How to Pair Virtually and In School

As a special educator working in early childhood, one of the most common barriers in both virtual and in person learning that has been expressed to me is that the child or student is not yet attending to the screen or table. I often hear “My child won’t sit at the table, he just runs around all morning” or “I can’t get her to even come near the table during activity time, she will throw herself down on the floor and refuse”.  Today I am going to share with you how to set up a successful table time and the most important step…PAIRING!

What is Pairing?

At The Autism Helper we are constantly talking about being “the chocolate chip cookie” because who doesn’t want a cookie?  It’s a simple way of saying that you are building that trusting relationship by utilizing things and activities the child prefers.  You want your child or student running to the table to work and play with you. Virtually is tougher however, pairing can be done at home by coaching the parent to set up table time success.  We cannot expect a child to complete difficult tasks if they do not trust us and there is no relationship.  Let’s check out my 5 steps!


Pairing Steps

If you have read my posts before, you know I love some simple, efficient actionable steps.  The same steps apply for coaching parents at home to set up success for virtual learning and for teachers in the classroom.

Step 1:  Be a detective! Identify reinforcers and activities

As a teacher or parent, observe your child/student.  What do they gravitate towards at home or in school? Do they love the black and blue cars?  Goldfish crackers? Do they enjoy holding a pipe cleaner and twisting it around?  Never assume what the child enjoys!  These things can be so out of the box such as putting paperclips in a cup or flicking TheraBand tied to a chair.  Have your parents write them down and then rank them between highly and medium preferred.  See my sample below! Virtually as a teacher you can use highly preferred songs such as Baby Shark to return a child to learning before you link an activity, they would be reinforced by their parent at home for coming back to the table!

Step 2:  Baseline Current Table Time

What may seem like a split second might actually be 30 seconds and what seems like an hour could only be 5 minutes.  It is important to note how long your child/student stays at a table so that you can be sure an increase is happening.  Maybe they do not even approach the table, or they come for 3 seconds and then bolt off.  Note this!

Step 3: Setting up an area for success!

Whether you’re at home or in school, you will want to make sure the area is “sanitized”, and I don’t mean cleanliness wise here (although during COVID that won’t hurt either). Choose an area in the house/classroom where there is the least amount of clutter and extra toy distractions.  If you’re in a classroom, use wall dividers to close up center areas with toys.  If you’re at home, you can have a little table that you pull out in the living room or in your office.  Pulling out the small table is a visual signal that it’s time for activities!  Put away extra toys lying around so they’re not distracting.  Have those identified reinforcers and activities readily available and close by! It is also important to put the activities and reinforcers up following an activity so that there is not free access to them.

Step 4: Start small when pairing. Low demand, high reinforcement

You might be excited to jump right in and expect them to sit at the table for 5 minutes just because you have your reinforcers there.  Short backstory: I had observed a student in one school before they transferred him to my classroom. He was calm and willing to come to the table for activities.  Fast forward to my room and he would not even come near my table. I was baffled! But he did not know me, trust me yet or have any reason to know what to do when he got to my table.  I had never even tried to pair myself yet. I was so worried I had missed my chance!  It’s never too late! We made a visual board to show him what he would receive once he got to the table.  At first, we would have his highly preferred play doh and goldfish crackers at the table.  When he would even approach the table, I would say great job coming to table and reinforce with goldfish. He would poke the play doh and bolt off again.  Every time he approached the table, I repeated the process and he would stay a little longer. Eventually he would stand and use the play doh. We even had a play doh tag on his picture schedule instead of a “work with teacher” tag because even that was too much at the time. 

Step 5: Preferred activities along with reinforcers

Are you ready for this? You might feel as if you’re going rogue, but I promise it’s an important step to think about.  While pairing, you still have other children to teach.  If your student/child’s preferred activity is play doh but you have an apple tree activity planned, then *GASP* the child still gets play doh while the others work on their tree.  But what if the other children ask why they can’t have Play doh? You can simply say, “Gina is learning to sit at our table and work so you’re setting a great example! When you finish your apple tree you too can have some play doh time!”  As the student sits or stands near the table completing his reinforcing activity, you can reinforce with the goldfish or whatever it is the child prefers.  As your baseline time increases, you can slowly fade out the intensity of the reinforcers (ie: instead of a cracker pieces every minute, increase to 1.5 minutes/2 minutes). 

Here’s a Sample Preference Assessment for families! Try these five tips and Happy Pairing!

Gina Russell, B.S , M.Ed
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