Simplifying The Morning Routine

ABA therapy can be used to teach/increase a variety of adaptive skills, such as tooth brushing, toileting, hair brushing, shoe tying, making a bed, etc. My favorite definition of an adaptive skill is anything that will have to be done for the learner, if the learner does not learn the skill. So if I don’t teach my child how to dress him/herself, then I will have to dress my child.

A common concern many of my clients have around adaptive functioning is the dreaded Morning Routine. Since my clients are usually school age, I have ample opportunity to help families target issues that regularly pop up during that frenzied time in the morning of trying to get the child out of the door on time. Issues like: task refusal, off task behavior, prompt dependency, skipping steps of the routine/completing the routine out of order, etc.

ABA interventions should always be individualized, but some of my most effective strategies for simplifying the morning routine include:

–          Visuals! Visuals are your friend 🙂

–          Use of auditory cues (timers)


 With some simple tweaks here and there and adding in more supports, the morning routine can be less stressful, more efficient, and require less intrusive prompting which equals more independence for your child.

Let’s jump in:

Add visuals: I say “add visuals” and not “add more visuals”, because usually what I see is that families who struggle the most with the morning routine are not using any visual supports. If you are regularly struggling during the morning routine but you already have visual supports in place, then that’s a gold star for you. You are ahead of the game. If you are new to visual supports, just keep reading. Think of a visual support as a way to minimize prompting or assistance. If you have to stand in the bathroom doorway, physically assist your child, or keep giving the same demand over and over (“Make up your bed Evan ……. Evan, did you make your bed?”), then you definitely need to add some visuals. It is much easier to fade the prompt of a visual, than to fade your voice or your presence. Or to put it another way, do you want to have to stand in the doorway to make sure tooth brushing happens when your child is 25? Here are some awesome examples of visual supports, all were found on Pinterest.

Auditory cues: The use of a timer can be such a helpful addition to the morning routine because time is usually of the essence. We have to go, and we have to go now. For many of my defiant kiddos, those with attention issues, or those with lots of escape maintained behaviors, the simplest demand  (e.g. “Put your socks on”) can take ages and ages to actually happen. Decide on a specific amount of time for the skill to occur, and then set a timer. If the child can beat the timer, then allow them to contact reinforcement. Depending on the child, this could mean a treat, getting to pick what they wear that day, 2 minutes of TV time, etc. Make the concept of “hurry up” more concrete by helping the child understand how quickly tasks needs to be completed.

Organization: This tip is more for you than the child. Organization or proper set up for the morning routine does not begin that morning, it begins the night before. Part of the bedtime routine can include setting up items for the next day. This could mean lining up the soap, face towel, toothpaste, and toothbrush by the bathroom sink. Or this could mean putting the backpack by the front door, so there is no frantic search for it in the morning. How you organize will depend on the specific issues you are having in your home. The point is to set the child up for success. For younger children (especially if you want to increase independence) line up needed items/materials in their correct order so your assistance is not needed. For example, in the bedroom line up underwear, socks, pants, shirt, and shoes. In the kitchen, line up the bowl, spoon, and cereal box. For some children you may need to put number cards on each item (e.g. put a “1” card on the underwear). Any step you can do the night before will save precious time the next morning, and the materials being visible helps serve as a prompt of what to do next.

*Bonus Tip: A good way to practice the skills required for a successful morning routine is to incorporate weekend practice. If these skills are only performed M-F with a time crunch, then you’re setting yourself up for lots of frustration. On the weekends, still have your child go through the morning routine. Use this to fine- tune skills, or provide more repetition than is possible on a Monday morning. If tooth brushing is always a struggle, consider modifying the visuals or making them larger/more detailed. Try removing yourself, and only checking on your child periodically. If the child is older or needs less support, try implementing a checklist that the child completes. As they perform each skill, they check a box. When all the boxes are checked they bring the checklist to you for review.

About The Author: Tameika Meadows, BCBA

“I’ve been providing ABA therapy services to young children with Autism since early 2003. My career in ABA began when I stumbled upon a flyer on my college campus for what I assumed was a babysitting job. The job turned out to be an entry level ABA therapy position working with an adorable little boy with Autism. This would prove to be the unplanned beginning of a passionate career for me.

From those early days in the field, I am now an author, blogger, Consultant/Supervisor, and I regularly lead intensive training sessions for ABA staff and parents. If you are interested in my consultation services, or just have questions about the blog: contact me here.”

This piece originally appeared at


Communication Tips!

This piece was originally posted at 

  • Reduce the amount of words used to explain yourself. During early learning, instead of “Tommy, I need you to pick up the green ball from under the table” try “pick up the ball.”
  • Be concrete! The ASD brain sees the world in very black and white terms. It is best to speak in literal language to get your ideas across. Individuals on the spectrum often need specific training on how to understand idioms, metaphors and other popular phrases. Say exactly what you mean and what you want your child to do. Instead of “Run over and get your ball” try “get your ball.”
  • Pair your voice with positive words! When your child hears your voice, you want them to think good things are available (not just task demands). When you use your words, tell your child what they SHOULD be doing not what they should NOT be doing. For instance, instead of yelling “Tommy, stop throwing Phil’s ball at Chuckie’s head!” try “let’s toss the ball into the hoop!” (This takes practice, patience and training!).
  • Turn your voice OFF. Use nonverbal prompting as much as possible when your child is engaging in challenging behaviors. Make sure you are not reinforcing behaviors by giving them attention.
  • Avoid using your child’s name when placing demands! This pairs his name with demands being placed. How responsive would you be if your name was always ONLY followed by “do my laundry, drive me to the movies, make me lunch!” Work on using your child’s name mostly with praise.
  • During challenging behaviors, avoid asking for verbal responses. It is best to place demands that you can prompt immediately to ensure instructional control.These were my tips from an old blog, but worth publishing again!

About The Author

Elizabeth Ginder, MSSW, BCBA, LBA is the Clinical Director of ABA Interventions, LLC. Elizabeth specializes in working with children ages 2 through early adulthood. She has experience working with children diagnosed with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as children with severe, challenging behaviors. Elizabeth also has a strong background in parent, teacher and staff training. Her focus is on verbal behavior, skill acquisition and teaching children how to have fun! You can find more information on ABA Interventions at their Facebook page or at

Are We Ready For A Play Date And Social Groups?

This piece was originally posted at 

Play skills and social skills should be a part of an ABA treatment plan and are absolutely important for children with autism or I/DD. Many parents eagerly place their child in social groups, play dates, or insist that their child participates in group activities. These are WONDERFUL if your child is ready, but can be difficult and stressful if they are placed in these groups too soon. First, ask yourself these questions to determine if your child is ready for play dates and social groups:

Does my child allow peers into his space and allow peers to touch his toys?

Is my child able to successfully sit and engage in leisure activities?

Does my child have an interest in toys and activities?

Is my child able to engage in parallel play and turn taking?

If you responded “no”, work with your child’s therapist to write specific play date goals into the treatment plan. If your child engages in frequent, aggressive behaviors or stereotypic behaviors, they may also struggle in play groups.

Simply placing a child in a group environment is NOT social training or an effective play date. Our goal is to teach a child successfully without having to constantly do “damage control.” If a child has a history of negative experiences with peers, your child may be very averse towards peers. Imagine how you would feel if EVERY time you walked into Kroger people bumped into you, yelled and screamed around you, and followed you around asking questions and stealing your shopping cart. If this was your experience every single time, you would most likely avoid grocery shopping. It is our goal to turn that aversive peer experience into an experience that is motivating and positive.

When I first begin play dates and social skills groups with early learners, I like to start with a peer model or sibling. Once certain goals have been mastered with a peer model, we can begin generalizing skills to other peers and environments. Remember, we want successful peer interactions…even if our play date is 8 minutes long! We can work up to that 30 minute karate class, the birthday party at the zoo, or some of the other amazing social groups Knoxville has to offer!

Here is a fantastic blog article on special needs playdates!

Remember, appropriate play skills includes more than sharing and sitting next to a peer. Other goals may include:

  • Keeping hands to self
  • Greetings, initiating and reciprocating conversations, staying on topic
  • Responding and asking questions
  • Eye contact
  • Imitating peers
  • Social manners (i.e. asking “what happened” if someone is crying or very excited)
  • Problem solving with peers

About The Author

Elizabeth Ginder, MSSW, BCBA, LBA is the Clinical Director of ABA Interventions, LLC. Elizabeth specializes in working with children ages 2 through early adulthood. She has experience working with children diagnosed with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as children with severe, challenging behaviors. Elizabeth also has a strong background in parent, teacher and staff training. Her focus is on verbal behavior, skill acquisition and teaching children how to have fun! You can find more information on ABA Interventions at their Facebook page or at

Being Realistic about Changing the Environment

Recently I visited the home of one of my clients. I asked the RBT working there if our client was still throwing materials. She said he hadn’t thrown anything all week. I was excited to hear this news, until I heard her next sentence. “I realized he always throws the materials when he asks to be all done and I say ‘not yet.’ So now, whenever he says he’s all done, we just clean it up.”

While it is true that behavior analysts make changes to the environment to improve behaviors, that doesn’t mean we change the environment at the expense of teaching new skills. Our ultimate goal for any client is that they lead as independent a life as possible. For this particular client, I hope that one day he will be employed. This means that we need to start teaching him now that sometimes he will have to complete a task, even when he doesn’t feel like it.

So how do you know when you’re being realistic about changing the environment?  Here are a few questions you should ask yourself:

Is the environmental change I’m suggesting something that will be implemented in the natural environment? If no, then you should think about how to shape appropriate behaviors rather than simply avoid the problematic behavior. For this client, refusing to work further would not be acceptable in a school or in future work environments. It could also potentially result in more restrictive learning environments for the client.

In what future circumstances might this behavior cause problems for my client? If you can envision scenarios in employment, social situations, or in public, then you need to focus on teaching an appropriate behavior rather than simply avoiding the problematic behavior. Furthermore, thinking about these circumstances may help you identify potential replacement behaviors that you can teach.

How can I shape an appropriate behavior? Think about the steps you can plan for shaping a replacement behavior. For instance, with the example of my client, we could start by requiring him to complete one more simple instruction before putting the activity away (such as placing one more puzzle piece, responding to one more question, or imitating one more action.) After he’s mastered that step, we could increase the requirement to completing two more simple instructions, then to working for one more minute, then two more minutes, etc. We can implement a systematic plan for teaching an appropriate response and completing the work even if he doesn’t want to anymore.

Is what I’m asking reasonable? In another case, one of my clients’ goals was to pull her hair back into a ponytail independently. The intention behind this goal was to do it in situ, when she would naturally be pulling her hair back. However, the implementation of the goal resulted in her practicing pulling her hair back and taking it down multiple times. Her hair would often tangle and she would feel pain while taking her hair out of the ponytail. It’s fair to say that asking a client to put up and take down her hair several times is an unreasonable request. If your request isn’t reasonable, think about how to change it so the client still learns the skill without it becoming aversive.

Ultimately, we should not change the environment in order to avoid behaviors, unless there is something unreasonable or unnecessary about what we are requesting the client to do. It is our job to teach the client how to communicate effectively, as well as to teach and reinforce appropriate behaviors to promote independence.


Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-15 in NYC. Working in education for twelve years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam utilizes strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. She is also an assistant professor in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

Sharing and Cooperation

by Dana Reinecke, PhD, BCBA-D

Sharing and cooperative play are among the most difficult skills for children to learn, whether or not they have a diagnosed disability. Why is sharing so hard? Because it necessarily involves giving something up, and usually it’s something highly preferred that is being forfeited. Cooperative play is similarly challenging because there’s often an element of compromise required. Play isn’t cooperative if one partner is getting his or her way the whole time; what makes it cooperative is the give and take. Taking is usually easier for some children than giving, and most children struggle when asked to share their toys or their parents’ attention, but there are ways to make it easier to learn these important social skills.

First, most simply, reinforce sharing and cooperation as you would reinforce any behavior that you want to see more of. Often when a child is asked to share or to compromise, the immediate and only consequence for that behavior is losing something that he or she was enjoying. This is not going to be effective for increasing sharing and cooperating in the long run, but we can add reinforcers that make it more motivating to engage in these responses again in the future. If a child shares his toys and receives lavish praise and maybe access to even better toys as a reward, he may be more likely to want to share in the future. Similarly, being willing to take turns or let someone else “go first” in a game might be more likely to happen in the future if that behavior is followed by some other reinforcer like getting an extra turn or the option of picking the game next time.

Second, approach sharing and cooperation as skills to be built up gradually. This might mean stacking the deck for success initially. Sharing and cooperation can be easier to teach when the target peers are likely to be cooperative and patient. Both areas of social skills may be modeled from peers, perhaps slightly older children, who are willing to demonstrate how to share and cooperate. Peers who are willing to take “short turns” and quickly return shared items, or to accept small concessions at first, are also going to be better partners for the learner who is only just developing these social skills, rather than peers who might be trying to learn the same lessons at the same time.
It can also be a lot easier to encourage sharing and cooperation if the games and activities where they are being practiced are not competitive. It may be harder to recruit cooperation or sharing when there is a clear “loser” and “winner” as an outcome, resulting in extra motivation to do the opposite of sharing and cooperating. Poker players don’t cooperate or share with each other, because they want to win. But, sharing and cooperating are less costly and in fact often enjoyable when applied in creative, productive situations. Having children practice cooperation and sharing when doing a craft together, for example, may be more effective than during a competitive activity.

Finally, don’t jump to complex social skills like sharing and cooperating until the child has the basic skills in place for the target activities. It would be a lot to expect someone to learn how to do something else while also learning to share and cooperate. To return to the idea of working on sharing and cooperating during a craft activity, make sure that craft is something that isn’t entirely new to the learner and that he or she has the basic skills to do the activity. This will take some of the pressure off and make sure that the focus of learning can be on the more complex social skills.

About The Author 

Dana Reinecke is a doctoral level Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA-D) and a New York State Licensed Behavior Analyst (LBA).   Dana is an Assistant Professor and Department Chair of the Department of Special Education and Literacy at Long Island University Post.  Dana provides training and consultation to school districts, private schools, agencies, and families for individuals with disabilities.  She has presented original research and workshops on the treatment of autism and applications of ABA at regional, national, and international conferences.  She has published her research in peer-reviewed journals, written chapters in published books, and co-edited books on ABA and autism.  Current areas of research include use of technology to support students with and without disabilities, self-management training of college students with disabilities, and online teaching strategies for effective college and graduate education.  Dana is actively involved in the New York State Association for Behavior Analysis (NYSABA), and is currently serving as President (2017-2018).

Ethics Part Four: Considerations On Punishment

Punishment procedures are, with reason, very controversial. Today, I’d like to clear up a few concerns and issues about punishment procedures, especially in regards to the ethical obligations of behavior analysts.

First, it’s important to define the terms we’re discussing. In behavior analysis, when we refer to punishment, we mean any response to a behavior that decreases the future likelihood of that behavior. This means that we won’t categorize a particular intervention as punishment unless we have actual proof that it decreases the behavior. When I was a classroom teacher, I had a student who at the beginning of math class would break his pencil and begin cursing. My immediate response to this behavior was to send him out of the room. But this wasn’t actually punishment because it did not decrease the behavior. Instead, his ability to escape the math class actually maintained the pencil-breaking and cursing behavior. If I wanted to punish, or decrease, that behavior, then I needed to change my response.

Often, when we’re talking about interventions, we lump several responses into the punishment category (such as time out, verbal reprimands, or detention) without any evidence that they are actually decreasing the target behavior. So the question becomes, what is an aversive stimulus for the individual you’re working with?

While this distinction is important in order to create effective interventions, it is also important to reference the Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts. Item 4.08 details the responsibilities of behavior analysts in regards to punishment. First, it states “behavior analysts recommend reinforcement rather than punishment whenever possible.” If behavior analysts have exhausted all possibilities and must use a punishment procedure, access to reinforcement must be a part of the intervention. This can be as part of reinforcing replacement behaviors that should be taught and reinforced in lieu of any problematic behavior.

Another important aspect of our ethical code is that when punishment procedures are being utilized, there is an increase in training, supervision, and oversight. A BCBA should not come in, explain a punishment procedure, and then not show up again for three months while teachers or practitioners are implementing the punishment procedure. Instead, there should be ongoing support and supervision and a plan to discontinue aversive procedures when they are no longer needed.

Ultimately, behavior analysts should be focused on reinforcement procedures. But when it becomes necessary to use aversive procedures to address dangerous behaviors, behavior analysts are required to be aware of and follow this compliance code.


Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-15 in NYC. Working in education for twelve years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam utilizes strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. She is also an assistant professor in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

“Touch Your Head” Or “Make Your Bed”? Staying True To The Applied Dimension Of ABA When Creating Program Goals For Students With Profound Cognitive Impairment

This article originally appeared at 

Nearly six months had gone by since we began Lily’s home-based ABA program, and she had not mastered a single target of a single program. Not one. I stared blankly at my own furrowed reflection through the graph on my computer screen. What was I doing wrong? Why couldn’t I get her to learn? Why was ABA failing me?

Prior to taking on Lily’s case, I had worked almost exclusively with early intervention and preschool children; kids who came to me with limited or nonexistent foundational skills, but who responded to ABA like a dream and whose graphs were magnificent; a baseline of 0% with a quick and steady climb to mastery. Over and over again, like behavioral clockwork. My work with early intervention kids is what got me hooked on ABA and convinced me that it could work for everything and everyone. “It’s a science!” I once exclaimed over-zealously to the thrilled parents of a toddler who was finally talking after only 30 days of treatment. I had become superbly confident in my niche.

But Lily’s graphs were a nightmare. Like the jagged teeth of an orthodontically-challenged dinosaur, and always below the 50% line. Identifying Body Parts, Matching Identical Pictures, Sorting Objects by Color, Requesting – the quintessential programs that I had come to rely on as instantaneously acquired were just not working. I had tried everything – switching back and forth from errorless teaching, using prompting strategies up the wazoo, working in different environments and at different times of the day; every new approach led to the same low, variable results. She couldn’t label. She couldn’t identify. She couldn’t imitate. She had one self-created sign that she used to universally indicate that she wanted something, but it was up to us to figure out what that something was. Her data book was a nasty, inflamed pimple on the otherwise flawless complexion of my career as a behavior analyst.

I considered talking to my supervisor and requesting that another BCBA take over the case. Someone with more experience, someone who knew more about non-verbal kids, someone who had tricks up their sleeve that I clearly didn’t. Before I made that call, I went back through her file one last time. She was 10-years-old and entirely nonverbal. She was not reliably toilet trained. A recent medical report indicated that her cognitive functioning level was similar to that of a 6-month-old child, and likely always would be. And then it hit me.

She didn’t need my programs. She didn’t need Imitating Actions with Objects. She didn’t need to meet criteria on “Answering ‘Who’ Questions or “Identifying Parts of a Picture.” Sure, those skills would be great to have, but they weren’t her most pressing needs. This child needed to learn to bathe herself. She needed to learn how to make a snack. She needed to brush her teeth and make her bed and use the bathroom independently. These were the skills that might one day mean the difference between a group home and an institution – not whether she could identify 15 exemplars of a school-bus from a larger array. I suddenly felt silly and almost angry at myself that I had spent so many months trying to jam the concept of pronoun-specific body part identification down her throat when there had been such an obvious deficit in actual living. I understood for a moment why we as behavior analysts sometimes get flak from the general population for being hard-headed and data-obsessed.

I scratched her entire program. I bought a copy of the AFLS (Assessment of Functional Living Skills) and started probing that week. Her scores were low, but we had a starting point. We implemented 10 functional programs and began fully prompting backward-chains of each. Her therapists relied on muscle memory and consistency, since she could not comprehend visual cues or task analysis pictures. We worked untiringly after school and on weekends to commit these sequences to memory and reach independence. And 30 data points later, she had mastered her first program: Making a Snack. She could find the cabinet where the cheese puffs were, twist off the top, pour some into a bowl, replace the top, replace the puffs, walk to the table, sit down and eat them. Without a single prompt. When the therapist called me to tell me, I welled up.

In the end, it wasn’t ABA that failed me. It was my own limited application of ABA, and the fact that I lost sight of perhaps the most important dimension of our science –that it’s meant to be applied.After working with Lily, I threw out my grand idea that I held the secret recipe for the “Fix-all Cookie Cutter ABA Program for Children Everywhere.” Now, every time I begin an initial assessment for a new client, I start the recipe from scratch. The first question I ask myself is, “What is the most significant, functional, real-life challenge for them?” instead of asking whether or not they can tell me the functions of 10 community helpers within 60 seconds over 3 consecutive sessions.

The content of this article is not based on any specific person. Certain incidents, characters, and timelines have been changed for creative purposes and may be composites or entirely fictitious.

Katherine DeCotiis Wiedemann, M.A., BCBA had her very own behavior intervention plan as a kindergartner in 1989. She had to earn five smurf stickers every morning in order to go to recess. Katherine eventually graduated from kindergarten and beyond, and after a false start as a comedic actress (she dropped out of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts) she found herself very at home in special education and behavior analysis.

After 10 years in the field, she founded Every Child Behavior Solutions, a NJ-based consulting practice that provides behavior-analytic services to school districts, families and anyone else who asks. She loves public speaking, and has done countless school in-service presentations about ABA, as well as for pediatric groups and medical students at the top hospitals in the state.

Although the first chapter of her career focused mostly on children with autism spectrum disorders, she has also spent a good deal of time in general education and specializes in the school-based treatment of ODD, ADHD, OCD and anxiety disorders. One of her short-term goals is to convince the world that ABA is not just a teaching tool for autism (although it does that well), and that behavior analysts are not all condescending blockheads (although some may be). You can learn more at Katherine’s website, or contact her at 

Posted in ABA

Reaching Up! Setting Goals that are Realistic, Functional, and Meaningful

Happy New Year!  Many people are inspired by the start of the new year to set goals for themselves.  This is also an ideal time for parents to think about their goals for their children.  In setting goals for a child with a disability, there are a few important considerations that will improve the likelihood of the child’s success, as well as the parent’s satisfaction.

It’s usually a good idea to start with big picture goals, and then narrow them down.  You might start by asking yourself what your ultimate goal for your child is, and then where you would like to see him or her in 5 years.  Then, what would you like to be accomplished in this coming year? 

Let’s say your big picture goal is for your son to have a happy social life.  Your 5-year goal might then be for him to have at least 3 friends that he sees on a regular basis.  Your goal for this year might be to get him involved in an afterschool club on a regular basis. 

To take another example, your big picture goal might be for your daughter to communicate effectively with other people.  Your 5-year goal might be for her to have conversational exchanges with other people in the absence of prompts or augmentative communication.  And your goal for this year might be for her to ask for what she wants when she wants it (to “mand” for desired objects).

Starting with the big picture goal and thinking about the 5-year goal can help parents to maintain their focus.  If you start with small goals and build up, you might find yourself building in the wrong direction.  Most importantly, keeping the big picture and 5-year goals in mind help to keep your more immediate goals functional and meaningful.  When time and resources are precious, you want to make sure that you use them only to address goals that are going to help your child to attain his or her best, most important possible outcomes.

A second consideration in setting year-long goals is how realistic they are.  No one knows your child better than you, as his or her parent, but even parents can have difficulty gauging just where their child may wind up after a year.  Many factors can impact the success of any goal, including the interventions available and other, unexpected barriers or supports that may arise.  It can be helpful to break year-long goals down even further into smaller steps, which will be easier to predict and monitor. 

So, for the son who you want to see be more social, consider breaking the goal of joining an afterschool club down into its parts, each of which will be easier and faster for him to accomplish than the whole:  investigate the clubs that are available, discuss his top two choices with a guidance counselor, attend the first meeting, etc.  Each of these smaller goals can be measured and celebrated, helping to keep momentum and motivation towards the bigger year-long and further aspirations.  Similarly, the daughter who is working on communication can achieve smaller goals by learning to mand using prompts as earlier goals, and then continuing to mand independently as prompts are faded. 

Finally, each of the smaller goals set for the year should be measured so that progress can be tracked.  Seeing progress is not only motivating and exciting, but can help to guide when to advance to the next set of goals.  Measurement is also important for identifying when progress is not happening as quickly as desired, so that the supports and strategies in place can be updated for better success.

About The Author

Dana Reinecke is a doctoral level Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA-D) and a New York State Licensed Behavior Analyst (LBA).   Dana is an Assistant Professor and Department Chair of the Department of Special Education and Literacy at Long Island University Post.  Dana provides training and consultation to school districts, private schools, agencies, and families for individuals with disabilities.  She has presented original research and workshops on the treatment of autism and applications of ABA at regional, national, and international conferences.  She has published her research in peer-reviewed journals, written chapters in published books, and co-edited books on ABA and autism.  Current areas of research include use of technology to support students with and without disabilities, self-management training of college students with disabilities, and online teaching strategies for effective college and graduate education.  Dana is actively involved in the New York State Association for Behavior Analysis (NYSABA), and is currently serving as President (2017-2018).

Are all BCBAs robots, or just mine?

This piece originally appeared on

“We recently hired a behavior analyst to work with our 4 year old son. She seems like a robot! Are all BCBAs so ‘professional’ and focused on data? Should I find someone else who can be more relaxed and friendly? Does this person exist? What’s the deal with BCBAs?“

Well, is your behavior analyst Vicki from the 80s sitcom, ‘Small Wonder’? If yes, then she is a robot. If not, then let’s look at this a little more closely. You aren’t the first person to think a BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) is a little too professional and data obsessed.  And you likely won’t be the last.

Just so you know it’s not simply my own opinions here, I’ve sought some input from some stellar BCBAs I happen to know. 

Behavior analysts hold ourselves to a higher code of ethics than a lot of other professions. We follow the Behavior Analyst Certification Board Ethics Code.  It’s 24 pages long. We’re serious about ethics around here. There are multiple sections in this code regarding professional relationships and cautions us against multiple relationships, conflicts of interest, and exploitative relationships. What does this mean? That to some extent a BCBA HAS to be too professional.

Becoming besties with our clients isn’t allowed. That would become a conflict of interest and your new bestie would have to drop your services and refer you to someone else.

Another robotic attribute of BCBAs- we love data. We live for data. All programming should come directly from data. All discussions of your child’s progress should be based on data. I kind of sound like a robot just typing this. Data. Data. Data.

“The key for anyone new to ABA is to understand that it’s a science. All of our decision making is based on data collection, analyzing that data, and then using it to help us decide what steps to take next.” – Kristin Fida, BCBA.

“We count on data to indicate to us whether what we are doing is working or if we could be doing something differently to increase your child’s success. Data provides immediate feedback ensuring precious time is not wasted. While our obsession with data may seem excessive, we put our heart and soul in to what we do and with each individual data point we are assured that your child is successful and achieving their goals!” – Brittany Keener, BCBA.

And finally, BCBAs can be too professional and robotic by not using user-friendly language describing the principles of ABA. We can forget that not everyone uses words like antecedent, mand, tact, reinforcement contingency, and etcetera. Behavior analysts who throw around these big words and don’t take the time to make sure they make sense to you probably do sound like robots.

But even with all these reasons listing why BCBAs are kind of like robots- here’s the truth of the matter. We love our jobs. We love behavior analysis. We love our clients. We love to help others make progress toward goals, reduce problem behaviors, and teach new behaviors and skills.

We cry over setbacks and celebrate every small step of progress with our clients. We jump for joy when a client spontaneously engages in a behavior we’ve been working on for eons. We lay awake at night thinking about programming, about how to help our clients make progress faster. We worry about our clients, we care about our clients, we do everything we can to make effective behavior change in our clients’ lives.

We are not robots. As a group, that is. There may be a few behavior analysts out there who don’t feel this way. Find one of the many who do; they (we) are the majority.  Find the BCBA who lives for positive behavior change. Work with a team that plans for your child’s future, that helps your child be more independent, that uses your child’s interests to promote learning.  Be an active part of that team- communication and collaboration between you and the behavior analyst are the keys to serious progress!

Behavior analysts are not robots.  We may like data a lot (bordering on obsession), but we use it to help people in real ways.

“Essentially, don’t give up. Talk to your BCBA and communicate your concerns and ask about what approach she is using and why she feels it is an appropriate intervention. The data should show that your son is making progress in goals that you want to increase while decreasing any maladaptive behaviors.  Just like with teachers, BCBAs all have a different style. If the style is working, don’t change it right away! Communication and being open with your BCBA is best!”- Jessi French, BCBA

“Developing positive relationships coupled with data driven decision making for our interventions is a sure recipe for success and progress with any client.”- Kristin Fida, BCBA

Talk to your BCBA. Tell them your concerns, listen to their explanations for why programming is done a certain way. If they use jargon- tell them you aren’t familiar with all the ABA terms. The more collaboration between you and your BCBA- the better for your son!

Leanne Page, MEd, BCBA, is the author of Parenting with Science: Behavior Analysis Saves Mom’s Sanity. As a Behavior Analyst and a mom of two little girls, she wanted to share behavior analysis with a population who could really use it- parents!

Leanne’s writing can be found in Parenting with Science and Parenting with ABA as well as a few other sites. She is a monthly contributor to , guest host for the Dr. Kim Live show, and has contributed to other websites as well.

Leanne has worked with children with disabilities for over 10 years. She earned both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Texas A&M University.  She also completed ABA coursework through the University of North Texas before earning her BCBA certification in 2011. Leanne has worked as a special educator of both elementary and high school self-contained, inclusion, general education, and resource settings.

Leanne also has managed a center providing ABA services to children in 1:1 and small group settings. She has  extensive experience in school and teacher training, therapist training, parent training, and providing direct services to children and families in a center-based or in-home therapy setting.

Leanne is now located in Dallas, Texas and is available for: distance BCBA and BCaBA supervision, parent training, speaking opportunities, and consultation. She can be reached via Facebook or at

Setting Up the Classroom to Optimize Learning Opportunities and Effective Instruction

This month’s ASAT feature comes to us from Melissa Taylor, BCaBA. To learn more about ASAT, please visit their website at You can also sign up for ASAT’s free newsletter, Science in Autism Treatment, and like them on Facebook!

I recently accepted my first teaching position.  It’s a new classroom for the district serving students with autism. I have lots of materials, but nothing is organized or set up in my classroom. What are some tips to set up and organize the classroom to optimize learning opportunities and effective instruction?

Congratulations on your first teaching position! This is a common question for new teachers. When we talk about classroom organization, there are several things to take into account. Good classroom organization effectively makes use of space and barriers, has accessible materials for instruction and data collection, and facilitates efficient time management. It is critical that when you set up your classroom, you review the needs of your individual students as well as make sure to address the core characteristics of autism. You probably already know that many of your students will present with deficits in social interactions and communication, including challenges with requesting items from adults and peers. It will be important to create an environment that makes it necessary for students to interact frequently with other people to increase communication opportunities.  Once the environment is conducive to optimizing instruction, the instructors can implement effect behavioral strategies to teach desired behaviors.

Organizing the Space

Seating. When organizing a space, we want to make sure that the seating arrangement will allow students to access the materials needed for activities and respond accurately to instruction. For younger students, make sure the chairs allow their feet to touch the floor. Likewise, older students should be able to sit up straight with feet on the floor and legs at approximately 90-degree angle. Try to arrange seating so that you have space for group, as well as individual sessions. Also, allow enough room that additional support staff can sit behind students to make prompting less intrusive (e.g., sitting behind student and using physical guidance to help them learn the expected motor responses during the, “Wheels on the Bus” song).

Pathways for transitions. The furniture should be set up in a way that enables smooth transitions from one area to another without traffic jams. Walking between areas will be easier if there are not large dividers or barriers that slow down transitioning. Having open spaces and clear pathways between defined areas could also allow instructors to move quickly to different areas of the classroom if there is an episode of problem behavior or an unexpected opportunity to support a social interaction.

Defining areas. Some instructors find that using dividers helps clearly separate sections of the classroom. Keep in mind that every area should be open enough that the classroom teacher is able to see every student and classroom assistant. This will allow the teacher opportunities to provide immediate feedback to staff on interactions with students and to offer frequent student praise.  Try to avoid tall dividers that make it impossible to see into the other areas and dividers that are easily knocked over. Shelving units, desks, carpets, and tables can create more natural space dividers that can help define the areas. Keep in mind the function and purpose of each classroom area, and make sure that the instructional materials needed are in the area and replaced as needed. For example, if students are going to be required to request items during circle time, those items should be easy for the instructor to reach during group rather than requiring the instructor to get up, leave the group and look in a cabinet for items.  

Putting away preferred items. Children, including those with autism, are often good at finding and gaining access to the things they like without the help of other people. By keeping items out of reach, in clear containers that are difficult to open, and on high shelves, you can create new requesting opportunities and make communication with adults more valuable to students. Resalable plastic storage bags, totes, bins, shelving units, and aprons with pockets may all be useful to make it more likely that the students will need to request help from others to access the items they want or need. If the student already has a valuable item, you have lost an opportunity for communication.  By restricting access to valuable items, teachers can prompt requests for specific items and deliver items to students. Furthermore, when delivering the item, the teacher becomes more valuable to the student, who learns the significance of communicating. When these types of natural communication trials with preferred items occur in areas where instruction will occur, it becomes more likely that students will approach instructors and instructional areas. One important consideration with using such materials that in some cases, direct visibility to highly preferred items can be distracting to students or result in attempts to retrieve items outside of appropriate or scheduled times. In such instances, evaluate the situation and determine whether moving the student’s seat so that it is not facing those items or moving the items themselves will address the issue.

Organizing Materials

Materials for data collection. In preparing materials for instruction, we want to make sure that all instructors have easy access to necessary materials such as data collection tools and sheets. These items should be able to be easily accessed at any point of the day, so that instructors are more likely to capture all opportunities of the behaviors they are tracking. When data are recorded immediately following student behavior it is more likely to be accurate. Clipboards that have pockets attached to them are good for storing writing utensils, timers and additional data sheets. Student item lists, teaching stimuli, and data sheets can be kept in a cart with drawers to make it easily accessible during teaching. When collecting any type of data that require instructors to count the number of occurrences of a behavior, instructors can use clickers attached to their clothing with carabiner clips for convenience. Blank student specific datasheets can be carried with the student on clipboards, kept in a drawer on a cart, or hung on bulletin boards in centers where instructional activities occur.

Materials for instruction. Pencil cases or small craft boxes help organize small materials such as pieces of edibles, small toys, pencils, highlighters, picture cards, visual schedules or index cards for instruction.  For larger instructional items such as toys needed for teaching imitation skills, items needed for simply following direction tasks, or items needed to teach daily living skills, boxes, rolling carts with larger drawers, or labeled shelves can be used to organize materials by student or goal areas.

Consider posting wall cues, table/desk cue cards, or other reminders in places where staff will easily see them. These cues can be helpful to guide instruction without the need to flip through pages in consultation notes or program books to reference procedures. Types of items to post include specific teaching protocols and prompt hierarchies, reinforcement schedule reminders, behavior management strategies, toilet training schedules, reminders of how to teach play skills and student to student requesting, or other items that you want to generalize from one classroom area to another. Cue cards, wall cues, or student data sheets with specific targets listed can also guide instructor presentation during less structured teaching opportunities.  For example, if the student has been working on labeling the picture of gloves, and during circle time the teacher is dressing a weather bear, the instructor can ask that student to label the weather bear’s gloves. Additional targets to be posted for staff could include specific peer-to-peer requests or interactions (e.g., give item to peer, accept item from peer), specific motor skills (e.g., copying a line, opening a container), self-help skills (e.g., putting on shoes, washing hands), and other activities.  This allows for easy implementation of strategies such as natural environment teaching and incidental teaching.  Another point is to consider limiting other “wall clutter” that often serves as highly distracting stimuli to students. When possible, keep to salient items such as a classroom schedule, current student work or points of study (e.g., pictures of alphabet) but don’t feel the need to cover every available space with something!

Classroom Schedule

Time is valuable, and students with autism do not have time to waste. It is important to make the most of your day by having many opportunities to practice all targeted skills. Having a classroom schedule that allows for enough instructional time to make significant progress is critical. When creating a classroom schedule, make sure to address the who, when, what, and where questions. In other words, it should be easy to see who is working with a student at any given time as well as what skill they are working on and where they are working on that skill (e.g., red table, art table, hallway, etc.). Assigning student names to specific instructors can save valuable time during an emergency situation (student elopes, fire emergency).  Avoid unnecessary large chunks of non-academic or unstructured times. What each student will be working on should vary based on assessments conducted in the classroom. Instructors should consider posting the schedule on a wall, centrally located and large enough that all team members can see it. However, if you have many students and paraeducators going in and out of the room, you may consider having a master calendar but printing out individual copies for each staff member.  When you have a master schedule that is easy to change when students and staff are absent will cut down on unnecessary talk about who is with specific students and what they should be working on. Additionally, color-coding by students or staff will allow for staff member or administrators to easily follow from across the room or with a quick glance. Staff should be assigned to students at all time.  If a student is engaged in independent work, having a staff member still assigned to that child will help everyone know who is tracking data or responsible if an emergency occurs. 

If you take all of these suggestions into consideration when you begin planning your classroom, you will be well on your journey to make a big difference in the outcomes of your students. An organized classroom allows teachers to focus on effective instructional strategies and behavior management strategies that are individualized to each child and not waste valuable time locating materials, guiding staff behaviors, and planning groups.  We wish you well in your new teaching position and in the years to come.

About The Author

Melissa Taylor, BCaBA is a Consultant on the Autism Initiative for the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network. Her current position focuses on training educators on the principles and implementation of behavior analysis within classroom settings. In addition, Melissa provides in-home behavior consultation to children and adults with autism. Currently, she serves as the Sponsorship Coordinator for the Association for Science in Autism Treatment.