Why Saying “First Work Then Break” Might Not Be a Good Idea

Autism ABA Help Mary Barbera
By Mary Barbera, PhD, RN, BCBA-D

Quite a lot of us have negative connotations to the word “work,” and a child with autism is no different!  The word “work” often creates a feeling of doom so it’s no surprise that kids with autism often have an aversion to the word, as do many adults!

Many teachers say things like, “do your work and then you can have a break,” so “work” becomes the unpleasant thing to get through before a child can get away from his teacher to take a break. Because children with autism usually have very poor play skills, their breaks can often be unproductive and filled with stereotypical behaviors.

Using an ABA/VB approach, the goal is that our children or students run to the learning table and stay with us as we pair the table and materials with high levels of reinforcement and present content that is mostly easy. Once the child is at the table and responding nicely to easy tasks, we “slip” in demands gradually while we use prompting procedures so it doesn’t feel too difficult and too much like “work.”

Also, using a Verbal Behavior Approach, instead of giving the child “breaks” to get away from us, the materials and the table, we want to try to engage the child during natural environment teaching sessions in between tabletop activities. We want our children to stay engaged with us as much as possible during sessions so they get the most out of their therapy time. Saying, “first work then break” is counterproductive to this approach.

Instead of saying, “come and do your work,” why not try using “learning time” or “come and play with Mommy/Miss Jones” or “table time.” In addition to avoiding the word “work,” I’d also recommend reducing or eliminating “breaks” so your child or client remains engaged with you throughout your sessions.