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 Joy of Genuine Progress: Remote Teaching and Flashcards

This week’s blog comes to us from Kate Connell, the creator of the Picture My Picture flashcard collection. Visit our site to learn more! 

Having three boys at home for three months in 2020 I understand the challenge of remote learning. There were certainly moments of chaos and times that felt overwhelming. But in the mix were also many great moments where I observed genuine progress. Those “ah ha” times, when something previously unclear or unknown was understood, were deeply satisfying. To all the parents and carers out there that are remote teaching right now, all power to you. A key lesson that I learnt was that dedicated learning time is more effective when it is fun. Enter – flashcards. 

Why use flashcards at home?

Flashcards are an ideal tool for teaching kids at home because they are visual. Using visuals can increase the rate at which your child learns  as well as their ability to comprehend, remember and retrieve information. You don’t need to be a qualified therapist or teacher to use flashcards.  

What can flashcards teach?

Flashcards can assist with your child’s learning in many ways. They support language development and can also assist with emotional regulation, critical thinking and memory.  

How do I use flashcards at home?

Flashcards are a very flexible teaching tool. A wide range of activities can be applied to the one set.  They are suitable for pre-school children right through to more advanced learners. The types of activities you can use flashcards for include pairing, sorting, naming, describing and performing. 

Pairing activities

The act of pairing, grouping two or more associated things, assists your child’s ability to reason because to successfully make a pair they need to use systematic steps to arrive at a conclusion. 

A set of ‘Go Togethers’ flashcards is a great resource for learning about pairing. It typically consists of pairs of associated images, such as shoe/sock and bowl/spoon. A fun activity is placing four cards on a table and then having your child match the card handed to them (such as the bucket) with the one on the table (such as the spade). You can talk about the cards as you’re playing “Yes! The stamp goes with the envelope.”

Sorting

Sorting things by type (such as color, shape or purpose) is a skill that develops your child’s language and maths abilities. It is crucial for being able to relate, store and recall words. A set of Categories flashcards is ideal for learning how to sort. It typically consists of a range of categories (e.g. transport, furniture, clothes), with a number of cards per category (e.g. bus, plane, motorbike, ferry and car). 

There are many learning activities you can try with Categories. One is placing five cards on a table from five different categories (eg animals, instruments, transport, food and clothes). Then passing your child the remaining cards from these categories, one by one, and asking them to place the card they are holding on top of the card on the table to which it belongs. So the horse goes on top of the dog and the piano goes on top of the violin etc. 

Naming

Enhancing your child’s vocabulary supports their ability to grasp and express ideas clearly. It also enhances their capacity for abstract thinking. A large set of Nouns flashcards is ideally suited to vocabulary building. It typically consists of many different types of nouns such as animals, occupations and locations.

A very simple activity you can do with the Nouns set is to have your child name the image on the card they are shown, such as “Cat” or “Blender”. Once successful, encourage them to create a sentence relating to the image they are shown (eg “The milk is white”). A Nouns Set can also act as a spring-board for discussing topics in detail such as a swimming pool. You might ask “What do you like about going to the swimming pool?” or “What do we need to take to the swimming pool?”

Performing

The act of performing fosters creative self-expression in your child. Performers have to be critical thinkers, problems solvers and good listeners. Performing is particularly helpful when teaching your child how to regulate their emotions so that they’re calmer and better able to navigate relationships. 

Emotions flashcards can be used to encourage performing. You might ask your child to perform the emotion shown on the card or to enact a brief scenario relating to the emotion such as licking an ice cream then dropping it and feeling sad. Or you might enact a scenario yourself such as opening a present and have your child choose the relevant emotion card from a range of cards. 

Flashcards provide a valuable and accessible resource when teaching your child remotely. They can assist with learning in many ways and each set has a multitude of different uses. By keeping it playful and fun you keep your child engaged and with that engagement comes the learning. 

About The Author

Kate is the owner of Picture My Picture, an international business which specializes in educational flashcards. She is the mother of three boys, Christopher, Louis and Tom. Christopher is on the spectrum of Autism. The flashcard based teaching program she oversaw in the early years of his life was the inspiration for the business she owns today. 

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.

ABA Journal Club: A Response from Dana Reinecke

A quote from this week's ABA Journal Club response from Dana Renecke

Welcome back to ABA Journal Club! 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.

Check out last week’s discussion questions here!

Behavior analysts engage in many different professional activities, many of which are more or less likely given specific clinical or research settings. For example, some behavior analysts who work with individuals with disabilities are likely to conduct preference assessments and use token economies, while those who work with organizations are less likely to use these technologies. One part of the behavior analyst’s repertoire that is always important, however, is the careful and accurate collection of data. This skill set is necessary for understanding and assessing behavior, as well as for ongoing monitoring of the effectiveness of behavioral interventions. 

It is important to understand not just how to measure behavior, but when to use each type of measure.  LeBlanc, Raetz, Sellers, and Carr (2016) describe some of the critical questions that should be considered when choosing a measurement procedure and offer a clinical decision-making model to guide behavior analysts in making these choices.  This article is useful for helping trainees to practice choosing measurement procedures, and reminding more experienced behavior analysts about the considerations involved in measurement. 

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?

Measurement of behavior is one of the most important activities that a behavior analyst engages in.  Without accurate, meaningful measurement, assessment of both behavior and intervention effectiveness is impossible.  Trainees should read this article to learn about the important variables involved in choosing appropriate measurement systems, and more seasoned behavior analysts should read it to remind themselves about those variables.  Even though the article is focused on the measurement of problem behavior, the same principles can be applied to the measurement of behavior targeted for increase.

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?

Length of observation period might be a relevant factor in choosing a measurement procedure.  Consideration of the availability of resources may be influenced by the goal for how much observation is desired.  To use the case example provided by the authors, Joey’s teacher and aide might not be able to continuously record his work engagement throughout the day, but one of them might be able to do so for a limited sample of each day.  They could choose to conduct continuous measurement during a sample interval, and compare it to the longer period of discontinuous measurement to ensure that the discontinuous measure does not result in an over- or under-estimate of behavior. 

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.

As a consultant, I need to measure behavior based on limited samples when I can observe, and I also need to design data collection plans for the staff who are there for the rest of the week.  Staff are often responsible for more than one student, and may not have the resources to conduct continuous event recording.  Behavior is also often not discrete (e.g., crying) or occurs too frequently to count (e.g., stereotypy).  I often use partial-interval recording when I consult in school programs.  This allows for a very easy, non-intrusive overview of the pattern of behavior across the school day.  Another common measure is duration of behavior, because it is also relatively easy to start a timer when behavior begins, and stop it when it ends.  Frequency data are pretty rare in my practice, and reserved for low-frequency behavior that only occurs under specific circumstances.

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?

When training staff to collect data, it’s important to acknowledge any unintended bias.  Depending on the staff member’s level of experience, I will conduct more or less frequent IOA to reduce the risk of observer drift, and will also regularly review behavioral definitions to ensure that we are still talking about the same thing.

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?

The importance of each dimension of the behavior will depend on the situation, the behavior, and the target or goal for the behavior.  For example, if a student is able to answer social questions but only does so after a delay, we would want to target, and therefore measure, latency to respond instead of frequency.  Or, a learner might engage in several very brief tantrums throughout the day.  In that case, I would expect that duration would be less important, and frequency a more meaningful measure.  By contrast, if a learner engages in one or two very long tantrums per week, we would want to measure duration and possibly intensity, rather than highlighting frequency.

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?

One possible way to validate this model would be to provide several experienced behavior analysts with some case studies, and ask them to use the model to recommend measurement procedures for each case study.  High levels of agreement between the behavior analysts might indicate some validity for the model.  Further validity could be achieved by using the model to select measures, and then conducting those measures and comparing them to true values (e.g., permanent products or continuously-collected event recording).


About The Author

Dana Reinecke, Ph.D., BCBA-D 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 in the Applied Behavior Analysis department at Capella University.  She is also co-owner of SupervisorABA, an online platform for BACB supervision curriculum, forms, and hours tracking.  Dana provides training and consultation to school districts, private schools, agencies, and families for individuals with disabilities. She has published her research in peer-reviewed journals, written chapters in published books, and co-edited books on ABA and autism.  Current areas of research include use of technology to support students with and without disabilities, self-management training of college students with disabilities, and online teaching strategies for effective college and graduate education.  Dana is actively involved in the New York State Association for Behavior Analysis (NYSABA).

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!

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.

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.