Generalization: What is it & Why is it Important?

Generalization: What is it & Why is it Important?

Generalization is defined as the ability for a child to display a skill or behavior in the presence of a variety of people, across various settings/contexts, and over increasing lengths of time.

At the Sunshine Center, we use Natural Environment Teaching (NET) to ensure that every skill we teach a child can more easily be generalized across people, settings, and contexts, and will be maintained over time.

One way to look at this is the following: your child is able to state his or her name and address when asked by you, the parents, but not when asked by their teacher or their Sunshine Center therapist. We would say that this skill has not generalized, and therefore your child has not truly mastered this skill, because he or she needs to be able to display it with all different people.

Why is this important? Say your child gets lost and is approached by a community helper (e.g., police officer, doctor, etc.) and asked their name and address, but your child is only able to answer this question when you ask it. The community helper is going to have a much more difficult time getting your child back into your care.

However, if this skill was generalized to different people (family, teachers, therapists, community helpers), across various settings (home, school, Sunshine Center, park, doctor’s office), and within various contexts ("What’s your name?" versus "Tell me your name."), it would be much easier for this community helper to return your child to your care.

Generalization applies to skills like answering social questions, reading words, following directions, or making requests. It also applies to behaviors! Most parents will say that their child “behaves differently” with them than with anyone else. There may be a few reasons for this, however, one of those reasons is generalization.

If your child throws tantrums at home with you but not at school with their teachers, we could say that the behavior did not generalize (which, in this case, is a good thing). However, if your child has tantrums with you at home, and also at school with their teacher, and sometimes in the grocery store, we would say that the behavior generalized across people and settings.

As previously mentioned, another component of generalization is the ability for your child to display a skill or behavior over increasing lengths of time. This is also called maintenance. When we teach a skill or decrease a behavior using ABA strategies, we want to ensure that your child is able to continue “maintaining” that skill or behavior for months and years. This is important because so many of the skills that we teach build upon one another.

How can you ensure that skills are being generalized across people, settings, and contexts? Have different people give your child directions, ask your child to follow the same directions in the community as they do at home, vary the wording of your directions, and practice, practice, practice!

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash


Anna Richardella, Edison Center Supervisor

Anna Richardella joined the Sunshine Center team as the Edison Center Supervisor in February of 2020. While babysitting for a child with autism, she developed a passion for working with children with special needs and began providing childcare and adapted community services to families. Anna earned her bachelor’s degree in Communicative Disorders and a minor in French language from West Chester University. After falling in love with Applied Behavior Analysis while volunteering in college, she earned her master’s of Psychology with a concentration in Applied Behavior Analysis from Capella University. She has provided services in a variety of settings including schools, centers, home and community and has worked as an instructional aide, ABA therapist and, most recently, BCBA for children with autism and developmental delays and disorders.

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