Generalization, or the transfer of learning, is the process by which a behavior reinforced in one situation will be exhibited in another situation. The generalization process is an important element of learning. If the process of generalization did not occur, each response would have to be learned in every specific situation . . . “transfer of behavior does not occur automatically, but needs to be planned and programmed as part of the training process” (Vaughn, Bos, & Lund, 1986, p. 176).

According to Landrum and Lloyd (1992), when modifying the behavior of children and youth who have emotional and behavioral disorders, practitioners should keep in mind that

interventions that produce lasting change that can be observed in other settings, at different times, with other trainers, and in the absence of the programmed stimuli under which the desired responses were initially emitted are preferable to interventions that do not provide such changes. (p. 594)

Ideally, the transfer of training will occur across four dimensions: time, setting, responses, and individuals (Wahler, Berland, & Coe, 1979). In a paper reviewing research findings on promising interventions for application with students with chronic behavior difficulties, Kupper (1999) suggested that behavior assessment strategies be linked with interventions that follow the student through different settings. In addition, multiple interventions may be needed. To increase generalization, Kupper suggests that interventions should:

  • address related behaviors and contributing factors.
  • include plans for maintenance over time and generalization.
  • be proactive, corrective, and instructive.
  • address the strengths and weaknesses of the individual student.
  • be developmentally appropriate.
  • involve parents and family.
  • be implemented as early in the student’s life as possible.
  • be positive rather than punitive.
  • be fair, consistent, unbiased, and responsive to ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity.


A young child learns the name of an animal (dog). He calls a specific dog “dog” and will soon generalize the name “dog” to all four-legged animals within the classification. He will at times label other four-legged animals, such as cats, cows, and crawling brothers and sisters, with the name “dog.”

A toddler is reinforced for calling her father “Daddy.” She will generalize and call all male figures “Daddy” at an early stage of her development. She may call the mailman, milkman, and others “Daddy.” This may result in considerable stress between husband and wife.

If we wish to function successfully in the environment, we must apply the concepts learned in one situation to many and varied situations. For example, as young children we learn honesty, respect for authority, and the basic principles of computation. It is hoped that each year we can generalize this learning to the completion of our income tax returns.

Baer (1981) and Stokes and Baer (1977) make several suggestions for teaching students to generalize. They suggest that natural contingencies facilitate the learning of generalization. Natural contingencies are those that commonly occur in the environment as a consequence of a behavior. In addition, training more exemplars may help students to generalize. Reinforcing generalization and self-reports of the target behavior assist in generalization. It is important to remember that just because a student behaves in a desired way in one situation does not mean that generalization of that behavior to other settings has occurred. At least initially, generalization should be programmed.

Vaughn et al. (1986) recommend several practical strategies for teachers wishing to help their students develop generalization skills. The recommended strategies include the following:

  1. Varying the amount, power, and type of reinforcers applied to students, such as fading reinforcers, changing from tangible to social reinforcers, or using the same reinforcers in different settings.
  2. Varying the instructions given to students, such as using alternative and parallel directions, rewording directions, and using photographs and pictures.
  3. Varying the medium and the media of the instructional materials used by students to complete tasks. In the written medium, this could mean varying things such as paper size and color, writing instruments, and inks. The teacher may use other instructional media, such as films or computers.
  4. Varying the response modes students use to complete tasks, such as changing from written to oral responses or using a variety of test question formats.
  5. Varying the stimulus provided to students, such as changing the size, color, and shape of illustrations or using concrete objects.
  6. Varying the instructional setting, such as changing the work location or changing from individual to small group study.
  7. Varying instructors, such as using aides, peers, or parents.

Vaughn et al. (1986) recommend that teachers carefully plan, monitor, and evaluate the effects of generalization instruction on students.

Gable and Hendrickson (2003) indicate that strategies for the maintenance and generalization of positive behaviors are an integral part of the functional behavioral assesment and intervention planning process. To increase the usefulness of functional behavioral assessment, it is necessary to broaden its scope to include not only the development of positive and productive behavior but also the facilitation of that behavior by the student over time. They suggest that the complex process of generalization includes both maintenance and generalization.

Maintenance is in place when the behavior occurs over time, after the withdrawal of the intervention. Generalization, on the other hand, is in place when the behavior occurs in a variety of settings. Gable and Hendrickson (2003) suggest that maintenance and management can occur through:

  • self-management training
  • cognitive medication training
  • self-advocacy training
  • peer-mediated supports
  • environmental modifications
  • periodic booster training
  • attributional remediation.