Parent Training: Tips For Success

Parent training refers to involving the parents or caregivers in their child’s ABA therapy. All ABA therapists have a responsibility to encourage parent training or parent education. That may mean sharing details of behavioral goals with the parents, videotaping your sessions and evaluating them with the parents, observing the parents implementing compliance training and providing feedback….it could even be as simple as making recommendations to the family about behavioral supports in the home, such as posting a visual schedule.
Parent training doesn’t have to be difficult or time consuming. If you’re an ABA therapist then at the end of each session you could review data and behavioral concerns with the parents. If you’re a supervisor you could schedule weekly meetings or telephone consultations with the families to discuss their child’s programs. When it comes to ABA, parental involvement is key.

Research has consistently shown that when parents are involved in the ABA therapy process, outcomes are more positive. ABA just isn’t as effective without a team approach. If the behaviors that the ABA therapist teaches to the child are not generalized, reinforced, and maintained by the family, then one of two things will happen: the child will lose the skill, OR the child will only display the skill for the therapist. That can look like a client who uses language with you, but leads their Dad by the arm. Or a child who is potty trained for you, but wets their underwear when they are alone with their parents. Partial success only when the therapist is around isn’t real success at all.

The parents or primary caregivers need to know and understand the ABA therapy goals, behavior plans, and strategies so well that in the ABA therapists’ absence they could independently run a therapy session. That is the degree of involvement you are shooting for.

A very popular question I get asked by new therapists is “How can I get resistant or uncooperative parents to participate in parent training?

First, its important to look at the parents you work with using the correct set of eyes. Take off the judgemental or critical eyes, and put on compassionate eyes:
 It is very hard to let someone into your home who will tell you everything you are doing wrong. It is very hard to trust a stranger to help your child. It is very hard for some families to accept a diagnosis of Autism. It is very hard to step out of paralyzing fear to seek help. It is very hard to admit that as a parent, you don't know what to do with your own child.

Understand that behind the verbal insults, rude demeanor, critical attitude, and apathy a parent displays towards you, could be something much more simple: Fear.

Every client you have will not be interested in receiving parent training. That’s just reality. It is part of our job as ABA professionals to explain to a family why their involvement is critical. Sometimes even after you explain why you need the family on board, they still wont get on board.  What’s important as an ABA professional is to not allow any client to repeatedly decline or avoid parent training. If you work for yourself, you can tell habitually resistant clients that you will have to terminate services if they don’t get on board. If you work for a company, difficult and uncooperative clients usually aren’t tolerated for long. I wouldn’t suggest you work for a company that doesn’t enforce parent training because you will end up in a situation where the family views cooperating with you as optional, and in their eyes you will become a glorified babysitter. That’s not a fun place to be.

I have worked with many families who were either uncooperative with treatment, or sometimes actively worked against me, and there are a few tips I have learned to help the situation:

*        Start your relationship with parents off on the right foot. State from the beginning your expectations of their involvement (I suggest putting it in writing), and make it clear that the success of the therapy will suffer if they aren’t generalizing what you are teaching.
*        Always be mindful of how you are speaking to the parents. Be aware of your tone, your demeanor, and your attitude. No parent will want to cooperate with a professional who makes them feel stupid, lazy, or like a bad parent. We aren’t here to judge parents; we’re here to help them.
*        Give the parents specific feedback, not general disapproval. Tell them what you want them to DO, not what you wish they would stop doing. Use action statements.
*        Require that the parents be in the home during the sessions. It’s very easy for a family to view you as a babysitter if they use your session time to go grocery shopping, or get their car washed. Tell the parents that they need to be home during your sessions so they can observe and learn.
*        Don’t get too involved or too close to parents. When boundaries are crossed and the parents become “your friends” it can be difficult to maintain your professional authority. If a parent views you as their buddy they may start treating your therapy recommendations as optional.
*        Siblings of your client are only to be involved with your session if you need them for a social skill program, or for peer modeling. Again: do not get trapped in the “babysitter” zone. You are a professional providing therapy and you shouldn’t have to run a session while simultaneously entertaining the parents’ other children.
*        Be consistent in your behavior towards the parents. Call the parents when you say you will, be on time for work, etc. Acting inconsistently towards them will cause them to distrust you, and at that point they won’t be interested in listening to anything you have to say.
*        Ask open ended questions. Don’t ask the parents questions that they can quickly say “Yes” or “No” to, because you won’t get much information from that. Instead of asking “Are you following the 3-step prompting procedure?” say “Give me an example from this week of when you needed to use the 3-step prompting procedure.”
*        Use the same strategies to shape behavior with the parents, that you do with their children. If a parent who never complies with collecting data is able to complete even a little bit of data on their own, I will give lots of praise and compliments. I am sure to not only give positive feedback for results, I also give it for effort. Remember: reinforcement strengthens behaviors.  Be consistent with the parents, and provide consequences and reinforcement based on their actions.

** Suggested resources for how to implement parent training:

Dempsey, I. & Dunst, C.J.  (2004). Help giving styles and parent empowerment in families with a young child with a disability.  Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disability, 29 (1), 40-51.

Hastings, R.P.  (2002). Parental stress and behavior problems of children with developmental disability.  Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disability, 27(3), 149-160.

Johnson, C.R., et al. (2007). Development of a Parent Training Program for Children with Pervasive Developmental Disorders. Behavioral Interventions, 22(3):201-221.


  1. Good post.. thank you for a very sincere attempt to make ABA programs a success... it means a lot

  2. I'm heading into a parent conference in the near future, and this is exact what I needed to help prepare!


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