Supervisor Tips: Written Communication

*Recommended reading: Are you a great supervisor?

I’ve received a few emails lately from new BCBA’s asking some questions about organization/case management, or just how to add more hours to the day :-) and it gave me the idea to start sharing posts full of helpful tips or advice to people who are new to case management. Thanks for the idea guys!

Once you spend so much time, effort, and studying hours to complete your BCBA or BCaBA certification you are then quickly expected to be able to perform a wide variety of behavior analytic skills. For some people, they may have limited supervisory experience before they complete certification. So it can be very intimidating and nerve wracking to suddenly have a team of staff that you must manage and oversee, and a laundry list of administrative duties to complete each month.  I personally think this is a skill anyone can learn, as long as they are teachable and have the right attitude. 

Written communication is a skill that is becoming increasingly important for supervisors in this field, as many of us are working remotely with clients, or working with multiple funding sources. Multiple funding sources = multiple expectations for reporting progress. Having remote consultation clients means spending lots of time sending files and documents to your clients, instead of making face to face visits to explain your treatment plan. Being able to conceptualize clinically sound treatment, translate it from jargon to terms everyday people can understand, and then concisely summarize that information in a document, protocol, or report, is a very complex skillset. Those who can do this skill well are often admired (and usually quickly promoted), and those who struggle with this skill can be seen as unqualified or inept at their job, which may not be true at all. 

For some supervisors, effective written communication is no easy task. Most of us have worked with someone who comes across very differently in writing than they do in person. People will make assumptions about your ability to perform your job based on the way you can communicate in written form. It may not be fair, but it happens.

To perform your job as a BCBA you will regularly need to write/create Behavior Plans, reports, skill acquisition programs, staff training resources, parent training resources, and on and on. Don’t let deficits with written communication hold you back from exciting promotions or career advancement opportunities. Strive to be a well-rounded BCBA.  

Here are some helpful tips & strategies for developing excellent written communication skills:

  •          Remember the 7 Dimensions of ABA? Keep your writing technological- Technological means you are using plain and clear explanations, always defining jargon as you go.  Why say in an email to a consumer “I am concerned about your clinical nonadherence to the previously agreed upon treatment plan” when you can say “Let’s discuss how I can help you stick to the Behavior Plan!”. Parents want to like us, and they want to work well with us, but we sometimes make that difficult when we communicate at them and not to them. Don’t hide behind your jargon; it won’t come across well.
  •  Know your audience- This is something I had to painstakingly learn, and it is so important. Who are you writing to? A parent? An insurance company? A Special Education Director? Your writing style should fit the audience. You want to explain and justify thoroughly, but also briefly. If you are sending a 16 page progress report to the insurance company, do you really think they are going to read all of that? No seriously, do you really think they are going to read all of that? 
  •  Watch your tone- I had to learn this one as well. Be careful of communicating via email with parents or clients when you are frustrated or irritated about their performance. Because guess what? It can creep into your email. You may think you are being professional and straight to the point, but the email will read as if you are fuming. It’s better to just wait until you calm down to communicate. Keep in mind that emotions can come across in a text or email just like they can when speaking.
  •  Stick to facts- Your documents and reports need to be somewhat formal (formality will vary depending on the audience) and professional. Your language, delivery style, and content should give the reader a positive impression of your clinical abilities. This can be done by writing in a manner that presents facts, provides justification to support those facts, and is transparent. You can add your clinical impressions, but those also need to come across as factual statements, and not personal opinions. 
  •  You are a BCBA- This is a short tip, but I proofread lots of clinical documents as a supervisor. I see a lot of mentalistic explanations for behavior, or faulty reasoning such as “I think he did this because….”, or “The behavior just happened…..”, or “The child felt angry so she….”. Yikes! None of those are ok. We are not psychics or tarot card readers. We cannot write in a report that we know what our client was thinking.
  •  Proofread, proofread, proofread! – If you haven’t seen this yet, you will: You are sent a report from a new client’s previous provider and several pages of the report refer to the client as “Nathan”, but the client’s name is actually “Rashad”. Oops. Super embarrassing. Don’t think this can never happen to you. I see clinical mistakes in client documents all the time, and as a busy BCBA I understand how it can happen. When you are up at 3 a.m. writing 2 reports at once, mistakes happen. We’re only human. This is why it’s so important to triple check your documents, as you don’t want to come across as careless or unprofessional. 


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