Always Be Pairing

Adopted from Different Roads to Learning , edited by Neveen Zaki (functionallearning.ca)

The idea behind pairing is that you will establish and maintain a positive relationship with the child by pairing yourself with preferred items or activities. Pairing is important not only in establishing a relationship with a learner; but also in maintaining the relationship, preventing boredom, and increasing motivation throughout your relationship with the child.

Below we address four common misconceptions with pairing.

Common misconception #1: Pairing only takes place when you are building a relationship with the child.

MISCONCEPTION: Pair for the first 1-4 weeks, then start teaching.

Pairing shouldn’t end there (nor should it necessarily take so long as we’ll see with common misconception 2.). Pairing is ongoing.

Before each session, you should engage in “pre-session” pairing. This means that you are providing free reinforcers without placing demands. For early learners you might start off a session with blowing bubbles or playing with a parachute. For older learners you might start off a session with a game or sharing a book the child enjoys. Usually, it’s a good idea to present the learner with options during pre-session pairing. Involving choice frequently increases motivation, and it also increases the likelihood of delivering a more highly reinforcing item.

Some people feel that pairing every session eats up valuable instructional time. However, pre-session pairing increases motivation and cuts down on maladaptive behavior, which actually increases the amount and the quality of your instructional time for a given session.

Common misconception #2: Pairing takes a long time, and a provider or teacher should not start placing demands until the pairing process is complete.


In some cases, pairing may take a long time. However, in many cases, you are able to start placing demands during the first session. This does not mean that you’ll necessarily start doing discrete trials on the first day, but you can begin placing simple demands to build instructional control while you are pairing. It’s helpful for gaining instructional control to incrementally increase the number of demands placed across sessions, while always starting with a pre-session pairing session.

Unfortunately, pairing is not an activity that can be measured, and it’s important to recognize that the pairing process is never complete.

Common misconception #3: Pairing should involve sensory toys because all children with autism are highly motivated by such toys.

For some learners, sensory toys are highly motivating. However, a common error is using the same pre-session pairing with every learner. What you believe is reinforcing in general may not be reinforcing for your learner in particular.
If the learner is not engaging with the item, ignoring it, putting it down, or displaying maladaptive behaviors when the item is presented; then the item is not reinforcing.

Another consideration is that big aspect of pairing is that the learner associates these motivating items and activities with you. While it is beneficial to be the purveyor of fun sensory items; it may be even more beneficial to engage in activities with the learner, such as cause and effect toys or games or physical activity that requires your involvement.

Common misconception #4: A learner will always be motivated by the same items.

Several times with behavior problems, there is not enough novelty within their pairing sessions. A learner may love a marble run one session then have no interest the next session. Or, the learner loves the marble run for two months, then suddenly has no interest in it. The provider or teacher is uncertain about what happened and depended too heavily on that reinforcer (learner is satiated due to overuse of the reinforcer and thus it looses its effectiveness). Then, without a powerful reinforcer to use throughout the session, the learner displays a drop in motivation and sometimes an increase in maladaptive behaviors.

There’s a word for this: satiation. Learners display a wide range of satiation levels. Some learners you work with may satiate on reinforcers within minutes, while other may prefer to see the same items over and over from session to session. A learner’s satiation can vary based on many different variables, so you should be prepared to address it.

One way to address this is to choose not to bring the same reinforcers to each session. This way, if a battery dies, you forget to bring a favorite toy, or something breaks you have not set yourself and your learner up for failure. A second way to address satiation is to remove the item while the child is still motivated to engage with it, instead of waiting until he/she has lost interest before introducing other choices.

When pairing is consistent, specific to the child’s interests, and involves a variety of items and activities learners will maintain motivation and you will be more easily able to maintain instructional control.