A Look At Diversity & Behavior Analysis

*Recommended Read:" Behavior Analysis & The Diversity Issue", by Chelsea Wilhite, BCBA

With the current backdrop of race, the police, and social activism happening in the US (and around the world), many ABA providers are seeking ways to improve the quality of services provided to all clients. ALL clients, regardless of race, may have encounters with the police where they may "appear" to be disrespectful, disobedient, or dangerous, simply due to cognitive, communication, social, behavioral, or emotional challenges. 

How can we better help our clients advocate for themselves and their own needs? How can we better support black and brown clients? How can we better support clients who due to the severity of their problem behavior, or simply their size/height, are at an increased risk for police interaction?

All important questions to ask, but a far more pressing question to consider is: How does a lack of diversity within the field, prepare providers to support and understand a diverse clientele?

As part of the BACB ethical guidelines, providers are obligated towards cultural competency and awareness of how the dynamics of ethnicity and race could impact treatment, assessment, and overall quality of services. This could include gender, race, culture, national origin, religion, etc. (source: www.Bacb.com).  

I have spent most of my career living and working in one state, and even so I regularly interact with clients of varying races, languages spoken (even if English is spoken, communication can be challenging), religion, sexual orientation, etc. 
It's 2020..... I don't think anyone is exempt from needing to improve (and improve some more, and improve some more) upon their OWN biases, and areas of ignorance when it comes to relating across cultures.  If you work in this field, or plan to work in this field, you must be aggressively committed to being the best practitioner you can be to people who are nothing like you, don't believe what you believe, do not look like you, and didn't grow up how you grew up. 

Now that you understand this isn't optional, let's take a look at current diversity in ABA:

  • Stats are lacking. Many of our industry boards/organizations do not publicly share demographic info, and the process of collecting this info is always voluntary for practitioners. As a result, we do not have hard, cold facts about diversity in this field. The exception to this would be gender data, which is more available.
  • As a field, our training/education requirements around diversity and cultural competence are much less robust than the expectations around ethics, supervision, etc. There are also no CE requirements on this topic.
  • Research can be very hard to find that focuses on practitioner (not client) diversity, and how this impacts our field, and our profession. More research is badly needed in this area. (I for one would love to see research about the the practitioner experience of lack of diversity. Meaning, when you are always the only black BCBA in the room, what impact does that have?)
Source: (www.brianconnorsbcba.com) 

How do these problems impact ABA as a whole? Glad you asked.

"The foundation of ABA looks at the antecedent (what comes before the behavior), the actual behavior and the consequence (what follows the behavior). What follows the behavior will either continue or strengthen the behavior or weaken the behavior. Therefore, the environment we live within could be providing a consequence which either strengthens or weakens the behavior. ....This developed culture is displayed in behaviors which get the need met of the individuals in the cultural group.

As a behavior analyst, we are often working toward removing a behavior which the child’s social environment has deemed “inappropriate”. Certainly many times the behaviors are not effective in giving the child a healthy lifestyle. We need to remember the behavior is getting a need met and may be effective in their current environment. We must also remember when determining a replacement behavior, the behavior is appropriate to the child’s cultural community." (Source: www.thekeyconsult.com)

A very important takeaway here is that you do not serve clients in a vacuum. No one is just "one" thing, including your clients. We are all a product of the many environments that have shaped us, throughout our life. To neglect to face this head on during all phases of treatment (from marketing, to hiring staff, to assessment, to actual services) is at least disrespectful to the dignity of the individual, and at most harmful to your clients.

This 2016 article (Developing the Cultural Awareness Skills of Behavior Analysts) has some great recommendations to address this issue head on. To name a few:

  • Understanding our own cultural, ethnic, and racial biases is the first step towards competence, and growth. As I like to put it, "know your own stuff".
  • Learn more about the clients cultural worldview through assessment, open dialogue, and by being sensitive to issues of power/authority and how they creep into conversations of race.
  • Consider language barriers. As I said above, even when I have worked with families who had been living in the US for years, sometimes language was a real barrier. Even if someone speaks English, they may struggle to communicate or to understand when English is spoken to them. This applies to written communication as well (paperwork, forms, emails, texts, etc.).
  • How diverse are your resources? Beyond flashcards, photos, manuals/books, or the like, have you thought about teaching materials? If working with a Korean child, do you regularly bring only non-Korean dolls/toys to sessions? Does that matter? Why or why not?

So, how are YOU doing with applying these strategies? How is your employer doing with applying these strategies? Is your ABA workplace diverse? If you only look at senior leadership positions (CCO, CFO, CEO), is your workplace still diverse?

Or are we applying our science to this issue in theory, but not in practice?




Fong, E. H., Catagnus, R. M., Brodhead, M. T., Quigley, S., & Field, S. (2016). Developing the Cultural Awareness Skills of Behavior Analysts. Behavior analysis in practice9(1), 84–94. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40617-016-0111-6


The Current Status of African Americans Within the Field of Behavior Analysis

Certificant Demographic Information, source: www.BACB.com

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