I Love ABA!

Welcome to my blog all about Applied Behavior Analysis!

This blog is about my experiences, thoughts, and opinions on ABA. My career as an ABA provider is definitely a passion and a joy, and I love what I do.

This is a personal blog: The views and opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of the people, institutions, or organizations that I may be affiliated with.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Observing Therapy Sessions


Photo source: www.researchhistory.org, www.goodtherapy.org

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: parent participation is critical to the success of any ABA therapy program.

One way that participation can be accomplished is by having parents/caregivers observe the therapy sessions. Particularly when therapy first begins, it may be too challenging to have the parent join the session. This can be challenging for the child, who may not want mom or dad in their therapy session, and it can also be challenging for the parent who is still learning what ABA entails. So a nice compromise I like to do initially is just have the parents sit and watch the session without joining in.

I have a pretty big dislike for therapy sessions that only go on behind closed doors. I do not think that the therapist should arrive at your home, go into the therapy area, close the door, and then in a few hours you see them again as they leave. How is that helpful for the family who urgently need to learn how to generalize what the therapist is doing? From the child’s perspective, this sends a message that they only need to listen to their therapist. So when the therapist leaves…..things can get very hard for the parents.

I tell my staff that one of my goals of treatment is that the therapist can work with that child all over the home, across various rooms, where family members may or may not be present. In other words, treatment should occur naturally and within the context of the typical environment. This could look like playing games at the kitchen table as mom cooks dinner, or practicing bike riding in the driveway next to some siblings. I love to see therapy sessions that are active, loud, full of laughter, and move freely from room to room. Admittedly it may take time and practice to get to this point, but it definitely should be a goal.

Many parents are unsure of what to do when I ask them to start observing, and for some it can even be an uncomfortable or unenjoyable experience. ESPECIALLY if just the sight of you walking into the therapy area causes your child to erupt in problem behavior. If that happens to you, don’t feel alone. It’s pretty common. This just means your child needs more opportunities to get used to your presence during their therapy session, but it definitely does not mean you should leave/walk away when this happens. That will only serve to strengthen an escape response where your child acts out in the session to get you to leave.

So now that you know not to leave in response to problem behavior, what should you do while observing a therapy session? Glad you asked :-)

1.       Observe the dynamic between the therapist and your child- You know your child better than anyone, so what you are looking for is a healthy respect for who your child is as a person. If your child squirms away from touch, does the therapist keep giving huge bear hugs anyway? Does the therapist speak to your child with respect, or in a degrading tone? Does the therapist seem bored or disinterested while teaching? These are all bad signs.
2.       Observe the reinforcement your child receives – What reinforcement is being used? Is it varied, and delivered frequently? Is praise delivered along with reinforcement, or does the therapist just silently hand your child a toy or edible? What if your child seems bored with the reinforcement, does the therapist pick up on that?
3.       Observe how correction or prompting is given during instruction – When your child gives an incorrect response or stops responding at all, what does the therapist do? How do they react? Do they appear frustrated, flustered, or annoyed? If you can read that in their face, so can your child.
4.       Observe how the behavior plan is implemented – Firstly, if there is a behavior plan you should be familiar with it. Observe how the therapists implement the plan, and if they are following it. Are you seeing the antecedent strategies being used?  If your child becomes aggressive, does the therapist know how to react in a calm and neutral manner?
5.       Observe both professional and ethical behavior – This is probably my #1 reason for recommending parents observe, from the perspective of a parent. When I have on my BCBA hat, I want you to observe to learn the treatment plan and ABA strategies. But when I have on my parent hat, I want you to observe to make sure you are dealing with professionals. If you are unaware of the ethical and professional standards for this field, please become familiar with them. Here is a link to the standards for this field. If you directly observe violations of these standards, that is absolutely a bad sign.
6.       ASK QUESTIONS- This is so important I must say it again: ask questions!  The ABA team are not in your home 24/7. It is super important that when they are there you use that time to bring up concerns, problems, or questions. Ask about behaviors, the treatment plan goals, bring up your concerns about the upcoming school year, etc. The team should answer your questions respectfully and simply, minus a bunch of jargon. I also suggest using therapy session time to practice things that are particularly difficult when the team is not around. For example, if you have a rough time every morning getting your child to brush her teeth, practice that skill with the staff during therapy sessions. That is why they are there after all, is to help you!

Just like any new skill, ABA will be so much easier to learn once you have seen/observed what it should look like.
One of the best ways to truly learn how to implement the treatment plan is to watch the professionals do it, then ask questions about any parts that seem confusing…or ineffective…..or overly punitive. I have had some parents ask me some very probing questions which led to some great moments to teach about the application of ABA.  

*Suggested Reading: The Rights and Wrongs of a Parent Observing Therapy


Sunday, May 29, 2016

Supervisor Tips: The Gift of Correction




Photo source: www.blog.camera.org, www.teachersreflect.wordpress.com


“Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but whoever hates correction is stupid”. 
Proverbs 12:1

As a BCBA, you will often find yourself in the position of having to say or do something intended to change behavior.
 I’m not talking about the behavior of your clients. I mean the behavior of your colleagues, subordinates, or the consumers who solicit your services. In plain talk, this could mean your supervisees, the parents of a child you work with, a teacher at the school where you consult, your employer, etc.
There really is no exemption from this one. If you plan to step into a supervisory/management role, part of that role means having to correct others at times. For some of us, this is an extremely dreaded role. Most people would LOVE to just ignore these kinds of issues and hope they get better on their own. It’s just easier that way, right? Shouldn’t confrontation be avoided at all costs?

Oh my goodness, NO.

Whether you’re the BCBA, you work under a BCBA, or you must work with a BCBA, hopefully this post will help you learn to receive or give appropriate correction.


Firstly, I have to share my own experiences with this. As a new supervisor, I used to hate giving correction. I avoided it if at all possible. It made me uncomfortable to deliver it, and it typically was not well received anyway, so it just seemed like a lose-lose situation.
Then I started to overcompensate by freely giving criticism, not correction. (If you aren’t sure of the difference, just keep reading)
 I’m not sure which is worse…...the supervisor who never gives you any feedback, or the one with standards you can never meet. Both will quickly lead to dissatisfied consumers, and severely unhappy staff.

Finally, I evolved to my current view on correction. Mainly, that it is my responsibility as the leader of the team to not just encourage/support, but when necessary to correct/rebuke. If I am teaching a child to stack blocks, what would happen if I never corrected an incorrect response? How could they learn a skill if I never gave any feedback when they made an error? That doesn’t make much sense. Well, it also doesn’t make sense to think that your staff or the consumers you serve can learn to implement a treatment plan if they never receive correction when they miss the mark.

A good tip to know if you are correcting or criticizing is to check your intent. Correction has the intention of making someone better. It implies that you care about this person, and whether or not they succeed. Correction is done privately, politely, and objectively. Correction should not include personal attacks or offensive language, and should include both speaking and listening to what the other person has to say.

I have worked with quite a few staff who tended to react extremely badly to correction. I always left supervision sessions with them feeling like I had done something wrong, or needed to go easier on them. Then I realized that there are those who can receive correction, and those who cannot. If ANY kind of correction or assistance given to your staff is met with defiance, a bad attitude, or defending themselves, then let me break the news: You are dealing with someone who hasn’t learned how to receive correction.  

Here are my guidelines for delivering effective correction that respects the receiver:

  1. Praise publicly, correct privately – Especially when working with new staff, I like to “catch ‘em being good” the same way I do with my clients! Particularly in front of the child’s parents, I strive to acknowledge what the staff does well, or what their strengths are. It’s just the opposite if you need to correct something. This should be done 1:1 (away from the client of possible), in a low tone of voice, more a personal conversation than a public broadcast. Just say NO to the mass emails where you CC the entire therapy team to call out 1 therapist (I hate when supervisors do that).
  2. Be direct and open – Beating around the bush or prolonging the inevitable just makes people feel irritated and uncomfortable around you. If you need to discuss inappropriate work behavior with a staff person, just do it. Don’t keep dropping little comments or hints, just say what you mean. People respect someone who can be straight forward and honest. …and definitely do not talk about the issue with others, and not directly with the person. That will completely kill your credibility, and make YOU look like the unprofessional one.
  3. Seek to understand more than you seek to be understood – When I am having difficulty getting staff or a parent to correctly follow my treatment plan, I first try to find out why. I ask them do they have questions about it, is there something we should change, is some part ineffective, etc. What I am trying to find out, is what is the barrier. I want to understand the problem, so I can help us get over it.
  4. Don’t get sucked into a debate – When people feel attacked they go on the defense. So you want to be prepared for that, and (more importantly) you don’t want to encourage it. So if the staff starts listing all these complaints about you, or the company, or telling you how hard their life is, or blaming you for their error, you have to keep your composure. You can’t help this individual if you get angry and start attacking them back. Calmly and clearly state what the person needs to correct, explain how they need to correct it, and then ask for questions/further clarification. Repeat as needed :-)


*Recommended Resource: 
As part of my supervision contract with individuals pursuing certification, I included some basic guidelines for how to appropriately respond to feedback. I find that this is information I need to review regularly with supervisees.  Don’t assume that the individuals you work with know how to react when they are corrected. I suggest taking the time to review this information with new staff/ new supervisees - - -  Basic Guidelines Handout

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The "Off Task" Learner

Photo source: www.gettyimages.com


*Recommended Reading: Gaining Learner Attention

To all the educators: raise your hand if you could use some help dealing with “Daydreaming David”, “Out -of -seat Olive”, or “Fidgeting Franklin”? Oh my, that’s a lot of hands in the air :-)

I go into classrooms fairly regularly as part of my job, and I also collaborate and discuss treatment plans with educators. One pet peeve I have is when educators use vague or subjective language when describing the progress of my client. For example, “Today was rough”, “She had a defiant look about her”, or the dreaded: “He was SO off task all week”.

Can you define “off task”? What does that mean? The problem with terminology like this is while you absolutely know what you mean when you use it, the person you are speaking to may not. Across my clients, many of them struggle with on task behavior at school. I can also tell you that across my clients, being “off task” can look completely different from one individual to the next.

This is a term that does not have just one meaning. In order to select and implement an intervention, it is critical to first define the target behavior. My suggestion is to focus on what the learner should be doing, instead of what they are not doing. For example: “When the teacher presents a demand, Felicia will independently respond to/complete the demand within 10 seconds”. So step 1 is to clearly define the target behavior well enough that anyone could observe in your classroom and measure each occurrence of Felicia being “off task”.

Focusing on what the learner SHOULD be doing will also help you to really narrow down how to help the learner stay focused on a specific task. Which also happens to be step 2: determine when the target behavior is most, and least likely to occur. In other words, when is Felicia off task?  You may be thinking, “well….she’s off task all the time”. I can almost guarantee you that isn’t true. Most learners have no problem attending or staying on task at recess, during free play, or while eating in the cafeteria. Further close observation will often reveal variations in attending depending on:
  • The teacher
  • The classroom
  • Which peers are present
  • Time of day
  • Subject matter (math, writing, etc.)

What you are looking for are patterns of behaviors to reveal what settings or stimuli tend to make it the most difficult for this learner to remain on task.

Finally, step 3 is to set the learner up for success based on the information you have gathered. This is where the individualized intervention should be created. Emphasis on “individualized”. Something I see far too much of in schools, is pulling from a few methods and expecting them to work for all learners. Such as moving the learners seat closer to the teacher. I have some clients where it wouldn’t matter if they sat on the roof of the school building, in the teacher’s lap, or on a throne, they would be just as inattentive in each location.

Since I can’t suggest individualized interventions (since I don’t know all of your learners), here are some helpful recommendations to help you create your interventions. Good luck educators!


  •          The first changes should always be to the environment – Always assume the environment is "wrong" before assuming the learner is "wrong".  Modifying the environment could mean adding in play breaks after their least preferred subjects, pairing the learner with a high performing student as a peer assistant, or placing highly preferred/highly distractible items inside cabinets or high up on shelves.
  •  Are your expectations clearly established? – Are you sure the learner knows what you expect? Do they understand what “pay attention” means? What about “neat work”? Or “quiet work”? Does no talking mean no humming? Does sit still mean no finger tapping? Make your expectations crystal clear.
  •      Is the available reinforcement clearly established? – What can the student earn for their hard work of staying attentive? What do they earn if their work is submitted on time, but messy? Or if their work is submitted on time, but incorrect? Can they lose their reward once it has been earned? All of this must be made crystal clear.
  •  Does the learner have a true skill deficit? – Lack of focus/attending can often stem from a learning deficit. I am not a math person, so if you sat me down to do some Calculus problems I would check out on you so fast! Have you evaluated if the work you are presenting is at the learner’s current ability?
  •  Try breaking the task down into small chunks – I do this one all the time. There is usually no reason why the work in the classroom can’t be divided up across the day, or even across multiple days. Also, frequent opportunities to complete a demand = frequent opportunities to contact reinforcement. It’s a win-win.
  •  Make timely, focused work completion exciting! – Applause is free, and I use it often. There is also specific praise (“Jonathan I just LOVE your neat handwriting! Keep it up), high fives, “call outs” (“Class, I see that Grace and Tia are working with quiet feet. You girls are rock stars”), and class wide reward systems (like a token economy system). For many of my clients who struggle with staying on task I also like the “Beat the Timer” game. If the learner completes the task before the timer goes off they get a special prize.