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Updated: Feb 22, 2021

Let’s talk about the term used almost exclusively in ABA: “Pairing.” ABA jargon often involves applying very clinical terminology to concepts that we see in practice every day. While the term “pairing” sounds very scientific in nature, the definition is quite simplistic; pairing refers to building rapport with someone, particularly our clients.

Typically, no one wants to spend their time with a complete stranger. No one feels comfortable asking someone they barely know for something that they want or need. When children are in school, their very first day often consists of getting to know their teachers and peers before any lessons are taught. ABA operates the same way.

When our clients come to NGAC for their first day of ABA therapy, we do not begin by teaching skills or addressing behavioral concerns. Instead, we spend the first few days pairing. During this time, our client has free reign (within reason, of course, we have to be safe!) to interact with any stimuli that they want. We call this noncontingent reinforcement: granting our client access to anything that they want without them even having to ask. As the therapist, I am showing my new client all of the awesome stuff that we have, such as the sensory room, library, and trampoline. This gives the therapist some ideas about what the client enjoys, which will be important when considering reinforcement.

While pairing may seem unproductive, it is the absolute most important thing that NGAC therapists do during their sessions. Pairing allows new therapists to become associated with their client’s favorite activities and lets them know that their therapist is a trusted adult who is able to meet their wants and needs. Pairing allows clients and therapists to develop a meaningful relationship before learning begins. The process also associates the new clinic with good experiences as well, allowing new clients to be eager to come in and learn.

Does pairing stop after learning begins? Of course not! Therapists are constantly engaging in activities with clients and nurturing that relationship. While we do fade out the use of non-contingent reinforcement, we still ensure that the pairing process continues by letting our clients know that we care for them and that we are able to meet their wants/needs.


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