner aside and review what is going to happen. Depending on the learner, this can take different forms (discussion, social story, visual schedules, videos, contingency map, role play, etc.) but should typically include a visual. Our words fade, but a visual cue (including written words) can always be referred to.

Example: making comments during a board game
IT: “It’s time to play a game. Remember, here are some things you can say” (review text cues, role play)
Text Cue Example: “Nice roll!”
IT: “Also, when you give someone else a turn, it makes them feel great!” (Write out: “give your brother a turn,” give text cue to learner)
During the game, gesture to the text cue

Example: closing the door when using the bathroom
Before it is time for a bathroom break, “remember to close the door and wash your hands”
You can write these on a cue card and hand it to the learner, use a visual schedule in the bathroom as reminders, etc.

What Priming Is Not:

Nagging. Nagging is something that happens during the event.

Example:
“Stop doing that”
“Give your brother a turn”
“Close the door!” once the learner is already in the bathroom

Remember:

  1. Use an antecedent log to record triggers to challenging behaviours.
    This will be informative for identifying situations where priming can be used.

  2. Use visuals based on your learner’s level.
    Example: stick figure characters, photos of the actual event, written words, etc.
     
  3. Include replacement behaviours – what are appropriate behaviours that can be done?
    Always state these in the positive (instead of “don’t scream,” you can list what they CAN do: “take a deep breath,” “say ‘I am okay,’” etc.)

  4. Security – let the learner hold on to the visual.
    Instead of instructing your learner with what they can do, encourage your learner to refer to the visual.

Watch our YouTube video on Using a Contingency Map to Teach Behaviour:

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