ABA 101: Learning to Expect (and make peace with!) the Unexpected

Good behavior interventions are “bought” by the kids because they happen naturally and feel authentically delivered by their teachers.  

Planning for problems BEFORE they happen is always cheaper in terms of time, resources, cost, energy, and training than waiting for the “oh no” moments to happen.  

This is always true.

And many of us already know this on some level.

You wouldn’t go on a big vacation without packing first.

If you were going somewhere sunny, you would make sure to have sunscreen, a bathing suit, a giant floppy hat, and sandals.  

You wouldn’t wait until you were on the beach in jeans and a sweatshirt and then think, “hmm, what should I do now? “

So why do we fall into the trap of holding our breaths and hoping everything is going to be OK when it comes to planning for the unexpected with our students?  

(Beyond the fact that we are frantically running around in schools today like we are trying to find the last available tent at the Fyre Music Festival!!)  

We don’t plan ahead for that student who seems to always struggle in math and hope that THIS TIME it’s going to work out.  

We don’t consider that our student has arrived late to their “post lunch” class for 3 days in a row and we hope that THIS time he’s going to be on time.  

We try not to focus too much on the fact that our student has been spending about half of writer’s workshop erasing as opposed to writing and we hope that THIS time it’s going to all happen according to plan.

According to our plan. Why do we do this. Because it works.

Well, sometimes...

According to behavioral research, it often takes being reinforced only 1 out of every 10 situations to maintain a behavioral response pattern.  

If that terrible tennis swing or tossing of the big or small or round or oval ball (can you tell yet that I’m not a huge sports person??)  works just 10% of the time, we are really loathe to change it up.

It may fail 9/10 times but, man, that 10th time is so SWEET it causes our brain to forget the last 9 experiences.  


Once we start planning for the problems and inserting strategies, visuals, and structures BEFORE we start our lessons or deliver our general expectations our blood pressure tends to decrease, our confidence rises, and our ability to problem solve grows in capacity.

Our toolbox gets fuller and fuller because we’ve thought ahead PRIOR to landing on the beach that, hey, some sunglasses right about now would be really really helpful.

Now, how does this idea translate to our students’ experiences?

Many of our students don’t plan ahead either.  

They don’t walk into a class and think to themselves, “You know, the last 3 times I’ve been in this room I have spent more time in the bathroom than listening to the teacher.  I wonder what’s going on with that. Maybe I need a strategy to help me manage expectations?”

How often has one of your students experienced what, to him or her, is the unexpected and your child has COMPLETELY fallen apart as a result?

Whether we are talking about academic or art, friendships or moving in the gym, the unexpected is scary and can send us into the deepest pit of our brain where we are just not able to think or respond logically.  

I used to experience the reaction of abject horror of my preschoolers when they would fall.  

Even a gentle floating trip to the soft billowy ground would send them into shrieks so loud and uncontrolled that I assumed I was  going to find them with a leg or an eyeball missing upon inspection.

The idea that falling was UNEXPECTED was the key to their giant reaction.  


I decided set up my preschoolers with the “You’re going to fall” rule.

This is what I'd say:

“So here’s the rule in preschool.  Part of what you are learning is how to use your body in a way that helps you to grow big and strong.  

To do this you will move your body in a lot of new and different ways.

When you move your body in a lot of new and different ways, you will fall.  

The rule in preschool is that everyone has about 3 BIG falls a year.

That's probably going to mean 3 bruises or band aids. I

f you have 1 or 2 or 3 BIG falls a year, you’re on the right track.”  

Sounds simple, right?  

Well, it changed EVERYTHING!!!  

When my students fall now, I approach them and, after making sure all body parts were accounted for, I ask them how many big falls that made for them.  

Once they answer that question, my next question is,

“Do you feel like you’re getting stronger and braver now?” Answer: “YES!”

No more shrieks.

When my students fall now, there is generally a posse that forms around them with other preschoolers ready to share their own stories of how many times they have fallen and where they received band aids or ice.  

By planning for the UNEXPECTED, making it an EXPECTATION with some language and deep thinking around it, we have taken the scariness out of those “oh no” situations.


Now how can this idea be applied to other gross motor fine motor areas of development with your students? Let's take a look at- 

Third grade Writer’s Workshop.

It can be a harrowing time for many students.  

One class I was consulting to was experiencing a LOT of erasing.

Students would start to write something and then, unhappy with what was happening, would furiously erase not just what they perceived to be the mistakes, but EVERYTHING else.  

We could do a lot of unpacking here with this problem: higher expectations, less time for planning what we write, less down time, more anxiety, etc.

Let’s focus for now on the problem of erasing.  


We decided to establish some expectations around spelling or writing mistakes in Writer’s Workshop.

Here's what we did:

“ Part of WWS is learning to be OK with the mistakes.  

Mistakes are supposed to happen here. Mistakes happen when we spell a word wrong OR we use the wrong word or string of words.  

Mistakes happen when we spell a word the right way but it doesn’t look as neat as we think it’s supposed to.

In 3rd grade, teachers expect up to 3 mistakes for every 6 sentences.  

This is expected.

As your teacher, I need to see the mistakes.

If you aren’t making these mistakes, it means the work is too easy and I need to really step it up and make things much much harder!  (“oh no” faces and laughing usually ensue).

If there are more than 3 mistakes for every 6 sentences, I need to know so that I can figure out how to help you.

Instead of erasing, make a single horizontal line across the mistake so I can still see it when you hand your work in.”  

Again, sounds simple right?

Again, it changed EVERYTHING!  

By planning for the idea that-

1) mistakes were going to happen
2) mistakes were supposed to happen
3) we all came to an agreement on what a mistake actually was by defining it with examples and finally
4) learning that our teacher considers mistakes as important things to see it took the scariness out of mistakes.  

Anxiety around mistakes reduced.

Kids weren’t freaking out that what they were doing wasn’t perfect.

In fact, we coined a phrase, “Grade/Age perfect.”

Third grade perfect means up to 3 mistakes per 6 sentences.

3 year old perfect means some of the coloring happens inside the lines. And so on.

The Recess Blues.  


We can all relate, right?  It’s not easy to look around the playground and feel like everyone is involved in something exciting except us!  


Common recess problems include:

  • Yelling
  • Hitting
  • Throwing

These problems all stem from either unmet expectations or, more commonly, the unexpected happening and our child is not prepared to problem solve in a functional way and so we start to make impulsive choices that A) get us into trouble and B) serve to isolate us during future recess experiences.

 Recess time was proving to be a HUGE problem in one of our elementary school programs.

Students were not preparing for the unexpected and thus they were unprepared when the unexpected occurred.  

Classes with the most challenges decided to start previewing recess time with their students using some “expected” language, some rules, and some pre-event problem solving. It looked like this…

“Recess is a time where you are learning how to be a friend, how to play games, and how to negotiate and work together as a group.  

It’s expected that you will have some or all of these feelings at recess: happiness, excitement, frustration, anger, disappointment and, of course thirst!!  

These feelings are expected.

Problems at recess are expected.

For this class, it’s expected that you might have 2 problems per recess time.

A problem happens when you can’t decide what to do, if you don’t know how to play a game, if someone says or does something unkind, or something happens that feels unfair.  

Before we go outside, we are going to think of 2 solutions to these playground problems.

After recess, we are going to review how things went, what problems happened, and what did we do to solve them?”


Strategy 1

Strategy 2

I can’t decide what to do

I don’t know how to play this game

Someone says/does something unkind

Something feels unfair

As you can imagine, this took about 10 minutes for the teacher to implement before recess and another 10-15 minutes after recess to review. 

You might be thinking, “I just don’t have that kind of time to spend on this.  I have too many other things to get through.” To that I would say that these teachers were already spending that much time-and more-dealing with recess problems.  


From processing events with the children involved, planning/discussions with the principal and/or family members, and managing consequences of it all takes MORE time than the time it takes to plan ahead.  

And, using the forecasting approach, your children will learn about setting expectations, planning ahead, problem solving, and independence.

And they will be happier and more successful.

Sounds better, right?

It only takes a few minutes and doesn't need to be implemented so formally once the students learn how to use the approach for themselves.  

Question:  What are the big playground / lunch room/ recess problems in your classroom?  How can this idea be applied to your specific situation?

I’m really excited to hear your questions, ideas, and general feedback!

There are countless ways to apply this idea of thinking ahead, defining the problem and turning it into a rule-something we as teachers expect to happen.  

Thanks for reading and take care, Shauna


Shauna @ Fri, Dec 06, 19

Hi Elizabeth
Thank you for your note Sounds like you have your hands full!! I’ve heard the response, “Just keep teaching” and I’ve started to re-frame this for myself. Yes I will keep teaching-but I need to change what I’m teaching and how I’m doing it My rule is if there are 3 or more little ones in front of me who are having a hard time then it’s up to me to change something (Sort of the “If it’s 3 then it’s me” idea) I think you would like my blog “making peace with the unexpected” where we start to think about what’s going wrong BEFORE it happens and inserting language and systems from there. 2-5 is a huge age range and supporting 7 RBTs at the same time is a massive task I take my hat off to you and hang in there!!!

If there are topics you’d like me to write on please send those ideas along and I’m happy to bring something to Krystie and the folks at AdaptEd

Thanks again for your note and happy (almost) June! Shauna

Elizabeth @ Tue, May 07, 19

I’m new to the ABA world as a preschool teacher and this was wonderfully informative.
Thank you. Looking forward to more from your perspective. I have 7 students ranging from 2 to 5 years old and 7 RBTs. They have ABA therapy for the day along with academics. But 80% of the time I’m trying to teach over behaviors of one or more students. They can become very loud and distracting. I’m told to just keep teaching. I’ve been teaching typical pre school and prekindergarten for over 6 years and this has been the most challenging year of my profession.
Thank you once again for this blog.
I wish you much success!
Ms. Lizzi

Suzanne Sennott @ Mon, Apr 08, 19

Hi Shauna
So great that you have this blog. I am sharing with a friend… or 2!
I would love to connect to pick your brain on an old conversation we had back at TEC. The thin line of behavior vs/and sensory processing.
I have a friend who’s 15 yr old has a hx of sensory issues and as he has gotten older his behaviors have escalated. He also has multiple mental health dx and at 15 was dx with ASD. Yikes for sure.
Let me know what your availability is and let’s set a time to connect.

Jeanne Gottfried @ Mon, Apr 08, 19

This was so refreshing to read. I love the strategy you discuss.

Jeanne Gottfried @ Fri, Dec 06, 19

This was such a refreshing strategy to read. Thank you for sharing this.


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