Maintenance: Why Practicing Skills After they are Learned is so Important!

10/22/2019 by Megan Moore, BCBA

Maintenance occurs when known skills are practiced even after the skills have been mastered. Children with autism can sometimes have a harder time holding onto skills that they may have known like the back of their hand at one time. Performing regular maintenance checks on skills that you know your child has mastered will help them retain the skill and promote generalization across:

Settings

Your child will be able to perform the skill in many different environments. For example, your son has been taught to tolerate waiting for a preferred item. You can practice this at home when he asks for a turn on the iPad. You can practice this at the store when he wants to go to look at the toys but you need to grab a few things first. You can also practice this at church when you are talking to someone but he wants to go to the playground. By practicing this skill in so many different environments, you will ensure that he knows how to wait for something he wants no matter where you may be in the community.

Time

Your child will still be able to perform the skill regardless of how much time passes. The skills your child learns in ABA are meant to give them the tools they need in order to live independent, successful, and fulfilling lives. Therefore, it’s important that they always remember how to do these skills! For example, you want your daughter to learn at an early age to call 911 if there is an emergency. You have practiced it with her and feel confident that she knows how to do it, so you stop practicing. Years later, your daughter is 15 and often stays home alone for brief periods of time. You quickly run down to the grocery store, but while you are gone your dog knocks a candle over and the curtains catch on fire. If you haven’t practiced dialing 911 since she was five years old, your daughter might not remember that she needs to call 911.

People

Your child will perform the same skill for a wide variety of people. If your child only practices a skill with one person, they might only be willing or able to perform the skill for that specific person. For example, it’s important that your son responds to “clean up” when told by both parents, his teacher, his babysitter, and his grandmother! You want him to be able to clean up when told to do so by many different people, not just one.

Running maintenance checks and promoting generalization can be easy and fun to do with your child! Here are some tips to help you:

  1. Find learning opportunities in the natural environment. The natural environment can be a great place to practice your child’s skills in situations that they would normally encounter them. Maybe you have been working with your daughter on responding to greetings, and your family members practice this at home often. The next time you are checking out in line at the grocery store, you can (out of your daughter’s earshot) ask the cashier to say “Hi, how are you today?” to her. This way, she gets practice in another setting and with a different person! It’s also a situation that will likely occur often in her life, so it’s great to practice any chance you get.
  2. No matter how tempting it is, don’t do it for them. You are busy, and it can be so tempting to do something yourself rather than letting your child do it because it will be quicker, less messy, more correct, or all of the above! Resist this temptation as much as you can so that your child doesn’t lose out on valuable learning opportunities. For example, your son learned how to tie his shoes, but it still takes him a little bit of time. Even though you could do in 30 seconds what takes him 5 minutes, it’s important for him to do it himself in order to retain the skill and practice going faster in the future!
  3. Keep your child’s mastered goals on index cards for easy reference. It can be hard to remember exactly what your child has worked on in therapy. Communicate with your child’s team of therapists and ask them to tell you what they are working on and when they have mastered it. When a skill is mastered, you can put it on an index card and add it to their Home Maintenance Box. Every morning you can pull one or multiple cards to remind you of things to practice that day, whether it’s just quickly asking them “Hey, what number do you call if there’s an emergency?” or telling them “in a minute” when they ask for your phone. You can cycle through the stack of cards so that every so often, each skill is getting some practice!

These are just some of the ways that you can promote generalization with your child’s skills. They have worked hard to learn them, and by working together as a family, you can make sure they are able to use them in many different ways for years to come. Remember, it doesn’t have to be daunting or time consuming - even checking in on one skill a day will go very far!

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