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Teaching with First/Then (Premack Principle)

In the world of ABA, establishing effective teaching strategies is crucial. One such strategy that’s garnered a lot of attention among ABA professionals is the First/Then approach — a structured method to motivate students to complete tasks that they might usually resist.

This technique, rooted in the Premack Principle, is simple yet powerful. It involves presenting a sequence of events where the completion of a less preferred task (the “First”) leads to the opportunity to engage in a more preferred activity (the “Then”).

This post aims to shed light on the benefits of using the First/Then approach in ABA teaching, offering practical advice and sharing personal anecdotes to help you implement this strategy effectively in your practice.

From boosting student motivation to enhancing focus and attention, the First/Then approach can be a game-changer as an ABA tool. So, whether you’re a seasoned ABA professional or just starting your journey, get started with the First/Then approach.

Understanding the First/Then Approach

The First/Then concept is quite simple, yet effective in its application. It involves presenting a precise sequence of events to students, where the completion of a less preferred task (the “First”) leads to the opportunity to engage in a more preferred activity (the “Then”).

By establishing this connection, educators can leverage the intrinsic motivation associated with preferred activities to encourage students to complete less preferred tasks.

first then in aba

What Are the Benefits of Using First/Then in ABA Teaching?

1. Motivating students through the promise of preferred activities

By offering a desirable activity as a reinforcer for completing a task, the First/Then approach helps students stay engaged and focused, especially when faced with challenging or less preferred activities.

2. Promoting task completion and engagement

Using First/Then creates a sense of purpose and a clear goal for students. It helps them see the connection between their efforts and the desired outcome, ultimately increasing their commitment to completing tasks.

3. Enhancing student focus and attention

With the First/Then approach, students are more likely to remain attentive and focused on the task. The anticipation of engaging in a preferred activity is an incentive to maintain concentration and complete the initial task successfully.

Strategies for Implementing First/Then in the Classroom

To effectively implement the First/Then strategy in an ABA classroom or therapy session, consider the following strategies:

  • Establish clear expectations and rules: Clearly communicate the expectations and rules related to task completion and earning preferred activities to ensure consistency and understanding. Keep these short and to the point. “First ___, then __” Eliminate too much talking.
  • Identify appropriate reinforcers and preferred activities: Take the time to understand each student’s preferences and interests, as this will help identify appropriate reinforcers that will motivate them to complete tasks.
  • Create visual cues and schedules: Utilize visual supports, such as first/then boards, visual schedules, and/or token boards, to provide a concrete representation of the First/Then sequence, making it easier for students to understand and follow along.
  • Provide gradual fading of the First/Then structure: Over time, gradually reduce the reliance on the First/Then structure by introducing more natural consequences or internal rewards, ensuring students generalize the motivation to complete tasks beyond the explicit First/Then framework.

Examples Of When First/Then Really Shines

Example 1: Using First/Then to encourage a reluctant reader

An ABA teacher can use the First/Then approach with a student who is reluctant to engage in reading activities. The teacher establishes the rule that the student needs to complete a set number of reading exercises (First), before being allowed to play a game (Then).

Over time, the student’s motivation to read increases, and the First/Then structure gradually fades, leading to a sustained improvement in reading engagement.

Example 2: Applying First/Then to increase task completion in a student

In another scenario, a teacher can use the First/Then approach to support students in completing academic assignments.

By pairing completing assignments (First) with engaging in a preferred sensory activity (Then), the student becomes more focused and motivated to complete tasks, resulting in improved completion rates.

Overcoming Challenges and Potential Limitations

While the First/Then approach has shown significant benefits, it’s vital to address potential challenges and limitations, such as resistance or lack of motivation from some students.

Educators and therapists can overcome these challenges by individualizing reinforcers, providing choices within the First/Then framework, and regularly monitoring and adjusting the approach based on student progress.

Visuals are a powerful tool to enhance communication and comprehension, especially for children. It’s useful to recognize that simply hearing instructions does not guarantee active listening or follow-through.

By putting instructions into a visual format — such as a first/then board — we provide a clear and easy-to-understand representation of the sequence of tasks. This visual support dramatically increases the likelihood of successful follow-through as it eliminates any potential confusion or ambiguity.

Whether it’s a simple instruction like cleaning up before having a snack or more complex tasks, visuals can significantly improve understanding and promote better engagement in the learning process.

4 Tips for Successful First/Then Implementation

To ensure successful implementation of the First/Then strategy in ABA teaching and therapy settings, keep the following tips in mind:

1. Clarity in communication

Clearly communicate expectations, rules, and the First/Then sequence to ensure students understand the process and feel secure in the structure. Use simple language (“First ___, then ___.”). Be clear and concise. Use visuals to support the language.

2. Be Consistent

Consistency is key when it comes to teaching and reinforcing expectations. When a parent or therapist gives a request or instruction (SD), it holds significant weight in the learning process. It’s essential to establish a consistent approach in delivering instructions and following through with consequences or rewards.

By consistently upholding expectations, we create a reliable and predictable environment that reinforces learning and fosters behavioral growth.

3. Monitoring progress and making necessary adjustments

Regularly assess student progress and adjust the First/Then approach as needed to maintain its effectiveness and address changing needs.

4. Recognizing and celebrating achievements

Celebrate students’ efforts and successes to reinforce positive behavior and maintain motivation.

The First/Then approach, based on the Premack Principle, is a powerful tool for ABA teachers, educators, and therapists. By leveraging preferred activities as rewards for completing less preferred tasks, educators can enhance motivation, promote task completion, and foster student engagement.

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