On Pairing

by Mike Miklos

The term pairing is often discussed in autism support programs that use a behavior analytic approach. It is important that the term be understood so that it can be of assistance in the design and delivery of effective instructional programs.

Pairing involves the presentation of two stimuli (a stimulus is any environmental event that can effect behavior) simultaneously or in close temporal proximity (this means that one event occurs at the same time as another event or very soon afterwards.)

Two events that occur in close proximity of time can end up having similar effects on behavior.

For example, showing meat to a dog will cause the dog to salivate. If a bell is consistently rung just prior to the meat being presented (within a second of the meat), eventually the dog will salivate when they hear the bell, even if no meat is presented. The sound of the bell has been paired with the stimulus of meat and then acquires a similar effect on behavior.

The point is pairing of events can have an effect on behavior.

Here is another example: if a hungry rat is given a pellet of food right after a light comes on (the light is paired with delivery of food), the light will become valuable to the rat (it becomes a reinforcer: it can affect the future probability of behavior.) Therefore, the rat can be taught to pull a string to turn on the light (the rat will work to obtain the light.)

What this means for us as educators concerned about children with autism, is that when we are “pairing” we need to know the following:
1. What is the stimulus that already affects behavior?
2. What is the stimulus that we want to have the same effect as the already effective stimulus?
3. What is the behavior we are concerned about?

So, if I am sitting with a student and giving the student bits of food (or puzzle pieces, or toys, or tickles, etc), would that be pairing? If so what is being paired and what is the behavior of concern?

The answer to the first question is yes, it is pairing. I am pairing the access to food (or puzzle pieces, or toys, or tickles, etc) with my presence. Food and me go together! The answer to the second question is that the behavior of staying near me, of taking things from me, and remaining calm are being paired with my presence. My hope is that the child will learn to like being with me even when I don’t deliver food (or puzzle pieces, or toys, or tickles, etc.) I would have to be careful, however, to not pair access to the food if the child did something just prior to the delivery that I did want to have happen more often. For instance, even though the child is staying near me, if the food is given while he is also pouting or screaming, I may risk increasing both staying near me and pouting or screaming. Whatever the child is doing at the time of “pairing” will increase in future probability. (This is another way of saying that reinforcement has an effect on any behavior that immediately precedes it.)

One problem is that children with autism have strong deficits in many skill areas. They need to learn to do more than just accept the presence of a teacher. It is important to remember that pairing the teacher with reinforcers is not enough. Teachers need to have in mind a direction in which the pairing is going. What is the next step once the child accepts staying near the teacher? Is it learning to ask for the food (or puzzle pieces, or toys, or tickles, etc)? Learning to imitate a simple action? Labeling objects, pictures or events? Cooperating with a few simple teaching trials? Pairing for the sake of establishing the teacher as a reinforcer needs to happen often to increase the value of interacting with other people. Once adults are valued, cooperation with instructional requirements can be gradually established. We have to be dogged in making sure that the student is learning to comply with learning tasks that teach critical skills for language, social skills, and academic competence. The type of cooperation that is originally paired with reinforcement will depend on what skills are easy for the student to emit. Starting with easy skills allows teachers to fade in demands.

Antecedent events are things that happen just before a student emits a response. Consequence events are events that occur following a behavior and alter the probability of that behavior occurring again in the future. The pairing of stimuli (events) can occur in both the antecedent condition as well as the consequence condition. In the antecedent condition, pairing can be used to establish transfer of stimulus control. The child may know how to tact (label) a picture of an airplane, but not answer the question “what flies?” So through presenting the question “what flies?” and then immediately showing the picture of an airplane, the student will be likely to say “airplane” and the teacher can then reinforce appropriately. Immediately re-asking the question without the picture present helps the child learn to demonstrate the skill without the picture prompt. The question (what flies?) then takes on the same stimulus control as the picture. The child learns to answer the question with no tact (picture) prompt because of the pairing process.

Pairing in the consequence condition may also help establish new stimuli as potential reinforcers. For instance, If a child looks in a certain direction and is then shown a toy dog, for instance, and then immediately is given some other preferred item, after repeated experience with this arrangement, the child may begin to enjoy seeing the toy dog. The child’s looking may be increased because of an opportunity to see the toy dog. This would happen because seeing the toy dog has been paired with the other preferred item.

At any point in an ABA program, the process of pairing is important. Please be aware that if you say you are pairing, you need to be able to define what is being paired and which behavior or skill you are teaching. How quickly you fade the pairing process and how you use pairing will be determined by the child’s motivation and skills set.

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