By Ellen Barnett, MA, BCBA, LBA

Pairing, or building rapport with a learner, is an essential component of ABA therapy. A positive relationship between the instructor and the learner sets the stage for successful ABA sessions and enables our clients to reach their optimal outcomes. Why then is pairing so often overlooked or not sufficiently implemented? In my experience as a supervisor, I have found that both instructors and parents may view pairing as unproductive play. Everyone is anxious for the “real” (re: structured and teacher-led) instruction to start!!! But pairing is just as important, maybe even more so, than all the programs we will eventually implement!!! Pairing develops the strong foundation upon which all good instruction is built. Without this strong foundation, we will not be effective providers of ABA therapy. Additionally, pairing never ends. Even after the foundation is built, we need to maintain it and keep it strong!!!

What is Pairing?

Very simply, pairing is the process by which you connect yourself (pair yourself) with all the learner’s favorite items and activities (reinforcers). Through these repeated connections, you take on the value of all the good stuff. You are now the ultimate reinforcer or the giver of all good things!!! If you take the time to pair with your learner, he will see you as he sees his favorite toys and activities. He will not only accept your presence, he will want to engage with you, and will be more likely to comply with instructional demands. Does your learner walk away from you or attempt to escape instruction frequently? If so, it’s time to pair!

How Do I Pair?

Pairing can be challenging. The following rules will help get you started and on your way to providing quality ABA therapy.

Rule 1: Have Fun!!!

If you are not enjoying yourself, odds are your learner isn’t either. Have fun and let your learner’s motivation lead the way. If he is lining up cars, join in!!! Start rolling the cars around and making fun sounds, “Vroom!” “Beep-Beep!” He may follow suit. If he likes Baby Shark, sing it often and get silly!!! Bounce and dance with him. Make Baby Shark more fun because you are part of it! Does your learner like the swings? Push him on the swing. Try tickling him while he’s on the swing, pushing him high in the air, or spinning him around. Make swinging more fun because you are part of it! Whatever your learner is interested in doing, join in and make it more fun because you are part of it! Feel free to introduce new ways of playing with the learner’s favorite items. Be enthusiastic, be playful, and embed lots of fun and smiles into your sessions!!!

Rule 2: No Turn-Offs!!!

What is a turn-off? A turn-off is anything you say which requires the learner to respond in a specific way. Do not make demands, give directions, or ask questions. Do narrate and comment. Instead of asking the question, “What color car do you have?” say, “You have a red car” or “I love playing cars!” What may seem like a harmless question to you, may feel like a pop quiz to your learner. Instead of directing the learner, “Look at my plane” or “Go fly the plane” say, “Wow, my plane is flying so high!” During pairing, there should be no requirements of any kind placed on the learner. The learner is allowed to access all his favorite items and activities for free!!!

Rule 3: Restrict Access to Reinforcers!!!

So things are going well and pairing is well underway. Your learner is running toward you and eager to engage with you. Now it’s time to restrict access to reinforcers. This means you will be in control of all reinforcing items/activities and your learner will be required to follow easy demands to access the items/activities. Now that you are familiar with your learner’s highly preferred items, bring a few of your own to the session. Odds are your learner will find the novel items appealing. Introduce an item. Once the learner demonstrates motivation, perhaps by reaching or pointing to the item, require an easy response before delivering that item. For instance, if you have a ball (and your learner is vocal), require him to say, “ball” before giving him the ball. Or, require the learner to “Sit down” before allowing access to the crayons you brought. This can work for a variety of activities. Maybe your learner likes when you lift him into the air. You can require him to first say, “Up.” Or, you can require your learner to “Give me five” before getting the tickles he enjoys. Remember to keep your demands simple so that your learner can easily access his reinforcers.

Rule 4: Play Starts With You and Stays With You!!!

Start engaging your learner in the area you plan to do most of your instruction. Make the instructional area more fun and exciting than any other area in the learner’s environment. Do this by limiting access to reinforcement outside of the instructional area. When the learner is with you in the instructional area, he gets bubbles, tickles, music, piggyback rides, etc. These reinforcers disappear when the learner opts to leave the instructional area. But they come back as soon as he returns. If the reinforcer is a toy, make certain your learner does not remove it from the instructional area. Perhaps you have brought a MagnaDoodle and your learner cannot get enough of it. You are ooohing and aaahing as your learner scribbles when he decides to take the MagnaDoodle to another room. Let the learner know he is free to go to another room, but the MagnaDoodle stays with you. By doing this, you set up yourself and the instructional area as the learner’s most reinforcing option. Your learner’s choice should be reinforcement with you or no reinforcement at all.

Pairing Never Ends!

There is no timetable, schedule, or formula for pairing. It may take a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks, depending on the learner. But once you have determined that you are sufficiently paired with your learner, do not stop pairing!!! Pairing should be built into every session of ABA therapy. Pair at the top of your sessions; pair before task demands; pair toward the end of your sessions. In other words, embed pairing into all your sessions. Alternate pairing and instruction (leaning more heavily on pairing) so that the learner will not be able to differentiate between the two. This ensures that your learner will want to stay with you for longer and longer periods of time. This increases the likelihood that your learner will choose to engage with you and comply with your directions. Ultimately, this builds the positive rapport needed to foster a healthy therapeutic environment where new skills are learned.


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