Why Generalization?

Why is Generalization Important?

Students who receive special education services often learn skills in isolation or outside of the natural environment relative to the skill. In order for the skill to have a meaningful impact on the student’s life and be sustained over time, it is critical for students to be taught how to use the skill in a way that it can transfer across environments, situations, people, and be used in multiple ways. For example it’s not realistic to have a student practice greeting every single peer in the school building. But educators can teach a student multiple examples (multiple ways) of how to greet a friend versus an acquaintance (people). The student should be given opportunities to practice the skill in different classrooms or areas of the school building (environments), with different peers and materials (situations). Generalization related to social skills leads to independence, inclusion and meaningful relationships; all of which are some of the greatest gifts an educator can give to a student.

What is Generalization?

Generalization is a process. It typically begins with explicit instruction on a targeted skill and is then demonstrated in a different situation, setting, environment and/or with different people or materials. A student who has generalized a skill is able to demonstrate the skill in a novel natural environment; where the skill is going to be the most commonly used. For example, a teacher could explicitly teach a student how to ask for help with an assignment in math class. A student has generalized the skill when they are able to use the same steps/strategies to request help in other classrooms. Educators are teaching students different ways to do the same thing when they plan for generalization.

How to Implement Social Skill Generalization with Students

When designing a program, lesson or instruction, how the student is going to apply the new skill(s) to their everyday life is something that should be considered from the beginning. If not intentionally planned for, students are susceptible to rigid and limited application of the skill. As with any new skill students should be given the opportunity to practice it and receive feedback from staff.

What if I don’t Plan for Generalization?

Educators run the risk of students becoming rigid in their ability to apply social skills and appropriately adjust their behavior to respond in different situations. Imagine the following situations and the impact they have.

  1. A crisis has occurred at school and a first responder is attempting to get the student’s personal information by asking, “Where do you live?” “Do you know how to get a hold of your mom?” The student knows their personal information (address, parents’ cell numbers, etc.) but they only know how to respond when asked, “What is your address?” “What is your mom’s cell phone number?”
  2. A student is able to raise their hand to request help while in their resource math class. In English class when they don’t understand the assignment they lay their head down on the desk.
How to Plan for Generalization

When planning for generalization certain factors should be considered.


  1. What skill(s) does my student already have?
    1. Choose a method for assessing student social skills. Examples could include the VOISS Inventory, asking the student what skills are their strengths, or using the Social Skills Improvement System (SSIS) Rating Scales.
  2. What skills need to be taught first?
    1. As a team, determine what skills would have the most significant impact on the student’s life. Be sure to include the student in this conversation too.
    2. Determine any prerequisite skills the student will need in order to demonstrate the specific skill and teach those first.
  3. How will the team know the student is ready to demonstrate the skill(s) in a novel natural environment?
    1. Set goals and criteria for mastery
    2. Use a data sheet, rubric, etc to measure progress
    3. The student should be able to tell you what steps of the skill and when/where to use the skill prior to demonstrating in the natural environment
  4. What is the best way to teach the skill(s) to my student?
    1. Use interventions coupled with evidence based practices (such as role-play, visual supports, video modeling, social narratives, reinforcement systems etc.) to teach new skills.
  5. How can the natural environment support the skill(s)?
    1. Fade out the arbitrary reinforcers and contrived settings. Plan for ways the new social skill(s) can be maintained by the natural environment. For example, once the objective has been met, fade the token economy system as a reinforcer and let the social exchange be the natural reinforcer.
  6. Is the student able to reliably demonstrate the skill(s) across environments, situations and people after interventions have faded and time has passed?
    1. Review data to ensure maintenance and check-in with the student to make sure they feel the social skill is valuable/relevant to their life.
    2. If the skill hasn’t been maintained, consider providing more practice in the contrived environment or selecting a new intervention. Also consider how valuable that particular skill is to the student and the impact that could have on demonstration.