The Pyramid Approach to Education combines strategies and analyses from the field of applied behaviour analysis with an emphasis upon functional communication. Here creator Dr Andy Bondy explains how it is usedLet’s be honest – designing and implementing effective lessons for students with autism and other special education needs is not easy. There are many factors that may influence what to teach and how to teach, as well as important factors beyond the direct control of professionals.
As the former lead administrator of a state-wide public school system for students with autism, I must admit that my initial attempts to organise these complex factors were far too simple and linear. Over time, a model based upon the physical structure of a pyramid was developed to represent the interactive and yet orderly arrangement of key elements (see illustration below).
The model guides the development and construction of a pyramid rather than giving schools a building to move into. This model, the Pyramid Approach to Education, was initially implemented throughout one state and has since been used in many other programs within and outside of the USA.
The model is built around asking team members to consider three broad types of questions and then guides the refinement of the questions associated with each area. The key three questions deal with:
- Why does behaviour change?
- What should we teach?
- How should we teach?
The answers to these questions combine strategies and analyses from the field of applied behaviour analysis with an emphasis upon functional communication.
When working with a child or an adult, the Pyramid Approach organises how all team members — from teachers, to speech and language pathologists (SLPs), to psychologists and family members — coordinate structured learning experiences. Furthermore, while the model was developed for Exceptional Child, a program providing educational services to students with autism, it has been implemented with individuals with a wide array of diagnoses and in a variety of environments, including homes, group homes and community settings. For sake of convenience, we will refer to everyone in a teaching relationship with regard to a learner as a teacher.
Why does behaviour change?
The question about ‘Why does behaviour change?’ is central to teaching because all successful lessons result in observing the learner do something differently than what was observed before the lesson. This emphasis on behaviour change is true whatever the age of the learner and however simple or complex the action. The question ‘Why?’ also helps focus attention on not simply what a learner is doing but more importantly, ‘under what conditions’.
For example, saying ‘train’ spontaneously after seeing a train outside is a different behaviour than saying ‘train’ when there is none to be seen but the learner wants to play with one. In addition, saying ‘train’ spontaneously is a different behaviour than saying ‘train’ in imitation of someone modelling the word or in response to the question, ‘What do you see?’ The conditions under which the learner used the word must be understood clearly to create effective lessons. The same analysis is true for tying shoes, going shopping, enjoying reading a book, or any other activity we hope to teach. This question of ‘why’ essentially forms the Base of the Pyramid.
What should we teach?
The next broad questions that form the Base of the Pyramid relate to ‘What should we teach?’ If six professionals from different fields were asked what should be taught at 10.00 am on Monday morning, it is likely that we would receive six different suggestions. How can we guide the team to design a coordinated plan?
One strategy involves pushing the timeline to a point when most people would agree upon the goals, and then work back to the current time. For example, schools for typically developing students offer a time-limited resource; at some point after attending school, parents and society expects that the student will (a) get a job and thus make a contribution to society, (b) live away from their parent’s home (even if requiring group support) and (c) be happy.
Parents of children with various learning challenges want these same three outcomes. Therefore, what we provide within school should be consistent with achieving these long-term goals and should not lead to dead-end, non-useful skills. Skills necessary to achieve the broad goals must be functional and must involve real life materials that the individual is likely to interact with within the school, home and/or community. We must assure that skills taught within a school setting readily transfer to home and community, even if the strategies needed to accomplish these goals are unique.
In addition to this emphasis on functional activities, the other areas within the Base relate to powerful motivational and reinforcement systems, functional communication and social skills, as well as addressing potential contextually inappropriate behaviours.
Motivation is crucial because we need to ensure that the lessons we promote are rewarding for each student. The rule is simple: no reinforcer, no lesson. There may be times when we must take care of someone but if we are in a teaching-mode, then ‘making someone do something’ is coercive, not educational.
Within functional communication, we focus on teaching certain critical communication skills, including requesting, in whichever modality is most quickly acquired. Many students benefit from use of the evidence-based practice known as the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). Young leaners who display no functional communication skills may acquire PECS rapidly without the need to wait for months or years of failure to acquire speech. The use of PECS does not interfere with or slow down the acquisition and expansion of speech.
Finally, a team should only address problematic behaviours when the first three elements of the Base of the Pyramid are in place. Attempting to significantly modify a contextually inappropriate behaviour is likely to fail when activities are not functional, when reinforcement systems are weak, or when key functional communication skills are not present.
How should we teach?
The Top of the Pyramid addresses issues related to ‘How should we teach?’
The first set of questions is about generalisation and focuses the team’s attention on ‘Where is this lesson going?’ For example, we might want to teach a young student to ‘greet other people.’ Should he only greet the teacher who is teaching this lesson? Should he greet people at home and at school? Should he greet people when he enters a room or when others enter a room? Each of these questions relates to a variety of stimulus factors. Should he say ‘Hi’ or ‘Hello’? or should he use a sentence ‘Hi, how are you?’ Should he greet people as if he were an adult — ‘Hello, It’s nice to meet you’ — or should he use the local and age-appropriate vernacular ‘Yo!’? These questions relate to a variety of response factors that would include frequency, rate, accuracy, duration, etc.
The next area within the Top of the Pyramid identifies the type of lesson to be taught. For example, some lessons involves relatively simple skills, such as answering ‘How much is two plus two?’ or ‘Point to the plate’. These can be described as discrete trial lessons and may include various facts involving numbers, names of the states, or reading individual words. On the other hand, other skills involve a series of actions in a particular order: setting the table, getting dressed, going shopping, cooking a meal, etc. These are best described as sequential lessons. It is important to remember that students need to learn both types of lessons and thus teachers need to use distinct strategies to teach each type of lesson.
Once the lesson type has been specified, we turn to specific teaching strategies. Most lessons begin by identifying ways to help a learner perform a task, however simple or complicated the task. Perhaps we physically guide the child’s hands through the action, gesture to the particular item the learner should select, describe what to do, model what to do, show a picture or movie of what to do, etc.
Anything the teacher does to help is identified as a prompt. When prompts are used, the goal is to remove the prompt so that the learner responds only to the cues in the environment and not the help from the teacher. There are many strategies that aim to remove prompts, and the science of teaching creates new strategies all the time. Therefore, competent teachers use a variety of teaching strategies.
The final area involves guiding the team to minimise errors as well as having clear plans associated with error correction that relate to the specific lesson types.
Every teacher recognises that their next lesson, no matter how brilliant and successful in the past, may not work. If a teacher persists in a lesson plan that is ineffective, not only is time being wasted for the learner, but the teacher’s time also would be wasted. Therefore, each teacher must collect and analyse data regarding each lesson to assure that adequate progress is occurring. Should we find that a particular lesson is not effective, then we would cycle through the elements of the Pyramid Approach, make systematic changes, and then again monitor progress to see if we’ve now developed a good lesson.
The entire goal of the Pyramid Approach to Education is to guide the team to ask a series of questions known to all in order to design and implement effective lessons. This model does not seek to simplify things and try to tell the teacher what to do. By guiding the team through essential questions regarding lesson design and implementation we can then trust the answers along with the team’s skills at assessing learner progress. The Pyramid constructed in the same order for all professionals and family members. We hope you will try to use the Pyramid Approach to achieve your teaching goals.