Tips from the BCBA: 5 behavior tips you can start using today!

ABA 101: PAT it Down

5 Tools for Teaching Time Skills

So, let’s not waste any time and get right to it!! (pun intended)  In my previous post, I stressed the importance of Preventative Antecedent Teaching, or P.A.T.  

By thinking about problems that may arise and planning around them/for them before they materialize is cheaper in terms of expense, effort, anguish, training, and attention as opposed to waiting for the “uh oh” moments to happen.  

Furthermore, P.A.T. supports the instruction of coping skills, behavior regulation systems, and executive function skills that empower our students learn how to help themselves.  

More on that to come.

Today I want to talk about time.

OK, put on your teacher hat, consider the following scenarios, then rate them as: “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”, “Totally!”, or “How are you in my head?”

  1. It’s time to pack up for home.  You send your students to their lockers, confident that within a minute or two, coats will be on, backpacks will be zipped, and the kids will be ready for the bus. However, when you check on things a minute later, there are 50 papers spread around the hallway, shoes anywhere but on their owners’ feet, and your  4 year old students are talking about Fortnite like they’re on an expert panel.
  2. It’s time for independent writing task.  You’ve delivered a set of instructions that, in your estimation, should take about twenty minutes to complete.  After three minutes, one student starts playing with the pencil on his desk. When you head over to inspect the situation, whereupon he says, “I’m done.”  The paper has about 5-10 words total on it.
  3. Your student forgot to bring their lunch to school.  It’s 9:00. Lunch happens at 12:15, and mom has promised to bring in the absent lunch before noon.  Regardless, the child begins to perseverate that she will “miss lunch,” that mom is “late” or “not coming,” and that she is not going to eat for the rest of the day.  It’s 9:15.

These are common elementary school scenarios.  

A traditional Behavior-Consequence protocol for responding to such problems might include establishing a reward system for completing routines, implementing a consequence plan in which students stay inside to complete missed work or maybe recommending some planned ignoring around the verbal perseveration happening in the “lunch” example.  

Instead, I’d like to suggest a hypothesis - that as varied as these situations are, a common thread strings them together: a lack of time passage/time management/time understanding skills.  

Understanding how time works on a functional level, planning your actions with a set amount of time in mind before getting started, and considering how the passage of time happening during a task impacts how fast or slow you move or how you decide which steps you might skip or stretch along the way all fall under the umbrella of Executive Functioning.  

Instead of waiting for behaviors connected to a lack of time skills to happen and then responding with a Behavior-Consequence tool, we can instead use P.A.T. to predict that some (often 20% of so) of our students are going to struggle and we can get to work on establishing systems and language that cast a wide net around the smaller situations that happen every day in your classroom that leave you wondering, “Why is this taking so long?”  “Can’t he be more patient?” “Is it 3:00 yet?”

The P.A.T. Process

When I’m helping teachers or families and we’re developing an P.A.T. strategy, I like to make sure we can answer 4 questions.  

  1. Is this strategy easy to understand? (meaning teachers understand WHY and students understand HOW)
  2. Does this strategy have transferability?  (meaning can it work across different adults and settings)
  3. Is the strategy context-flexible? (meaning can it be used in a variety of different situations)
  4. Can this strategy eventually be owned by the students? (meaning we are teaching as well as supporting in the moment)

If the answer is NO, I become concerned that my strategy is going to end up with a pretty short shelf life and I’ll be going back in at some point with some other idea or visual or tool.  

If the answer is YES, I start to become confident that the final P.A.T. tool is one that is likely to become part of the classroom culture.  

Good P.A.T. techniques are part of the everyday life of a classroom as opposed to something that gets “pulled out” when problems start to occur.  

Good P.A.T. tools are “bought” by the kids because they happen naturally and feel authentically delivered by their teachers.  

Please keep reading for 5 Easy To Understand, Adapt, and Implement P.A.T. Techniques For Teaching Time.  

  1. Count Up.  Teachers use countdowns all the time.  Typically, we start counting AFTER giving the direction.  We might give a direction and if things aren’t moving fast enough, we count to show that we mean business.  It’s the “hurry up before I get to 1” strategy. Thinking on a P.A.T. level, we can help children to frame tasks in their heads before they get started and, eventually, help them to predict how much time something will take and, even, manage their actions as they move through the task.  Here’s how it works:
    1. Decide:  Determine how long a task should take.   
    2. Frame: Before giving the direction to start, tell your students, “It’s an X-second job”
    3. Check: Ask them to give you a “thumbs up” if they think that they can “beat the clock” or “meet the clock”.  
    4. Start: Tell them, “Go”
    5. Count: Neutrally count out loud from 1 up as the task goes on.  It’s important to be neutral as opposed to using an “exasperated teacher” tone of voice to demonstrate that you are expecting a certain response or you’re getting impatient.  
    6. Connect: At the end of the task, compare numbers.  The “prediction number” vs the “actual number.”  
    7. Follow-Up: If the kids beat the clock, awesome!  You can use language that supports the idea that they kept their brain “on the job” and that they used the right amount of speed that matched the job.If some kids beat the clock and others didn’t, you can ask kids to work in teams next time.  You can also problem solve with the children asking open ended questions like “What were you thinking about?” or “Where did you get stuck?”
    8. Close The Loop: Make a plan for next time


I often use this strategy for Cubby Time.  Cubby time happens after snack when students bring their completed work and snack bags  to the hallway and place them in backpacks. When they are lined up, I tell them, “OK, this is a 30 second job.  Give me a thumbs up if this is going to be easy, a thumbs to the side if it’s going to be medium or a thumbs down if it’s going to be hard.”  Then I neutrally count up from 1 while smiling and encouraging along the way. I also use this strategy when it’s time to clean up after free choice time.  First we get the kids’ attention and then we might say, “Cleaning up is a 45 second job. The job means you put the cars in the bucket, the animals in the habitat and you are sitting on the stage.  Go!” Eventually, you can ask your students to make predictions as to how long something would/should take to do and you can even ask certain students to do the counting for you. Having an external source (the counting aloud)  keeping “time” helps the brain to stay focused on the job at hand and limits the potential for distractors.


Questions: What are ways you can adapt this strategy for use in your classroom?  What are ways to expand this tool to academics as well as transition routines?

  1.  The Hands of Time.  How often does your class get so stuck on one thing they miss part of something that’s happening later?  Getting ready for recess takes so long that they miss some of actual recess time. Cleaning up after lunch takes so long they miss some of gym class. In these moments, you might be thinking, “Don’t you know what you’re missing?”  Hurry up already!” The fact is that many of our students don’t see the “whole from the parts” and they don’t make the leap that when A takes too long it has to come from B. This is the basic idea around the Hands of Time tool I use to help kids start to connect those dots.
  • There is one “giant block” of time in the day
  • Each activity can take up a small, medium, or large block of time
  • If you move quickly, there might be MORE time for something later
  • If you move slowly there might be LESS time for something later

The way I indicate the hands of time is I put my hands together in front of my heart, rotate so that my fingers are facing away from me, and separate my hands to indicate the amount of time I’m talking about.  Let’s call it, “Finger forward hands”. I use the distance of my hands to indicate that we have “X” amount of time for “Y” activity. Here’s an example of how this looks in practice when I’m starting to teach this concept:

  1. Be in the visual line of sight of your students
  2. Use your finger forward hands to indicate a chunk of time.
  3. Tell your students, “This is how much time we have for X/Y/Z activity.”
  4. Bring the challenge:
    1. If you are “on time” with (the job that comes first), you will have this much time for X/Y/Z activity (keep your hands where they are)
    2. If you take too long with (the job that comes first), you will have this much time for X/Y/Z activity (start to move your hands closer together)
    3. If you beat the clock with (the job that comes first), you will have this much time for X/Y/Z activity (start to bring your hands further apart)

I can later simply use my finger forward hands without even saying anything.  However, take your time before moving too soon to this step. It’s important for your students first to make the connection that the wider your hands are-the more time is being represented.  This can take an hour or a day or a week to accomplish. The general goal is that 80% of your students should “get it” before moving on to making this a functional tool. Be OK with taking the time to make sure your students understand this before using this tool functionally.

 Also, it can be really tempting to add a lot of “tone” or “expectation” to your voice when talking about this tool (and others as well!)  Please don’t! These tools are meant to be delivered as mini-lessons. We wouldn’t teach a new math skill by expecting students to “get it right the first time” without some explicit instruction and lots of guided practice.  Same goes for these tools! Trust me- your tone and presentation has EVERYTHING to do with the workability of this. If you treat this tool like a lesson as opposed to an emotionally charged demand, you’ll be fine!

As I mentioned in my last post, I run an Integrated Preschool Program.  This means lots of 3 and 4 year olds with the (totally expected) attention span of baby kitties.  I use this tool with my kiddos EVERY day. When you break down a big idea (the passage of time) using simple language and a simple visual to support what you’re talking about, your students CAN get it!!  We might be standing in line to walk somewhere and if there’s lots of excess chatter/fidgeting, I’ll just make finger forward hands with a super neutral facial tone and within 5 seconds the students are prompting each other to stop  and they start to show me their “ready” bodies without me needing to ask them 50 times to line up. BTW: I teach directions and common rules and ideas in sign language as well as verbally/visually and it’s just AWESOME to watch them making the “stop” sign to one another-completely independently-as a way of supporting their fellow friends!

One option for making this tool feel “permanent” is that I make a filled in rectangle on the front board to represent a “special” activity.  As the day goes on, I might “add” to the rectangle or “subtract” based on what’s happening with time management in my classroom. I even have used this as one of my classroom jobs where a student will help me manage this with/for me.  

Questions: What are other ways to introduce this tool to your students?  Can you think of other ways to represent time other than with casserole hands or white board rectangles?

  1.  Making a list and checking it twice. Many of our students have lots of anxiety over the question of when or if something is going to happen.  The example I gave about the child waiting for lunch to be brought in by her mom happened about 7 years ago.  Many of our students have a hard time estimating how much time is passing based on what’s happening during or after the event that’s happening in the moment.  We can all relate, right? When you’re out with friends, an hour an seem like 5 minutes.  Conversely, say, when it’s the Friday before vacation and you’re waiting for the bell to ring 1 hour can feel like 10!  Lists make the schedule a tangible thing, a sort of contract. For this child, I simply wrote “Your mom is coming at 11:30 and she has  your lunch” on a post it and she put it in her pocket. She was encouraged to look at the post it as many times as she needed to and when she asked, “Is she coming?” or “When will she get here?”  she was reminded that the answer was in her pocket. This is incredibly empowering for students-the answer is in your pocket vs the answer is whatever comes out of someone else’s mouth. I’ve expanded use of this tool into one where we tell time/manage time by making and referring back to lists.  Here’s how it works…
  1. Child engages in “anxious” or “perseverative” questioning about something happening later in the day.
  2. Turn it into a list.  BTW: Even for my students who are readers, I like to use pictures whenever possible (The cruder the better!  No need to be a professional artist here!!). When we are in a state of escalation, we literally lose IQ points!  Our IQ for understanding pictures is higher than our IQ for understanding text when we are anxious or upset so keep those stick figure people coming.
  3. I always try to make the list while my student is watching.  I also try to increase “buy in” by asking them to help me with the list, i.e. “ So, are you going to have cheese its or an apple for snack?”  I then draw a picture of what they are saying.
  4. I sometimes use the “visual rectangle” tool (tool 2) next to the picture to show my student how long step 1, 2, and 3 are going to take.  
  5. The child keeps the list with them as a way to be in control of their world.
  6. The child who the list is for is often the person their friends come to with questions about when something on the schedule or plan is going to happen.  
  7. Cross out items as they are finished.
  8. When your child asks about their schedule, refer them back to the list as opposed to verbally going over the schedule again and again.  By bringing them to a visual schedule, they start to manage the sequencing piece independently as opposed to needing an adult to manage this piece FOR them.  

Questions: What are tools you use in your class to teach children to understand when things are going to happen?  Do you have user-friendly tools to help kids who perseverate over when something is going to happen?

  1. Tangible Time.  I use this tool in a couple of different ways.  Time passage, as we’ve discussed, can seem like an intangible concept for our students to grasp.  So, when we use tangible ideas for stopping points or to demonstrate the level of output/effort connected with a given period of time, we help our students start to manage time-based expectations for themselves.

           A: Stop when you ABC.  Ever say to a child engrossed in an activity, “5 more minutes, OK?”   The child likely says, “sure” without argument. The battle ensues after the 5 minutes is up and it’s time to leave the activity.  The child is absolutely shocked that 5 minutes has passed and may even insist that it’s only been 1 minute, maybe 2. You then start insisting that it’s been 5 minutes and before you know it you’re involved in a heated existential argument with a child over the meaning of time itself. Coming to an agreement on how much time has actually passed in that situation can be a fruitless exercise.  However, making time into something observable and measurable by both teacher and student can operationally define time in such a way that you negate the likelihood of argument.   So, instead of 5 more minutes, try these instead……

  • 5 more bites means that snack is all done
  • 5 more turns with the car means that toys are all done
  • 5 more letters means that writing is all done
  • 5 more kicks means that gym is all done

The difference between 5 more minutes and 5 more actions is in the making the stopping point a tangible thing.  Time can feel fluid when you’re in the middle of something but there’s a sense of permanence or a shared defining of a task when you relate time instead to actions that are observable and measurable.

B: The finished job looks like this.  So, going back to our 20 minute writing task example, the teacher feels confident that he/she has given enough directions so that the child should interpret the expectation as meaning a full sheet of paper is filled with meaty ideas.  However, your student is not quite on board with this!! Before sending your students off to work, show them (note that I said show them and not just tell them-go back to the section on Visual IQ vs Verbal IQ) what 20 minutes of work looks like.  You can present two sheets of paper: Example A and Example B.  Example A has just a few sparse sentences and Example B has lots of juicy sentences.  From there, you can speak to how many details/exemplars/colors/etc. should be represented in a given task.  Then, give tools as to what the child should do so that their work can match Example B.

This helps your child start to make a picture in their brain (an important Executive Functioning tool) as to what finished work looks like.  Now, when they come to you with their name and the picture of a tree with the words, “Trees are green” on their 3 paragraph assignment, you can refer back to the “Example B” sheet.  Also, it’s good to have some concrete strategies ready to go to help your child flesh out their work.

Questions: How can you use the past assignments  your child has completed in teaching/using this strategy?  What are other concrete “ending points” you can think of for prompting the end of activities.

  1.  The Inner Clock

For many of our younger learners, there appears to be a very true and very raw fear of literally exploding if they can’t tell you what’s on their mind as soon as they think of something to say or literally melting into a veritable puddle of goo when they can’t do what they want as soon as they think about doing it!  Waiting is a really, really hard skill to learn and it’s a hard skill to teach. We as teachers tend to practice this skill as opposed to specifically teach this skill.  We also tend to lack specificity when supporting this skill and we tend to want our kids to just ‘“get it”.  Time passage is a hard skill to learn and so adding some tangible ideas to teach this idea can be a helpful way of making it feel “real” for your students.  One way to concretize this concept of time for students is to use one or more of the following formulas….

       Your Age = Ability to wait X number of seconds before getting upset or nervous

       The Task = That’s an X second/minute waiting job

       The Task = Concrete time telling non-verbal strategy.  Examples include:

    • Waiting will take as long as it takes to sing the ABC’s in your  head
    • This waiting job is as long as counting to 50 in your head
    • Waiting lasts until you can think of 10 different farm animals

    Here’s how these formulas work in practice.

    1-Both Joe and Chad have something important to say to their teacher.  Joe raised his hand first and so you’ve asked for Joe’s response. Chad starts speaking at the same time.  I’ll turn to Chad and say, “This is a waiting job. Since you’re 3, you’re working on being able to wait for 30 seconds before getting upset or nervous.”

    2-It’s time to get ready to go home.  The kids are lined up at the door and now there’s a delay.  Maybe the busses aren’t ready for the kids or maybe you need a child to come back from the bathroom before you bring the class to the dropping off point.  “OK, we’re waiting for 50. When I point to you, start counting. When I give you the hands up signal, stop. Then I'll point to someone else.”

    3-You’re helping multiple people at a small group table.  It’s expected that the kiddos will do some of their work independently and they will need help with parts of their work.  While you’re helping Martin, Charles starts to compete for your attention. State to Charles, “ This is an alphabet waiting job. When you sing and finish the ABC song, put your hand up and I’ll be ready to help you.”

    P.A.T. tools take practice for them to feel natural.  I recommend starting first with one tool at a time, teaching and practicing the tool in “low key” environments (where the teaching happens) and then in environments where it counts (where the practice happens).  

    I’d love your feedback!  Feel free to post answers to some of the questions listed below each strategy or to send in questions or ideas of your own!  Happy Holidays and here’s hoping for an amazing 2019! Take care, Shauna

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    MIkee @ Mon, Oct 12, 20

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