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"Check this out!" Teaching students with disabilities to recruit contingent attention in the classroom.

The most important role of a special education teacher is designing, implementing, and evaluating instruction that helps students with disabilities acquire, generalize, and maintain knowledge and skills that improve the quality of their lives in school, home, community, and workplace--now and in the future. Increasingly, students with disabilities--many of whom have limited social repertoires in addition to deficits in academic skills--are expected to learn in regular classrooms with their typically developing peers. To increase the likelihood of attaining success in these inclusive settings, students need to learn to use a repertoire of classroom survival skills such as listening, following directions, and completing assignments. Learning when and how to ask for feedback or assistance is an important classroom survival skill useful for increasing independence. Teaching students to recruit attention from adults and their peers is one way to promote success in the regular classroom because it increases the likelihood the student will fit in socially and improve academically.


The classroom is a busy place, a place where, unfortunately, many students who need approval, assistance, or feedback are often inadvertently overlooked. Additionally, students with disabilities typically retreat to passive roles when placed in situations in which they do not receive adequate levels of support or attention (Newman & Golding, 1990; O'Conner & Jenkins, 1996). Because students with disabilities cannot rely on receiving praise or feedback when they need it, they must be taught a proactive approach for obtaining attention. Training students to recruit teacher or peer attention is one way of helping students with disabilities function more independently while actively influencing the quality of instruction they receive.

Recruiting Works

Research has found that systematically training students to recruit positive attention increases recruiting responses and adult attention for wide range of learners completing a variety of tasks. Preschoolers were taught to raise their hands and make statements such as "Have I been working carefully?" or "How is this?" while working on pencil and paper tasks (Stokes, Fowler, & Baer, 1978), and approximately 90% of their recruiting responses were followed by praise. After teaching preschoolers to self-assess and recruit feedback for their cleaning-up performance during transitions, Connell, Carta, and Baer (1993) documented increased teacher praise statements and increased duration of time on task.

Recruitment training has also been effective with adolescents and adults. Adolescent girls in maximum security institution for juvenile offenders who were taught to self-assess and recruit attention demonstrated increased vocational work productivity and positive interactions with staff (Seymour & Stokes, 1976). Adults with mental retardation also attained increased work productivity and supervisor feedback after being trained to self-monitor and recruit feedback (Mank & Horner, 1987).

Six studies have examined the effects of recruitment training with upper elementary and middle school students. Recruitment training increased the frequency of teacher praise for 10-12 year-olds with behavioral disorders (Morgan, Young, & Goldstein, 1893), low achieving fourth graders (Hrydowy, Stokes, & Martin, 1984), and elementary school boys with autism and severe disabilities (Harchik, Harchik, Luce, & Sherman, 1990). Craft, Alber, and Heward (1998) taught four fourth graders with developmental disabilities to show their spelling assignments to the teacher two to three times per work page and ask for feedback or assistance with statements such as: "How am I doing?" or "Does this look right?" Not one teacher praise statement was delivered to 3 of the 4 students over 36 baseline sessions (representing a cumulative total of 12 hours of independent seat work for these three students). After recruitment training, however, the mean number of praise statements for each student ranged from 1.6 to 2.1 per 20-minute session. Before the students were taught to recruit attention, the mean percentage of spelling worksheet items completed accurately for each student ranged from 25% to 67% and increased to a mean of 67% to 97% after training.

In addition to teacher praise and academic productivity, Alber, Heward, and Hippler (1999) also assessed of the effects of student recruiting by four sixth graders with learning disabilities on the frequency of instructional feedback, a variable not examined in previous recruiting studies. Recruitment training followed a protocol developed by Craft et al. (1998) and consisted of three parts: (1) instruction and role play, (2) morning prompts, and (3) end-of-the-day check and reward. Students received praise on only 6 (10%) of the combined 60 baseline sessions. After training, the students received praise on 42 (49%) of the combined 85 post training sessions. Instructional feedback also increased significantly. Of the 60 total baseline sessions, there were only 23 (38%) sessions during which students received instructional feedback. However, students received instructional feedback on 66 (78%) of the 85 post training sessions. Students also attained higher percentages of work completion and accuracy on their math assignments.

In each of the previous recruiting studies, the students were taught to recruit attention from adults. Wolford, Alber, and Heward (1998) extended this research by teaching four middle school students with learning disabilities to recruit positive attention from peers during cooperative learning groups, and assessed the effects of training on student recruiting, praise and instructional feedback from peers, and academic productivity. All four students seldom recruited peer attention during baseline (mean rate: 0.3 to 0.8 recruiting attempts per 10-minutes), and received low rates of peer attention (mean rate: 0.7 to 1.0 per 10-minutes). After training, the four students appropriately recruited their peers' attention at a mean rate of 1.4 to 2.4 times per 10-minutes, and received instructional feedback statements from peers at a mean rate of 1.4 to 2.8 times per session. After learning to recruit their peers' attention, all four students completed more of their daily language arts assignments with greater accuracy during cooperative learning groups.

Who Should be Taught to Recruit?

Although most students could probably benefit from learning to recruit teacher or peer attention, some students should be considered a first priority. Students who tend to be shy and introverted can go easily unnoticed by teachers. Research shows that teachers are more likely to pay attention to disruptive students than students who are quietly working (Walker, 1997). When reticent students are taught to recruit attention and their recruiting attempts are met with positive attention, continued recruiting is a likely outcome. Other ideal candidates for recruitment training include: a) students who recruit for poor quality work, and consequently, may receive more negative attention than praise; b) students who recruit inappropriately (e.g., yelling out to get the teacher's attention); and c) students who recruit too frequently and become viewed as a "pest" by the teacher.

After selecting target students for recruitment training, it is important to conduct a pre-assessment to determine the extent to which teacher attention functions as a reinforcer. Unless the student is reinforced by teacher attention, recruitment training will probably not produce the desired outcomes (Alber et al., 1999). A practical alternative for students for whom teacher attention does not function as a reinforcer may be training them to recruit attention from peers.

How to Teach Students to Recruit Positive Attention

Teaching students to recruit positive attention involves the following procedures: selecting target skill for which students will recruit attention; teaching self-assessment of the target skill; and teaching appropriate recruiting responses through modeling, role playing, corrective feedback, and reinforcement.

Selecting target skills. When identifying target skills for which students will recruit attention, teachers should consider whether the behavior is likely to be reinforced in the regular classroom. Completing classwork and homework assignments accurately, writing neatly and legibly, and using appropriate social skills are examples of behaviors that are typically appreciated and reinforced by classroom teachers. Students can be taught to politely point out their accomplishments for any behavior valued by teachers and significant others. Initially, students should be prompted to recruit for only one target skill until they have attained some degree of recruiting proficiency. Then other target skills should be gradually added to the student's repertoire. To increase the likelihood that positive attention will follow a student's initial recruiting attempts, select target skills the student can already perform with some accuracy and consistency before addressing more complex skills.

Teaching self-assessment. Self-assessment is a crucial element to the success of recruitment training. The student who frequently asks her teacher to look at unfinished and incorrect work in unlikely to receive much positive attention. However, students who show careful attempts at completion and accuracy will probably receive more praise which increases the likelihood of future recruiting.

The simplest way to promote self-assessment is teaching students to determine if their work is complete. After the student can consistently make the distinction between complete and incomplete work samples, students can check the accuracy of their work using answer keys, checklists (e.g., a list of steps for editing a composition), spot checks (e.g., selecting a few items on a math worksheet and working backwards, multiplying to check division), and scans for frequently made errors (e.g., subject-verb agreement). Every self-checking technique will not work for all students, skills, or settings. Teachers should try to match the most logical technique with the demands of the skill and the capability of the student.

Teach when, how, and how often to recruit.

After the student has completed a portion of her work and self-assessed, the next step is emitting an appropriate signal to get the teacher's attention. Students should be taught when, how, and how often to recruit, as well as how to respond after receiving teacher attention. The specifics of these four elements will vary according to class size, subject area, and grade level.

Students should signal for teacher or peer attention after they have completed and self-checked a substantial part of their work. For example, Craft et al. (1998), Alber et al. (1999), and Wolford et al. (1998) taught students to emit a recruiting signal when about half of their work was completed.

Students must also learn how to appropriately signal the teacher. In many classrooms, students are expected to emit a hand raise to obtain teacher attention, but this is not always the case. Before teaching the target student a signal, the trainer must first find out--through observation, if possible--the expected method of signaling in the target setting. For example, in Alber et al. (1999) the appropriate recruiting response was a hand raise, however the students in Craft et al. (1998) were expected to walk to the teacher's desk and show her their work. Students must also learn when they should not try to get their teacher's attention. They will have more success recruiting attention when the teacher is nearby and available (e.g., not talking to an adult, not working with another student). When teaching students to recruit from peers, an appropriate signal may be for the students to tap a peer on the shoulder, say the peer's name, or say "excuse me." (Wolford et al., 1998).

Effective recruitment training should include providing a small repertoire of statements or questions that are likely to prompt positive feedback from the teacher. The fourth graders in the Hrydowy et al. (1984) study prompted teacher attention by asking "How is this work?" or "Did I finish quietly?" Connell et al. (1993) taught preschoolers to approach their teachers after they had finished cleaning up during transition times and simply say "I'm done." Trainers should keep the verbal responses simple, but teach the student to vary his or her verbal responses so they will sound more natural (e.g., "Please look at my work." "Did I do a good job?" and "How am I doing?"). Appropriate voice volume and intonation should also be practiced during role play.

Finally, students should be taught to respond to the teacher's feedback by establishing eye contact, smiling, and saying "Thank you." Polite appreciation by students is very reinforcing to teachers, and it will increase the likelihood of more positive attention the next time the student recruits. Not every recruiting response will result in teacher praise (Alber et al., 1999; Craft et al., 1998; Connell et al., 1993; Harchik et. al., 1990), and some efforts to recruit positive attention may even be followed by criticism or a reprimand (e.g., "Maybe if you paid attention you would understand the directions." "I can't help you right now, I'm busy."). Teachers should use role-playing to prepare the student for these possibilities and have the student practice polite and affirmative responses (e.g., "I'm sorry. Would you show me how to do this later?").

Another important component of training is teaching students to limit the number of times they recruit to avoid becoming a pest (Stokes et al., 1978). The number of times a student should recruit teacher attention will vary as a function of the grade level, the number of students in the classroom, the teacher's style, and the nature of the lesson or activity. Ideally, appropriate rates of student recruiting should be determined by directly observing the classroom, or consulting with the classroom teacher. Based on the published recruiting research, we recommend a rate of one to a maximum of three recruiting responses spread across a 20-minute work period. The acceptable number of recruiting responses may be higher for early elementary school children (K-3), a population for which we found no published research.

Model and Role Play the Complete Sequence.

Teaching students to recruit positive attention should follow the same sequence of teaching any other complex social skill: provide a rationale for learning the skill, then model, role play, and provide directed practice with corrective feedback and praise. Planning for generalization is another important component to recruitment training.

Training should begin with the teacher clearly defining recruiting and facilitating a brief discussion about the rationale for recruiting. For example, the trainer may ask "Why do you think it would be a good idea to ask the teacher to look at your work?", eliciting student responses such as "So I know if I'm doing it right," "I might get better grades," and "The teacher will be happy if I did a good job." After students are able to explain how recruiting can benefit them, the trainer should model the recruiting sequence by thinking aloud. While performing each step the trainer might say, "I'm finished with about half of the math problems. Now I'm going to check them. Did I line up my ones, tens, and hundreds columns? ... Yes ... Did I remember to regroup when I added? ... Yes ... okay, my teacher doesn't look busy right now, I'll raise my hand and wait quietly until she comes to my desk."

The trainer can have a student or an assistant play the role of the classroom teacher, and come to the trainer when she has her hand up. "Mr. Daniels, will you look at my work please?" The helper should be prompted to praise the trainer (e.g., "Oh, this looks very good."). Then the trainer should model appreciation by saying, "Thank you." After the trainer has modeled the recruiting sequence, she should role play with students several types of recruiting episodes (both positive and negative) giving praise and corrective feedback until the student has demonstrated proper recruiting for several consecutive trials.

How to plan for generalization. Planning for generalization for a range of settings and situations is an important component of recruitment training. When modeling or role playing recruiting skills, the teacher should attempt to simulate the generality as much as possible by using the same instructional materials and the full range of likely situations the students will encounter in the classroom. The students should practice recruiting for different kinds of classroom activities, various kinds of academic work, and various types of teacher feedback.

To further support generalization of recruiting skills, the teacher should provide the student with verbal and/or physical prompts to recruit (e.g., Alber et al., 1999; Craft et al., 1998). Once the student is recruiting proficiently in the training setting, the teacher might review the steps and the specific number times the student should recruit and then say something like, "Remember to recruit when you go to math class today." Later that day, the teacher should ask the student to report if he recruited, how many times, and how well he recruited. If a verbal reminder is insufficient for producing the desired outcome, the teacher may also want to provide the student with a physical prompt which may also serve as a self-recording device. For example, students can be provided with an index card listing the steps for recruiting, a place to check off each recruiting response, and place to mark a self-assessment symbol (e.g., a plus for correct recruiting, and a minus for incorrect recruiting).

Intermittent and delayed reinforcement may further support generalization of recruiting skills. Every effort to recruit by the student will not be reinforced in the regular classroom, so intermittent reinforcement of student's recruiting behavior during training will help prepare the student for this probable outcome and increase the likelihood that recruiting efforts will be maintained. Once the student has demonstrated consistent recruiting responses in the training setting, the teacher should move to an intermittent schedule of reinforcement by not reinforcing every recruiting attempt. Delayed reinforcement can also be a very effective generalization strategy (Baer, Williams, Osnes, & Stokes, 1984; Fowler & Baer, 1981). Teachers may want to provide rewards at the end of the day for recruiting to a pre-established criteria (Alber et al. 1999; Craft et al. 1998; Wolford et al., 1998). Having a way to verify students' verbal reports, and only rewarding those that correspond with their actual behavior, will increase the correspondence between "saying and doing" and the effectiveness of the delayed reward strategy (Baer, Blount, Detrich, & Stokes, 1987).

In most of the recruiting research, the teachers or peers from whom the target students recruited attention were unaware of the purpose of the experiment. This was necessary in order to isolate the effects of recruiting on the variable of teacher or peer attention. However, in practice, it is a good idea to ask the classroom teacher to praise the student's recruiting efforts. For truly successful recruiting, the additional supports will eventually be unnecessary. For when in practice, just as in theory, when the student's new recruiting efforts contact existing natural contingencies of reinforcement (i.e., praise and attention follow), generalization and maintenance are probable outcomes.


A primary objective for special education is helping students with disabilities attain independence and success in inclusive classrooms. Teaching students to recruit attention from their teachers and/or peers can help achieve this objective. Because students with disabilities can expect fewer accommodations in regular classrooms especially as they progress into middle and high school (Schumm et al., 1995), their success will depend in part on the level of self-reliance they achieve. Teaching students to recruit assistance and attention is one strategy that can promote independent functioning, making time spent in inclusive classrooms more beneficial to students with disabilities.


Alber, S. R., Heward, W. L., & Hippler, B. J. (1999). Teaching Middle School Students with Learning Disabilities to Recruit Positive Teacher Attention. Exceptional Children, 65, 253-270.

Baer, R., A., Blount, R., L., Detrich, R., & Stokes, T. F. (1987). Using intermittent reinforcement to program maintenance of verbal/nonverbal correspondence. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 20, 179-184.

Baer, D. M., Williams, J. A., Osnes, P. G., & Stokes, T. F. (1984). Delayed reinforcement as in indiscriminable contingency in verbal/nonverbal correspondence training. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 17, 429-440.

Connell, M. C., Carta, J. J., & Baer, D. M. (1993). Programming generalization of in-class transition skills: Teaching preschoolers with developmental delays to self-assess and recruit contingent teacher praise. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 26, 345-352.

Craft, M. A., Alber, S. R., & Heward, W.L. (1998). Teaching Elementary Students with Developmental Disabilities to Recruit Teacher Attention in a General Education Classroom: Effects on Teacher Praise and Academic Productivity. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 31, 399-415.

Harchik, A. E., Harchik, A. J., Luce, S. C., & Sherman, J. A. (1990). Teaching autistic and severely handicapped children to recruit praise: Acquisition and generalization. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 11, 77-95.

Hrydowy, E. R., Stokes, T. F., & Martin, G. L. (1984). Training elementary students to prompt teacher praise. Education and Treatment of Children, 7, 99-108.

Mank, D. M., & Horner, R. H. (1987). Self-recruited feedback: A cost-effective procedure for maintaining behavior. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 8, 91-112.

Morgan, D., Young, K. R., Goldstein, S. (1983). Teaching behaviorally disordered students to increase teacher attention and praise in mainstreamed classrooms. Behavioral Disorders, 8, 265-273. Newman, R. S., & Golding, L. (1990). Children's reluctance to seek help with school work. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 92-100.

O'Conner, R. E., & Jenkins, J. R. (1996). Cooperative learning as an inclusion strategy: A closer look. Exceptionality, 6, 65-68.

Schumm, J. S., Vaughn, D., Haager, D., McDowell, J., Rothlein, L., & Saumell, L. (1995). General education teacher planning: What can students with learning disabilities expect? Exceptional Children, 61, 335-352.

Seymour, F. W., & Stokes, T. F. (1976). Self-recording in training girls to increase work and evoke staff praise in an institution for offenders. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 9, 41-54.

Stokes, T. F., Fowler , S. A., & Baer, D. M. (1978). Training preschool children to recruit natural communities of reinforcement. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 11, 285-303.

Walker, H. M. (1997). The acting out child: Coping with classroom disruption (2nd ed.). Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Wolford, P. L., Alber, S. R., & Heward, W. L. (1998, May). Training middle school students with learning disabilities to recruit peer attention in cooperative learning activities: Effects on peer attention and academic productivity. Paper presented at the 24th Annual Convention of the Association for Behavior Analysis, Orlando, FL.

Sheila R. Alber and William L. Heward

The University of Southern Mississippi and The Ohio State University

Address correspondence to Sheila R. Alber, The University of Southern Mississippi, Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education, Box 5115, Hattiesburg, MS 39401. E-mail:
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Author:Alber, Sheila R.; Heward, William L.
Publication:The Behavior Analyst Today
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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