Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

Evaluating the Ability of Learners with Autism to Work in Small Groups

Learners with autism do well with one on one instruction, and this is widely known. However, the provision of one-to-one instruction on a long-term basis is not efficient or realistic. Funding streams, particularly in adulthood, do not support this level of staffing. Furthermore, the ability to follow instructions delivered to a group is essential to successful integration in school, vocational and community settings.

In our clinical work at Melmark, we have found that this issue is a challenging one for educational teams. Often, there are diverse opinions about a student’s readiness for group instruction. Educational team members and parents often have strong opinions about readiness for group instruction or about the need for continued individualized instruction.

Concerns about behavioral regression and about a slowed rate of acquisition often result in long-term provision of individual instruction. This is understandable, as established skills need to be maintained. Furthermore, learners with developmental delays and slowed skill acquisition need more intensive instruction to learn. Worry over loss of skills and a slowed rate of skill development often results in long-term reliance on a 1:1 instructional ratio.

Prolonging this ratio beyond the instructional need, however, may be counter-productive. Some learners may become dependent on this level of support, and it may impede their ability to transition to settings with less rich instructional ratios. One of our primary obligations is to ensure that we prepare learners for next (and ultimate) settings. Future settings do not generally provide such rich instructional ratios. A student who requires such support as an adolescent or adult learner may have fewer settings available to them.

From a clinical and research perspective, it is important to identify any learner’s capacity for group instruction. There are few guidelines about how to assess such capacity. While there is agreement on the importance of reduced staffing and independent responding, there is a need for explicit tools for assessing a learner’s ability to demonstrate and learn skills in a group setting.

Prior Research

Fading intensive staffing is essential to the promotion of independence and the successful transitioning of our students to less restrictive settings or into adult programs. Although research has indicated that individualized instructional arrangements are highly effective with individuals with autism who display challenging behavior, the resources necessary to provide intensive staffing to all students are rare (Kamps & Walker, 1990). Not only is intensive staffing often unrealistic, some research indicates that 1:1 instructional formats hinder generalization of skills (Koegel, Egel, & Dunlap), eliminate the potential for observational learning (Keel & Gast 1992), and require far more instructional time than do group formats (Favell, Favell, & McGimsey, 1978).

Research in this area indicates that small group formats are as effective as (Kamps & Walker, 1990) and more efficient than (Biberdorf & Pear, 1977) one-to-one instruction, with comparable rates of challenging behavior across instructional arrangements (Kamps & Walker, 1990). Data from a study by Kamps et al (1992) indicates that individuals with a history of one-to-one instruction can successfully be transitioned to small-group formats across several curriculum areas with few problems. McDonnell et al (2006) demonstrated equivalent learning in embedded and group instructional formats for middle schoolers with developmental disabilities.

There are many questions about learning in groups that remain unanswered. Some novel work by Taylor and colleagues seeks to isolate the components of the listening response that may facilitate learning observationally in group instructional contexts. Taylor, DeQuinzio, and Stine (2012) evaluated the components of responses that may facilitate observational learning in group contexts. They found that teaching a monitoring response increased observational learning.

Challenging assumptions about the benefits of 1:1 instruction, Melton, Hansen, Mayer, and Kenyon (2013) presented data that demonstrated the superiority of group instruction for the acquisition of new skills. In their examination of seven learners with autism, they found that 4 of 7 acquired skills more rapidly when taught in a group context. The other three participants had equivalent rates of acquisition across conditions. These data are interesting, and await replication.

While the majority of past research has focused on students’ ability to acquire new skills in small-group arrangements, a student’s ability to maintain independent responding on mastered targets when transitioned to a dyad instructional arrangement from individualized instruction may be a good indicator of whether or not fading staff ratios is practical at that time.

Melmark’s Focus

The research team at Melmark is committed to figuring out an efficient way to address this clinical need and has designed an instructional protocol to assess a learner’s performance in individual and group instruction. Initially, research focused on examining the learner’s differential performance in individual and dyad learning situations with mastered skills. Ultimately, this work will be extended to examine differential acquisition of new material in group and individual learning contexts.

Perhaps the most exciting element of the protocol is that it enables educational teams to make decisions about learner readiness for group instruction on the basis of objective and individual data. The focus of the assessment will be to identify the learners’ skills in core areas relevant to success in group learning environments. Variables assessed include not only the ability to learn new material, but also:


  • Levels of engagement
  • Rates of challenging behavior
  • Maintenance of mastered targets in individualized and group instructional arrangements

Successful candidates for group instruction should exhibit:


  • Stable patterns of independent responding
  • Maintenance of learned skills
  • High levels of engagement
  • Low rates of challenging behavior
  • Low rates of stereotypy across conditions

The initial assessment compares differential performance of mastered skills in individual and dyad instruction. This is an important first step, as learners need to be able to demonstrate and perform tasks when they are not provided with individual attention. Furthermore, it will provide information on whether behaviors that can interfere with tasks are more prevalent in learners with autism in individual or group environments. Finally, it will provide data on whether performance suffers in group contexts. The latter assessment compares differential acquisition of new instructional targets in individual and dyad instruction. These data are important to ascertain whether learners with autism truly need individual instruction to learn new skills.

It is hoped that such an instrument could be used to support the learner’s readiness to be weaned from individual instruction and to participate in group learning. As the ability to participate in group instruction is essential for academic and vocational environments, assessing this skill is part of our clinical obligation to prepare learners with autism for their next environments.

For more information on the assessment tool described, please contact Helena Maguire at or Mary Jane Weiss at

Helena Maguire, MS, BCBA, is Senior Director of School Services at Melmark New England. Mary Jane Weiss, PhD, BCBA-D, is Executive Director of Research at Melmark. Frank L. Bird, MEd, BCBA, is Chief Clinical Officer of Melmark, Inc.

The mission of Melmark is to serve children, adults and their families affected by a broad range of intellectual disabilities. We provide evidence-based educational, vocational, clinical, residential, healthcare and rehabilitative services, personally designed for each individual in a safe environment of warmth, care and respect.


Biberdorf, J.R., & Pearm J.J (1977). Two-to-one versus one-to-one student-teacher ratios in the operant verbal training of retarded children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 10, 507.

Favell, J.E., Favell, J.E., & McGimsey, J.F. (1978). Relative effectiveness and efficiency of group versus individual training of severely retarded persons. American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 83, 104-109.

Kamps, D., & Walker, D. (1990). A comparison of instructional arrangements for children with autism served in a public school setting. Education and Treatment of Children, 13, 197-216.

Kamps, D., Walker, D., & Maher, J. (1992). Academic and environmental effects of small group arrangements in classrooms for students with autism and other developmental disabilities. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 22, 277-293.

Keel, M.C., & Gast, D.L. (1992). Small-group instruction for students with learning disabilities: Observational and incidental learning. Exceptional Children, 58, 357-368.

Koegel, R., Egel, A., & Dunlap, G. (1980). Learning characteristics of autistic children. In W. S. Sailor, B. Wilcox, & L.J. Brown (Eds.), Methods of instruction with severely handicapped students. Baltimore: Paul H. Brooks.

McDonnell, J., Polychronis, S., Reisenland, T., Jameson, M., Johnson, J. W., Kercher, K. (2006). Comparison of one-to-one embedded instruction in general education classes with small group instruction in special education classes. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 41, 125-138.

Melton, B., Hansen, M., Maher, J., & Kenyon, S. (2013). A Comparison of Group and One-to-One Instructional Arrangements with Students with ASD. Presentation on Symposium at Association for Behavior Analysis Annual Conference. Minneapolis, MN. May, 2013.

Taylor, B.A., DeQuinzio, J.A. & Stine, J. (2012). Increasing Observational Learning of Children with Autism: A Preliminary Analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 45 (4), 815-820.

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