Maintaining/Retaining Skills Over Time

In order for our students to learn and function as independently as possible, they must possess the ability to maintain/retain skills over time.  Response maintenance is defined as the extent to which a learner continues to perform the target behavior after a portion or all of the intervention responsible for the behavior’s initial appearance in the learner’s repertoire has been terminated (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). For example:

  1. Teacher utilizes discrete trial training (DTT) to teach a child to label (tact) a staff member by name (3-D – actual person).
  2. The student meets designated acquisition criteria (labels the staff member by name correctly on the first probe for 3 consecutive days).
  3. School closes for winter break (1-week) and the student does not have the opportunity to practice the skill of labeling the staff member by name.
  4. On the first day back to school after winter break, the student is asked to label the staff member by name and does so correctly on the first probe without any prompting.

The student maintained the skill of labeling the staff member by name even after termination of the intervention (absence of DTT during winter break; no interaction with staff member during winter break). While the above scenario is a welcome one, a student’s ability to retain/maintain skills over time should be carefully monitored in an autism program and not left to chance.  An effective and efficient system will be necessary due to many factors including limited staff and time. Consider the following organizer to help monitor students’ ability to maintain/retain skills:

  1. Place index cards (vertically) on a wall/board with each student’s initials.
  2. Next to each student’s index card, place 5 Ziploc sandwich bags horizontally (label each bag with a day of the week – Monday through Friday).
  3. Decide on the time delay between teaching and testing.  Consider gradually increasing the time delay, working up to longer periods of time. (i.e.,1-hour, 1 day, 1 week, etc.)
  4. Write the target skill on an index card and put in the appropriate “bag” (i.e., If today is Monday and you want to check for 1-week retention, skill card will go in the ‘Monday’ bag).
  5. Refrain from providing intervention or practice for the target skill(s) in bags during the decided time-frame.
  6. Each day, check to see if any students will require maintenance/retention checks.
  7. Document outcomes and utilize the data for analyzing individual student programs.

MaintainingSkills Retention/Maintenance Data Sheet Resource: Maintenance Data Resource

Note:  A lack of retention could point to faulty curriculum design and/or ineffective teaching procedures. (Sundberg, 2008).  If a student requires re-teaching frequently, it is necessary to re-evaluate the intervention plan.


Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W.L.  (2007). Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Pearson Education, Inc.

Sundberg M.L.  (2008). Verbal behavior milestones assessment and placement program-guide. Concord, CA:  AVB Press.

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