I was recently buying contacts and got excited to hear that they were on sale! Well, kind of. It was a rebate. This meant that I had to front the money, get online, set up my rebate, and then wait, with no idea when that money I "saved" would be coming back to me. If the rebate wasn't so high, it might not have even been worth it (this is called matching law, but we won't get into that today 😉). How many times have you heard "rebate" and thought, "No, thanks"? Would you be more inclined to purchase if the discounts were immediate? I know I would.
Timing is also incredibly important when changing behavior. When offering reinforcement for awesome behavior, your child is inclined to do awesome again if reinforcement is consistent and immediate. Let's say you're teaching your child to request for "ball" and they say "bah" (which is GREAT!), but the ball is in the next room at the bottom of the toy bin. In between your child's awesome request, "bah," and receiving the ball, your child may whine or flop, and giving the ball after the problem behavior may actually reinforce the whining or flopping instead of your child's request. Bummer!
It may cross your mind that your child needs to learn to wait because the world doesn’t always offer immediate gratification, but look at the original reason why you are changing behavior. In our example above, your child is learning to verbally request (also called mand) because they currently engage in problem behavior (whining or flopping) to get what they want (ball or other reinforcing items), and we want to replace that. But we need to make sure we prioritize our goals:
1. Learn to verbally request
2. Learn to wait
Once your child is consistently requesting and communicating (yes!), we may tackle a new skill like waiting.
Timing applies to other areas of changing behavior as well. Take prompts, for example. When prompting or providing assistance to help your child learn a new skill, figuring out the timing of prompts is also crucial. If you provide a prompt too quickly, your child may not have an opportunity to respond independently. Therefore, you risk prompt dependence. However, if you wait too long, you risk either a frustrated child or minimal progress toward changing behavior. My rule of thumb is to wait 3-5 seconds after you give instruction (e.g. "What do you want?”) before prompting. My best advice is to work with your BCBA and figure out what works best for your child. It's even better to see how and when prompts and reinforcement are used. For more information on prompts, check out our parent guide here.
My last thought about timing involves when we should teach a new skill. I suggest sandwiching challenging tasks between easier tasks. I would be frustrated if I were pushed to my limits constantly. Taking breaks or doing something that comes easier to me makes me more inclined to take on those tasks that challenge me a little more. You may notice when your child begins a new program or meets a new therapist, they start by doing something they refer to as "rapport building." The therapists begin their sessions with easy tasks that your child can already do. With time, therapists ease in tougher demands, but continue to "sandwich" their demands to keep a positive relationship. The last thing the therapist wants is to lose rapport with a client because they pushed them too hard or beyond their limits.
There are a lot of things to consider when it comes down to your timing, but practice makes (almost) perfect. There still may be times when you can’t deliver the reinforcer right away, or your prompting is too immediate, or you realize that you pushed too hard. But as long as you recognize it and make efforts to do it differently next time, you are doing everything you can to make lasting behavior changes! As mentioned in "Making ABA Part Of Your Routine", we learn through patterns, and as you begin to feel comfortable with timing, you'll see changes in your child’s behavior.