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Research helps children reach their potential

Kristen B. Morales

November 8, 2017

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One of the challenges facing children with developmental disabilities is simply communicating what they want.

It's frustrating when you can't tell others what's in your head, and as a result, children may turn to more aggressive behaviors. New research conducted by Joel Ringdahl, associate professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Special Education, is helping children learn new ways to express themselves—and teaching them a preferred way to communicate that they are more likely to retain.

Previous lab studies have found that animals retain responses better when they are reinforced in a particular way. Ringdahl's study is innovative because it is building on those findings to explore how different interventions with problem behavior in children have more resiliency than others.

“If you teach a child to request a reinforcer in a particular way, what we're finding is that when we discontinue reinforcement, they will keep asking—and that's what we want to happen,” says Ringdahl. “We are looking at how our behavior is affected by our environment and what we can do to create appropriate behavior that is more resistant to change—more persistent—and will be less likely to repeat the undesired behavior because of the treatment.”

For children who are non-verbal, for example, this might mean they continue to sign their request, hold up a card, or use an assistive technology device. Ringdahl says once a child finds the communication method that is most preferred for them, this strategy is often more resistant to change if the treatment is challenged.

“We can't just pick a communication method out of thin air and think it will work. Instead, if we take some time to assess what strategy the child likes better, that's going to be the strategy that provides more maintenance of the treatment,” he adds. The research supporting preferred communication methods was the subject of previous papers by Ringdahl and his research team.

Ultimately, the work done by Ringdahl—which is part of the College's Center for Autism and Behavioral Education Research—will help children better communicate not only with teachers and caregivers but also with those who are unfamiliar with a child's communication method.

“For example, if a child engages in a request with a babysitter, but the babysitter doesn't honor it, we don't want the child to stop asking and revert back to the problem behavior,” Ringdahl adds. “When the parents come back, we want the child to still be asking. That is where the innovation is.”