Parenting For Joy

Editor’s note:  Autism Awareness month is becoming a call to action from the autism and neurodivergent communities for change from the rest of society. In this edited excerpt from their upcoming book with Different Roads, co-authors Shahla Ala’i-Rosales and Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe offer a specific call to action to both parents and professionals—to seek and maintain joy’s radiating energy in our relationships with our children.

Parents have the responsibility of raising their children with autism the best they can. This journey is part of how we all develop as humans—nurturing children in ways that honor their humanity and invite full, rich lives. Ala’i-Rosales and Heinkel-Wolfe’s upcoming book offers a roadmap for a joyful and sustainable parenting journey. The heart of this journey relies on learning, connecting, and loving. Each power informs the other and each amplifies the other. And each power is essential for meaningful and courageous parenting.

Ala’i-Rosales is a researcher, clinician, and associate professor of applied behavior analysis at the University of North Texas. Heinkel-Wolfe is a journalist and parent of an adult son with autism.

Joy gives us wings! ― Abdul-Baha

“Up, up and awaaay!” all three family members said at once, laughing. A young boy’s mother bent over and pulled her toddler close to her feet, tucking her hands under his arms and around his torso. She looked up toward her husband and the camera, broke into a grin, and turned back to look at her son. “Ready?” she said, smiling eagerly. The boy looked up at her, saying “Up . . .” Then he, too, looked up at the camera toward his father before looking back up at his mother to say his version of “away.” She squealed with satisfaction at his words and his gaze, swinging him back and forth under the protection of her long legs and out into the space of the family kitchen. The little boy had the lopsided grin kids often get when they are proud of something they did and know everyone else is, too. The father cheered from behind the camera. As his mother set him back on the floor to start another round, the little boy clapped his hands. This was a fun game.

One might think that the important thing about this moment was the boy’s talking (it was), or him engaging in shared attention with both his mom and dad (it was), or his mom learning when to help him with prompts and how to fade and let him fly on his own (it was), or his parents learning how to break up activities so they will be reinforcing and encourage happy progress (it was) or his parents taking video clips so that they could analyze them to see how they could do things better (it was) or that his family was in such a sweet and collaborative relationship with his intervention team that they wanted to share their progress (it was). Each one of those things is important and together, synergistically, they achieved the ultimate importance: they were happy together.

Shahla has seen many short, joyful home videos from the families she’s worked with over the years. On first viewing, these happy moments look almost magical. And they are, but that joyful magic comes with planning and purpose. Parents and professionals can learn how to approach relationships with their autistic child with intention. Children should, and can, make happy progress across all the places they live, learn, and play–home, school, and clinic. It is often helpful for families and professionals to make short videos of such moments and interactions across places. Back in the clinic or at home, they watch the clips together to talk about what the videos show and discuss what they mean and how the information can give direction. Joyful moments go by fast. Video clips can help us observe all the little things that are happening so we can find ways to expand the moments and the joy.

Let’s imagine another moment. A father and his preschooler are roughhousing on the floor with an oversized pillow. The father raises the pillow high above his head and says “Pop!” To the boy’s laughter and delight, his father drops the pillow on top of him and gently wiggles it as the little boy rolls from side to side. After a few rounds, father raises the pillow and looks at his son expectantly. The boy looks up at his father to say “Pop!” Down comes the wiggly pillow. They continue the game until the father gets a little winded. After all, it is a big pillow. He sits back on his knees for a moment, breathing heavily, but smiling and laughing. He asks his son if he is getting tired. But the boy rolls back over to look up at his dad again, still smiling and points to the pillow with eyebrows raised. Father recovers his energy as quickly as he can. The son has learned new sounds, and the father has learned a game that has motivated his child and how to time the learning. They are both having fun.

The father learned that this game not only encourages his child’s vocal speech but it was also one of the first times his child persisted to keep their interaction going. Their time together was becoming emotionally valuable. The father was learning how to arrange happy activities so that the two of them could move together in harmony. He learned the principles of responding to him with help from the team. He knew how to approach his son with kindness and how to encourage his son’s approach to him and how to keep that momentum going. He understood the importance of his son’s assent in whatever activity they did together. He also recognized his son’s agency—his ability to act independently and make his own choices freely—as well as his own agency as they learned to move together in the world.

In creating the game of pillow pop, parent and child found their own dance. Each moved with their own tune in time and space, and their tunes came together in harmony. When joy guides our choices, each person can be themselves, be together with others, and make progress. We can recognize that individuals have different reinforcers in a joint activity and that there is the potential to also develop and share reinforcers in these joint activities. And with strengthening bonds, this might simply come to mean enjoying being in each other’s company.

In another composite example, we consider a mother gently approaching her toddler with a sock puppet. The little boy is sitting on his knees on top of a bed, looking out the window, and flicking his fingers in his peripheral vision. The mother is oblivious to all of that, the boy is two years old and, although the movements are a little different, he’s doing what toddlers do. She begins to sing a children’s song that incorporates different animal sounds, sounds she discovered that her son loves to explore. After a moment, he joins her in making the animal sounds in the song. Then, he turns toward her and gently places his hands on her face. She’s singing for him. He reciprocates with his gaze and his caress, both actions full of appreciation and tenderness.

Family members might dream of the activities that they will enjoy together with their children as they learn and grow. Mothers and fathers and siblings may not have imagined singing sock puppets, playing pillow pop, or organizing kitchen swing games. But these examples here show the possibilities when we open up to one another and enjoy each other’s company. Our joy in our child and our family helps us rethink what is easy, what is hard, and what is progress. 

All children can learn about the way into joyful relationships and, with grace, the dance continues as they grow up. This dance of human relationships is one that we all compose, first among members of our family, and then our schoolmates and, finally, out in the community. Shahla will always remember a film from the Anne Sullivan School in in Peru. The team knew they could help a young autistic boy at their school, but he would have to learn to ride the city bus across town by himself, including making several transfers along the way. The team worked out a training program for the boy to learn the way on the city buses, but the training program didn’t formally include anyone in the community at large. Still, the drivers and other passengers got to know the boy, this newest traveling member of their community, and they prompted him through the transfers from time to time. Through that shared dance, they amplified the community’s caring relationships. 

When joy is present, we recognize the caring approach of others toward us and the need for kindness in our own approach toward others. We recognize the mutual assent within our togetherness, and the agency each of us enjoys in that togetherness. Joy isn’t a material good, but an energy found in curiosity, truth, affection, and insight. Once we recognize the radiating energy that joy brings, we will notice when it is missing and seek it out. Joy occupies those spaces where we are present and looking for the good. Like hope and love, joy is sacred.

“When there is so much hate and so much resistance to truth and justice, joy is itself is an act of resistance.” ― Nicolas O’Rourke

Photo Credit: Bruno Nascimento c/o Unsplash

Compassionate ABA

Compassion requires three actions: listening, understanding, and acting. ABA is a compassionate practice by definition, because behavior analysts are trained to do each of these actions in very specific ways.

Listening is necessary for consent. Behavior analysts are required by ethical and professional guidelines to ensure informed consent prior to implementing assessment or intervention. Informed consent includes demonstrating that you understand what you are agreeing to, so behavior analysts should be listening to clients and their parents/guardians to determine if this understanding exists. If they are really consenting, clients or their parents/guardians will always be in control of the goals targeted and strategies of intervention.

Understanding occurs through the functional perspective taken by behavior analysts, which means that they take the time to learn and understand why behavior is happening or not happening. After listening to what is important to and for the client, the next step is to assess behavior. Put simply, the behavior analyst endeavors to get into their client’s shoes and figure out why they are acting the way they are acting. The assumption is always that the individual has good reasons for their behavior, and if those actions are going to change, we need to figure out how to replace them or make them less necessary, more efficient, or easier. We assume that people are right about their interactions with the world. If anything needs to change, it is the world, and not the person.

Acting is done through the development of interventions designed to improve the client’s situation and experience, based on the priorities established by the client through listening and consent. Behavior analysts hold social validity to be a very important value, in that not only should behavior change be meaningful and helpful to the individual who is changing their behavior, but the ways in which behavior is changed must also be acceptable. Behavioral interventions are not done to people, but with them, to help them meet their own goals in ways that they find reasonable.

Consent, assessment, and intervention meet the three requirements for compassion – listening to someone to hear what is concerning them, attempting to understand or feel their distress, and then doing something to alleviate their problems. Failure to take steps to listen to concerns and understand behavior takes the “analysis” out of the practice and reduces it to a collection of tricks that sometimes work but often don’t, and sometimes even make things worse. Unfortunately, sometimes poor training or supervision, or simple unethical practice, results in behavior analysis that is not compassionate and that reflects badly on the whole field.

Consider two scenarios that could happen when a well-meaning behavior analyst meets a new client for the first time, and finds that the client engages in high rates of stereotypy:

● Behavior analyst A draws upon her experience and determines that the levels of stereotypy that the client engages in will likely be disruptive in school and other community environments. She informs the family that stereotypy is inappropriate and teaches the parents to implement a comprehensive plan that includes environmental enrichment, positive reinforcement for periods of time when stereotypy does not occur, and asks them to collect data throughout the day on levels of stereotypy. Then she leaves with a promise to return in a week to evaluate their progress. The parents call the agency and say that they don’t think ABA is for them.

● Behavior analyst B has a lengthy conversation with the family about their preferred activities as a family. She asks them what they love to do with their child, and finds that they all enjoy going to the playground but that they usually reserve that activity for chilly days or early evenings and that they have been going less and less. When this is explored a bit further, they share somewhat reluctantly that both parents are uncomfortable when other parents and children stare when their child engages in stereotypy. The behavior analyst asks what they would like to do about this, if anything, or if they feel that their current strategy is working for them. The parents ask if they can think about it, and the behavior analyst agrees to discuss at next week’s meeting. In the meantime, she leaves them with some websites about functional assessment to look over. At the following week’s meeting, the parents say that they would like to prioritize other issues over stereotypy at this time, but they would like to learn more about functional assessment to see if it could help them to understand stereotypy a bit better.

In these scenarios, behavior analyst A provided a set of interventions that are not aversive and potentially not difficult for a trained professional to implement, but perhaps overwhelming to a family newly introduced to ABA. She prioritized the goals for intervention based on her experience rather than the family’s needs and preferences, without taking the time to listen to them and ensure consent. She also did not assess or attempt to understand the behavior and instead attempted to swiftly take action to reduce it. In addition, she did not attempt to determine if the interventions were acceptable to the parents or the child. If the family did choose to continue with her plan, it is possible that stereotypy might have decreased, but it is also possible that her plan would fail to meet the function of the behavior, resulting in unnecessary stress and a poor experience for the child. Ultimately, the family decided that this approach did not fit with their needs and they lost out on all of the potential benefits of well-implemented ABA for other areas of their child’s life, such as improving communication and independence.

By contrast, behavior analyst B moved slowly. She did not start by trying to identify problems, but by listening to the family by exploring their strengths and reinforcers, providing her with knowledge about how to connect with the child and parents and how to create a fun, warm, and enjoyable experience for everyone. She allowed them to share what makes it difficult for them to enjoy those reinforcers, and she opened the door to helping them with this issue if that is what they want. She did not provide a solution without consent or assessment, however. She left them with information and time to think, and the family was comfortable to have her return and continue to explore what would be best for their child in the context of their family. Ultimately, by listening and assessing, this behavior analyst has a chance of eventually acting and providing truly compassionate service and care to this client and family.

Both behavior analysts mean well. Both want what is best for their client. Neither behavior analyst wants to frighten families, make children cry, or take away what they enjoy. Both have rich resources at their disposal, but only one will likely be able to share those resources and meet her goals and the goals of the family. Practicing with compassion keeps communication open, but failure to demonstrate compassion by not listening and not understanding can result in a closed door and a great loss for the family and the field.

When practiced correctly and compassionately, ABA includes several features. First and foremost, there is a continuous emphasis on client and family input. Goals, strategies, and outcome measures are determined in consultation with the individuals who will be affected by the intervention. This includes not only the individual person receiving services, but those who love that person as well. Taking a broad viewpoint that includes the whole family is an important part of compassion.

Next, not only should behavior analysts obtain consent as mentioned earlier, but they should also be sure to get assent from clients who are not able to legally consent. Assent is a less formal version of consent that can be given by children or individuals who have cognitive differences that make it impossible for them to truly consent. Due to the extreme nature of the behavior of some individuals who receive behavior analysis services, at times assent is not obtained for safety reasons. This should only occur during times of crisis when the individual and/or those around them is in true danger. Any such occurrence should be immediately followed by obtaining consent and then conducting assessment and analysis of ways to prevent crises from occurring in the future. Interventions should be acceptable to all parties, including the individual receiving services. Again, many individuals who receive ABA services cannot verbally express assent, but the behavior analyst should be skilled enough to recognize behavioral indicators of assent or lack of assent, and adjust their actions accordingly.

Compassionate behavior analysts are also flexible. They recognize that there are changing circumstances in clients’ and their families’ lives, and that sometimes even effective plans need to be adjusted. They also recognize when sometimes despite their own best intentions, their efforts are not working well and they are willing to step back, reevaluate, and adjust approaches as needed. Behavior analysts should also be honest about what they can offer, their competence and comfort level with what is being asked of them, and how clients and families can best participate in their own services. Finally, it is crucial for behavior analysts to make human connections with the families they serve. Many behavior analysts find it easy to connect with their clients through their reinforcers and successes, but it is also important to maintain a connection with the rest of the people in their clients’ lives by showing interest and concern for them.

One final thought is that compassion can be a two-way street. Behavior analysts can most successfully connect with the client and family when the effort to connect is reciprocated. Although it is up to the behavior analyst to attempt to make the family comfortable in sharing their needs and preferences, sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know. Even the most compassionate and skilled professional might miss something, so families and if possible, clients, should speak up and let them know if that is the case. It is also important to be clear about whether or not consent and assent are being given. If the behavior analyst is not asking for consent, it is perfectly acceptable for the client or family member to pause the interaction and discuss what the limits of implied consent may be in any individual situation. Finally, families who demonstrate flexibility, connection, and honesty in return and who are open about any reservations or discomforts are allowing for the maintenance of a longer-term and more productive relationship, which will only help their loved one more.

References Consulted

Behavior Analyst Certification Board. (2014). Professional and ethical compliance code for
behavior analysts. Author.

Callahan, K., Foxx, R. M., Swierczynski, A., Aerts, X., Mehta, S., McComb, M. E., Nichols, S. M., Segal, G., Donald, A., & Sharma, R. (2019). Behavioral artistry: Examining the relationship between the interpersonal skills and effective practice repertoires of applied behavior analysis practitioners. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 49(9), 3557-3570.

LeBlanc, L. A., Taylor, B. A., & Marchese, N. V. (2019). The training experiences of behavior analysts: Compassionate care and therapeutic relationships with caregivers. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 13, 1-7.

Taylor, B. A., LeBlanc, L. A., & Nosik, M. R. (2018). Compassionate care in behavior analytic treatment: Can outcomes be enhanced by attending to relationships with caregivers? Behavior Analysis in Practice, 12(3), 654–666.

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 a Core Faculty member and Associate Chair in the Applied Behavior Analysis department at Capella University. She is also co-owner of SupervisorABA, an online platform for BACB supervision curriculum and documentation. 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 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 Past President (2019-2020).

The Importance of Replacement Behaviors

I’ve written several posts about the importance of reinforcement, but now I want to turn my attention to another important concept: replacement behaviors. It can be very easy to slip into the habit of telling kids what NOT to do. “Don’t touch that! Don’t pick your nose! Don’t run!” However, if we can turn it around and tell kids what to do instead we often see higher rates of compliance.

Here are a few examples of replacement behaviors you can teach:

  • A student refuses to speak when he/she does not understand a question. You can teach the student what to say, such as “I don’t understand” or “Can I get help?” Teach through modeling and role playing in one-to-one settings, then generalize it to the classroom or other environments in which the skill is necessary.
  • When you begin a math lesson, one student frequently attempts to run out of the room. Introduce a signal or symbol (such as a holding up a stop sign) to request a break. Initially, you might give the break each time the student uses the sign correctly, then begin to require more and more math work before a break is received. This allows for appropriate and safe breaks without disrupting the rest of the class.
  • When your learner is done with dinner, he pushes his plate into the middle of the table. Teach your learner to instead put items in the sink. You might start with just placing the fork in the sink, then add more and more items until he/she is clearing the table independently. Another replacement behavior may be to use a symbol or signal as in the previous example to request to leave the table, or to teach the learner to say “May I go?”

Replacement behaviors should be simple to implement, should be taught one-on-one with multiple opportunities to practice and be reinforced, and should, if possible, be functionally equivalent to the undesirable behavior. (For example, if a child is engaging in one behavior to escape, the replacement behavior should teach a more appropriate way to escape.)

Sometimes, simply instructing the learner on a replacement behavior makes a huge change, but often you need to combine teaching a replacement behavior with other strategies (such as differential reinforcement). What I do know is that identifying and teaching a replacement behavior is a necessary part of almost any intervention and should not be overlooked.


About The Author

Sam is an ABA provider for school-aged students in Brooklyn, New York. Working in education for over 15 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 and the Senior Clinical Strategist at Encore Support Services.

Focus on Generalization and Maintenance

On more than one occasion, I’ve been in the situation that a student will only demonstrate a skill in my presence. And I’ve heard from other colleagues that they have had similar experiences. This is highly problematic. When it happens with one of my students, there is only one person I can blame: myself.  A skill that a student can only demonstrate in my presence is a pretty useless skill and does nothing to promote independence.

So what do you do when you find yourself in this situation? You reteach, with a focus on generalization. This means that, from the very beginning, you are teaching with a wide variety of materials, varying your instructions, asking other adults to help teach the skill, and demonstrating its use in a variety of environments. Preparing activities takes more time on the front-end for the teacher, but saves a ton of time later because your student is more likely to actually master the skill. (Generalization, after all, does show true mastery.)

Hopefully, you don’t have to do this, though. Hopefully, you’ve focused on generalization from the first time you taught the skill. You may see generalization built into materials you already use, such as 300-Noun List at AVB press.

Another commonly cited issue teachers of children with autism encounter is failure to maintain a skill. In my mind, generalization and maintenance go hand-in-hand, in that they require you to plan ahead and consider how, when, and where you will practice acquired skills. Here are a few tips that may help you with maintenance of skills:

  • Create note cards of all mastered skills. During the course of a session, go through the note cards and set aside any missed questions or activities. You might need to do booster sessions on these. (This can also be an opportunity for extending generalization by presenting the questions with different materials, phrases, environments, or people.)
  • Set an alert on your phone to remind you to do a maintenance test two weeks, four weeks, and eight weeks after the student has mastered the skill.
  • Create a space on your data sheets for maintenance tasks to help you remember not only to build maintenance into your programs, but also to take data on maintenance.

Considering generalization and maintenance from the outset of any teaching procedure is incredibly important. Often, when working with students with special needs, we are working with students who are already one or more grade levels behind their typically developing peers. Failing to teach generalization and maintenance, then having to reteach, is a waste of your students’ time.


Written by Sam Blanco, PhD, LBA, BCBA

Sam is an ABA provider for school-aged students in Brooklyn, New York. Working in education for over 15 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 and the Senior Clinical Strategist at Encore Support Services.

Cultural Competency in ABA Practice

The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) on their website lists credentialed behavior analysts from 99 countries spanning across 6 continents. Behavior analysts and consumers of behavior analysis are now establishing footprints across the globe. Each of these countries comes with its own set of cultural practices and norms. Leon Megginson, author of Small Business Management said, “it is not the strongest, or the most intelligent who survives, but the one most responsive to change”. Considering the high rates of global migration and the international dissemination that our field desires, practitioners find themselves serving an increasingly diverse population. A recent article in Behavior Analysis in Practice by Andrea Dennison and colleagues highlights the variations in cultural norms, caregiver and practitioner linguistic competencies that a culturally competent ABA therapist must consider when designing a home program.

What are the barriers?

The Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board requires that behavior analysts consider the role of culture in service delivery (BACB code 1.05c), involve clients and families in treatment process (BACB code 4.02), and individualize the treatment plan to meet client needs (BACB code 4.03). Yet the BACB Fourth Edition Task List and the upcoming Fifth Edition Task List which define the scope of practice of a credentialed behavior analyst do not make much mention of culture – which means that training programs do not typically include cultural competence. Dennison and colleagues (2019) identified several barriers in ABA treatment for culturally and linguistically diverse families and highlighted ways to overcome them.

Do we hold stereotypes?

With the influence of the media or the people around us, we tend to categorize people into social groups and create a simplified conception of the group based on some assumptions – we create stereotypes and hold prejudices. Implicit biases held by a practitioner towards certain cultural sub-groups may result in a subtle, yet observable bias towards the client, and adversely impact treatment outcomes. Dennison et al (2019) suggest that a practitioner’s “self-reflection and introspection regarding cultural attitudes and practices towards clients” may be a first step towards undoing these biases.

Are we aware of cultural norms?

Practitioners often find themselves in a variety of contexts and situations with varying contingencies. Each culture comes with its own set of learned behaviors, beliefs, and norms. Dennison and colleagues add that some cultures might prefer a warm, informal discussion with a service provider prior to a formal meeting to discuss goals. A violation of this might seem off-putting to the client, and conversely, such an expectation for an informal discussion might catch the analyst unaware. In some cultures even a simple handshake for greeting might be offensive They recommend that practitioners monitor clients for signs of discomfort or displeasure during the course of the treatment to identify whether a cultural norm has been violated.

What to do when a practitioner doesn’t speak the home language of the client?

A language mismatch between the practitioner’s language and the home language of the client might lead to information loss. A client might not be able to completely express their priorities in terms of the services they need. Dennison urges practitioners to make every attempt to invite a bilingual practitioner or interpreter either in-person or online, to future family meetings. Providing the family with access to ABA textbooks written in their home language might be a good way to introduce ABA terminology and lead to better acceptability of services delivered. The authors caution against using loosely translated words; online tools might not be ideal for activities that require precise definitions.

Cultural analysis

“A cultural analysis involves an individual analysis of the cultural factors affecting an individual’s environment and the resulting contingency”, the authors add. A re-assessment of priorities in goals might be warranted, and a cultural analysis might inform what behaviors are identified as the primary targets for intervention. Dennison refers to the importance of social etiquette and the value placed on conflict avoidance in Latin cultures as an example. Measuring social validity might give the analyst information about whether the family sees the behavior change as meaningful.

Empathy grows as we learn

Try not to stigmatize immigrant families as “uncaring” for not seeking services earlier. Several socioeconomic stressors such as lack of housing and transportation availability likely play a role in their decision. The authors urge practitioners to empathize with these families and add that attempts to empathize can be made even if the practitioner and family do not share a common home language.

Finally, the lack of diversity in research with the omission of demographic details such as language and ethnicity of participants in scientific publications overlooks the critical value of such information. This calls for a shift in the field towards intentionally inclusive subject recruitment and the reporting of such information.

A culturally competent behavior analyst is not one who knows everything there is to know about every culture. This would be impossible. It is someone who can acknowledge that patterns of cultural difference may be present, and are then able to view a situation from a different cultural perspective than one’s own. Maintaining a curiosity about each client’s culture, and having an open dialogue with them about their background, ethnicity, and belief system can result in a positive outcome for the client and the analyst.

“If we are going to live with our deepest differences then we must learn about one another.”  ― Deborah J. Levine

References

Dennison, A., Lund, E., Brodhead, M., Mejia, L., Armenta, A., & Leal, J. (2019). Delivering Home-Supported Applied Behavior Analysis Therapies to Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Families. Behavior Analysis in Practice, OnlineFirst, 1-12.


About The Author

Maithri Sivaraman is a BCBA with a Masters in Psychology from the University of Madras and holds a Graduate Certificate in ABA from the University of North Texas. She is currently a doctoral student in Psychology at Ghent University, Belgium. Prior to this position, Maithri provided behavior analytic services to children with autism and other developmental disabilities in Chennai, India. She is the recipient of a dissemination grant from the Behavior Analysis Certification Board (BACB) to train caregivers in function-based assessments and intervention for problem behavior in India. She has presented papers at international conferences, published articles in peer-reviewed journals and has authored a column for the ‘Autism Network’, India’s quarterly autism journal. She is the International Dissemination Coordinator of the Association for Science in Autism Treatment (ASAT) and a member of the Distinguished Scholars Group of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies.

VB-MAPP vs ABLLS-R: Understanding The Differences

Assessment is the cornerstone of creating appropriate and effective interventions. Two common assessments used for youngsters with autism are the Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills-Revised (ABLLS-R) and the Verbal Behavior – Milestones Assessment and Placement Program (VB-MAPP). You’ve likely heard of both the ABLLS-R and the VB-MAPP. While these two assessments are similar in many ways, there are also some big differences that might make one more appropriate for you than the other.

ABLLS-R

The ABLLS-R is made up of two components: the ABLLS™-R  Protocol and the ABLLS™-R Guide. The protocol is comprised of a skill-tracking system, assessing items ranging from listening and language skills to academic and ADL skills. The scoring system is simple, in that each specific skill is broken down into 2-4 levels. You simply mark the level that matches your client’s current skill. The simple organization allows for you to easily track your learner’s progress.

It is important to recognize that the ABLLS-R is more than just the protocol. It also includes the ABLLS-R Guide, which provides instructions for scoring as well as strategies for using the information to develop appropriate goals. Over the years, I have seen many practitioners simply using the protocol without referring to the guide. This is an error that should be corrected, as the guide is a useful resource for parents, teachers, and practitioners. Finally, the ABLLS-R assessed skills that typically develop between approximately ages 2-6.

VB-MAPP

The VB-MAPP is composed of five components.

The Milestones Assessment is comprised of 170 measurable milestones, all based in B.F. Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior. It focuses primarily on language and social skills, but does include some skills related to academics.

The Barriers Assessment provides a way to assess and measure common barriers to learning experienced by children with language delays. These include barriers such as prompt dependence, impaired social skills, and failure to generalize.

The Transition Assessment provides a way to assess and measure progress towards the child’s ability to move to a less restrictive environment. This portion of the VB-MAPP includes items such as the rate of acquisition for new skills, adaptability to change, and ability to learn from the natural environment.

The fourth component of the VB-MAPP is the Task Analysis and Supporting Skills. This portion goes hand-in-hand with the Milestones Assessment. It is comprised of hundreds of skills that are often directly related to the milestones. It shows the skills that should be taught prior to each milestone and can provide additional information into the child’s current skill level.

The final portion is the VB-MAPP Placement and IEP Goals. This is an in-depth guide for developing IEP goals and identifying interventions based on the results of the other portions of the assessments.  As with the ABLLS-R, I’ve seen many practitioners utilizing the VB-MAPP without referring to the Placement and IEP Goals in the VB-MAPP Guide. This is an error that should be corrected to best use the assessment. The VB-MAPP assesses language skills that typically develop by age 48 months.

VB-MAPP vs ABLLS-R?

It is valuable to receive training in both of these assessments. They are important tools for assessment, especially if you are working with young children.

No matter what assessment you choose, we’ve got you covered! Head to our website and check out our full line of ABLLS-R and VB-MAPP supports, including our exclusive full assessment kits!


About The Author

Sam is an ABA provider for school-aged students in Brooklyn, New York. Working in education for over 15 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 and the Senior Clinical Strategist at Encore Support Services. You can read more of Sam’s posts for Different Roads To Learning when you click here!

How To Use Contingency Contracts in the Classroom

As adults, we’re fairly accustomed to contracts for car loans, new employment, or updates to our smartphones. But contracts can also be beneficial in the classroom setting. A contingency contract is defined as “a mutually agreed-upon document between parties (e.g., parent and child) that specifies a contingent relationship between the completion of specified behavior(s) and access to specified reinforcer(s)” (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). There are several studies that indicate using a contingency classroom can be beneficial in the classroom setting.

Cantrell, Cantrell, Huddleston, & Wooldridge (1969) identified steps in creating contingency contracts:

Interview the parent or guardian of the student.

This allows you to work together to identify problem behaviors to be addressed, identify the contingencies currently maintaining these behaviors, determine the child’s current reinforcers, and establish what reinforcement or punishment procedures will be used.

Use this information to create a clear, complete, and simple contract.

The authors provide examples of how these contracts might look. You can vary the contract based upon the behaviors you are addressing with your student and the student’s ability to comprehend such contracts.

Build data collection into the contract itself.

You can see an example from the article below. For this example, it is clear how points are earned and how the child can utilize those points, and the contract itself is a record of both the points and the child’s behaviors.

An example of a classroom contingency contract from Cantrell, Cantrell, Huddleston, & Wooldridge (1969)

There are clear benefits to utilizing such contingency contracting: building relationships across different environments in which the student lives and works, addressing one or more challenging behaviors simultaneously, and providing opportunities for students to come into contact with reinforcement. You can read the entire article here:

Cantrell, R. P., Cantrell, M. L., Huddleston, C. M., & Wooldridge, R. L. (1969). Contingency contracting with school problems. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 2(3), 215-220.

And much more has been written about contingency contracting. If you’d like to learn more, we suggest taking a look at one or more of the following:

Bailey, J. S., Wolf, M. M., & Phillips, E. L. (1970). Home-based reinforcement and the modification of pre-delinquent’s classroom behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 3(3), 223-233.

Barth, R. (1979). Home-based reinforcement of school behavior: A review and analysis. Review of Educational Research, 49(3), 436-458.

Broughton, S. F., Barton, E. S., & Owen, P. R. (1981). Home based contingency systems for school problems. School Psychology Review, 10(1), 26-36.

Miller, D. L., & Kelley, M. L. (1991). Interventions for improving homework performance: A critical review. School Psychology Quarterly, 6(3), 174.

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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. You can read more of Sam’s posts for Different Roads To Learning by clicking here!

ABA Journal Club #8: Performance Diagnostic Checklist

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.

For many BCBAs, a large part of their role is supervising others in implementing ABA treatment.  In the course of my week I typically supervise 12 different paraprofessionals. Their training needs are highly variable, my time with them is minimal, and in my BCBA coursework I did not receive formal training on how to be an effective supervisor. This is an issue within the field of ABA, and can have a big impact on the services individuals with autism receive.

When I first came across the Performance Diagnostic Checklist – Human Services (PDC-HS) I was ecstatic. It is an easy-to-complete assessment of employee training, and provides clarity for next steps in addressing issues related to employee performance. The article for this month’s ABA Journal Club explains how the PDC-HS was utilized to evaluate training in an early intervention setting.

Carr, J. E., Wilder, D. A., Majdalany, L., Mathisen, D., & Strain, L. A. (2013). An assessment-based solution to a human-service employee performance problem. Behavior Analysis in Practice6(1), 16-32.

  1. The PDC-HS is a tool “designed to be used by a behavior analyst during an interview with the employee’s direct supervisor or manager” (p. 20). Is this a reasonable format for your work environment?  
  2. Have you or your organization used the PDC-HS or a different formal tool to evaluate training of staff? What has been your experience with such formal evaluation?
  3. Part of the procedure for this study was to show employees graphed feedback. Is this a strategy you have utilized in the past? If not, how could you utilize it for current skills you are teaching employees?
  4. The dependent measure in this study was cleanliness of the treatment room. This is an important workplace skill, especially if materials for instruction or lost or damaged, if problem behaviors of clients increase while the practitioner is looking for materials, or if the messiness of a room interferes with efficient use of session time. The authors note that systematic replications of their study should include other aspects of training, such as appropriate prompting. If you were to complete a study on the PDC-HS, what training skill would you address? Why?
  5. What are some obstacles in your current setting to implementing the PDC-HS? How can you address those obstacles?
  6. Reread Appendix B, which contains the full PDC-HS. What do you think about the questions they ask? Why are those specific questions asked? Is there anything you would add?
  7. My favorite part of this article is the Intervention Planning portion on pages 30-31. It provides clear direction on what interventions may be appropriate for different training issues along with citations. Why is this an important resource for supervisors?

 [SB1]Link to: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3680147/pdf/i1998-1929-6-1-16.pdf

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.

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.”

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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. You can read more of Sam’s posts for DRTL here!

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.