Updated: Apr 28
Have you ever found yourself wondering why your child is able to exhibit a skill in one specific setting, but not the other? Or why your child can identify your pet dog as a "dog" but can't seem to recognize that a dog that looks a bit different than the family pet is still a dog? This may be due to challenges with generalization.
Generalization is a term used across fields to indicate when an individual’s response or behavior is produced in contexts where it was not directly taught. For example, if a specific skill was targeted in a clinic setting, we should see the learner use that skill at home, school, the park, etc.
If we do not have the ability to use skills that we have been taught when we need to use them, then one must question if those skills are functional. Therefore, we should think about generalization at the on-set of services, rather than something we do later in the intervention process.
We can program for generality by the way we teach, and we can do that by:
1. Teaching multiple examples
2. Varying your instructions
3. Teaching across many different settings or people
4. Choosing functional & meaningful targets for intervention
5. Remembering that learning occurs 24-hours a day
Teach Multiple Examples
Let’s face it, learning language is quite tricky. It is amazing that for some it comes so easily. For example, when you think of the word “dog” I am sure that many different images come to mind. Dogs with fluffy fur, some with spots, some with short tails, long tails, short legs, long legs, floppy ears or pointed ears, the list goes on and on. Yet, when we see a dog regardless of its characteristics, we know that it is in fact a dog. For some, however it is not that simple. For some learners, we must teach them multiple examples of dog to assist them in understanding that despite these varied characteristics it is still a dog.
A general rule when teaching to ensure that generalization occurs, is after teaching multiple examples to conduct a generalization probe. This consists of showing the learner novel examples of the target to see if they can identify or label the target correctly. So, in this example, you would show the learner pictures of dogs that were not used in instruction. If the learner demonstrates understanding of “dog” then we can presume that they have generalized their understanding of “dog”. If, however they could not however demonstrate such generalization then you would need to go back and teach a few more examples and conduct a generalization probe again. Once the learner is consistently able to respond correctly to novel untrained situations, stimulus generalization has occurred, and the learner can be said to have mastered the skill.
Vary Your Instructions
There are multiple ways to say things that have the same meaning. For example, if you want someone to show you something, you could say, “Get the ____”, “Touch the ____ “, “Point to ____”, “Hand me ____” or ask, “Where is ___.” It is important for a learner to understand that despite the words being different, the words essentially mean the same thing. So, when instructing your student or client, it can be helpful to use a variety of different words/phrases so that they learn the meaning of each. This is important because the language used at home could vary from language used by a classroom teacher, or a job setting.
Teach Across Different Settings & People
You can program for generalization across people by having various caregivers carry out the tasks with the learner. Train the learner’s caregivers to ensure that they are not anticipating the learner’s needs and doing everything for them but are instead allowing the learner to use the skills that have been targeted during teaching when opportunities arise. For example, a child will never learn to tie their shoes if their caregivers continue to tie them for her outside of therapy sessions.
Program for generalization across settings by working on targeted skills in various settings, such as in different rooms of the learner’s home, in school, and in other relevant settings. In addition to programming for generalization via contrived teaching opportunities, capture opportunities that allow the learner to continue to use newly taught skills when opportunities occur in everyday life. For example, when teaching flexibility, use every opportunity that naturally arises to teach the learner to tolerate things not going the way he thinks they should go such as drying their hands with a towel at home, a paper towel at school, and an air dryer at the shopping mall.
Choose Functional & Meaningful Targets for Intervention
There are a variety of factors to consider when determining what to work on with a learner, such as the funding source, desires of the family/caregivers, barriers to learning that may be present, the number of hours available for therapy and the age of the learner. It is certainly a heavy responsibility for practitioners to figure out. Beyond just deciding what you are going to teach the individual, much thought and consideration needs to go into why you are selecting specific targets for intervention. For example, if teaching the names of animals it might be more functional to teach rabbit versus elephant if the family has a pet rabbit.
Creating a treatment plan must involve the primary caregivers, and as much as possible the individual receiving treatment. Client preferences, personality, family culture, and client choice must be considered.
Learning Occurs 24- Hours a Day
Remember that learning occurs outside of the therapy session. In fact, it is critical that caregivers have the tools to target skills outside of sessions since they are with their child for many more hours of the day.
Establishing generalization should not only occur during planned times. Pre-planned times are necessary, but every moment that a child is awake is another opportunity to learn something, or practice what they are learning in their therapy sessions. For example, regardless of where you are or what time it is, if a child wants something, that’s an opportunity to practice generalizing requests.
The take-home point here is keep introducing new targets and work on teaching skills across various people and settings until generalization to new scenarios is observed. Do not consider a skill mastered until generalization is observed.