ABA Programs: Maintenance and Generalization

  • An elephant never forgets…but sometimes children do; Targeting Maintenance and Generalization


    Michelle Ficcaglia, PhD BCBA-D

    We’ve all heard the expression “It’s like riding a bike. Once you learn you never forget.” This is certainly true to some extent, but if you haven’t been on a bike in 10 years, you might need a quick refresher before going for a 10-mile ride. The same is true of academic skills. After you learned skills like addition, you continue to practice them for years. But do you still remember math skills that you do not practice as often, such as long division or finding the area of a circle?  Again, you would probably remember the basics, but might need a quick refresher before trying to solve a problem or help a child with his homework.

    The same is true for all skills that children learn. After children learn skills, it is important that they continue to practice them over time. This is especially important for skills that aren’t used frequently, especially for people with learning difficulties. Educators use the terms ‘maintenance’ and ‘generalization’ to refer to the process of practicing skills often and thoroughly enough to make sure that a person is able to use them when needed, in any given situation or environment.


    What are Maintenance and Generalization?


    Maintenance is the continued practice of previously acquired skills to ensure that the learner continues to perform the skill. The most important and simplest skills to target for maintenance are those that are useful to the individual in his or her everyday environments.  However, a few skills are very specific and therefore may not be used as frequently (for instance, what to do in case of a fire or how to dial 9-1-1). These skills should be targeted for practice on a regular basis through mock scenarios or circumstances.

    For most learners, to achieve independence, it is not enough to be able to maintain skills across specifically taught situations.  By targeting generalization, the spreading of a previously acquired skill to new people, places, activities, and toys, we ensure that learners are able to use skills across a wide variety of situations and settings.


    Maintenance and generalization do not always occur naturally for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. In most ABA programs, specific programing is put in place for generalization. This may include practicing skills with different adults, (e.g. 2 instructors, a parent, a grandparent, a babysitter). It may also include practicing skills in different environments.  For example, a child may master asking his mother for help but may not generalize the skill to an older sibling. In this case, you would set up scenarios that allow the child to practice this skill with the older sibling and peers, so that he generalizes it across people.

    Both maintenance and generalization are best targeted during the naturally occurring activities and routines that a child participates in every day.  Practice in real world environments helps children navigate their daily activities more successfully, by teaching them to respond to the cues that are naturally present in their environment.  Additionally, the child can see the direct impact of using learned skills in acquiring naturally occurring reinforcers in the setting.  Your child’s teachers and therapists are an excellent resource for suggestions on what skills to target.  But ultimately, as a parent, you should target generalization and maintenance of the skills that you feel are important to you and your family. As a parent, it can be highly motivating for you to work on skills that impact your life in a positive manner; also, you are more likely to get plenty of practice in your community.


    Why Should Parents Work on Maintenance and Generalization?


    Research has demonstrated that when parents become involved in their children’s education, children demonstrate faster and more generalized gains when compared to children who receive intervention from clinicians only.  As a result of parent involvement in their child’s education, research has also shown that families spend more time together engaged in fun, leisure activities.  What a wonderful goal!

    Parents are in an excellent position to know where and with whom their child will need to be able to use new skills, and to provide the cues and supports their child needs to practice the skills.  Furthermore, families are able to provide opportunities for maintenance and generalization of skills in a wide variety of environments where service providers are not able to go such as church, birthday parties, and community outings.

    Parents are extremely busy!  However, working on skills at times and in the places where they are naturally useful can take very little time and provides a world of benefit.  It is not necessary to spend a lot of time on maintenance and generalization.

    Tips for painless maintenance and generalization practice

    1. Choose 3-5 goals for the month.  Don’t worry about generalizing everything your child knows.  Strategically pick skills that are important to you and useful for your child.

    2. As a general rule, work on each skill 1-5 times and spend no more than 5 extra minutes during a particular routine or activity on maintenance and generalization activities.

    3. Try to fit in opportunities to practice 5-10 times per day.  Several short practice sessions every day really add up to a lot of practice in a wide variety of settings.

    4. Be kind to yourself- choose opportunities where you feel you can be successful.


    Fitting practice into everyday activities


    Parents often find that their day is filled with competing priorities.  The need to complete errands, take care of other children, and get daily chores done often compete with the time parents would like to devote to working on skills with their child with autism.  Here are some easy places to incorporate new skills.

    • Grocery shopping: Think of all the skills you might practice — color identification (red and green grapes), tasting new foods (samples are excellent), reading from a list (make your child his or her own list of items to get from the shelf), purchasing a treat (give your child a few dollars to make a choice and pay on his or her own), following simple instructions (come here, give me an apple), and more!

    • Meals:  With some planning you can work on many communication goals during meal times. It is also a great time to work on academic skills such as counting and color identification.

    • Self-care routines: By adding a couple of extra minutes to bath time, dressing time and other self- care routines, children can work on play skills, communication skills, and academic skills.

    • Chores: While you do your chores, assign your child a task too.  For instance, work on matching by having your child match all the socks from the dryer or work on receptive language by asking your child to get supplies for a meal out of the cupboard.


    Maintenance and generalization do not always occur naturally for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.  Maintenance and generalization are best targeted during the naturally occurring activities that a child participates in every day.  This teaches children to respond to the cues that are naturally present in their environment and allows them to experience naturally occurring reinforcers in the setting.  Because parents regularly participate in these environments with their child, they naturally encounter excellent opportunities to work on generalization and maintenance.  When parents become involved in their children’s education, children demonstrate faster and more generalized gains and families spend more time together engaged in fun, leisure activities.  What wonderful goals!


    Tips for painless maintenance and generalization practice

    1. Choose 3-5 skills for the month that are important to you and useful for your child.

    2. Try to work on each skill 1-5 times and spend no more than 5 extra minutes during each activity.

    3. Try to fit in opportunities to practice 5-10 times per day.


    What Might a Day of Practice Look Like: 

    A day in the life of Susan and her 4-year-old son Liam


    Goals for the month

    Susan has chosen the following goals to target for maintenance and generalization.

    1. Color identification

    2. Counting to 5

    3. Appropriate greetings

    4. Requesting desired items

    5. Taking turns with other children


    10:00-11:00 am Grocery Store

    When Susan takes Liam to the grocery store she starts in the produce section.   First, she asks Liam to identify the red apples.  When he does, she gives him a sample of apple that the store has out.  She then asks Liam to help her count 4 apples into the bag. As she picks out the apples she pauses over the bag and Liam counts each one.  As they move around the produce section, Susan asks Liam to identify the green grapes, identify and count oranges, and identify the color of bananas and tomatoes.  After each correct answer she tells Liam he is doing a great job and offers a food sample, high 5, or tickle.


    Susan continues on her shopping trip gathering the things she needs for the week.  When she finishes, Susan and Liam stop at the bakery to get a free cookie.  The bakery worker greets Liam and his mother prompts him to respond appropriately before she hands over a piece of the cookie.  At the checkout counter the cashier also greets Liam.  This time Liam responds appropriately without a prompt and Susan reinforces his success with enthusiastic praise and the rest of the cookie!


    11:30-12:00 Lunch Time

    It is lunchtime and Liam is hungry.  Susan makes him a grilled cheese sandwich and cuts it into four pieces.  She asks Liam if he wants one or two pieces.  When he responds that he wants two pieces, Susan puts two quarters on his plate but before he starts eating she asks him to count them.  Susan puts the rest of his sandwich and a bowl of grapes on the counter within Liam’s view but out of reach.


    When Liam finishes the first two pieces of sandwich, Susan moves closer and waits for him to ask for more.  Forgetting that he can ask, Liam begins to climb on the counter.  Susan prompts him to ask for grapes appropriately.  Once he is successful Susan gives him 3 while asking him to count them as each is put on his plate.  When Liam finishes the grapes he says, “More grapes, please.”   Susan enthusiastically praises his spontaneous polite request and gives him 5 more grapes.  Before they finish the meal, Liam practices counting and requesting several more times, including requesting to be excused from the table by saying “All done”.


    2:30-3:30 Play at the Park

    When Liam’s older sister, Jessica, gets home from Kindergarten they all head to the park.  This is a difficult setting for Susan to work on generalization and maintenance because Liam tends to wander and she also needs to watch and give attention to Jessica.  For these reasons, Susan chooses a park that is small and fully fenced.  Then she can focus her attention on interacting with her children rather than preventing either from wandering away.


    Both children enjoy the slide so Susan encourages them to go on it together.  Jessica leads her brother up the steps of the slide while Susan waits at the bottom.  Liam takes turns with his sister on the slide for about 3 minutes.


    Later, Liam becomes interested in the sand.  Knowing that this is a favorite activity, Susan has come prepared with shovels, a bucket, and a tractor.  While Liam begins to play independently, Susan sits close by and watches both of her children.  When a little boy approaches, Susan prompts Liam to greet the child and offer him a shovel. She suggests that they can make a mountain for the tractor.  The children take turns piling up the sand using the shovels.  Once they have a huge pile of sand, the other child grabs the tractor and begins to drive up the mountain.  Liam becomes upset and Susan prompts him to say my turn and prompts the other child to allow Liam to have a turn.  Susan stays close while this interaction is going on but Liam and the other child are able take turns with tractor independently for 10 minutes before Liam wanders off to play on the swings.


    5:00 PM Setting the Table

    Susan asks Jessica and Liam to help set the table.  Liam gets the supplies and Jessica sets the table. Jessica watches as her brother counts out forks, plates, napkins, and cups.  When he counts incorrectly, she corrects him and helps him count out the correct number.


    7:30-8:00 pm Bath Time

    Susan and Liam have both had a big day and Susan is eager to get Liam into bed.  This is not a time Susan feels that she can be very creative about working on maintenance and generalization.  So she has developed a routine.  While the bath is running Liam gets to request up to 4 bath toys (rubber ducks, submarines, boats, planes, etc.).  When Liam requests a boat, Susan holds up two different boats and asks him if he wants the red one or the purple one.  When there are 3 items in the tub, she asks Liam to count them.


    8:30pm Goodnight Liam!  Great job Susan!

    During these short activities, Susan was able to practice colors 7 times, counting 11 times, greetings 3 times, requesting 9 times, and taking turns 6 times.  She was also able to practice generalizing these skills across 3 different settings and 5 different people including 2 peers.  Susan’s efforts will ensure that the skills Liam has already learned stay fresh (maintenance) and that he can use them in a wide variety of situations (generalization).



                Michelle has worked with families affected by autism for more than 15 years. Prior to joining the Gateway team, Michelle’s professional roles included program development and implementation in the areas of early intervention and insurance based autism services.  She frequently provides cross disciplinary staff training on autism intervention and applied behavior analysis.  Michelle has also worked in private practice as a psycho-educational consultant to parents and district staff throughout the Bay Area and as the first Executive Director of Jumpstart Learning to Learn, a parent education program developed at the UCSF Autism Clinic.


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