Four children, from 4 to 7 years of age, participated in this study. All were diagnosed with autism by an outside state agency and exhibited symptoms of autism including delays in communication, difficulty with socialization, and restricted interests. Three of the four participants were fully-included and the fourth spent part of his day in regular education and part in a special education classroom for children with autism. All were selected for participation in this study due to parent report of significant difficulties with academics. Table 1 summarizes the age, gender, ethnicity, grade level, target academic tasks, and educational placement for each of the participants.
Robbie. Robbie’s academic functioning was below grade level; but he was able to participate in the general education curriculum with modifications. However, when asked to engage in assignments, particularly involving writing or math, Robbie exhibited disruptive behavior such as crying, flopping on the floor, leaving the work area and hiding. In addition, his parents reported that his problem behaviors were escalating and he was having increasing difficulty with academic tasks.
Annie. Annie could read and write at grade level, but her performance was negatively affected by disruptive behavior such as refusing to engage in the academic task, crying, yelling, spitting, and kicking. Annie’s parents reported that she was often isolated at school and home as a consequence of her aggressive behavior during academic tasks. Her parents also reported that her disruptive behavior during academic tasks was increasing.
Aidan. Aidan had a long history of disruptive behavior during academic tasks. His disruptive behavior included kicking, hitting, and lengthy tantrums when asked to engage in an academic task. In addition, his parents reported that the school had threatened expulsion due to his repeated aggression during academic tasks.
Mitchell. When presented with pre-academic writing and math tasks, Mitchell attempted to run away, hide, and throw materials. According to his parents, Mitchell rarely completed academic tasks and was showing increasing amounts of disruptive behavior during pre-academic tasks.
A non-concurrent multiple baseline across participants and behaviors design was used to evaluate the effects of the intervention. Baseline sessions were systematically staggered across participants with 3, 5, 7, and 9 sessions, for Robbie, Annie, Aidan, and Mitchell, respectively.
Prior to the start of the study, child-preferred reinforcers were identified based on observation and parent report. Sessions took place in the children’s homes, and afterschool daycare program for Annie. During the sessions, writing and math tasks were presented following the protocol described in the independent variable section, below. Data were collected during each session and video probes were systematically collected biweekly throughout all conditions of the study for the purpose of calculating reliability.
This study examined differences in child behaviors across baseline and intervention conditions for writing and math activities. In both conditions, the writing or math task was presented in the following format: The child was asked by an adult to engage in a math or writing task and told that child-preferred reinforcers could be earned contingent upon completion of the work. In both conditions, the task was provided at a fixed difficulty level and the numbers of problems/sentences presented to the child during each session were held constant. The writing tasks ranged from writing a single letter to writing multiple sentences. In the intervention condition the shorter writing tasks were interspersed with longer ones. The actual letter, word, or sentence, was directly related to the natural reinforcer. Similarly for math, the tasks ranged from adding or subtracting single digit numbers (e.g. 2 + 3, 7 − 5) to double digit numbers (e.g. 24 + 57, 75 − 45). Easier math problems (e.g. 1 + 1) were interspersed with more difficult ones (e.g. 5 + 3). Child specific interests were incorporated into the task, which allowed for a wider variety of tasks and same tasks were not presented repeatedly. Specific procedures are described below.
During baseline, the adult presented a writing or math activity and asked the child to complete the task in order to earn a child-chosen reinforcer. The adult provided the materials for the task and chose the specific setting for the task (e.g. dining room table or desk). The reinforcer, although child-preferred, was not related to, or embedded within the task. For example, during a writing session, the adult may have told the child, “It’s time to do some writing. Let’s sit at the table.” After sitting down the adult said, “Here’s paper and a pencil. Write some sentences about your family. After you’re done you can play outside.” During math baseline, the adult said, “It’s time to do some math. Let’s sit down at your desk.” Once the child was seated the adult said, “Here’s paper and pencil, finish these problems. After you’re done you can have a bowl of cheerios.”
During the intervention, the adult presented a writing or math activity and asked the child to complete the task in order to earn a child chosen reinforcer, as in the baseline condition. However, during intervention, motivational components were incorporated within the task. Specifically, the adult provided choices of the materials that could be used and the choice of the setting where the task could be carried out. In addition, the reinforcer was embedded within the task to provide a natural reward, and easy tasks were interspersed with the target tasks. For example, in the writing intervention, the adult said, “It’s time to do some writing. Do you want to use a pencil or a marker?” After the materials were chosen, the adult asked, “Where would you like to sit?” Once the child was sitting where he or she wanted to, the adult said, “Write some sentences about playing outside. After you’re done you can play outside.” Another child was particularly fascinated by maps. He was asked to write the word “chalk” or “I want to draw a map” to be able to earn the chalk to draw maps of the city.
In math intervention, the adult said, “It’s time to do math. What would you like to use, a crayon or a pen?” After the materials were chosen, the adult asked, “Do you want to sit at the table or on the floor?” Once seated, the adult continued, “Let’s use your cheerios to do these problems. After you finish, you can eat the cheerios you added.” Depending on the child’s interests, the math task could use edibles such as gummy trains (if trains are the interest) or plastic pieces of a game that the child preferred to play. Consequently the task could be “Add 5 + 3 with these gummy trains and you can eat the gummy trains” or “Subtract 3 − 2 with the ducks and then you can use the duck for your next turn (using the desired game).”
Post Intervention data were collected for all four participants during the post-intervention period, at least 2 weeks after intervention had been faded. During Post Intervention, four adults who were unfamiliar to the child and blind to the purpose of this study, were asked to engage the child in a math or writing activity. Data were collected on each of the four dependent variables.
Four dependent variables were used in this study, as follow.
Latency was defined as the number of minutes it took the child to begin the task once the adult had presented the instruction to do a writing or math assignment. Timing began immediately after instruction to complete the task was presented, and ended once the child began the activity as evidenced by engaging in the task, such as putting the pencil to paper and beginning to write or using fingers or other objects to count for math.
In order to obtain data on the child’s productivity, the rate of assignment units completed was calculated based on the average number of letters written or math problems completed per minute.
Disruptive behavior was recorded using a continuous 30 s interval recording system. Disruptive behavior included crying, screaming, aggression such as kicking, hitting or spitting, refusal to respond, running away from the task, turning away from the task, or flopping onto the floor or other furniture. If the interval was characterized by one or more of the behaviors mentioned above, the interval was scored as disruptive. The number of intervals with disruptive behavior was divided by the total number of 30 s intervals to calculate an overall percentage of 30 s intervals in which the child engaged in disruptive behavior.
Interest was coded on a 5 point Likert scale adapted from Koegel and Egel (1979). The duration of the writing or math activity was broken down into 30 s intervals in order to code the level of interest shown by the child within each interval. For level of interest, observers’ ratings in the 0–1 range indicated low interest, ratings in the 2–3 range indicated neutral interest, and ratings in the 4–5 range indicated high interest (See Table 2). An average interest score was obtained for each probe by adding up the total interest scores and dividing by the total number of intervals.
Two independent, B.A. level observers, naïve to the experimental hypothesis of the study, scored videotapes of the writing and math sessions and recorded data for all dependent measures for each child. Reliability was calculated for 40% of the sessions. Reliability was calculated using the standard formula, agreements divided by agreements plus disagreements multiplied by 100%. Cohen’s kappa was also calculated to correct for chance agreement on the categorical variables of disruptive behavior and interest. To control for observer drift, videotapes of the sessions were scored in random order.
For latency in both writing and math assignments, an agreement was defined as both observers recording the same latency (within 3 s). A disagreement was defined as recording times that were more than 3 s apart. Mean percentage of agreement for latency was 98% in the writing condition (range = 75–100%) and 100% in the math condition.
For rate (during both writing and math conditions), an agreement was defined as both observers recording the same number of letters written or math problems completed by the child, and recording the same duration of academic responding for the session following the latency period. A disagreement was defined as only one observer recording a letter written or math problem completed following the latency period. Mean percent of agreement for rate in the writing condition was 98% (range = 88–100%) and 99% in the math condition (range = 89–100%).
For disruptive behavior an agreement was defined as a 30 s interval in which both observers scored the interval as characterized by disruptive behavior. Mean percent of agreement for disruptive behavior for the writing activity was 95% (range = 77–100%) and 94% (range = 78–100%) for the math activity. Kappa was calculated as .86 for recording disruptive for both the writing and math assignments.
For interest in both activities, an agreement was defined as a 30 s interval in which both observers recorded the same numerical interest rating. Mean percent of agreement for interest for the writing activities was 91% (range = 75–100%) and 80% (range = 73–100%) for the math activities. Kappa for recording interest was .86 for the writing activities and .85 for the math activities.