Precision teaching: 4 guiding principles

April 21, 2022

Precision teaching is a teaching method where challenging behaviors are defined, measured, graphed on a Standard Celeration Chart (SCC), and assessed for needed improvements to support a student's learning. This teaching approach is successful for a wide range of behaviors and learners.

Precision teaching overview

Precision teaching can be done one-on-one between a student and an instructor. Precision teaching uses a type of operant conditioning known as free operant conditioning. Free operant conditioning refers to behavioral treatment techniques where the student directs the learning process and establishes their own pace with little or no constraints from the therapist or instructor.

Ogden Lindsley invented this type of behavioral therapy in the 1950s, and it was first used to help children and adults with psychosis. Lindsley's attention shifted to special education in 1965, which included behavioral abnormalities in children with autism.

Guiding principles

The following are key principles of precision teaching:

  • Pinpointing the Behaviors — Each session should target one specific challenging behavior. Students would practice important abilities until they can easily accomplish the action.
  • Duration of sessions There should be 10-minute interactive sessions held at least three times each week. Students would be encouraged to do short-duration assignments frequently to improve their skills. 
  • Close Observations of Behaviors The child’s behavior should be assessed and recorded every 5 minutes. Teachers would make adjustments based on observed behavior to ensure that children are learning as quickly as possible.
  • Precise Measurement — Behavior data should be taken using a count and time approach for a high level of accuracy. Using both frequency and duration together helps maximize the accuracy and validity of the collected data.

Standard Celeration Chart (SCC) — The SCC is a tool that allows teachers or clinicians to visually and quantitatively display behavioral data to make quick teaching and treatment decisions.

How does precision teaching work?

The fundamental goal of the teaching process is to turn a therapeutic program of learnable activities into quantitative, immediately observable behavioral change. Tasks should be observable motions or at least be reported as such. Here are some examples:

Example 1: Children who have difficulties with silent reading

A child with autism who struggles with silent reading may need to perform multiple observable steps toward a procedure. The child should begin by staying still, then reading aloud, and finally reading silently to themselves. There are various techniques to assess the effectiveness of silent reading, such as administering a reading comprehension exam after the child has finished their reading assignment.

Example 2: Children who struggle with motor skills

If a child has difficulty with motor skills, he or she may be a sloppy eater. Rather than attempting to quantify the child's changes to messiness, the therapist or teacher might watch and report on the actions the child takes to improve their physical coordination.

In precision teaching, the frequency of behavioral change is critical. Students may have greater discretion over how they engage with their treatment sessions in this technique, but the therapist or instructor should track how often the student practices key skills. Precision teaching emphasizes the frequency of practicing new actions above the correctness of the first few tries even though the aim is fluency.

Example 3: Children who have speech impairments

Many children with autism suffer from speech impairments which may be linked to the developmental issues that cause motor coordination issues. A precision teaching session may educate the child on the right pronunciation, but the teacher will track the frequency of each effort to overcome the speech impairment rather than the success of those attempts. As the child practices more frequently, the amount of fluency in these actions will also increase.

Advantages of precision teaching

Precision teaching is most effective when it is used to enhance a student's development of basic academic abilities. According to various exploratory case studies, precision teaching can increase student involvement and motivation in learning. 

  • A major benefit of this training method is that it is a flexible teaching method that allows teachers to easily modify the activity using additional training sessions to target specific areas where students require the most assistance.
  • Furthermore, precision teaching also allows teachers to quickly increase the child’s confidence by using simple tasks that children are already familiar with before moving on to more difficult tasks.

Precision teaching as a supplement to ABA therapy

For example, people who have learned to play musical instruments need frequent practice to become proficient. Similarly, children with autism must frequently practice new behaviors such as initiating social contact, using language as much as possible when communicating with others, and practicing fine motor skills such as writing with a pen.

Therapists often use precision teaching in ABA therapy so a child’s task performance is measurably improved via repetition. As the child repeatedly improves at a particular skill or task, the child may graduate to more complex skills or tasks.

Although ABA treatment is an effective technique for helping children with autism, the highly organized setting and emphasis on the accuracy of newly acquired abilities may be counterproductive if accuracy is the only goal. Precision teaching’s unique ability to offer an environment in which the child may imperfectly practice new skills makes it a powerful tool in ABA therapy.

Final thoughts

Precision teaching is a powerful method to help children with autism learn in a specialized learning environment and has been used for over 40 years with children. This type of teaching can help increase engagement and enthusiasm. Most significantly, precision teaching can track the child's progress as he or she learns new abilities and applies them repeatedly in this setting.

Songbird Therapy is a technology-enabled provider setting a higher standard for children’s autism care. With a deeply passionate team and innovative technology, we’re building a world where every child can access world-class care at home, uniquely tailored to them.

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