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Precision Teaching: The Basics

In my first blog post, I mentioned that I wanted to write for parents and ABA practitioners on the same concepts. You’ll see below that there are two sections, one for each group. I hope you enjoy!


At Precision ABA, we use the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis, and operate from a Precision Teaching methodology. You likely know what ABA is, or else you wouldn’t have found us! But what is Precision Teaching?

I like to think of Precision Teaching (PT) as ABA on steroids. We measure and analyze behavior, for all the behaviors! In a given session, our team will easily take data on 50 different target behaviors—we love data!

The basics of PT are that we choose behaviors that are easy to understand and observe, and define it using clear, plain language. Then, we count each and every instance of that behavior, plot it on a Chart, and then monitor it very closely. We evaluate performance each and every time we “drop a dot” on the Chart, which means we make changes quickly if the behavior isn’t progressing the way we need it to, or if our learner met their goal. By letting the data guide us, and keeping a close eye on that progress, we are able to make faster, more efficient, and effective progress.

We also ensure full, functional mastery of a skill before we consider it “mastered,” which means that the behavior is easy, it happens across places and people, and maintains over time.

Another benefit of Precision Teaching is that we use plain English to describe what’s going on. ABA principles, while critical to understand as a practitioner, are confusing as heck to people outside of the field! Reinforcement means adding in supports, people, not increasing behavior!! Precision Teachers use plain English to describe behavioral processes, which makes it much more user friendly.

ABA Practitioners

When you hear “Precision Teaching,” what comes to mind? Many of you would likely say: fluency, timings, or that crazy blue Chart. Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of people say, “I did PT once,” or “I used to do PT,” or “I used PT in one of my classes.” While fluency, timed practice, and the Standard Celeration Chart (that kooky, but amazing, tool), may be part of the PT process, they are not synonymous with Precision Teaching or “doing PT.”

Precision Teaching is a way of designing a teaching arrangement, measuring the impact of those decisions, and making changes based on that measurement. It really doesn’t have much to do with the actual teaching at all! It is more of a measurement system. To “do PT,” you have to follow the following steps:

  • Pinpoint

  • Record

  • Chart

  • Try, Try Again

Pinpoint. Pinpointing is the process of defining behaviors. It begins with observing one repeatable action. To pinpoint, select one behavior that you see repeated over and over. This behavior has a clear beginning and end point, and can repeat over time. Typically, this behavior is a small unit (you could select “writes letter” instead of “finishes assignment”), so that you can detect the smallest possible changes. Once you select the behavior, choose an active verb that is observable. Kicks, steps, says, smiles, these are all active verbs. Then pair that word with an object or context that that verb operates on. Kicks ball, steps backwards, says, “hello,” smiles at a peer, these all give context around when and how the behavior occurs. Then you have your pinpoint! Clear definition of the behavior that can be counted.

More advanced pinpointing includes learning channels. Stay tuned for more information about that in a future post!

Record. Once you have your pinpoint, you select your measurement style. Precision Teachers use the most sensitive measure of the behavior in order to record performance. Rarely would you see a PTer recommend discontinuous measurement. Skinner said one of his most important contributions to the science was rate of response (or frequency, count per time), and that is often the most sensitive measure of behavior. It records behavior happening in time, just as behavior occurs (how many behaviors do you know that happen independent of time? Even trials happen within time)! We also may use duration, latency, or IRT if necessary, but they’re always continuous measurement practices.

Chart. Once the behavior is measured, Precision Teachers display the frequency (or duration, latency, etc.) on a Standard Celeration Chart. We use this tool because it calibrates the behavior to a count per time. For example, if you observed a behavior for 10 minutes one day and recorded 5 instances, and another day, you observed for 50 minutes and recorded 25 instances. On an Excel graph (or Catalyst, or any other add/subtract graph), there is a HUGE distance between 5 and 25 instances! But if you put it on the SCC, it calibrates it to a count per minute, which would show you that in both observations, the behavior occurred, on average, one time every 2 minutes. Same frequency, different recording window. I can hear the naysayers now… don’t worry, I’ll talk about the benefits of the SCC in another post! I promise, it’s easier than you think. And with Chartlytics and other softwares using the Chart, it’s really the same amount of effort!

While you chart, go back and look at the data each time you drop a dot. Make sure the behavior is increasing when you want it to, and decreasing when you want it to, and that you’re making good use of your time. Timely data-based decisions are critical. We only have a little bit of time with our learners, and if we drag our feet, they’re not going to meet their goals. Change quickly and often. Don’t wait things out longer than you need to.

Try, Try Again. One of the most humbling pieces of Precision Teaching, in my opinion, is this final “step.” Precision Teachers don’t actually care what you teach or how you teach it (okay, we do), but what we’re really interested in is that you try, try again. Observe the behavior and your charts, and put in interventions as frequently as the data warrant. If your DV isn’t picking up on changes in the behavior that you’re seeing anecdotally, you need to change your DV. If your IV didn’t have the impact on behavior you expected it to, change your IV. If an EV is getting in the way of learning, remediate it! If it really helped improve behavior, do more of that! If behavior isn’t changing the way you need it to, try something else. Quite literally. In some cases, you may be at a loss and you’re not sure what to try. Try something. If it didn’t work, change again.

The community of Precision Teachers is a supportive one. A common phrase to describe PT is “care enough to chart” and “heart the chart.” In fact, if you display data on an SCC and present it at the Chart Share at the Precision Teaching conference (a group of people getting together and doing a data share in 1- or 2-minute intervals), you’ll get a little heart bead for completing your first Chart Share.

Lineage is important to Precision Teachers. We call those who taught us to chart our “chart parent(s),” and some of us also have “chart aunts/uncles/siblings/grandparents,” too! Precision Teaching is a community and a family. My chart parent is Dr. August Stockwell, who taught me to chart in a course at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology in 2011, and I also have a cool aunt Liz Lefebre, who taught me how to apply the Chart to professional practice working with children with ASD. Because we’re a big extended family, we welcome newcomers with open arms. So, if you are interested in learning more about Precision Teaching, reach out to one of us, or join the Standard Celeration Society. We’d love to have you!

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