This is the second part of a 2-part blog addressing the importance of instructional design. The first part set the stage of why instructional design is important. This second part addresses how it is used in ABA and benefits from incorporating it.

In October, we addressed the importance of instructional design by describing element-compound analysis and describing a web-like approach to sequencing within a curriculum. To further the discussion about instructional design, we will dive into examples of quality design in ABA and the benefits of such an approach.

Quality Instructional Design Within A Program.

While quality curriculum takes a web-based, not linear, approach to instructional design, we can evaluate quality instructional design within a singular program as well.  For accessibility, let’s talk about a skill many people are familiar with: walks on a balance beam.  Even if you haven’t taken gymnastics, you’ve walked on the curb on your way into the grocery store or have watched some amazing athletes on TV.  We can nerd-out and talk about critical attributes, variable attributes, etc. But for the purposes of today, let’s talk simply.  My element-compound analysis tells me that elements to this skill include walking in a straight line, balancing on either foot, and turning around.  So, I’ll make sure these skills are in place before teaching walks on a balance beam.  Then, I look to my goal - what is my objective, the masterful level of walks on a balance beam?  It doesn’t have to be Olympian standard, but good enough for a lay person to observe and say ‘you’re good at that!’ I want the balance beam to be a width of 4 inches, at a height of 2 ft off the ground, with the learner walking independently, forwards and backwards at a pace of walking on the ground.


From those variables, I know some things I need to manipulate when teaching my daughter how to walk on the balance beam.  We are likely not starting with a 4 inch beam.  We may start with a 6 inch width beam and one that is on the ground.  She may walk while holding my hand, and then my finger and then maybe with my hand gently on her back. And then we narrow the beam and start to lift it off the ground.  Each one of these variable attributes is a piece of my scope and each arrangement of my scope is a step in my sequence to shaping the mastery of walks on a balance beam.  


This can be applied in a language program as well.  When teaching prepositions, the learner can just tact the preposition alone (e.g., in, out, over, under).  But it is more meaningful when the learner tacts the preposition in relation to an object.  However there are two objects: the button that goes in, the button that comes out, etc. and the object in which we compare our moving item (in the cup, under the cup, over the cup).  We can keep these consistent within and across the practice opportunity (e.g., mass trials, timings) or we can make it variable requiring more discrimination from the learner.  The learner can also tact the preposition or they can model the location of the prepositional phrase delivered by the clinician.  Again, each one of these variable attributes, arranged in a particular way (e.g., constant object, variable moving item, variable across practice sessions but constant within the practice session) acts as a step in my sequence to shaping the mastery of prepositions.

Benefits to Instructional Design.

While this approach to curriculum generation can be intellectually challenging and time consuming on the part of the clinician, it reaps high gains for the learner.  First, this approach eliminates any gaps in the learner’s instruction and skill acquisition.  A proper content analysis (Twyman, Layng, Stikeleather, & Hobbins, 2004) ensures no gaps while teaching the concept or operation.  In other words, the learner will be able to walk on the balance beam with different beams, different heights, forwards and backwards, in preparation to perform a more challenging skill on the beam as opposed to only walking forwards on a wide beam on the ground.  


Further, the web-like sequence across skills also ensures that there are no missing but essential skills that may hinder the acquisition of a subsequent skill.  The web-like flow across skills provides the clinician with the information needed to review potential gaps of the past and ensure no skill-gaps for future learning.  


A second benefit to designing curriculum is that it can be individualized.  While the attributes may stay the same, the arrangement of the attributes to form a sequence may change according to the learner.  Preference, pre-requisite skills, and emerging strengths may call for a different sequence of steps leading to mastery.  This individualizes the instruction and sequence to fit the learner’s needs while utilizing their strengths to promote success.  


The individualization also allows us to teach at the pace of the learner.  For learners who require smaller steps towards mastery, they can be created.  For learners who rapidly acquire skills, some steps can be skipped.  The attributes remain the same but the process by which a learner progresses through the program changes based on the learner.  


The combination of the first two benefits lead into the third benefit of efficiency.  When we eliminate the gaps of instruction within and across skills, and we individualize the sequence of the instruction, the learner accesses personalized instruction and as such learns the skill more proficiently. This efficiency also reduces the frustration on the part of the learner or clinician from lack of progress due to missing prerequisite skills or from practicing a skill that is too easy.


Therefore, evaluate the curriculum you are using, whether it is prepackaged or generated in-house.  Hopefully this 2-part blog has justified the use of instructional design and excites you to learn more about how to integrate it in your practice.

Take Home Points.

  • Quality curriculum leaves no gaps in a learner’s repertoire.
  • Quality curriculum allows for individualization.
  • Quality curriculum promotes efficiency in learning.

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Dr. Kerri Milyko, BCBA-D, LBA(NV)

Dr. Kerri Milyko came upon behavior analysis as a student of Dr. Henry Pennypacker at the University of Florida.  Upon his encouragement, she forged a path that led to the University of Nevada-Reno studying under Dr. Patrick Ghezzi and then, as an entrepreneur opening precision teaching clinics in Tampa and Reno.  Dr. Kerri served at CentralReach as the Director of Clinical Programming in 2019.  In this role, she and her team created a fully digital, integrated, evidence-based curriculum, CR Elements, to service the needs of neurodiverse learners. Before this role, she was Director of Research and Development of The Learning Consultants and Development and Outreach of Agile Learning Solutions (formerly Precision Teaching Learning Center).  Dr. Kerri is also adjunct faculty at the University of West Florida where she created and taught their VCS, master's-level Instructional Design class.  Her primary behavior analytic focus is on instructional design, humane and dignified practices, measurement, precision teaching, direct instruction, percentile schedules of reinforcement, behavioral education, and bettering products for clinicians.  

Finally, Dr. Kerri is a prolific volunteer.  In 2019, she was elected to serve 3 years on the Board of Directors for the Standard Celeration Society.  In the same year, she was appointed by the governor of Nevada to serve on the first-ever Board of Applied Behavior Analysis to create ABA practice regulations for the licensure of state behavior analysts, where she served as Chair of the Board for 2019.  Currently, she serves as a trustee for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, a member of the Professional Standards Committee for the California Association for Behavior Analysis, and serves as the Teaching Behavior Analysis Program Area Coordinator for the Association for Behavior Analysis, International.  Kerri values quality time with her three children, her husband, and dear friends.  She loves wine and butter, true crime podcasts, and a good sci-fi novel while tinkering in her backyard. 


Twyman, J. S., Layng, T. V. J., Stikeleather, G., & Hobbins, K. A. (2004).  A nonlinear approach to curriculum design: The role of behavior analysis in building an effective reading program (Heward, W. L., Heron, T. E., Neef, N. A., et al Eds.).  Prentice Hall.