School vs. ABA: Which side are you on?

Post Disclaimer: This post represents some of my experiences as a facilitator inside of schools. It is a somewhat continuation of my Classroom Observation post. This information is not meant to be a factual statement of what every school is like, or how every school system views ABA. 

End of disclaimer.

School Shadow or Facilitator: A 1:1 aide who is in the classroom to help a particular child learn successfully, minimize problem behaviors, and have positive social interactions.
Self- Contained Classroom: A classroom setting composed of only children with disabilities. The classroom could be an Autism classroom, or it could have children with a variety of disabilities. The teacher is usually a special education teacher.
Inclusive Classroom: A classroom setting where children with disabilities are taught alongside typically developing students. The teacher is usually a general education teacher.
IEP: Individualized Education Plan. An IEP is used when a child is not able to benefit from the general curriculum. It contains specific and detailed modifications that are necessary for that child to learn.
IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a federal mandate that guarantees early intervention services to infants and toddlers with disabilities, and special education or related services to school age individuals (3-21).

Many of my career experiences as an ABA provider have been with families in isolated areas (rural or international), where ABA knowledge can be seriously outdated or nonexistent. 
My work experiences with the school systems in these areas has been a very mixed bag. There have been occasions where schools sought out my services, invited me in for help with particular students, and happily welcomed me into their classrooms to provide behavioral recommendations. Teachers: when you welcome ABA therapists or BCBA's into your classroom and collaborate with them about strategies, it helps us SO much to do our job better. Thank you.

The flip side of these more positive experiences includes a variety of negative experiences with school administrators or teachers who didn’t want to learn about ABA, made negative or hurtful statements about my client, or were rude or even hostile towards me or my clients parents.

 Over the years I've had to conduct some difficult conversations with parents about their child’s school and/or teacher.  Often when I go into a classroom to observe my client or meet a teacher, it is the first time anyone representing that child has been allowed to do that.  It is very common that the family asks me to go into the classroom just to observe a problem behavior, and I report back to the family with a laundry list of problems with the classroom, or other challenging behaviors that occur at school, to the parents complete surprise. 

As a professional it’s my job to share clinical recommendations about the suitability of the classroom to meet my client's needs. Minimizing or withholding information obtained during a classroom observation to avoid a difficult conversation is not a good idea, and I wouldn’t recommend it.

What can be the most difficult is sharing my professional recommendations with a family when I know they have no better options.
Some families can’t afford to move to a better school district, they can’t afford private school, or the school their child attends is “the best” the county or district has to offer. I've visited some locations where in the entire district there is one "Autism classroom". In a situation like that, those families have very little options.

Some parents don’t want to engage in the fight and battle it can be to push for excellent services from a school system.  Let me say that again: it may be necessary to demand, battle, and push for the services your child/client needs from the school system. That first “No” you hear should not be treated as final.

I used to have a college professor who would say ”IDEA guarantees parents a free and appropriate education for their child, not the MOST appropriate education”. So yes, sometimes the school will flat out deny what you are asking for, or you request a Cadillac and they hand you a beat -up old Chevy. However, I have seen parents fight and fight, and get that Cadillac. So if you stop asking after hearing “No”, you could be undermining your own progress.

This is such an important issue in the world of ABA because most of us work with individuals who are school age at some point or another, which means most of us will be in the position of trying to help a client family navigate the school system.

ABA providers may need to give parents recommendations and strategies to help their child successfully learn in a classroom environment, directly observe inside a classroom and be prepared to report back to the family, conduct therapy inside the classroom/on school grounds, or present findings at a crowded IEP meeting.

The goal when working with a school age child should always be to help that child benefit as much as possible from the general curriculum being taught at their school.  This doesn’t always happen, but striving toward this should be the ultimate goal.

So let’s talk about some problems and solutions for finding the ideal school situation:

What is the best school setting for a child with Autism: self- contained, inclusive, public, private??  There is no clear- cut answer to this question.  Just because your child has Autism does not mean they should automatically be shuttled into the “Autism classroom” The needs of your child/client will determine what the ideal school setting is. It is important to look at the services the school offers, the way your child learns best, and the training/Autism knowledge of the teachers.

What do I do if the teacher has limited to no ABA knowledge?  It may be necessary to request a different teacher or to ask that additional training be provided for the teacher. For example, any teacher working with children with disabilities all day long, needs to know what to do about challenging behaviors. If the school administration will not provide additional training to the staff (including paraprofessionals) then you may need to hire a BCBA Consultant, at your own cost, to go in and train the staff. Or, you could hire an ABA therapist to be in the classroom with your child at school.

What if the school refuses to allow the ABA team or BCBA inside the classroom? This is a highly common issue. The family has a great ABA team in the home, and the school absolutely refuses to allow any of those people into the classroom. It’s unfortunate, and frustrating. Always try the sugar first: If the school says “No”, try explaining how helpful it would be to the teacher if the ABA team could provide recommendations and strategies in the moment. Speak to the highest person in command first. Don’t waste your time talking to a Special Education Director if the Principal makes all the decisions. The sad reality is, if the sugar doesn’t work it’s time for the spice: consider another school placement for your child or pursue legal action if your child cannot learn without these specialized supports.

What if the school refuses to accept the child; claims they “are not equipped” to handle the child’s needs? This happens very often with young clients, the under 4 age group. Private schools, preschools, and day cares can flat out refuse to accept children with Autism. As frustrating as this can be, do you really want your child in a classroom where they aren’t wanted? Try to work with the school setting: explain what the home ABA goals are, use data to show the progress the child has made, see if the school will allow your child to attend part time on a trial basis, and lastly offer to have a 1:1 aide attend school with the child.

The school claims to have their own “Autism expert” but this person is not a BCBA.  Sometimes the “Autism/Behavior Expert” is a school counselor, a teacher, a Special Education Director, etc. This person may not have much Autism specific knowledge and could have little to no behavior analysis knowledge. It may be necessary to hire your own BCBA to train staff, conduct FBA’s, and attend IEP meetings to represent the best interests of your child. If the school cannot or will not hire a BCBA, you may have to, at your own cost.

How do I know if my child needs a school shadow in the classroom? Is that really necessary? If your child needs individualized attention, modifications, or assistance in order to learn successfully then YES, they likely need a school shadow. If your child is not toilet trained, or has severe problem behaviors, they likely need a school shadow. An excellent school shadow could prevent your child from being kicked out of school due to serious problem behaviors. It is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect the teacher to provide the same kind of 1:1 attention and modifications as an ABA therapist does. If your child needs that much assistance, then a school shadow is the way to go.

My child’s classroom has 2 paraprofessionals in it, so the school said a 1:1 aide isn’t necessary What many parents don’t realize is that paraprofessionals may or may not have specific Autism or behavior management training. The paraprofessional could be sorely under -qualified to handle a student with serious learning needs or problem behaviors. You may need to explain to the school that your child needs an ABA trained person with direct experience with your child’s learning style, who also can intervene on problem behaviors. Just having para’s inside the classroom doesn’t necessarily mean they have received enough intensive training.

Does my high functioning child who performs at grade level need a 1:1 aide in the classroom? Possibly. Some families think school facilitation is only for children severely affected by Autism. That is completely not true. Struggling in the school environment can mean much more than needing academic help.

We have tried various strategies, we paid for the teacher to be trained, made several accommodations to the classroom, and my child/client is still struggling, and his/her learning is suffering. What do we do?!?- Time for some tough truth: Not all students learn or thrive in the standard general education setting. This has nothing to do with Autism. There are all kinds of learns who fall behind or don’t receive enough motivation or attention in a typical classroom, and it impacts their learning. If your child has severe problem behaviors, sensory processing issues, or the school systems in your area lack adequate training for staff, you may experience the same school problems year after year. At some point, a decision must be made to look at alternative educational options such as homeschooling, private schools, charter schools, etc.  In other words, maybe the problem is the school, and not your child.


  1. Do you think more public schools will start hiring Bcbas? I think it would be a very valuable asset for the children who have developmental disorders. I'm starting my bcba classes and I would like to eventually work in the public school system and/or at home therapy.

    1. Hi there!

      Many of my experiences with school systems have not been very positive, yet at the same time I do not want to paint a picture that it is ALWAYS negative when an ABA professional enters a school.

      I agree with you strongly that teachers and school systems (not just the Autism classroom) could benefit from the knowledge and training of a BCBA. I would love to see more schools recognize that and take action to bring in BCBA's. Yes, in some situations a school system may employ a BCBA directly, or sometimes a BCBA will contract with a school or an entire district. There are career opportunities available for BCBAs in school settings, but I would advise you to research your local area. Not every area will be "BCBA friendly" and thats something you would want to know early in the career planning stage.

      I have seen wonderful schools where teachers and ABA professionals collaborate to prevent, reduce, or extinguish severe behavior problems. I would just like to see that happen even more than it currently does.


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