ABA Therapists: Conducting School Observations

As an ABA practitioner, you may be asked to visit the classroom of a child you are working with to conduct an observation. There could be a behavioral challenge going on, you could be conducting part of an assessment, or the school might request that you come in to provide recommendations to the teacher.

I have visited manyyyyyyyy daycares, camps, and schools over the years, and I've learned a few things along the way. Why don't I share some with you:

  1. Always make sure that that the parents, teacher, and the school know when you will be visiting and the nature of your visit. If you work for an agency, make sure that you have contact information for the family, as well as the school, and inform them both of your plans to visit. If you work directly for a family, make sure they have informed the teacher and the school of your visit. I have been in situations where I was sent to a school by an agency who didn't inform the parents of my visit. Once I got to the school I was denied access to enter because no parent permission form was on file. I have also had the reverse problem, where a family told me it was okay to visit their child's school after a brief conversation with their child's teacher. When I got there the front office informed me all visits had to be approved by the principal, and promptly asked me to leave. Its always best to speak to as many people as you can before visiting a school and explain the nature of your visit. If you email the teachers or Principal, keep a record of these emails. Some schools can be quite welcoming to people coming in for the purpose of helping a child who is having difficulties. Unfortunately, I have experienced much more situations that were the opposite. Schools can make it difficult for ABA professionals to enter the classroom and observe. Talking to teachers, in classroom data collection, or actually working with your client on school grounds are often flat-out refused. Be prepared that you may encounter opposition from school administrators, and if the school does let you in then be super appreciative and courteous to help pave the way for the next professional who comes after you.
  2. Be as unobtrusive as you can. Anyone familiar with Reactivity knows that the simple act of being observed changes the behavior of the subject. In other words, you are a new face in the classroom, you're obviously not a teacher, sometimes even the child you are there to observe doesn't know you.....you will absolutely stand out. As much as possible, minimize your disruption of the classroom. Enter the classroom quietly and find an out of the way location to sit and observe. Do not take timers into a classroom if you are taking data, take paper/notepads, and pens. Wear muted, plain clothing and minimal or no jewelry. Particularly if you are going into a pre-school with very young children, you will likely be sitting on the floor or standing so dress comfortably. Greet the teacher as you enter their classroom, and let them know you would like to speak with them 1:1 if they get the chance. Don't just walk into the classroom and start asking the teacher questions. If the teacher chooses to introduce you to the class, let them do so. Otherwise do not explain to other children why you are there.
  3. Be polite and friendly with the staff, but also professional. Not every teacher will view you observing in their classroom as a positive thing. Sometimes the teachers will be cold or distant towards you. I have observed in classrooms where after the greeting "Hello", the teacher didn't say one additional word to me. Some teachers assume you are there because the parents aren't happy, or you are there to "tell them how to do their job". Enter the classroom with a smile and a greeting and make it clear that you are there to help, not to harm. On the flip side of a cold teacher, is the teacher who is so excited to have you in their classroom they want to chat with you non-stop. Many teachers have said to me, "I know you're here to observe child X, but can you take a look at child Y?? I think something's wrong with her". This has happened to me many times. It is not only unethical to comment on other children in the classroom, it is unprofessional. Let the teacher know in a polite way that you are there for child X, and you cannot make any statements or recommendations about other children. Which leads directly into the next point.....
  4. Discuss confidentiality with the parents before your visit. Some of my clients receive ABA services at home, but their school does not know the child has a diagnosis. Or, the child is in a general education classroom and the teacher does not know the child is on medication. Confidentiality limits are things you need to know before you go to observe. The teachers (or other school staff) may throw crazy questions at you that you absolutely should not answer.  Determine beforehand if the parents want you to discuss their child's diagnosis, services, diet, medications, etc., with school staff. The reverse of that situation could be if the school hires you directly, and does not want you sharing specific information with the parents. As odd as that sounds, it does happen. Sometimes a school wants to try specific interventions or strategies before sharing that information with the parents. In a RTI (response to intervention) model that is allowed. Parents may not need to be informed of learning difficulties until after interventions have failed. Discuss with the school administrators what you can and can't say to the parents.

Remember that you are at the school to gather information about how a student learns and functions within a classroom environment, as compared to their typical peers. You are not at the school to chat with teachers, "hang out" with children, or antagonize school staff.  The way you present yourself during a school visit may impact how future ABA professionals who visit that school are treated.

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