Pairing in ABA Therapy
What is pairing?
Pairing refers to developing a positive rapport with a learner. Relationship building between a therapist and a learner is critical for ABA therapy to be successful—the pairing process is essential in creating a fun, working relationship with the learner! Without this foundation, treatment is less likely to be effective.
So, why then is pairing often overlooked?
Pairing can be seen as unproductive play by parents and therapists alike, but while they might be waiting for the “real” learning to start, pairing is just as important, if not more important, since it sets the entire foundation! Additionally, pairing never ends. Even after the foundation is made, it must be maintained to keep it strong.
How do you pair?
Pairing is the process by which you pair yourself with your learner’s favorite items and activities; we call these reinforcers. If you take time to pair with your learner, they will not only accept your presence, but they will also choose to engage with you and are more likely to comply with instructional demands.
Tips for successful pairing
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! The goal is for this activity to be even more fun with you involved. For example, if a client is playing with cars and chooses a red car, you could enthusiastically say, “A red car! What a fun choice!” Then, proceed to select your vehicle and play alongside them. Start rolling the cars around and making funny 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!
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!” There should be no requirements of any kind placed on the learner during pairing. This includes specific demands such as “Walk with me” or “Stop.” Follow your learner’s lead instead of having them follow yours. Do what they want to do; make it all about them!
When does pairing end?
There is no timetable, schedule, or formula for pairing. Depending on the learner, it may take a few days or a few weeks to build rapport. Once you have determined that you are sufficiently paired with your learner, do not stop pairing! To preserve the reputation you have gained with your learner and uphold the working relationship you have built, continue to incorporate pairing in all sessions.
Here are a few key ways to tell that you are paired with your learner.
- Increase in attending,
- Decrease in maladaptive behaviors,
- Follows you vs. you following them, and
- Compliance with simple demands as they are introduced.
Once the foundation is built, you will alternate pairing and instruction (leaning more heavily on pairing) so that the learner will not differentiate between the two. This ensures that the learner will want to stay with you for more extended periods, increasing 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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