Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused; ASD and DD, Child-focused

Generalization is the ability to complete a task, perform an activity, or display a behavior across settings, with different people, and at different times. The reason we are able to complete everyday tasks in a variety of situations and settings is that we have “generalized” the skills involved.

For example, most of us turn on lights, fasten jackets, and open doors without much thought or effort. These are tasks we can complete in a variety of ways. We might turn on a light by flipping a switch, pushing a button, or pulling a string. We can fasten our jackets with zippers, buttons, clasps, or Velcro. When we learned to do these things, we learned to manipulate a variety of “materials” to achieve the same result. We also learned to manipulate these materials in different settings. For example, opening the front door of your own home is very similar to opening the front door of someone else’s home, a car door, or the door of the nearest fast food restaurant.

Generalization is a major goal for behavior analysts who work with individuals with special needs. It is important because it increases the likelihood that the learner will be successful at completing a task independently and not have to rely on the assistance of a certain teacher or materials only found in one teaching setting.

The importance of the generalization of skills is often overlooked. When someone learns new skills and behaviors, the expectation is that he or she will automatically generalize them. However, educators and analysts who work with children and adults with learning deficits and other challenges must not only teach new skills, but also employ additional strategies to increase the likelihood that their students will be able to generalize those skills.

Teachers and analysts should use a variety of materials during training sessions. For instance, when teaching an adult to operate a washing machine, it is a good idea to give him or her opportunities not only to operate the washing machine at home, but also at different locations such as at someone else’s house or at a laundromat. He or she should learn to operate a microwave that requires the turn of a dial, as well as one requiring the push of a button.

Another consideration for teaching generalization is the format of the training session. Initially, teaching sessions should be very controlled and structured. Once the student has mastered the skill, however, generalization can become the goal, and the training sessions can become more “loose.” This might mean varying the duration of the sessions, scheduling the sessions at different times of day, using different teachers, and changing the wording of the instructions given.

A reward schedule is also crucial when teaching generalization. It is always important to reward correct responses, especially when teaching a new skill or behavior. But after a skill or behavior has been learned, the frequency at which rewards are given can be decreased. A teacher might initially give a child learning sign language access to a preferred item, such as an edible treat or a small toy, each time he or she demonstrates a sign correctly. However, once he or she has learned the signs, the reward might be given only after he or she demonstrates two or three consecutive signs correctly.

As a clinician working with adults with special needs, I frequently encounter situations in which generalization is a necessity. We sometimes need to replace the appliances in our community-based group homes, and the residents must learn to operate new ones. There are also times when a substitute teacher is present or when the training session must be postponed or shortened due to unexpected events.

Teaching generalization skills to children and adults with special needs ensures their success despite changing circumstances. It provides these individuals with more ways to achieve desired outcomes and more opportunities to be successful in many different settings, thereby increasing their independence and self-confidence.

By Teka J. Harris, M.A., BCBA

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit