4 Steps to Pairing like a Pro

You may have seen the tagline, “Reaching before teaching” written at the top of my blog. Reaching students on a personal level and building relationships with them should be at the foundation of any teaching philosophy. We’ve all heard people say, “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like (or trust).” For kids with Autism, this is magnified 10x.

In the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) world, “reaching” means “pairing.” Pairing is developing a rapport with a child before true instruction takes place. Essentially, you are positioning yourself to be one of the most exciting parts if not THE most exciting part of a student coming to school. You symbolize the distribution of all kinds of positive reinforcement (verbal, tangible, & edible).

Teaching only reaches it’s full potential for effectiveness if successful pairing between a teacher and his/her student has occurred. When trust has not been built and it is unclear to the child how to meet that teacher’s expectations, anxiety builds and behaviors arise. It’s critical for the teacher, therapists, and adult support staff members working with the child to devote time at the beginning of the year pairing with the child. It will sometimes be necessary to go back to the pairing stage throughout the school year when new behaviors are revealed.

Print off this free, simplified visual guideline of 4 steps to Pairing like a ProIt comes in different colors, fonts, & sizes. It is also editable so that you may add in specific instructions for adults working with your kiddos!


  1. Joined Attention
    • Meet them where they are. Sit by them while they’re engaged in something they enjoy. Remember that their version of playing is different than yours and that is okay. Take the time to understand and appreciate their version. Let them hear and see your interest.
    • Have engaging activities available for them to choose from. Some examples of my go-to’s:
      • TOYS. Do they move, light up, make noise, or spin? That’s usually a good place to start.
      • SIMPLE SORTING. Most kids on the Spectrum enjoy simple, organizational tasks such as sorting manipulatives by color. *Note: This would not be a good place to start with a child who has not built those foundational skills yet.*
      • ACTIVE PLAY. Think adapted gym or recess activities when there are not a lot of other children around. Let them move freely.
      • SENSORY TIME. Keep to experiences that are familiar to them at this stage, for example: swinging, jumping, using their hands (sand, play-doh), crawling, etc.
      • TECHNOLOGY (with limitations). Be wary of this one because this is a social process. Be mindful of how they may disengage from you when technology is present. However, this may be the best option for kiddos that you have extreme difficulty finding common ground with.
      • MUSIC. Music videos are a good option for appropriate technology integration because you can dance or sing with the child and when the song is over, it’s over!
  2. Preferred Play & Inventory. 
    • Find out what they like best! Give them two different options of rewards you may use in the classroom and watch what they choose. Depending on your population, you could also set up a brief, unstructured playtime or snack time and see what they gravitate towards.
    • Log it. Especially if you have a large caseload, you should take time to write down what they chose. Preferences WILL change over time and that should always be encouraged. Our kids tend to fixate on a few particular items/themes/foods/etc. so when they show interest in something new, ROLL WITH IT!
    • Little demands should be placed on the child. This should be a very fun process for them! Reinforcers and your presentation of them should be very exciting as should your response to whatever they choose. This is their chance to teach you about themselves!
  3. Teacher’s Play. 
    • Show them a new toy or fun activity that has some guidelines to it. You are taking a step forward from joining them in “their play” and you are now inviting them to “your play.”
    • After playing the “teacher’s way,” (for a brief interval of time you designate appropriate for that learner) they will then earn a preferred reinforcer discovered via your preference inventory (step 2).
      • Having a “first, then” visual board with a picture of teacher’s toy/activity in the “First” section and the child’s preferred item in the “Then” section would be very helpful. This will help them understand your process and see that what they want is coming soon.
    • Consistency and follow through is VERY important for the trust building component of this stage. For example, if a child is about to earn a reinforcer and something comes up, do NOT forget about their reward. They will remember that you did not follow through with your promise and be less inclined to repeat your desired behavior in the future.
  4. Introduction to Expectations. 
    • Reinforce, reinforce, reinforce! Provide reinforcement for everything you see them doing right. Yes, everything. You want them to think, “wow, I really impress this person by just sitting up in a chair.”
    • Explicitly teach and demonstrate positive behavior choices.
      • Use examples and non-examples, social stories, visuals, role-play, etc.

FullSizeRender (11)

The most important part of the pairing process is to show children that while under your care, they are going to be safe, have their needs met, and have fun. You can prove this by being consistent, prepared, and by taking time to love on them at a pace that is comfortable for them.

Reach BEFORE you teach peeps!


Emily Beth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s