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The great ones in this field are not just well trained and knowledgeable professionals. They are also sleuth level 5 ninjas who know how to effectively implement techniques and strategies across environments. Having a solid skill set is one thing, but can you modify and tweak that skill set as needed?
ABA professionals don’t always see clients in their home, in a lovely distraction free therapy room with a nearby closet stocked with reinforcers and toys. We have to go where the client needs help, and often that means going into the classroom.
If you have only ever had home based clients, working inside a school is going to be a serious culture shock for you.
Going into a school to work with a client can go one of 1000 different ways, depending on multiple factors outside of your control. How much does the school staff know about ABA? What has the parent communicated is the point of your visit? If ABA professionals came into the school previously, did they leave a bad impression about the field? How much will your presence distract the other students? Is the teacher open and receptive to getting feedback from an outside professional?
I have gone into many schools to work with a client directly, observe and make recommendations, or to provide ongoing teacher training. I have seen some amazing classrooms and some pretty horrible ones. Regardless of the barriers and obstacles involved, you are at the school to do a job and to help your client. If the experience is great, then enjoy the open collaboration and effective teamwork. If the experience is not so great, then yes that sucks, but you still have a job to do.
Over the years I have learned (often the hard way) some tips to help keep the school consultation process positive and productive. Especially if you are new to school consultation, it’s really important to modify your mindset a bit and be prepared that what works in a home setting may fail miserably inside of a classroom. Compared to a clinic or home setting, a school setting has its own way of doing things and unique systems in place that you have little to no control over. It can be a pretty humbling experience, and who doesn’t need a slice of humble pie? :-)
Super Cool Ninja Hacks
- Use the other small people to your advantage – The biggest advantage of the school environment is peers. When you work with a client 1:1 at home, it can be hard to generalize programs or targets, or to target some social goals because you need other children to do so. Don’t ignore the other kids in the classroom. Build rapport with them, and then work towards pairing up your client. Include the peers in games or activities, and also work on teaching your client to respond to SD’s from peers (not just adults).
- Be transparent! – As much as you can, treat the school staff like you would treat the parents if you were working in home. Be open and transparent about goals, data collection, why specific targets were selected, as well as your hypotheses (“Here is what I am thinking as far as the behavior plan…..”). This encourages a team atmosphere, and lowers your intimidation level. If you always silently enter the classroom, sit in the back furiously writing notes, and then silently leave, can you see how intimidating that is?
- ALWAYS look for the positive – Sometimes this will be very hard to do. Its super important though, and can go a long way towards melting the icy demeanor of a teacher who really doesn’t want you in their classroom. Find something about the classroom, structure of the day, or the teaching style that you can compliment. Do so regularly. Especially if you are giving lots of corrective feedback to the teacher, you want to be sure to also give specific praise statements.
- Professionalism - Smile. Play nice with others. Observe quietly. If you move things, put them back. Be accommodating. Encourage questions. Don’t be the person who always has to have the last word. Define any jargon, or just rephrase.
- Focus on the big picture – There’s probably about 800 things you would like to change about the teacher, or the classroom. Pick 1, and start with that. If you walk into the classroom barking out orders and criticizing everything, then congratulations you are about to have the worst school consultation experience ever. Focus on big changes that will impact the small details, such as getting the teacher to understand what reinforcement means and how powerful it is to change behavior.
- Expect differing points of view – Especially for the big, multi-disciplinary school meetings, it’s completely unrealistic to think that everyone will see the need for your input. You will very likely hear strategies and treatments with no empirical support recommended for your client, and you will also hear outdated and incorrect information tossed around about ABA. Your role at the school is to work within a team, and to represent your field. In order to do that, you have to be prepared to work with people when you don’t see eye to eye at all.
- Be practical – At least for me, the #1 barrier to successful school consultation is often the complete refusal of the teacher to collect any data. Again, baby steps may be necessary to work towards a larger goal. Maybe the paraprofessional can collect the data, or maybe an ABA therapist can join the team to collect daily data. Maybe you can meet with the teacher 1:1 to go over the data collection process, and help them understand the necessity of it. I often find that fear can be the real reason for outright refusal…the teacher is intimidated or fearful of inaccurately collecting data. Sometimes additional training or support, or just simplifying the data collection process can quickly remove this barrier.
- Clearly define the relationship at the start – Just because a parent asks you to go into their child's school, that does not mean the school has an accurate understanding of what your role is. I often encounter school staff who view me as The Magician (I will magically fix everything and they won’t have to do a thing), or The One with No Value (“Why are you here again??”). Both of these misconceptions will have to be corrected, and its best to do so right at the beginning. You want to make it clear to the school staff why you are at the school, what information you are gathering, and how that information will be used. A bad first impression goes a longggg way, so avoid letting the parents of your client “threaten” the school with your presence…..that never ends well. You want the school to view you as a helpful resource and source of support.
An analysis of treatment integrity in school-based behavioral consultation.
Wickstrom, Katherine F.; Jones, Kevin M.; LaFleur, Lynn H.; Witt, Joseph C.School Psychology Quarterly, Vol 13(2), 1998, 141-154
Applying Positive Behavior Support and Functional Behavioral Assessment in Schools.Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 2000