This article was originally posted in Behavioural Science in the 21st Century.
With thanksgiving on the horizon, gratitude is something that is frequent fodder for discussion this time of year. I am truly grateful for the opportunities that I have had to work with some incredible children with autism and their families. I have seen first hand how a child or youth with autism's participation in a high quality ABA program can lead to him/her becoming empowered with skills that will improve his/her quality of life. I have also reaped the incredible rewards of working with the families that I have had the honour of getting to know. I believe that gratitude is a life skill that can be learned, and I believe that learning to be grateful can lead to improved quality of life. Here are three things to consider when teaching a child with autism about gratitude.
Tip #1: Define what gratitude means to you.
A high quality teaching program that is based on ABA would first require that we describe or define the behavior that we are trying to teach. The term gratitude is one of those terms that may have different meanings for different people. In its most simplest of forms, gratitude may be an acknowledgement of someone doing something for you or giving you something. For example, given this description, someone would be showing gratitude if they said "thank you" when someone did them a favor or gave them a gift or anything at all for that matter. But it can also mean being content with what you have and tolerating that you are not necessarily going to get everything you want or ask for, whenever you want. Sometimes a parent has to say "no you cannot have that right now" or in some cases a parent may have to say "no you cannot have that ever." For example when my daughter asks for that favorite toy of hers when I am driving her to school, even if I really wanted to give it to her, if it is not in the car, there is no way I am going to be able to give it to her in that moment. Being able to accept "no"after you have asked for something is a life skill that can be associated with gratitude because it means you need to make the best of what you have in that given moment.
Someone else may describe gratitude as giving back to others in some way. For example this may mean doing some kind of service or volunteer work. In our family we help deliver food to families in need for a local charity called Food4Kids. As you can see, gratitude may be a complex behavior. The first step in being able to teach someone to engage in behavior that may be described as grateful, is to establish what gratitude is for your unique situation. It is about describing it and defining it in a way that allows you to see instances of it when it occurs. Check out our blog on how to set goals to teach for more info on how to do this effectively. Once you know what the behavior looks like, then you can begin to teach it and track progress on how your child or student is learning this new behavior.
Tip #2: Decide where to begin with your unique child/student
As with any great ABA teaching program, where you begin is dependent on who is supposed to be learning the new skill. Each student has unique strengths and areas of need. It is important to develop a program that builds upon the skills that he/she currently has, and, that helps teach them the skills that will lead to improved quality of life. This might mean that for one student/child I begin with teaching them to say "thank you" whenever someone gives them something. This would include but is not limited to the daily interactions that your child or student may have with you as the parent, or any staff that they may work with. When someone gives them a glass of water they say "thank you" when someone helps them in some way they say "thank you". There are multiple opportunities in a given day to practice saying "thank you" to all kinds of different people and it is dependent on your particular routine. Being able to use your words to say "thank you" may be a good place to begin for one student/child but for someone else it may mean using sign language because they are not able to communicate with words.
Tip #3: Incorporate gratitude into regular routines
The idea here is that "practice makes perfect." The more we are able to practice gratitude the more likely we are to behave with gratitude independently. Another example of a behavior that is often associated with gratitude is to identify moments, things, or people in your environment that you are grateful for. This might mean simply stating something that he/she is grateful for on a given day. For example in our household we ask our 6-year-old and 3-year-old every day to tell us something that made them "happy" that day. When we first started this we gave examples to show them what we meant. We suggested simple things that our children were able to verbally describe and that they would be able to notice. For example we might suggest that we were happy today because the sun was shining and it was a beautiful day. Or in the case of my 3-year-old, that it rained and there were puddles to jump in. In the case of a child that is not able to speak or who may not know what it means to be "happy" you might start by teaching them to identify emotions like happy first. We incorporated this daily practice into our dinner routine. It gives us an opportunity to remind our children of the things that they do well. For example I have been know to say "I am so grateful to have you in my life, you make me happy" or "When I asked you to go brush your teeth this morning you went and did it right away, this makes me very happy." Whatever behavior you have selected to define and teach your child can be practised in this way. The idea here is to find opportunities in your every day routines to notice the things that can help you teach the important skills you are working on with your child. Check out this video of a teacher expressing gratitude to his students every day.
These are just three of the ways that you can work on teaching behavior that is associated with gratitude. For support in developing a high quality ABA program to teach important skills to your child or student you can always contact a local Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and they would be happy to help you with this.
Here is wishing everyone a safe and happy thanksgiving!