ABA Journal Club #8: Clinical Decision Making

One of the tenets of ABA is to provide evidence-based practice. The best way to help us do this is to keep up with the literature! Each month, Sam Blanco, PhD, LBA, BCBA will select one journal article and provide discussion questions for professionals working within the ABA community. The following week another ABA professional will respond to Sam’s questions and provide further insight and a different perspective on the piece.

One of my favorite parts of my job is training people who are working to become BCBAs. There is an immense amount of content for my supervisees to learn, and one of the key aspects of this is to understand how to implement all of the new concepts their learning within the context of an actual case. This is often far more challenging than it might appear at first blush. I frequently supervise students pursuing their BCBA, and I require each one of them to read LeBlanc, Raetz, Sellers, & Carr (2016) because it provides a clear model for clinical decision-making.

LeBlanc, L. A., Raetz, P. B., Sellers, T. P., & Carr, J. E. (2016). A proposed model for selecting measurement procedures for the assessment and treatment of problem behavior. Behavior analysis in practice9(1), 77-83

  • Why is this article important for practitioners to read?
  • The model proposed by the authors incorporates several variables (such as observability of behavior and personnel resources.) Are there any other variables you might consider when selecting a measurement procedure?
  • Table 1 clearly outlines each form of measurement along with strengths and limitations. Discuss the forms of measurement you frequently use and the limitations to incorporating other forms into your current practice.
  • In Figure 1, the authors provide a flow chart for easily selecting the most appropriate form of measurement. Many of the questions are directly related to observer resources. In this article, the term “resources” relates directly to the ability of personnel to continuously monitor the behavior. Are there any other factors you would consider in relation to personnel? If yes, how do you typically address those factors?
  • In discussing the behavior being measured, the authors write: “If the behavior can occur at any time, consider all dimensions of the response and select the ones that are most critically important to fully capture the important features of the behavior and the potential change in the behavior that may occur due to intervention” (p. 81). How do you determine which dimensions of the response are the most critically important? Can you think of an example?
  • One of the limitations of this paper is that the model it presents has not been empirically tested. What might such an empirical study look like?

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, PhD, LBA, BCBA

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.

How do self-injurious behaviors develop?

This month’s ASAT feature comes to us from Ennio Cipani, Ph.D. To learn more about ASAT, please visit their website at www.asatonline.org. You can also sign up for ASAT’s free newsletter, Science in Autism Treatment, and like them on Facebook!

I am a new teacher who will have a student with some self-injurious behavior entering my classroom next year. Although his behavioral intervention will be overseen by a board-certified behavior analyst, I would like a general understanding of how certain behaviors develop into self-injury.

Like yourself, many teachers will have contact with students with autism and/or intellectual disabilities who engage in severe and intense forms of self-injury. Indeed, these self-destructive acts seem to defy any reasonable explanation. Common explanations for a student who engages in self-injury have often disregarded an environmental analysis of antecedents (i.e., the events that take place right before the behavior occurs). In some cases, statements are made such as “It comes out of nowhere,” or “She does it because she has autism/intellectual disabilities.”

A behavior analytic model shows us that challenging behavior is functional (i.e., serves a purpose) for the individual and can indeed explain even cases where self-injury has reached such dangerous intensity that it results in soft tissue damage, concussions, etc. But, as you asked, how do such dangerous behaviors develop? Research and anecdotal reports from families have demonstrated that mild forms of self-injurious behavior can start innocuously, and over time, become dangerous in terms of their effect on the person’s health and welfare.

Let’s consider a hypothetical student to demonstrate how events in the student’s environment can reinforce and shape severe self-injurious behavior. Initially, tantrum and screaming behaviors are effective (functional) in producing a desired outcome. These behaviors can result in access to desired items and events, such as candy or a preferred activity or in escape from aversive conditions, such as demands to turn off electronics or complete a non-preferred task. In other words, the tantrum and screaming are effective in producing access to reinforcement. Although the adult responding to such behaviors may feel uncomfortable about “giving in”, tantrum behaviors produce a very uncomfortable and aversive condition for the adult, who then relents in order to get the student to stop the behavior. In what can quickly become a vicious cycle, the student engages in challenging behavior to obtain a desired result. That behavior creates discomfort for the adult. The adult gives the student what he/she wants and the challenging behavior ceases.

How then does an extreme exacerbation of intensity develop and/or the form of the initial challenging behavior change? One scenario is that during one of these tantrums where the desired result has not yet been delivered, the student slaps him or herself. After a brief amount of attention, e.g., “Stop doing that, you are hurting yourself,” the desired outcome also is produced. As you can see, hitting oneself has now become more adaptive than a tantrum of long duration. As the milder forms of behavior fail to result in the desired outcome, behavior intended to obtain reinforcement can become more varied. Regrettably, the teacher now responds to a more intense variation of challenging behavior. The form that achieved the student’s desired result is the increased intensity of self-injury. What was previously a slap to the leg could now transform to multiple slaps to multiple areas of one’s body.

You may have observed that the self-injury often involves hits/slaps to the face/head. Why would this be the case? Ask yourself this: Are you more likely to intervene if the hitting occurs to one’s thigh area or the face? This could result in adults providing reinforcement more quickly or ceasing to place a particular demand on the child when the self-injury is directed at the face or head. If a more dangerous form of self-injury becomes more efficient than milder forms of the behavior at accessing the reinforcer, the probability that the child will engage in the extreme form of the behavior to access that particular reinforcer increases.

In summary, self-injurious behaviors, like other forms of behaviors, can serve a variety of environmental functions, involving both access (to something) and escape/avoidance (from something). The Cipani Behavioral Classification System (BCS) is a pioneering function-based classification system for categorizing problem target behaviors for education and mental health settings (Cipani & Cipani, 2017). It provides a standard framework for identifying functions of problem behavior. This unique diagnostic classification system identifies the four basic (operant) behavior functions (originally specified in Cipani,1990,1994). It then derives 13 different function-based categories within those four functions.

A functional perspective of self-injurious behaviors can lead to a more effective and efficient treatment. It is important to examine the environmental variables that occur at the time of the self-injurious behavior to determine the function of the behavior. If that function can be determined, then the student can be taught safer, socially acceptable ways to get his or her needs met. Your board-certified behavior analyst should be able to assist you in developing a comprehensive set of strategies based on the underlying function that the self-injury serves for your student.

References

Cipani, E. (1990). The communicative function hypothesis: An operant behavior perspective. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 21, 239-247.
Cipani, E. (1994). Treating children’s severe behavior disorders: A behavioral diagnostic system. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 25, 293-300.
Cipani, E., & Cipani, A. (2017). A behavioral classification system for problem behaviors in schools: Diagnostic manual (1st edition). New York: Springer Publishing.

Editor’s Note: This article has been adapted and shortened with permission from Behavior Development Solutions and the author. Please see the “Ask Cipani” column to read more articles authored by Dr. Cipani. For more information about functional analysis, please see a previously published Clinical Corner article authored by Dr. Robert LaRue.


About The Author

Ennio Cipani, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist since 1983 in California. Dr. Cipani has been doing in-home and in-school behavioral consultation for families facing child problem behaviors since 1982. He has published numerous articles, chapters, books and software in the areas of child behavior management and parent and teacher behavioral consultation. His most recent book (Cipani & Cipani, 2019); Cipani Behavioral Classification System for Children and Adolescents: Diagnostic Manual (2nd edition) can be obtained for free in pdf form by emailing him at ennioc26@hotmail.com

Posted in ABA

Clearing Up the Misconceptions About Reinforcement

ABA often gets a bad rap due to misunderstandings about reinforcement. In my career alone, I’ve had people tell me that people are not like rats and pigeons, that reinforcement harms intrinsic motivation, and that when I do produce behavior change, it has nothing to do with ABA but with my abilities as a teacher. Today, I’d like to clear up some misconceptions about reinforcement.

Reinforcement is not equivalent to rewards. Reinforcement is anything that occurs immediately following a behavior that increases the future likelihood of that behavior. For instance, I am more likely to say hello to my neighbor down the street because in the past he has responded by saying “hello” back to me. However, I do not say hello to my next-door neighbor because she has never responded to my greeting. My history of reinforcement with the neighbor down the street increases the likelihood that I will greet him upon seeing him.

Reinforcement occurs in the natural environment all the time, whether we are conscious of it or not. We are reinforced by paychecks for going to work, by our favorite dessert for visiting a restaurant 30 minutes out of our way, by compliments when we get a new haircut and more. ABA utilizes reinforcement when an individual is not acquiring skills in order to help them learn. And when ABA is implemented correctly, reinforcement should be as close to naturally occurring reinforcers as possible and should be reduced systematically over time to levels that would naturally occur in their environment.

Reinforcement works for dogs and for humans. The previous two points illustrate that humans do respond to reinforcement, and decades of scientific research back that up. Comparing the work behavior analysts do with humans to the work behavior analysts do with other animals is not far off base. What is off base is using such a comparison to imply that behavior analysts treat people with disabilities like dogs. As with other professionals who work with individuals with disabilities, (such as speech therapists, physical therapists, nurses, etc.) most behavior analysts are professionals who put a lot of time, care, and love into their work.

Reinforcement is individualized. Everything we do in ABA is individualized because human beings are wonderfully complex creatures that cannot be characterized by statistics, averages, or norms. One of my students may find stickers reinforcing; another may show no interest. One student may find listening to music reinforcing; another may cover his ears and ask me to turn it off. In ABA, we seek to find the items and activities that are motivating for individuals; then use those as tools not only for reinforcement but for increasing skills and broadening interests and opportunities. In an ideal ABA session, my students spend a lot of time engaging with items and activities that they enjoy while also learning and growing.

It’s easy to fall prey to misconceptions about reinforcement, but such misconceptions can make it impossible for us to understand how to alter the environment in order to provide the best possible outcomes for our students. As Skinner put it, “The ideal of behaviorism is to eliminate coercion: to apply controls by changing the environment in such a way as to reinforce the kind of behavior that benefits everyone.”


WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, PhD, LBA, BCBA

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.

ABA Journal Club #7: A Response from Dr. Val Demiri PhD, BCBA-D, LBA

If you have ever walked into a restaurant and looked at a menu of food options, you more than likely understand what it is like to be presented with a choice of food reinforcers such as the burger with cheese and pickles vs. the burger with no cheese or the burger with no pickles or cheese. The July journal club article selected by Dr. Blanco and written by Sran and Borrero (2010), highlights an important concept – that even when rules about choice options are not presented, such as what the experimenters did with typical preschoolers, choices were found to be reinforcing and led to increased academic behaviors. That is, having the opportunity to make choices can make a difference in both the behaviors you target to increase or decrease as well as the rewards that function as reinforcement. In general, there is no doubt that choices are a good thing. 

To dig a little deeper, the idea of varied choice vs. no choice is an interesting one.  Anecdotally and from the research available on choice, having choices is typically viewed as a good circumstance to be in. Research has found that choice opportunities can decrease problem behaviors (Foxx & Garito, 2007; Vaughn & Horner, 1995), increase participation (Harding, Wacker, Berg, Baretto & Rankin, 2002) and increase performance (Moes, 1998) across a variety of tasks.   

As I read through Sran and Borrero (2010) I also reflected on some clinical observations I have noticed over the years and came up with this question: Is there ever too much to choose from and is this condition aversive for some? That is, can choices be overwhelming? I have wondered if choice making is on a continuum of some sort in which there may be an optimum or ideal number of choices before the pendulum swings in an undesired direction causing anxiety, fear, and indecision? The experience of “too many choices” can be overwhelming for some and not desirable at all. For example, please do not ask me to go choose some shade of blue for the living room walls! There are too many, I cannot choose. Can having too many choices lead to indecision? Skinner, in his seminal book, Science and Human Behavior (1953) discussed the idea of “indecision” as being an aversive condition that we want to escape by engaging in making a decision.  Briefly, Skinner (1953) indicated that once a decision is made, one commits to choosing and we are no longer struggling with indecision, thus the behavior of deciding is reinforced, but getting there can be tumultuous. 

Getting back to ABA and our work with individuals who benefit from choices, we must remember that we need to provide choice regularly and it is likely that too many options are probably not helpful. When working with individuals in special education and other settings, providing choices for the following have been known to be exceptionally helpful:

  1. work order
  2. tasks to be performed,
  3. foods to be eaten,
  4. type of work to be completed,
  5. amount of work to be completed and
  6. choice of where one can work,

Also important to understand is that choices can be presented via visual picture presentations, text and other selection mechanisms such as through Augmentative and Alternative Communication devices (AAC). If you are going to provide choices, definitely consider preference assessments as these too are essentially choices of some sort that are likely to increase the overall satisfaction of the individuals you work with.   

Carter, C. M. (2001). Using choice with game play to increase language skills and interactive behaviors in children with autism. Journal of Positive Behavioral Interventions, 3(3), 131‐151.

Foxx, R. M., & Garito, J. (2007). The long‐term successful treatment of the very severe behaviors of a preadolescent with autism. Behavioral Interventions: Special Issue: The Treatment and Assessment of the Severe Behavior of Individuals with Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 22, 69‐82.

Harding, J. W., Wacker, D. P., Berg, W. K., Barretto, A., & Rankin, B. (2002). Assessment and treatment of severe behavior problems using choice‐making procedures. Education & Treatment of Children, 25, 26‐46.

Moes, D. R. (1998). Integrating choice‐making opportunities within teacher‐assigned academic tasks to facilitate the performance of children with autism. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 23, 319‐328.

Skinner, B.F. (1953).  Science and human behavior. New York: The Macmillan Company. ISBN 0029290406

Vaughn, B., & Horner, R. H. (1995). Effects of concrete versus verbal choice systems on problem behavior. AAC: Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 11,


About The Author

Dr. Demiri received her doctorate in Clinical and School Psychology from Hofstra University in 2004 and her Board Certification in Behavior Analysis (BCBA) from Rutgers University in 2005. She currently serves as an adjunct professor at Endicott College in the Van Loan School of Graduate & Professional Studies and she is the district-wide behavior specialist at Hopewell Valley Regional School District in New Jersey. Previously she served as the Assistant Director of Outreach Services at the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, where she spearheaded the Early Intervention Program. Her professional interests include diagnostic assessments, language and social skills development in individuals with autism spectrum disorders as well as international dissemination of Applied Behavior Analysis. She has presented on Applied Behavior Analysis and autism locally, nationally and internationally. Val is the co-author of the book, Jumpstarting Communication Skills in Children with Autism: A Parent’s Guide to Applied Verbal Behavior: Woodbine House.

ABA Journal Club #7: Choice Within Token Systems

One of the tenets of ABA is to provide evidence-based practice. The best way to help us do this is to keep up with the literature! Each month, Sam Blanco, PhD, LBA, BCBA will select one journal article and provide discussion questions for professionals working within the ABA community. The following week another ABA professional will respond to Sam’s questions and provide further insight and a different perspective on the piece.

I frequently use the Functional Assessment Interview (O’Neill, Albin, Storey, Horner, & Sprague, 2015) when beginning to assess the function of problem behaviors. One of my favorite questions in this assessment relates to how frequently the individual has choice during the day. Many of the individuals I work with are provided very few, if any, choices during the day. This is one of the first things I often work to change.

The article for July’s ABA Journal Club assesses choice within token systems. This is only one way that choice can be implemented throughout the day, but it’s a nice jumping-off point for discussions of how to increase choice for your clients or students.

Sran, S. K., & Borrero, J. C. (2010). Assessing the value of choice in a token system. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis43(3), 553-557

  1. Why did the authors select to focus on choice within token systems? How is this relevant to your current work environment?
  2. Discuss the procedure used in this research. How could you replicate these procedures with your own clients?
  3. The preference for the opportunity to make choices within the token system varied across individuals. How does this impact treatment decisions you would make for your clients?
  4. How do you currently incorporate choice with the individuals you work with?
  5. What changes can you make in incorporating choice with the individuals you work with?
  6. This article discusses the use of ABA strategies for individuals who do not have autism. Why is this important for us to consider?

O’Neill, R. E., Albin, R. W., Storey, K., Horner, R. H., & Sprague, J. R. (2015). Functional assessment and program development. Nelson Education.


WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, PhD, LBA, BCBA

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.

ABA Journal Club # 6: A Response From Robyn Catagnus, EdD, LBS, BCBA-D and Elizabeth Hughes Fong, M.A., BCBA, LBS

One of the tenets of ABA is to provide evidence-based practice. The best way to help us do this is to keep up with the literature! Each month, Sam Blanco, PhD, LBA, BCBA will select one journal article and provide discussion questions for professionals working within the ABA community. The following week another ABA professional will respond to Sam’s questions and provide further insight and a different perspective on the piece.

This month’s response comes from Robyn Catagnus, EdD, LBS, BCBA-D and Elizabeth Hughes Fong, M.A., BCBA, LBS. Sam’s original blog can be seen here.

  • How does Skinner’s definition of culture differ from how you typically consider culture?

Fong: I think that Skinner did a nice job of linking a person’s actions and beliefs within the context of their environment.  At times, I feel it’s an oversimplification of a term, and behavior analysts should explore (on a deeper level) what that means. It defines culture, but lacks in helping us to understand it, or on a more practical level, what this means for our practice of ABA. I’m in agreement that our histories and the contingencies that we come into contact with shape who we are.  But as clinicians, what does this mean? When I think of culture, I consider things like history, contingencies and the environment in which the person operates, but I also try to draw out more information about what this means for my work as a clinician – if at all.  Culture is deep and rich, and sometimes I feel that relying on just Skinner’s definition doesn’t take all this into consideration. We can take that as a starting point, on how to conceptualize culture, but we need to go further into truly trying to understand what it is. Some interesting articles to review on the topic are: Muchon de Melo, C., & de Rose, J. C. (2013). The concept of culture in skinnerian Radical Behaviorism: Debates and controversies. European Journal of Behavior Analysis14(2), 321-328; Glenn, S. S. (2004). Individual behavior, culture, and social change. The Behavior Analyst27(2), 133-151.

  • Have you encountered situations in which by cultural contingencies impacted an intervention you planned? What might you have done differently if you could go back in time?

Catagnus: I’d like to share the story of two of my colleagues, Stacee Leatherman and Ashley Knochel. They are both doing really important work in this area that exemplifies this issue. And, you’ll likely see their papers on the topics published soon, so this will be a preview. Stacee was a therapist working with a family from a different country that had immigrated to her local area. She reported at a recent ABAI conference event that she felt ill-prepared by her behavior analytic training to adequately assess and intervene in a culturally appropriate way. The family ultimately left ABA services, and Stacee went to the literature to see what their consulting group could have done to better serve the family. She found almost no relevant empirical research in ABA journals that addressed implementation or culturally adapted interventions with non-Western families of children with Autism. We recently submitted a manuscript presenting her findings and making some recommendations of our own.

Leatherman, S., Catagnus, R. M., Brown, T. W., Moore, J., Torres, I. (2019). A systematic review of strategies to improve treatment services provided by cross-cultural practitioners working with individuals with autism spectrum disorder. (Manuscript in preparation).

Ashlee, along with co-researchers, has conducted one of the rare empirical studies of ABA with non-Western learners (and is submitting this manuscript soon). She was working in Ghana at a school for children with ASD. She helped the teachers implement a common behavior analytic technique, behavior specific praise. She did so in a way that is typical here in her culture in the US, in terms of using language to label the behavior, specifically, vocally, and with excitement. For cultural reasons, the way she’d learned to conduct the procedure in her culture caused a decrease in the desired behavior of working on task! So, she met with the stakeholders in the setting, engaged in culturally sensitive and humble question asking, and was able to collaboratively identify why the commonly used approach was not culturally appropriate or helpful – why it was detrimental to learning. Together, they revised the way the reinforcement was delivered, assured it was culturally correct, and the on-task behavior improved, and the staff reported feeling that Ashley’s interactions were culturally relevant. The outcome, and consultation process, was impactful. This is some of the first empirical data I’ve seen to explain how ABA interventions repeated ‘the way we learned to do them in our own culture’ can negatively impact those we service if we don’t approach the planning and implementation in a culturally interactive and open way.

Knochel, A., Blair, K. C., Sofarelli, R. (2019). Culturally focused classroom staff training to increase praise for Ghanaian students with autism spectrum disorders. (Manuscript in preparation).

  • Do you currently engage in any of the suggestions the authors provide for self-reflection? What has been your experience with self-reflection?

Catagnus: I regularly engage in self-reflection in the forms of mindfulness practice and formal meditation. In fact, I developed a mindfulness and ABA course at TCSPP and get to regularly talk about this with our students. I think and talk about my own cultural frameworks and background regularly, too, because of the types of research and implementation we conduct for culturally relevant pedagogy at the University. Luckily, the work that I do is immersive in terms of cultural topics, and I continue to develop my self-awareness. I also seek out experiences of diversity, by traveling, engaging in study abroad programs for myself and creating them for my students. I’ve worked with amazing local early educators in South Africa, visited cultural and academic sites in Denmark, taken classes in Spain, and am about to do visit Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Qatar. Developing relationships with people around the world has helped me stay reflective and to grow personally and professionally. Learning never stops for this process.

  • Do your current functional assessments incorporate cultural variables? If not, what can you change to improve your functional assessment process?

Fong: I do not think most FAs incorporate cultural variables. While the principles of ABA might be considered to be universal, the way in which we complete an FA is very Eurocentric.  Most of the places I have worked at present the FAI in English and if another language is required a translator is used. The translator may or may not have the clinical understanding to accurately communicate the question. Also, some of the questions are more direct, closed ended.  Some culture may do better by telling a story. Generally, there are no questions that directly address culture – for example, preference on pronouns, holidays, languages used, the role of the clinician in the family’s mind, background information about caretakers, what behaviors are reinforced/valued by a culture and which are not, etc.  I think incorporating things like this, into FAs would help to make them more culturally sensitive. Maybe each culture, create their own? I will ask clients if there is thing anything else that they feel that I should know, which might be relevant to intervention. Sometimes I prompt for information about language, holidays, manners, norms, preferences, etc. A good article on the topic is: Tanaka-Matsumi, J., Seiden, D. Y., & Lam, K. N. (1996). The Culturally Informed Functional Assessment (CIFA) Interview: A strategy for cross-cultural behavioral practice. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice3(2), 215-233.

  • One of the recommendations by the authors is to use readily available resources. What resources are available to you? How can your organization better provide resources to help behavior analysts address cultural variables?

Fong: I like this family therapy book – McGoldrick, M., Giordano, J., & Garcia-Preto, N. (Eds.). (2005). Ethnicity and family therapy. Guilford Press. The Special Interest Groups (SIG) of ABAI are another good resource, I’ve found that people are responsive if you email them questions.  There is also the Culture and Diversity SIG of ABAI. I also tend to look outside the ABA, to fields such as psychology, who have done a superior job addressing the need to examine the role that culture plays in treatment. Recently, there has been an increase in behavior analytic articles and presentations addressing culture, so I try to read those.           

Catagnus: TCSPP has an institutional learning outcome related to diversity, so we embed learning, resources, assignments and outcome measures throughout our program. It is a deeply held value and a strong focus of our program. For this reason, our students often research topics related to culture, diversity, and inclusion. They have access to carefully curated curricular materials like articles, books, lectures, and tutorials on many different related topics. Our classes are regularly evaluated and updated to represent more global perspectives. And, the process of students’ learning is supported from the day they start until graduation, with the goal of developing their own resources and skills in cultural awareness. We are also implementing some innovative advising and learning laboratory programs to further help students connect with personal resources for cultural competence.

  • The authors suggest the use of social validity surveys as one method for addressing cultural values. How can you incorporate this into your current practice?

Fong: I think, by just asking a client/family member/guardian if they agree with the goals and treatment suggestions would be a good start. Incorporating more relevant people into intervention planning would also be a good step.  I tend to get better participation in data collection when I do this, as well (i.e. buy-in).

Catagnus: Bobbie Gallagher and a few of us from TCSPP recently published a paper that addressed the cultural values of females with limited language (LL) and autism (ASD), and their families and nurses. The study was designed to gather social validity about what strategies would be doable, preferable, and acceptable to communicate with women with LL and ASD during a gynecological exam. These women are at risk because, statistically, they don’t access this important health service very often, if at all. The study gathered quantitative and qualitative data about concerns, fears, and preferences for how women could be more effectively and respectfully involved in the process of a diagnostic exam. As Bobbie wrote, “Identifying strategies with a higher rate of social validity, or acceptance of treatment prior to implementation, may assist future researchers in conducting studies on the effectiveness of those strategies.”

Gallagher, B.J., Flynn, S.D., Catagnus, R.M., Griffith, A. (2019). Social validity of strategies to assist females with ASD during gynecological examinations. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10882-018-9654-5

  • The authors state that one limitation of their article is that they did not provide systematic guidelines for working with culturally diverse clients. If you were going to introduce such guidelines, what might you include?

Fong: I think the guidelines I referenced here: Hughes Fong, E., & Tanaka, S. (2013). Multicultural Alliance of Behavior Analysis Standards for Cultural Competence in Behavior Analysis. The International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy. 8(2): 17-19. Are a good start.  APA did a fantastic job on their guidelines – so again looking at other fields to see what they have done (https://www.apa.org/about/policy/multicultural-guidelines) and learning from other fields would be helpful.

Catagnus: Ashely Knochel, Kwang-Sun Blair, Stacee Leatherman, and I are working on a manuscript now related to this topic. We hope to provide the ABA community with a systematic review of relevant cultural adaptation models, highlighting one that is most useful as a framework to guide the process. We recommend that ABA look to other fields that have created and researched frameworks or developed guidelines. Examples include Guidelines for Providers of Psychological Services to Ethnic, Linguistic, and Culturally Diverse Populations from the APA, and AMA Code of Medical Ethics’ Opinion on Cultural Sensitivity and Ethnic Disparities in Care.


About The Authors

Dr. Robyn Catagnus is an expert on learning and behavior change. A board-certified behavior analyst, she is an associate professor, associate chair, and former national chair of Behavior Analysis at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She’s owned and operated a successful behavior consulting firm and held executive roles in behavioral health and educational technology organizations. As a management consultant and researcher, she also develops human capital initiatives to improve organizational behavior.

Dr. Catagnus’ helps educators promote inclusion, success, performance, and growth. She is a trustee of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies; reviewer for the Diversity in Behavior Analysis section of the APA journal Behavior Analysis: Research and Practice; reviewer for Behavior Analysis in Practice, and former member of the editorial board for Perspectives on Behavior Science. Dr. Catagnus has degrees in instruction and technology, education, leadership and strategy, and a certificate in mindfulness.

Ms. Hughes Fong has over two decades of experience in the fields of behavioral health, education, and management. Her educational background is in clinical and counseling psychology and applied behavior analysis. She is currently a PhD candidate studying Clinical Psychology with a concentration in Forensic Psychology.

In 2011, Ms. Hughes Fong founded Multicultural Alliance of Behavior Analysts (MultiABA), now call the Diversity and Culture SIG. This is a special interest group of the Association of Behavior Analysis International (ABAI). Ms. Hughes Fong is the founder of “Diversity in Behavior Analysis” a section in Behavior Analysis Research and Practice, and serves as an Associate Editor for the journal. Ms. Hughes Fong, also serves on the Executive Committee for the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Division 35, as the Website Coordinator. She has been a reviewer for Behavior Analysis: Research and Practice, Behavior Analysis in Practice, and the National Multicultural Conference and Summit. She is also a “Distinguished Scholar” with the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, and a member Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI)  Diversity, Respect, and Inclusion Task Force

In addition, to Ms. Hughes Fong activities, she is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst and licensed as a Behavior Specialist in Pennsylvania, a trainer in the Pennsylvania Bureau of Autism’s Functional Behavior Analysis training, and has received training certificates in the area of Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy Childhood Traumatic Grief. In addition, she received her level one certification in Pivotal Response Training and Gottman Couples Therapy. Her primary areas of interest are in the application of ABA to multicultural populations, telehealth, social validity, health and behavior analysis, and examining child custody and parental competency when a child has developmental disabilities.

The Importance of Identifying the Function of a Behavior

As a BCBA, I am often asked to address problematic behaviors. One of the most common errors I see in addressing such behaviors is that the adults working with the child have not identified the function (or purpose) of the problematic behavior. Decades of research have shown that there are only four functions for any behavior: attentionescape/avoidance, access to a tangible, and automatic reinforcement (or something that just feels good internally, but cannot be observed by outsiders).

The function of the behavior is whatever happens immediately after the behavior, and increases the likelihood that the behavior will occur again in the future. Here are a few examples of the functions, based on the same behavior:

  1. The therapist tells Lisa it’s time to practice tying shoes. Lisa starts biting her own hand. The therapist look shocked and calls in Lisa’s mother, who rubs her back lightly while Lisa ties her shoes then gives her a lot of verbal praise. This is likely an example of a behavior that functions for attention, because the mother comes in and provides both verbal and physical attention while she ties her shoes. Or it could be an example of a behavior that functions for escape or avoidance, since Lisa did not have to tie her shoes immediately once she began biting her hand.
  2. The therapist tells Lisa it’s time to practice tying shoes. Lisa starts biting her own hand. The therapist gently pushes Lisa’s hand down and then introduces a new task. This is an example of a behavior that functions as escape because Lisa does not have to tie her shoes once she begins biting her hand.
  3. The therapist tells Lisa it’s time to practice tying shoes. Lisa starts biting her own hand. The therapist says, “Oh, don’t stress, we’ll take a sensory break,” and gives Lisa a ball to squeeze. This is an example of a behavior maintained by tangible reinforcement. When Lisa began biting her hand she was immediately given access to a preferred item.

You’ll notice that I left out the automatic reinforcement. This is intentional because often, with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, people assume that a behavior is automatically reinforced instead of exploring these three potential functions described above. One way to recognize if a behavior is automatically reinforced is to note if the behavior happens when the child is alone and/or when no demands have been placed on the child. If it’s only happening around other people or when demands are placed, then it is highly unlikely that the behavior is automatically reinforced. For now, we’ll save automatic reinforcement for another blog post.

Identifying which of these functions is maintaining a problem behavior is essential to putting in an effective intervention. But how do you go about doing this?

The first thing you should do is assess! You can do an informal assessment, such as using the Functional Assessment Screening Tool (FAST) which is comprised of 16 questions that can help you quickly determine the function. If this does not provide conclusive results, you can have a BCBA do a formal functional assessment. Once you have identified the function of the behavior, you can change the environment so that not only does the child no longer receive that reinforcement for a problematic behavior, but there are appropriate replacement behaviors they can engage in to access that reinforcement. For more on that, you can look back at the Importance of Replacement Behaviors.

It may be difficult at first to think in terms of “function of behavior,” rather than assigning a reason for the behavior that is based on the child’s diagnosis or based on something happening internally inside the child’s brain that we can’t see (such as, “she’s just frustrated so she’s biting her hand,” or “she doesn’t know how to control herself”). However, once you try it out and experience some success with addressing the true function of behavior, you’ll likely see the beauty of a simple explanation for why we behave.


WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, PhD, LBA, BCBA

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.

ABA Journal Club: Cultural Awareness

One of the tenets of ABA is to provide evidence-based practice. The best way to help us do this is to keep up with the literature! Each month, Sam Blanco, PhD, LBA, BCBA will select one journal article and provide discussion questions for professionals working within the ABA community. The following week another ABA professional will respond to Sam’s questions and provide further insight and a different perspective on the piece.

In this month’s journal club article, we’re discussing cultural awareness skills. This is an important topic for discussion because behavior analysts need to consider cultural variables when implementing interventions, interacting with families, and identifying target behaviors.

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.

  1. How does Skinner’s definition of culture differ from how you typically consider culture?
  2. Have you encountered situations in which by cultural contingencies impacted an intervention you planned? What might you have done differently if you could go back in time?
  3. Do you currently engage in any of the suggestions the authors provide for self-reflection? What has been your experience with self-reflection?
  4. Do your current functional assessments incorporate cultural variables? If not, what can you change to improve your functional assessment process?
  5. One of the recommendations by the authors is to use readily available resources. What resources are available to you? How can your organization better provide resources to help behavior analysts address cultural variables?
  6. The authors suggest the use of social validity surveys as one method for addressing cultural values. How can you incorporate this into your current practice?
  7. The authors state that one limitation of their article is that they did not provide systematic guidelines for working with culturally diverse clients. If you were going to introduce such guidelines, what might you include?

WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, PhD, LBA, BCBA

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.

Could Teaching Environments Affect Solving Problem Behaviors?

A few years ago, I went in to observe an ABA therapist I was supervising. The first thing I noticed when I walked in to observe was that she did her entire session at a long wooden table, sitting side-by-side with her student. She was working with a ten-year-old girl with Aspergers. One of her goals was to increase eye contact during conversation, but her student wasn’t making much progress in this area. She had consulted the research and was considering a new behavior intervention plan, and wanted my input before doing so. I wondered could teaching environments affect solving problem behaviors?

After watching for about ten minutes, I asked if we could change the seating arrangement. We moved her student to the end of the table, then had the therapist sit next to her, but on the perpendicular side. This way, eye contact was much easier as they were able to face each other. The student’s eye contact improved instantly with a small environmental change. (Of course, once we made the environmental change, we worked together to address other changes that could be made to encourage eye contact.)

Environmental changes can be a quick and simple solution to some problem behaviors. Here are some questions to consider in order to alter the environment effectively:

Is it possible that a change in furnishings could change the behavior? For example, moving a child’s locker closer to the classroom door may decrease tardiness, putting a child’s desk in the furthest corner from the door may decrease opportunities for elopement, or giving your child a shorter chair that allows them to put their feet on the ground may decrease the amount of times they kick their sibling from across the table. You may also want to consider partitions that allow for personal space, clearly-marked spaces for organizing materials, proximity to students and distractions (such as windows or the hallway).

Can you add something to the environment to change the behavior? For example, your student may be able to focus better on independent work if you provide noise-canceling headphones, line up correctly if a square for him/her to stand is taped to the floor, or your child may be more efficient with completing chores if they’re allowed to listen to their favorite music while doing so. I’ve also seen some cases in which the teacher wears a microphone that wirelessly links to a student’s headphones, increasing that student’s ability to attend to the teacher’s instruction.

Will decreasing access to materials impact the behavior? For example, removing visuals such as posters and student work may increase your student’s ability to attend or locking materials in a closet when not in use may decrease your student’s ability to destroy or damage materials.

Will increasing access to materials impact the behavior? For example, making a box of pre-sharpened pencils may decrease the behavior of getting up frequently to sharpen pencils. (I recently visited a classroom in which the teacher put pre-sharpened pencils in a straw dispenser on her desk, and each week one student was assigned the job of sharpening pencils at the end of the day).

Whenever you do make changes to the environment, you may want to consider if the changes require fading. For example, if I make a square on the floor out of tape to teach my student where to stand in the line, I will want to fade that out of over time to increase their independence.

A final consideration is that whatever impact you expect the environmental change to have should be clearly defined and measured. Take data to ensure that the intervention is working so you can make adjustments as necessary.


WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, PhD, LBA, BCBA

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.

ABA Tools of the Trade: A book review from ASAT!

This month’s ASAT feature comes to us from Karrie Lindeman, EdD, BCBA-D, LBA and David Celiberti, PhD, BCBA-D. To learn more about ASAT, please visit their website at www.asatonline.org. You can also sign up for ASAT’s free newsletter, Science in Autism Treatment, and like them on Facebook!

Save 20% on ABA Tools of The Trade and our Tools of the Trade kit now through June 17th!

Data collection is the core of the success of our science. Without data, are we are not providing behavior analytic service to our clients; however, data collection can be a scary new journey for many. What do I collect? How do I collect it? What do I put it on? How do I manage the other children in the class? What do I do with the data once I have it? How do the data guide my decision-making? All of these questions pose roadblocks to the individuals attempting the collection.

To date, many training manuals and books have attempted to provide insight and guidance for struggling data-collection newbies. Some of these books have fallen short of delivering a clear and concise message to its readers. ABA Tools of the Trade provides a unique take at explaining the what, why, and most importantly, the “how-to” of data collection.

The authors start off describing the purpose of the book, addressing concerns that teachers and technicians face in the field every day: Why am I doing this? And how can I create easy to navigate data sheets with simple graphs for analyzing after I have collected the data? ABA Tools of the Trade breaks down their material into five sections which simplify the anatomy of a data sheet, review different types of data collection systems available, discuss how to utilize them with simple behavior change procedures, and offer activities to ensure supervisees are competent (huge bonus!). Throughout the sections, the material is organized in a way to help you identify exactly what you need to do, with helpful vignettes providing real-world examples.

The breakdown of the five sections allows the reader to easily find the information they are looking for, along with supporting documents. The first section delves into the Anatomy of Data Collection, describes not only why we collect data, but how to do so in the most simplistic way. This section is great for someone new to data collection or looking to expand their practice. A bonus includes describing different tools that may be helpful in your data collection journey with informative descriptions and visuals. Examples include tally counters, interval timers, and time timers, to name a few. A useful hints page highlights how the specific tools can be matched to the different measures of behavior that need to be tracked.

The second section is the Data Collection Systems sectionwhich describes more complex systems and strategies that work in different settings. It starts off with a comprehensive list of 10 rules of data collection. These rules are extremely important as they lay the groundwork for ethical data collection and reviews potential issues that may arise as you begin to collect data. These include examples of consent issues, confidentiality mishaps, and an important reminder to adhere to state and local laws. Finally, a handy task analysis of data collection steps provides a simple way for readers to grasp the needed components for specific targeted behaviors and wraps up the section.

The third and fourth sections include Behaviors and Simple Behavior Change Systems, which describes the Functional Behavior Assessment and Behavior Intervention Plan process in user-friendly terms. This is a great introduction for those starting out and looking to brush up on appropriate procedures. This section reviews what qualifies as efficient data collection in an FBA and how to analyze results. An added bonus is the discussion on antecedent strategies, which provides the reader with tactics and corresponding examples. Following the breakdown, vignettes of very specific behavioral episodes are provided, which allow the reader to apply the knowledge derived from the reading in everyday situations. Each vignette is followed by a general solution and helpful hints on dealing with the presented issue. For those interested in learning more about the topic, references and recommended readings are provided after all examples. Great source!

The fifth and final section, Supervision Practices, is a bonus for those supervising candidates for board certification in behavior analysis. It is comprehensive, well organized, and synched with the 5th Edition of Task List providing not only lessons but scenarios for practice with corresponding rubrics. Please note, as the Task List is updated, the alphanumeric codes may change. Three phases are addressed:

  • The Pre-Data Collection Phase addresses information gathering from parents and professionals surrounding prior attempts to address behavior (what was implemented and for how long) including defining behavior and determine how best to measure it.
  • The Data Collection Phase involves implementing the data collection system and making timely modifications, as well as proper training of the data collectors and determining an adequate schedule. Interobserver agreement is also addressed.
  • The Post-Data Collection Phase involves reviewing the collected data, preparing for graphic representation, and using data-based decision making.

Given that many newly credentialed BCBAs are assuming a supervisory role for the first time, this section is very helpful. Learning objectives and activities for each lesson are clearly articulated and rubrics are provided to support application and assess the skill level of the supervisee.

This short, well-organized, and easily-accessible resource belongs on the shelves of those first working towards BCBA certification, BCBAs who are starting out, and current BCBAs providing Registered Behavior Technician and BCBA supervision. The content spans all data collection needs, from the very basics on how to ensure those we supervise understand and demonstrate necessary skills from the Task List. It would also be a practical, yet easy supplemental read for students progressing through their coursework in college programs. To maintain quality service, it is imperative to ensure the next generation of BCBAs have the skills necessary to provide and supervise quality service provision. The inclusion of sections related to modifying one’s behavior as well as supervisory considerations only strengthen the utility of this already informative guide. This book is a great resource, and recommended without reservation!


About The Authors

Karrie Lindeman completed her undergraduate degree at C.W. Post University with a major in psychology. She went on to Queens College to complete her Masters in Psychology and advanced certificate in Behavior Analysis. From here, she worked in a school for children with autism for 10 years before moving on to consult in the public school and early intervention setting. Karrie completed her doctorate in learning and teaching at Hofstra University in 2015. She continues to provide direct service, parent training, and consultation in a variety of settings. Karrie is currently the Program Director of the Behavior Analysis program at Touro College in New York City.

David Celiberti, PhD, BCBA-D, is the Executive Director of ASAT and Past-President, a role he served from 2006 to 2012. He is the Co-Editor of ASAT’s monthly publication, Science in Autism Treatment. He received his PhD in clinical psychology from Rutgers University in 1993 and his certification in behavior analysis in 2000. Dr. Celiberti has served on a number of advisory boards and special interest groups in the field of autism, applied behavior analysis (ABA), and early childhood education. He works in private practice and provides consultation to public and private schools and agencies in underserved areas. He has authored several articles in professional journals and presents frequently at regional, national, and international conferences. In prior positions, Dr. Celiberti taught courses related to ABA at both undergraduate and graduate levels, supervised individuals pursuing BCBA certifications, and conducted research in the areas of ABA, family intervention, and autism.