When the behavior of a student in the Deafblind Program adversely affects his or her opportunities to learn and make progress, Perkins staff members turn to behavior analyst Zach Bird for a plan. In this “What I Do” blog post, Bird explains how he creates measurable ways to improve behavior and put students on a path to success. This story was edited and compiled by Karen Shih.
This is the case in any school: Students might not have the foresight to see how the task they’re working on right now is going to help their future. I remember in high school thinking, “Why do I need to do algebra?” Our students might try to avoid participating in class or working during their physical therapy (PT) sessions through disruptive behaviors for the same reason.
As a behavior analyst in the Deafblind Program, I work with the staff here to manage these behaviors in our students. We select the most severe problems, which might be keeping them from learning or socializing, and work on those.
For example, we had a 5-year-old student who had difficulty eating. Because he has CHARGE syndrome, he doesn’t taste or enjoy food the same way that a typically developing person might. In a 20-minute session, he was only eating one or two bites. He spent the rest of the time sliding out of his seat and throwing items. His speech and language pathologist asked me to come in and we made a plan. Since the student loves magnetic letters, we used those as incentives to get him to take more bites. We also increased communication, asking him upfront if he wanted to eat right now. If he didn’t, we’d step back and try again in a minute. Now, a year later, he’s eating at lunchtime with all the other students.
I work with the whole team: the teacher, the occupational therapist, the PT, the orientation and mobility specialist and more. I go in to observe, consult and problem-solve. Then, we create behavior management guidelines so everyone is consistent throughout the day. That’s important for the student to understand what’s expected. Inconsistency from staff means inconsistent behavior from the student.
About 90 percent of the people in my field work with folks diagnosed with autism, which is the population I worked with before. Coming to Perkins, I had to learn a lot about how to communicate with students who are deafblind. We typically use visual stimuli, so I had to make adjustments and use auditory or tactile stimuli. I’ve also created new protocols to find out students’ preferences. For example, if we can’t lay out a group of toys in front of them because they can’t see their options, I’ll put items in their hands two at a time. Then, we can give them incentives to improve their behavior.
It means a lot to see a student succeed. I used to work in homes with families so I know how stressful it can be to have a child with behavioral problems. Seeing them be able to go out as a family and do activities together – that’s a great feeling.