What should I teach? An Introduction to Target Selection

by Amy Dunn-Naccarelli, M.Ed., BCBA

Teachers are eager to get started with instruction after they complete all of the preparatory work. As a teacher in the classroom, you assessed students after carefully selecting an appropriate language, functional living, social skills, and/or vocational assessment. Based on the assessments you conducted, you identified what programs you will teach each student. Since programming is based on assessment and data, you can accurately explain why you selected the programs you did. You know how you will teach your students and have trained all staff in using effective teaching procedures. You developed a classroom schedule to specify when, where, and with whom instruction will occur. You are finally ready to teach… right? Not quite. The big question now is, which targets are you going to teach? Spending time to consider which targets you will teach is just as important as assessment, program development, and designing a classroom schedule. There are several factors to take into consideration when selecting targets for teaching.

Many professionals are familiar with pre-fabricated teaching materials such as picture cards and objects for sorting and matching, for example. Although ready-made materials can be useful at times, when selecting targets, it is essential to literally think outside the store bought card box. One of the most important factors to consider is what is currently relevant to the student. Relevant targets can include items and activities that the student enjoys or prefers, information that the student may need in the event of an emergency, and the various things, people, and activities that the student encounters in his or her day-to-day life in the home, school, and community settings. Teaching targets that are relevant and valuable to the student will support his or her success in interacting with the environment.

Some of the first relevant targets to consider should have to do with items, activities, and environments the student is currently accessing or encountering. Following are just a few guiding questions teachers should ask when determining these kinds of targets:

 What places does the student visit in the community?
• For example: Restaurants, recreational activities, grocery store
 What is relevant in relation to where the student lives?
• For example: Rural versus urban, apartment versus house, coastal versus inland
 What objects does the student encounter?
• For example: Household items, school supplies, rooms of a building, people
 What does the student’s family call certain objects in the home?
• For example: Sofa versus couch, dresser versus bureau, jeans versus denim
 What items does the student prefer based on assessment and observation?
• For example: Edibles, toys, activities
 What personal information is valuable for the student to know?
• For example: Name, address, phone number, family members’ names, community helpers

In addition to selecting targets that are relevant to the student’s current environments, it is important to consider targets that will prepare the student for future programming and future learning, living, and social environments. Strategic planning will make transitions easier and more successful. A teacher needs to ensure that a student has the prerequisite skills needed to succeed in the general education curriculum and special content area classes. In addition, a student may need specific instruction before volunteering or working in a vocational setting or before performing activities of daily living.

Another consideration is selecting targets that will later serve as prompts for other skills. For example, a student will need to learn the echoic “cookie” before being able to tact a cookie. A student will also need the skills to be able to connect with his or her peers and siblings. Learning about topics that are valuable to peers will support the student in being able to participate in activities and talk to them.

Selecting targets should also involve consideration of how the specific skill will be useful in the teaching of complex speaking behavior. Certain verbal skills come together to allow generalized or novel responding. For instance, if you teach a tact of an action on several different objects, you can, with sufficient training, have the student learn to tact the same action on some object that was not directly taught. It is also important to teach several tacts of actions using the same object. This process will allow the student to begin using two word tacts in a meaningful fashion, for instance, stating which action was performed on which specific item. This same process would apply to teaching features of objects so that the features taught can be generalized to novel examples. It is important when teaching tacts of actions and features to be sure that the student is taught the skills on objects for which the tact of the object is firmly known.

Following are just a few guiding questions teachers should ask when selecting targets that prepare for the student’s future:

 What does the student need to know about special content area classes like music, gym, and art?
• For example: Basketball hoop, dribbling, basketball
 What themes is the general education curriculum covering?
• For example: Community helpers, plants, insects
 What are the student’s peers interested in?
• For example: Music, activities, topics, TV shows
 What objects, directions, or questions will the student encounter in a vocational setting?
• For example: Cash register, cleaning supplies, filing cabinet
 What skills will the student need in order to be successful in a vocational setting?
• For example: Following two step directions, wiping tables, following a schedule
 What prompts will be needed to teach more advanced skills?
• For example: Echoic skills to teach tacts, imitation skills to teach listener responding
 How will the item selected be useful in teaching more complex language skills?
• For example, can the item that is targeted generalize to novel examples?
• Also, can the item targeted help the student learn to accurately discriminate questions such as “what is it?” versus “what is it doing?” versus “what part is it?”
 What objects will the student encounter when completing activities of daily living?
• For example: Cleaning supplies, personal hygiene objects, kitchen supplies

There are many considerations to make when selecting instructional targets for students. It is important to avoid selecting targets solely based on your own preferences and what is easiest to access in the classroom. Selecting appropriate targets for students is the key to ensuring that instructional outcomes improve the student’s quality of life.

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