Generalization: Take it Away From the Table!

Categories: Data | Interventions

As special education teachers, we are often contriving situations in order to teach our learners new skills. Many skills that other students learn natural or in whole group instruction, our students seem to miss. Our students need specific direct instruction to learn these concepts. While many kids learn how to comment appropriately in a conversation or how to follow multi-step directions, our kids sometimes benefit from practicing and learning these skills in a one on one teaching setting. 

This month we have been talking about different ways to teach new skills. We’ve discussed Discrete Trial Training, Fluency Instruction, and Incidental Teaching and we’ve talked all about how to use prompts, fade prompts, and correct errors. Once you use all of these strategies and have a new skill fully mastered – your work still isn’t done. Now it’s time for the generalization piece. 

What does generalization even mean?

The goal of ALL Of our teaching is to create skills that are socially significant. We want to teach skills that are functional, important, and useful. In order for that to happen, our learner needs to demonstrate those skills in relevant settings and situations (i.e. new settings!), last over time, and cause changes to other related behaviors. 

Learning that Lasts Over Time

The first thing you want to focus on is learning that last over time. Those posts on prompt fading are essential because they will ensure that you are removing all of your teaching tools and requiring that the student respond independently. Once you have faded all prompts, continue taking data for several days or sessions to ensure that mastery is maintaining. (more on this in tomorrow’s post!)

Learning that Occurs in New Settings and Situations 

When we teach a new skill, we are teaching that skill so the student can use that skill in other settings. When we teaching adding numbers, we want our student to add numbers in their high school classroom, in the grocery store, and at their future work place. If you are working on measuring cooking ingredients, you want that skill to occur at home and with new recipes.

Learning that Creates New Related Skills 

We cannot possibly teach every single example or every single concept that we teach. We’d be stuck on one concept for years and years and years. We are teaching concepts and we want that learning to expand to include other similar skills. For example, if you are working on hand washing skills, you may teach your child to use a paper towel to dry his hands. One day, your student uses the powered hand dryer to dry his hands. The skill of hand dryer has generalization to a new type of response. 

How we do this: Plan Ahead

Generalization shouldn’t be an after thought. You should incorporate this into your teaching to make the generalization process more efficient. Yes, some generalization may occur on its own with no planning but research has shown that when you plan generalization it is much more effective (Stokes and Baer, 1977). 

Include Naturally Occurring Reinforcement

We are constantly talking about things that are functional. Functional is a little bit of a buzz word and it’s important to get to the root of what being functional actually means. According to Cooper, Heward, & Heron, “a behavior is functional only to the extent that it produces reinforcement for the learner.” So with all the behaviors we teach (even the academic ones), think about the long term viewpoint. How will this behavior give this child reinforcement in the long term? 

So if we think about teaching the skill of putting on a coat; the natural occurring reinforcement will be that the student can go to recess, leave the house, leave school etc. as a reinforcer for having a coat on. If we think about teaching math skills in a resource room, the naturally occurring reinforcement will be using those math skills in the general education classroom and avoiding embarrassment of wrong answers, getting to be in math centers with peers, and praise from general ed teacher. You want to think about how and why this student will be displaying this skill in the future. 

Specify All of the Responses and Settings

This is really the meat and potatoes planning part! Spend some real time create two big lists. Create a list of all of the forms of the skill you are teaching. If you are teaching greetings, you want to teach hi, hey, what’s up, hello, good morning, etc. Then create a list of all of the settings you want this new learning to be displayed in. If you are working on turn taking in a conversation, you will want to see that skill at lunch with peers, in the hallway with teachers, on the bus with siblings, etc. 

Since I could just keep talking about generalization all dang day, here are must-do tips. Basically, be constantly changing things up. Our kids can be very rule governed and routine based but the real world isn’t. Incorporate changes in your teaching methods on a regular basis, so your student is used to it.

Consider conducting some of your teaching sessions in other environments besides your classroom. Work on your body part identification targets on your walk to gym class, practice actively listening skills while waiting for the bus, and walk with your student around the school to build the skill of independent greetings. 

Test for generalization frequently. When the natural opportunity comes up to greet a peer, request an item, or name a color, take note of if it occurs. Provide your same prompt fading techniques in the natural environment. Provide specific instruction on when you should and shouldn’t do a behavior in the natural environment. Ie. you raise your hand when the gym teacher says, “who wants to go first?” but not when he says “Who hasn’t had a turn yet?” and you have had a turn. 

Check out this video on how to include sufficient examples right in your teaching materials! SO IMPORTANT! 


  1. Great blog and Promoting skill generalization ideas for all students and staff. Thanks for teaching us, Beth Gmeiner

  2. Thanks for reading 🙂

  3. Thank you Sasha!! I’ve been searching for ideas to take concepts past identification and onto generalization.

  4. Hi Patricia, happy to hear! Thanks for reading 🙂


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