Why Crossroads School for Children
Crossroads Center for Children opened in Glenville, New York in 1998 as a private non profit school serving a small group of children diagnosed with autism. Today the school is located in Schenectady County and enrolls approximately 80 children from 20 school districts in the surrounding eight counties. Additionally, the school now enrolls typically developing students for the integrated daycare program. Integration in preschool and beyond is becoming increasingly common as the advantages for both students with disabilities and their typically developing peers are recognized. Both groups of children benefit from building friendships with people who are unique and this arrangement fosters tolerance and empathy. Both groups learn valuable lessons from critical thinking and social skills instruction, in addition to the quality academic programming.
Children that are enrolled in the program for special education services are either diagnosed on the autism spectrum or can simply benefit from a behaviorally based educational program. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is the fundamental approach for instruction at Crossroads Center for Children and incorporates some of the following techniques:
This is a strategy that uses a least-to-most prompting methodology to teach skills. Typically, discrete trial teaching (DTT) involves a therapist working individually with a student at a table. The therapist will give the child a direction or ask them to perform a skill (“show me red”) and wait for the child to demonstrate the skill. If the child does not respond or responds incorrectly, the therapist will model for the child the correct answer (therapist shows the student which object is red) and then repeats the direction. If the student responds incorrectly or does not respond, the therapist will physically prompt the student to perform the task (therapist will take the child’s hand and place it on the red object). Data are collected during this procedure to indicate whether the student was immediately accurate, needed the model, or required physical prompting to complete the task. Data are reviewed to assess progress and make program changes. Positive reinforcement is used to establish the new skills and maintain motivation. This procedure is very predictable and involves a lot of practice and repetition, which is exactly what some students need to learn.
This teaching method occurs within the everyday context of a classroom setting. Throughout the day, therapists use naturally occurring opportunities to teach students new skills within regularly occurring routines without breaking the flow of the ongoing activity. The staff member can prompt the student through learning new play behaviors during dramatic play times, prompt them to complete tasks of daily living such as throwing away trash or washing hands, encourage social interaction with peers, and target specific curricular goals and goals related to their Individualized Educational Program (IEP) during activities stipulated in the teacher’s lesson plan (cut, paste, identify colors and shapes, etc. during art). Least-to-most prompting, along with reinforcement is used throughout the school day to accomplish this. This is also called generalization training because goals that are specifically taught in a discrete trial teaching format are tested in the natural environment for carry over of skills.
This least-to-most prompting technique is used to encourage students to independently initiate requests. Staff members ‘set the stage’ for spontaneous language throughout the day (e.g. put the art activity out without any paint, set up for snack and withhold the food item, etc.) and then wait a brief period of time for students to independently request the item that they need (e.g. paint or snack item). If the student does not request, the staff member will then position the item within their view to prompt a request. If that is ineffective they will them model an appropriate request to another staff member so that the student may benefit from observing someone requesting and accessing the item. Staff members move through the prompting hierarchy until the student has requested the item. Over time, students become more proficient in initiating independent requests.
Often, the goal is to teach students a skill that involves a chain of behaviors. An example of such a skill is tying one’s shoe, washing hands, or brushing teeth. These are examples of skills that require behaviors to be performed in a specific sequence for the task to be accurately completed. A task analysis involves breaking the skill up into all its component behaviors. Data are collected on the student’s ability to perform each behavior that comprises the skill. Then, a decision is made regarding how to teach the chain of behaviors (backward or forward chaining for example). This method allows for a more systematic view of the student’s ability to perform a complex chain of behaviors, targets specific behaviors in the chain where breakdown may be occurring, and reinforces the student for incremental improvements in their ability to perform the skill.
The staff at Crossroads is constantly looking for opportunities for students to interact with each other. They are available to help facilitate social exchanges and navigate difficult social situations on an on-going basis. Additionally, conversation skills are targeted during natural opportunities, such as mealtimes, using a method called Topic Box. Topic Box involves having students discuss an item or picture selected by a teacher or another student. Doing so helps the student develop listening skills, topic maintenance (especially when the topic is not related to their own interests), initiate and maintain eye contact, and encourages verbal exchanges. Role play situations are also used to help students practice appropriate social behavior. Every student who attends program will have several social goals targeted throughout the year. These goals are specific to the student’s strengths and weaknesses.
Crossroads employs predictable schedules and routines. Even with this regularity, behavior problems related to routines arise. Visual schedules use picture and written cues to organize the student’s day. Staff members frequently refer the student to their visual schedule to review what activities they have already participated in, the lesson they will currently take part in, and what they will be doing next. Additional visual prompts can be included that relate to behavioral expectations during instruction and/or materials necessary for participation in lessons. The example above describes the use of a visual schedule for depicting the student’s daily routine. However, visual schedules can also be used to organize requirements for a specific activity and can be incorporated into task analysis. For example, a visual schedule can be made that demonstrates all of the steps necessary for washing one’s hands.
Play activity schedules make use of picture and written prompts to organize play times. Pictures or words are arranged in a book so that the student will participate in the activities as they are sequenced. Activities are either naturally ending or an auditory cue is used to alert the student to look at their book and go to the next activity in the sequence. Verbal prompting is not used during this process so that the students may become as independent as possible in using their play activity book. Parents often have their child use a play activity book at home while they prepare dinner or get ready to leave the house. These activity books can be used on an individual or group basis and can incorporate social interaction requirements such as being the group leader or asking a friend to play.
A picture exchange communication system (PECS) is a form of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) that uses pictures instead of words to help children communicate. PECS was designed especially for children with autism and other related developmental disabilities who have delays in speech development.
PECS begins by teaching an individual to give a picture of a desired item to a “communicative partner”, who immediately honors the exchange as a request. The system goes on to systematically teach discrimination of pictures and how to put them together in sentences. In the more advanced phases, individuals are taught to answer questions and to comment.
A goal of Crossroads is to prepare students for their next placement. Therefore, expectations for academics, social skills, and behavior are consistent with these settings. Students learn to navigate typical school related social situations throughout the day. However, there are some unique situations that students need specific instruction in to be successful. Staff members use group lessons involving brainstorming and role play to teach students how to react appropriately. An example of this would be discussing ‘stranger danger’. Students and staff will discuss the topic, create rules related to the topic, and role play a situation that involves a stranger. Arrangements can be made to bring an unfamiliar adult into the school to test for generalization of these skills.
This is an assessment procedure that results in identifying the precursors for, and variables that maintain problem behavior. Behavior is viewed as communication and an effort is made to determine what the function of the behavior is for the student. Records are reviewed, the student in observed, and all important stakeholders are interviewed to gather information for the assessment. Staff can also set up the environment and react to behavior in specific ways to test the effect it has on behavior. In doing so, more information is gathered regarding the purpose of the problem behavior. A behavior intervention plan is developed using the information from this assessment.
Positive reinforcement is the backbone of the program. Students are continuously rewarded for their accuracy and effort. Reinforcers increase the future occurrence of behaviors. Therefore, it is extremely important to identify what consequences are reinforcing for a student. This is important not only for increasing appropriate behavior, but also for decreasing inappropriate behaviors. New behaviors are strengthened, maintained, and shaped by using various schedules of reinforcement. Inappropriate behaviors are addressed by removing the reinforcer that maintained it so that the behavior no longer ‘works’ for the student. The reinforcer that previously maintained the inappropriate behavior will be applied to a new replacement behavior. In this way, patterns of problem behaviors can be changed.
Reinforcers are identified by observing students, discussing preferences with them and their significant others, or by conducting systematic preference assessments. There are many advantages, and no disadvantages, to using positive reinforcement. The effectiveness of behavior plans rests on the ability to identify and properly use reinforcers.
This technique involves providing varying levels of assistance and support to students as needed. All classrooms operate using structured and consistent schedules, visual prompts, predictable prompting techniques, clear student expectations, and reward systems for appropriate behavior. Staff members are also trained to view behavior as communication and consider the function, or purpose, of behaviors as they are engaged in by students and use that information to respond in ways that encourage appropriate behavior and discourage the future occurrence of inappropriate behaviors. Most students thrive with these basic supports in place. However, there are some students that continue to engage in problem behaviors that require more specific assessment and individualized programming. If this is the case, a functional behavior assessment will be conducted to guide the creation of an individualized behavior plan. All plans rely on preventative techniques, positive reinforcement, and instruction of replacement behaviors. Aversive techniques are never used at the center.