Foundational Skills & First Steps {Capturing Attention}

Categories: Basic Skills

This month we will be chatting all about basic skills. It’s the end of the year. Nobody is ready for anything heavy but it may be time to freshen up your approach for targeting some of those foundational concepts. At this point in the year, sometimes we aren’t making the progress we thought we were going to. It may be time to scale back and review some of the basics. For our students working on foundational level skills – these concepts aren’t always so easy or straightforward to teach. This month we will be exploring basic work tasks, shaping, imitation, receptive language building, and more.

Before we jump into anything more structured, let’s scale back. Let’s do a quick refresher on where to begin. There are a few important steps to take before we start increasing the complexity of the skills we are asking of our students. First, we want to get their attention. We want to get them to table. And by table I mean table, desk, carpet, bean bag, playground – wherever learning is going to occur. We need to make sure they are ready to learn.

It’s ALL About that Reinforcer

I’m like a broken record sometimes on here but I can’t help myself. The reinforcer is the root of everything. A reinforcer consists of any item, person, or activity that increases the future likelihood of a certain behavior occurring. This first step of identifying a reinforcer is critical. If you forget it, you may have a hard time teaching that new skill. Once you identify those reinforcers, — USE THEM. Every time the child gets a correct answer, engages in a correct response, or displays a new skill – it’s a fiesta in your classroom. The goal is to create the connection: I do this behavior -> something awesome happens. That something awesome is reinforcement!


Pairing yourself as a reinforcer refers to associating yourself with items or activities that the individual finds enjoyable. You should work on establishing yourself as someone that the individual enjoys coming to. In the start of the school year, I am constantly saying, “be a chocolate chip cookie.” Everyone loves a chocolate chip cookie. I’d eat chocolate chip cookies all day if I could. So embrace that. Be that cookie. Check out this post for more information on pairing. And remember pairing is a process. It’s no one-and-done. In the start of the school year, you will likely need to do some pairing again. Some students benefit from use of pairing on a regular basis.

Joint Attention

We really want our students to start having shared attention with us. Joint attention is the ability to share a common focus on something (people, objects, a concept, an event, etc.) with someone else. It involves the ability to gain, maintain, and shift attention. When working on any academic task, the student and teacher both share their attention to the same learning material. Joint attention is nothing something that is learned overnight. Begin to assess if your student is struggling with this skill. Practice activities where your student both responds to requests for joint attention and requests joint attention himself.

Try Speedy and Easy

This sometimes goes against our instincts but you may want to try being speedy and easy. Keep your instruction fast paced with previously mastered tasks. Working on unmastered activities that require a lot of prompting may actually decrease attending. The student isn’t required to attend to complete the task because he is being prompted through most of the steps. Amongst all of these fast paced easy tasks, you can also sneak in a slightly tricky task with some success. This concept is called behavioral momentum and is an evidence based practice. If you want to get fancy it means “A sequence of high-probability requests issued immediately prior to a task-related request established a momentum of compliance that increased compliance with task-related demand

You’re halfway there…

If you have some of these concepts mastered, you are on your way. If you are still working on this, that’s okay too. It’s a good reminder that you need this foundation before you start layering on!


  1. How do you build speed and fluency with attending for children who have low or no mastered skills? At this point prompting through a demand causes aggression. How do you work on compliance to task for these clients?

  2. I would scale back and just try to get some attending before trying for speed and fluency in this area. I would make the demands very low effort and the materials extremely engaging and on-interest. I would also spend a lot of time making the environment reinforcing and fade in demands very slowly. Hope this helps!


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