Wisconsin Association for Behavior Analysis

Increasing Task Engagement and Reducing Teacher Prompting of Students with High Functioning Autism in the General Education through the use of Self-modeling and Self- Monitoring via a Handheld Computer

Increasing Task Engagement and Reducing Teaching Prompting of Students with High Functioning Autism in the General Education through the use of Self-modeling and Self- Monitoring via a Handheld Computer[1]

Allison Milley (Commentary Author)

Masters Student, Department of Special Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison Madison, Wisconsin



What is the effect of self-modeling and self-monitoring through the use of static picture prompts via a handheld computer on the task engagement of students with high functioning autism in the general education setting?


Design: Multi-probe across settings with an embedded A-B-A-B for 3 participants

Duration of study: The three students were observed between 26 and 32 class periods. Students’ task engagement was measured during the first 15 minutes of each class period (during which no additional prompting was given). Teacher prompts were measured during the remaining 50 minutes of each class period.

Setting: All students in this study were part of the same school district, with 2 students attending the same middle school and the third participant at a different middle school. All phases of this study took place in general education settings. For each student, 3 class periods were targeted.

Participants: Three students, 11-13 years of age, who were diagnosed with high-functioning autism by a physician.  The students’ full-scale IQs ranged from 72 to109 as determined by the WISC-III (Wechsler, 1991).  All students attended public middle schools and were fully included and participated in general education classes throughout the school day. All students demonstrated difficulties initiating and attending to tasks and had no hearing or vision impairments that impeded instruction.

Intervention: Photographs were taken of each participant self-modeling three aspects of task engagement (i.e. reading, writing and listening to the teacher). The photographs were then imported into a Microsoft Powerpoint slide show. Three HP iPAQ Mobile Media Companion handheld computers were then loaded with each student’s self-modeling slide show. Prior to intervention, students participated in a training session in order to ensure that they were capable of independently turning on their handheld computer and accessing the slideshow.

During the intervention phases, participants were provided with their handheld computer at the beginning of each targeted class period.  Teachers prompted students to turn on the device in order to access the self-modeling slide show.  Once activated, the slide show depicted the three photographs of the students at 30-second intervals and repeated itself for the entirety of the class period.  The students were told to self-record their on task behavior by circling “yes” or “no” on a provided index card when the self-monitoring cue was present on the slide show. Procedures to document generalization to other settings were implemented when a student demonstrated a criterion of 90% occurrence of on task behavior in the initial classroom.

Outcomes: Task engagement data was recorded using a continuous partial interval technique.  Event recording was used to document the number of teacher prompts delivered to the students.  Interobserver and procedural reliability data was collected during 33% of sessions.  At the conclusion of the study, teachers completed the Intervention Rating Profile (IRP-15) (Martens, Witt, Elliott, & Darveaux, 1985) in order to assess the social validity of the intervention.  In addition, the participating students completed an assessment of social validity, the Student Post-Intervention Acceptability and Importance of Effects Survey for grades four through six (Lane & Beebe-Frankenberger, 2004).


During intervention phases, the percentage of intervals in which on-task behavior was demonstrated increased across all settings for each of the participants. This was concurrent with a decrease in the number of teacher prompts delivered to the students. For participant 1, Adam, task engagement increased from a mean of 39% of intervals to 91%.  Teacher prompting decreased from a mean of 33 verbal prompts per class period during baseline to 5 prompts during intervention.  For participant 2, Jordan, task engagement increased from 38% to 95% in intervention phases, while teacher prompting decreased from a mean of 18 prompts per class period to 2 prompts during intervention.  The third participant, Richard, had similar results with a mean of 19% of intervals on-task in baseline and a mean of 92% during intervention phases. Teacher prompting for Richard decreased from a mean of 23 prompts per class in baseline to 3.6 prompts during intervention.

The reported social validity measures indicated that teachers felt the use of handheld self-modeling picture prompts were effective in increasing on-task behavior and decreasing teacher prompting.  The mean IRP-15 (Martens et al.,1985) score for teachers was 80. Based on results from the Student Post-Intervention Acceptability and Importance of Effects Survey for grades four through six (Lane & Beebe-Frankenberger, 2004), students rated the intervention as socially acceptable.  The students’ mean score was 83.


The use of handheld self-modeling picture prompts is an effective intervention for increasing on-task behavior and decreasing teacher prompting for students with high-functioning autism in the general education setting. Measures of social validity indicate both teachers and students find this intervention to be feasible, effective and socially acceptable.


Researchers have observed that students with autism often struggle with self-management skills such as controlling, maintaining and generalizing behaviors (Tantam, 2003). Such difficulties often lead to increased teacher prompting in educational settings.  Researchers have documented a variety of interventions, including the use of visual cues and self-management instruction, that have been found to increase the independence of students with disabilities, thus reducing reliance on adults. 

Research on picture prompts and autism has focused on the use of visual activity schedules as a means to promote positive behavior.  Through the use of visual cues, researchers have been able to document increases in independent transitions and on-task behavior and of students with autism in the educational settings (Bryan & Gast, 2000; MacDuff, Krantz, & McClannahan, 1993; Massy & Wheeler, 2000). Despite the positive effects of such visual interventions, there is scant research examining the effects of static picture prompts, as opposed to schedules, as a means to improve behavioral regulation during academic activities in the general education classroom.

Recently, self-management interventions have gained popularity as a strategy for promoting independence and self-reliance among students with disabilities (Lee, Simpson, Shogren, 2007). Such interventions have been shown to be effective in increasing social and communicative behaviors (Koegel, Koegel, Hurley & Frea, 1992), increasing schedule following (Newman, Buffington, O’Grady, & McDonald, 1995), as well as improving daily living skills of students with autism (Pierce & Schreibman, 1994). In spite of its popularity, few studies have examined the use of self-management interventions in the general education classroom as a means to increase participation in the curriculum (Lee, 2007).

In the current study, Cihak, Wright and Ayres (2010) combine successful features of visual activity schedules and self-monitoring in an effort to improve the independent task engagement of students with high functioning autism in the general education classroom.   Results indicate that the three student participants showed drastic increases in on-task behavior during intervention phases of the study. Additionally, with the introduction of the hand-held computer and self-monitoring strategies, a marked decrease in the number of teacher prompts was observed across all participants.

Cihak et al. (2010) utilized a strong research design (i.e., multiple-probe design), and exerted additional experimental control by demonstrating functional relations through the use of an embedded ABAB design for each participant in a single setting.  Generalization probes were completed for each of the participants in two additional settings once 90% criterion had been met in the previous settings, although experimental control was not established in these settings, as there was no reversal.  Efforts to ensure reliability were included in the study; interobserver reliability was documented at 97% and procedural reliability was 100%.  Cihak et al. also included measures of social validity obtained from both students and teachers, both of whom found the intervention to be effective and feasible.

Results from this study provide preliminary evidence that the use of handheld computers with static self-modeled picture prompts may be an effective tool for facilitating self-management for students with autism. Results indicate that the intervention is effective in reducing teacher prompts and increasing on-task behavior during academic work in the general education classroom, which is particularly relevant in a time when least restrictive environment is increasingly defined as the general education classroom.  However, replication of this study is needed to verify its external validity as this study included only a small sample of students over a short period of time.  Longer studies may be needed to determine whether on-task behavior will maintain over an extended time periods.

As this study represents a novel intervention, there is ample room for future research. The current study did not include the use of reinforcement, as it was noted that the participants were highly motivated by the handheld computer. Future replications of this intervention might include the use of self-reinforcement as an element of the self-management program.  Cihak et al. (2010) noted that this study did not include a functional assessment of the students’ behavior.  Therefore, future investigations should seek to determine the impact of this intervention on various functions of behavior. Other future research might include a component analysis of the intervention in order to determine the separate effects of digital picture prompts and self-monitoring. Nevertheless, this study provides initial evidence favoring the use of handheld computers to promote positive behavioral changes and autonomy for students with disabilities in the regular education classroom.


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Tantam, D. (2003). Assessment and Treatment of Comorbid Emotional and Behavior Problems. Learning and behavior problems in Asperger syndrome (pp. 148- 174). New York, NY US: Guilford Press.

Wechsler, L. A., (1991). Wechsler, manual for the Wechsler intelligence scale for children fourth edition manual. The Psychological Corporation, San Antonio, TX: Psychological Corporations Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

[1] Abstracted from Cihak, D., Wright, R., & Ayres, K. (2010). Use of self-modeling static-picture prompts via a handheld computer to facilitate self-monitoring in the general education classroom. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 45(1), 136-149.

For correspondence: email dcihak@utk.edu

Source of funding: Not reported.

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