By Jaime Wedel, M.Ed., CAGS, BCBA

In order to be successful with PECS® teams not only have to know how to implement the protocol correctly they have to be able to implement communication training across each learner’s day. Here are some tips to help you succeed!


First, with any skill, we need to provide the learner with ample opportunities to master the skill. In PECS, we have long noted this pattern, both in reviews of the over 200 articles examining the effectiveness of PECS and through our own experience as an international team of professionals led by the developers of PECS, Lori Frost, MS, CCC-SLP and Andy Bondy, PhD.PECS picture exchange Learners who are provided with 40-50 PECS opportunities at the Phase in acquisition, generally go on to master that Phase. When learners are not making progress, often simply increasing our teaching to 40-50 opportunities across the day is what the learner needs to move forward. Remember, exchanging 40 times to eat a bowl of popcorn kernel by kernel with one teacher is 40 trials, NOT 40 opportunities. To have a new opportunity, we must change either who the learner is communicating to (the communication partner) what they are communicating for (the reinforcer) or where they are communicating (the setting or activity).

Secondly, we must implement communication training across the day to ensure generalization of skills. There is no “generalization fairy” who is going to come in the night and tell our learners that the picture exchange skill they learned to play with a favorite item in a professional’s office applies when they want a grandparent to push them on the swing set at home. A big part of our job is to show our learners, “Communication works all across the day, with anyone, for anything, in any setting!” Ideally, good PECS teaching happens within structured lessons and during what we call, “Stop, drop, and communicate” opportunities in during the learner’s day-to-day life.


The team should have done a reinforcer assessment with every learner and be updating this at least monthly. Every learner should have a bin or a box with some of their reinforcers in it, and these should be rotated frequently to maintain the student’s interest. Parts of the student’s day can involve focused teaching during which they are working for items in the bin.

However, the most important opportunities occur in real-life, because that’s where we want the learner to be using their communication skills long-term! A good professional should be helping the team survey the day for routines, such as getting dressed, school arrival and dismissal, preparing meals and eating, watching television, and self-care such as bathing.


Boy with PECS IV+ appCounterintuitively, we need to create challenges during these routines to teach our learners that communication, not contextually inappropriate behavior or helplessness, is the way  to get many problems solved in life. For example, as I am helping a young learner get dressed, I might put on one sock and one shoe-but then put on the other shoe with NO sock and see if my learner expresses what I jokingly call an “Oh shoot!” moment. For an older learner who dresses him or herself, we would have taken all but one sock out of the drawer! If the learner notices something is not right, we commence our PECS lesson. We can put down a “sock” picture for a learner at Phase I. For a learner at Phase II, we came prepared with a “sock” picture to place on the cover of a PECS book across the room. For a learner at Phase IIIA, we put down a “sock” picture and a picture of a non-preferred or contextually irrelevant item such as a “shower cap” and so forth.  At breakfast, we may not give the learner a spoon when they are eating cereal. We may hide their coat or backpack as it is time to get in the car or on the bus. When they arrive at school, the chair at their desk may be missing. Each of these opportunities should be carefully constructed to minimize frustration while increasing the communication skills of our learners.

We see it as part of a good communication teacher’s job to help the team identify and know how to use these opportunities across the day. I like to help my team make lists of possible “Oh shoots” for routines and have these lists available throughout the classroom and home. Be explicit with the list-do not just say- “Don’t give needed items at snack time.” Instead say, “Put the snack in a container the student cannot open” (and have the container and pictures ready at the snack table!). We generally can come up with lists of five, or even ten or more ideas for a routine, and it is important to stress to the team, we do not expect them to do all five every day. We want them to pick one or two today, and then a different two or three tomorrow. Maybe the next day we do none, both due to our own busy schedule, and also as a time to allow the learner to practice the routine correctly.

When you are using this strategy, sometimes the learner will not notice there is a problem. I once made cookies with a learner and did not have a spoon to stir the batter, and he simply put his hand in to do it with no indication at all that he saw a problem with that. In those cases, I say, “Oops, my mistake” and provide the spoon. Then I will stop using that “Oh shoot” for a time, and maybe try it again later when the student has more baking experience. We do NOT advocate for “waiting the student out” as the lesson is not, “Ask for a spoon fifteen minutes later.” We also need to be prepared to start teaching quickly, before a student may engage in challenging behaviors.


It is important that we PLAN for communication across the day. We will not provide enough teaching opportunities if we simply “try to remember” in a busy day. Our teams have found the following resources useful. Check them all out and use any that are a good fit for the people you work with:

  • Routines and Communication in the Home and Classroom Worksheet©: This worksheet helps a team look at each activity to determine the full range of communication skills that can be taught to learners in various Phases of PECS. To download for free, visit our Free Materials page and download the PECS Data Forms in the Information on PECS section. This worksheet can be found in the Worksheets folder.
  • Communication Programming Across the Day©: When a learner has mastered specific daily routines (brushing teeth, washing hands, arriving at school, etc.) and finds participating in or finishing the routine reinforcing because of what happens after the routine (i.e., a learner who knows how to wash his hands, and is motivated to wash his hands because snack will follow) this worksheet is helpful. To download for free, visit our Free Materials page and download the PECS Data Forms in the Information on PECS section. This worksheet can be found in the Worksheets folder.
  • Our Support at Home page provides videos of many fun activities, and  includes lesson plans showing how to incorporate communication into the activities, as well as free Pics for PECS® picture grids for the learner to use.
  • A list used to help teach communicationMake “Oh shoot/sabotage” lists as pictured and hang them around the classroom and home at the points common routines take place. As you can see, using a sheet protector, pictures for a learners at Phase I/II/early Phase III can easily be kept on hand too (at later Phases the pictures will be in the learner’s PECS Communication Book), and a pen is also easy to have on hand to fill out data.


To learn more about expanding communication opportunities across the day for your learner, attend the PECS Level 2 Training! This two-day training focuses on creating lessons and activities to promote communication throughout the day and is offered remotely each month. Beginning with a review of the Pyramid Approach to Education® as it relates to PECS, we guide you in refining your PECS implementation and discuss current challenges you have experienced within the six phases. Prerequisite: PECS Level 1 Training.

For ongoing support with your PECS implementation, join our online community on Facebook. Search “PECS User Support” on Facebook and request to join. This active group of over 27,000 professionals, parents, and caregivers is monitored by our Pyramid Consultants from around the globe daily!

© Pyramid Educational Consultants, LLC. 2022