Many struggling learners suffer from difficulties with response generalization, difficulties that can dramatically slow their rate of learning.

If, for example, Edwin learned to organize his science notes, but without direct instruction couldn't seamlessly organize his consumer studies (CS) notes, his response generalization difficulties will create a barrier to learning. He'll need extra instruction to learn what many of his peers will automatically do — apply the knowledge and skill they learned about organizing their science notes to organizing their other notes.

If Edwin's response generalization problems also involve writing, mathematics and blending word sounds into recognizable words, his rate of progress will suffer; he'll fall further behind peers who seem to automatically apply what they learned about writing short paragraphs to writing longer ones, about adding two columns of numbers to adding three columns, about blending words that begin with the consonant blend sm to words that begin with the known sounds of the consonant blends sn, sp, st, sw, th, tr, tw, wh, and wr.

Thus, the importance of virtually automatic response generalization that does not require extra instruction.

So far, the news about Edwin has been troubling, but it need not be terrible. With careful planning and systematic instruction instruction that's logical, sequential and carefully monitored for progress teachers have many effective ways to help struggling learners apply what they learned about writing introductory paragraphs about trains to writing ones about sports and friendships.

In other words, if Edwin's teachers use well-studied instructional strategies that have proven effective, they can minimize but not end his need for extra instruction.

But what specifically can teachers and parents do to help struggling learners make the connection between tasks? What can they do to strengthen response generalization? What strategies will usually prove effective? Professors Margo A. Mastropieri and Thomas E. Scruggs of George Mason University offer an excellent summary:

"Generalization ... can be promoted by training 'loosely' and allowing flexibility in responding; by using 'indiscriminate' contingencies (rewarding students when they do not know they are being observed); by using modeling and role play; by employing classroom peers; by encouraging self-monitoring, where students evaluate their own performance; and by retraining the desired behavior in a variety of different circumstances."

For struggling learners who believe that they're incompetent and that they lack the ability to succeed on tasks at their proper independent and instructional levels, instruction to promote response generalization needs to occur within a framework that strengthens their self-efficacy, their belief that they can succeed on specific tasks if they make a reasonable effort, persist when necessary, and use the right learning strategies in the right ways.

Below, I'll focus on employing classroom peers and indiscriminate contingencies, multiple exemplars, which Mastropieri and Scruggs call different circumstances, self-efficacy, IEPs and the bottom line. To read about other generalization strategies, you can read a previous article.

Employing classroom peers and indiscriminate contingencies

A struggling learner's peers often ignore improvements in his conduct and academics. To reverse this, teachers can intentionally structure situations that encourage and reinforce his peers to actively support his improvements.

Professor John W. Maag of the University of Nebraska has shown how teachers can readily use this strategy called entrapment to foster generalization.

Entrapment can prove effective in environments that highly value the struggling learner's improvements and naturally reinforce his peers. For example, he may earn five points for correctly reading aloud five unfamiliar words that resemble but differ from ones he formerly learned. If this raises the class's total to 50 points, his peers might high-five him for getting them an extra five minutes of free time.

Essentially, entrapment puts the learner in situations likely to promote success, the kind that encourages his peers to reinforce him.

If, however, a learner's peers continue to ignore his improvements, his teacher can often improve the situation. In quiet and supportive ways, she can discuss the struggling learner's target behavior with them and explain how they can benefit from reinforcing it. As part of this, she might explain and begin a highly structured program to encourage their reinforcing behaviors.

When a small group of peers routinely reinforces a struggling learner's improvements, the teacher should gradually, almost imperceptibly, lessen her reinforcement especially if she's using an artificial reinforcement system, like a token economy, that follows an announced schedule. At this point, "indiscriminate contingencies," the occasional and unpredictably scheduled reinforcement of targeted behaviors becomes more important than reinforcement that's frequent and predictably scheduled.

Unpredictable reinforcement schedules resemble slot-machine psychology; likely, the "hope" of unpredictably scheduled reinforcement will activate and maintain the supportive behavior of a struggling learner's peers well into the future. Also, socially natural, readily available reinforcers, such as one-to-one compliments, need to replace artificial reinforcers, like stickers and pretzels.

In some situations, a teacher can sidestep highly-structured reinforcement programs for peers if she often gives them verbal and written encouragement that emphasizes their reinforcing behavior and relates it to their habits and values. This requires her to carefully listen to and observe them to accurately understand their habits and values.

Here's what may happen if Edwin's reading teacher, Ms. McCormick, does this with a group of carefully selected, responsible students who value kindness and cooperation.

After Ms. McCormick and Edwin's peers discuss the importance of congratulating him for successfully reading aloud a story with unfamiliar words that start with the "sh" sound (e.g., share), a sound he had previously recognized and pronounced in decoding other words (e.g., show), their compliments will likely increase his willingness to do so. Success would show improved response generalization, his ability to correctly recognize and pronounce words similar but distinct from ones he had previously learned.

In addition to congratulating him in class, some of his peers might start to show him greater respect and acceptance outside of class, on the playground. They might ask him to join their game. This is important. It's powerful. It's a natural, universally sought reinforcer.

"Acceptance in the peer group," as Maag noted, "is one of the most socially important and valued outcomes for students."

Multiple exemplars

Ideally, for teachers to strengthen struggling learners' response-generalization abilities, they need to emphasize multiple exemplars in multiple settings delivered by multiple staff. Mastropieri and Scruggs referred to this as "retraining ... in a variety of different circumstances."

For struggling learners who are "unmotivated" to learn what they need to learn such as how to generalize their knowledge and skill — teachers may need to start a structured reinforcement program with relatively easy tasks on which the learners can succeed, thereby earning reinforcement they value and think is worth their effort.

As "unmotivated" struggling learners begin to routinely focus on tasks and make needed efforts, teachers need to gradually, almost imperceptibly, phase out obvious, precisely scheduled reinforcement (e.g., 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.). Teachers should replace obvious schedules with unpredictable ones that offer learners the hope of earning the reinforcers they want. Learners, however, don't know when they'll get reinforced.

Fortunately, Edwin is highly motivated to learn. Showing him several excellent models of well-organized consumer studies (CS) notes and then showing him, step-by-step, how to organize his CS notes should improve his ability to independently organize future ones.

Although this may also teach Edwin how to organize his notes from other subjects, he may still have problems. If so, his teacher may need to follow the same process with these notes. She would need to show him multiple exemplars, show and explain to him how to organize his notes, and take him through the organizing process in a sequential step-by-step manner.

To improve his chances of successfully generalizing his organizational abilities, she should, if possible, meet with a knowledgeable teaching assistant and Edwin's other teachers to plan how they could offer similar instruction.

In many schools, it's difficult to ensure such meetings and follow-through. Nevertheless, if difficulties with response generalization are blocking the progress of struggling learners, it's critical.

Thus, the learners' IEPs should have specific goals (and in some states, short-term objectives) for response generalization as well as explicit plans to involve multiple teachers and staff. Typically, this needs administrative support.


Sheila is different from Edwin in that she typically resists new or unfamiliar reading tasks, which makes her look unmotivated to read. But she's motivated. Her self-efficacy for reading is weak: She has little confidence in her reading abilities and thinks she'll fail if she tries.

For Sheila to accelerate her progress in reading, her self-efficacy needs to become a strength. In practical terms, she needs to accurately believe that she can succeed if she uses the right strategies in the right ways and makes a reasonable and sometimes sustained effort.

Like Edwin, she wants to succeed. She wants to learn. And like Edwin, her difficulties with response generalization slow her progress.

To improve Sheila's reading comprehension, her literacy teacher, Mr. Ryan, carefully showed her how to use all three phases of Drs. Shumaker, Denton and Deshler's University of Kansas RAP Paraphrasing Strategy:

  • Read the paragraph.
  • Ask yourself, "What is the main idea and supporting details?"
  • Put the main idea and details in your own words.

To augment his instruction and ensure many exemplars, he taught his teaching assistant and student teacher to do the same and to use RAP prompt sheets. After Sheila successfully explained and twice modeled RAP's stages Mr. Ryan gradually increased the difficulty of passages he asked her to read, making sure that each of them was at her instructional level and was of interest to her.

Despite Sheila's ongoing success, she started resisting, thinking failure was inevitable. To help her resume her success, Mr. Ryan showed her how the new passages resembled ones on which she recently succeeded. He then reviewed RAP with her and asked how she successfully applied it to earlier passages and how she could apply it to the new one. As he used this specific enactive mastery strategy, she started to rebound.

To strengthen the effects of the enactive mastery strategy that he had used, Mr. Ryan made a few verbally persuasive comments: "Sheila, I strongly believe that the RAP strategy will help you understand whatever you read. RAP's like batting for your softball team. When you focus on your work, make a good effort, keep trying, and carefully follow the RAP steps you hit the ball. You can do it again. You can hit a single, double, triple or even a homer. If you want, I'll help you. Let's do it."

For such comments to work, each reading passage needs to reflect Sheila's proper instructional level, and she needs to trust Mr. Ryan's judgement.

To ensure that Sheila's instruction is consistently effective, Mr. Ryan showed his teaching assistant and student teacher how to use RAP and the enactive mastery strategy. He also worked with them to develop a few persuasive comments. After four training sessions, he felt confident that they could assist him.

During these sessions, he also showed them how to use Stanford University Professor Carol S. Dweck's simple but powerfully motivating "not yet" strategy. He shared several examples with them. Here's one:

"No, Sheila, you're not striking out. I have a little more teaching to do, and you have a little more learning to do. So, you've not yet mastered RAP 100 percent. That's OK. As we work together, you'll increase your batting average. You'll get a bunch of hits."


If you're disturbed by your child's or student's difficulties to generalize what he's learning, it's important that you get the necessary statements into his IEP's Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLAAFP). These statements form the foundation for much of the IEP.

Thus, PLAAFP statements should adhere to the CARE standards (Comprehensive, Accurate, Relevant, Explicit) and should lead to explicit, relevant goals (and in some states, short-term objectives) that adhere to the MMM standards (Meaningful, Measurable, Manageable).

The bottom line

Difficulties with response generalization can seriously hamper the progress of struggling learners, but we have many effective ways to improve generalization. The keys are recognizing the problem, making it a salient part of the learner's IEP, arranging for whatever help he needs, implementing instruction, and frequently monitoring its effects.

Frequent refers to once weekly or twice monthly. Why so frequent? It prevents learners from stagnating or regressing in ineffective programs.

Will it take extra instruction to help Edwin and Sheila overcome their response generalization difficulties? Yes. But as with all students, it's well worth the effort. Ideally, it's what special education teachers, student support personnel and parents are about.