Importance of Establishing a Willing Learner

The moment a Learner walks through our doors on their first day is the moment we begin to develop a rapport between the Learner and the individuals in his/her environment. It is critical that the child continue to enjoy being with people and see learning as a “good thing”!

The primary job of the Therapist (or Behavior Technician) is to teach the child that when they show up, great things happen! The therapist and learning environment are neutral or maybe even aversive stimuli. We need to pair the therapists, materials and the environment with reinforcement. This can be established in numerous ways, but the initial way is to observe the child and interact with him in a way the child finds enjoyable. We observe how he likes to be touched (i.e., tickled, spun, chased, etc.) what kinds of voices he enjoys (i.e., soft, loud, enthusiastic, etc.), how he responds to different facial expressions, what toys he prefers to play with. It is crucial when we interact with the child that we do not require any responding or effort.

Pairing with reinforcement is imperative as it teaches the child to associate his therapists, therapy area, and therapy materials with good things. The therapist, environment, and teaching materials have to be paired with positive reinforcement before any work can take place.  The Portia Curriculum has hundreds of comprehensive Tasks and Targets for all Learner levels that is compatible with the VB-MAPP, ABLLS-R and ESDM assessment tools. Our team of Board Certified Behavior Analysts will reference our curriculum through Portia Software. At the outset of therapy, our BCBA’s will utilize the Portia instructional Curriculum and introduce program goals that focus on pairing themselves with reinforcement, environment, as well as teaching materials.

Strategies for pairing

  1. Identify as many preferred items as possible.
  2. Have a large supply and a wide variety of items to give the Learner.
  3. Approach the Learner and deliver items non-contingently (i.e. without requiring the Learner to ask or work to earn that item).
  4. Always be a giver and not a taker. If your item can be broken into smaller pieces, do this to increase the number of “gives”. If the Learner has been playing with an item for a while, offer other items.
  5. Try to deliver items several times per minute.
  6. Talk to the Learner but do not expect them to talk back. Use statements, not demands. For example, “That toy is so fun!” (statement) is different than “Is that toy fun?!” (demand).
  7. Follow the Learner’s changing interests. If the Learner get bored with an item, offer another item.
  8. Actively manipulate the environment and interact with the Learner so that you are required for maximum enjoyment of the activity.

Common pairing mistakes

  1. Placing demands on the Learner. It is necessary to first build rapport before teaching.
  2. Lack of active interaction with the Learner. Pairing is an active process and will not be effective if the therapist just sits in the room while the Learner does his/her own thing.
  3. Infrequent delivery of items and/or delivering non-preferred items. If highly preferred items are not given frequently, the pairing will be less effective.

Establishing a willing Learner is worth the effort and time put in as it allows the child to contact behaviours that open their world to new contingencies.

To view a sample of the Portia Curriculum – Instructional Module please click here:


The information in this blog is for general information purposes only and is not intended to provide any type of professional advice. Portia does not guaranty the accuracy or reliability of any information contained in this blog from third party sources. You should consult a Board Certified Behavior Analyst or other qualified professional for specific advice. Portia International assumes no responsibility for any reliance made on or misuse or omissions of the information contained in this blog.

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