Pairing – what does it mean and why do it?

Pairing – what does it mean and why do it?


When a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) starts working with your child, they will go through the steps of seeing what skills the child already has and what skills need to be taught or shaped. Following the assessment and prior to addressing problem behavior and skill deficits, the therapist may spend the first couple of sessions engaging with your child and the various items/activities that they enjoy. Now, as a parent, you may look at this and think “why are they spending so much time just playing with them? Shouldn’t they be working on this or that?” and while yes, it does seem that the therapist is “just playing” for the first few sessions, they are actually doing something called ‘pairing’.

What is pairing?

Pairing is the process of when the therapist attaches themself to a child’s favorite activity or item and builds up a fun relationship with them. Through this process, they become associated with the things that the child finds reinforcing. This means that they will be more likely to want to engage with the therapist and will enjoy their presence more, meaning, the therapist has become the ultimate reinforcer! Having established this good rapport will increase the likelihood that the child will comply with instructional demands that are given later.

What does pairing look like?

There are 3 key steps when it comes to pairing:

  • Provide access to the things they enjoy
  • Limit demands being given
  • Have fun!

Photo by Aaron Amat at Getty Images

When first starting out with the child, the therapist may look at what items they like to play with or what activities they enjoy and will then join them with playing with those things. Their goal is to make the item or activity even more fun with their presence. The therapist will likely follow their lead on what the child finds reinforcing and will give that to them. For example, if the child starts playing with trains, you may notice that the therapist will make comment about how cool the trains are, pick one up and start playing with it with them. They could make it drive fast on the train tracks or give it a silly noise. By making themselves part of the fun process, it’s going to help establish that relationship between them and that reinforcing item, which in turn helps build the connection between the child and the therapist.

During the pairing process, the number of demands that are being given should be limited. This is done so that the therapist does not become associated with only difficult tasks. For example, something as simple as “what color is that car you have?” or “hey, let’s try this” might be too difficult for the child to answer or do and may cause them to become frustrated. This could lead to them associating the therapist with difficult tasks and could cause the child to engage in problem behavior. Again, the therapist is taking the time to follow the child’s lead with choosing items to play with and associating themselves with those fun items, along with keeping demands very low.

Finally, pairing is a continuous process so the therapist will always be trying to have fun! They might use silly voices, add sound effects to play or even do a silly dance to a song that they know the child likes. The more fun the client is having, the more reinforcing the item/activity may be. This will allow for the therapist to work towards gaining and maintaining instructional control and the child will be more likely to comply with more difficult demands as they are placed.