Creating Successful Educational Experiences

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

Educators often encounter students who become frustrated when asked to do challenging academic work. In some situations, this frustration may be the result of the mismatch between the student’s skill level and the difficulty level of the assigned task. As a consequence, these students are likely to “shut down” and refuse to continue with an assignment. Unfortunately, teachers may unintentionally reinforce this “escape” behavior by allowing noncompliance, thereby ensuring it will occur again in similar situations.

Similarly, parents are likely to experience times when their children refuse to cooperate with a request to participate in an activity. Children who are successful in avoiding undesirable tasks – whether completing a chore or finishing homework – are likely to try these escape tactics again.

What can teachers and parents do to get children to cooperate?

One potential solution involves a strategy called “behavioral momentum.” Researchers in the fields of psychology and education have shown that, in order to increase the likelihood that children will follow instructions they normally do not follow, it is often effective to give instructions they are likely to follow first, and then praise them when they comply. Then, immediately after offering praise, present instructions they are less likely to follow. This strategy greatly increases the likelihood of compliance.

According to this strategy, children who are unwilling to take out the trash but are willing to walk the dog would be more likely to take out the trash if they were asked to do so immediately after being praised for walking the dog. Likewise, students who are rewarded for completing simple math equations are more likely to comply when asked to attempt harder problems.

Another powerful and easy-to-implement strategy to help students learn new, fact-based information is called “folding-in.” This strategy, similar to using flash cards, attempts to build momentum and success by carefully interspersing known information with unknown information. Researchers have shown that learning is enhanced when new information is taught using a 30/70 ratio of unknown material to known material. With this method, students learning new material feel successful because they have mastered much of the material, and are never asked to learn more than 30% of what is presented.

This strategy can be used to successfully teach students of all ages different kinds of fact-based information – everything from letter and word recognition to chemical equations. The trick to this technique is frequent repetition of unknown and known information at the 30/70 ratio to ensure ongoing success and, subsequently, to promote a willingness to continue the learning process. Because successful implementation of this strategy ultimately leads to increased information known (and less unknown), teachers and parents need to continually monitor the process, adding more unknown information as necessary.

Teachers and parents may also want to reconsider the traditional flash card method of only drilling students with stacks of unknown information. When your student or child sits down to learn new words, math facts, or other information, remember to keep a healthy amount of known information in the mix to encourage ongoing effort with occasional success.

It is important to remember that motivation and learning are influenced by the success learners have with instructional demands. Setting up frequent opportunities for success and reinforcing children’s efforts make it more likely that they will engage in more challenging tasks in the future.

By Patrick F. Heick, Ph.D., BCBA-D​

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