Are all BCBAs robots, or just mine?

By Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you encountered a “robotic” BCBA or been accused of being one yourself?  Let us know in the comments below and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA

Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA has worked with kids with disabilities and their parents in a variety of settings for over 10 years. She has taught special education classes from kindergarden-grade 12, from self-contained to inclusion. Leanne has also managed a center providing ABA services to children in 1:1 and small group settings. She has extensive experience in school and teacher training, therapist training, parent training, and providing direct services to children and families in a center-based or in-home therapy setting. Since becoming a mom, Leanne has a new mission to share behavior analytic practices with a population she knows needs it- all moms of littles! Leanne does through her site and through her book ‘Parenting with Science: Behavior Analysis Saves Mom’s Sanity”.  You can contact her at

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  1. BCBAs may not be robots in my opinion but the trainers who directly work with the child do many times behave like robots. It may be that two way communication between the trainer and his/her BCBA is either not allowed or not permitted or not expected. This leads to a situation when the trainer keeps working on the same sentence or same format of the sentence while working on language development of the child waiting for the BCBA to have a look at data which may take some times few weeks or even a month. Work/child’s progress suffers causing frustration to parents.

  2. ABA should be rewarding and positive for the clients as much as it is for the clinician. Forming positive relationships with parents and clients will lead to more success. Be human.

  3. We are data driven. But we must also know how to present and make that data relevant. Behavior Analysts should also know how to connect application and function to include that which is most effective for and important to the environment(s), primary persons and, always, the focus person

    The problems are less being data driven since behavior analysis shares that reality with most clinical professions. The problems instead, I think, more reflect on those BCBAs who have learned a

    1) ‘one trick pony’ approach but don’t actually know it;

    2) think they can isolate out behavioral analytic treatments/interventions from the person’s world and primary other persons; and/or

    3) don’t actually have the breadth of knowledge and experience to function as a primary clinical behavioral provider…but don’t actually know this, either.

  4. I don’t know about others’ experience, but I have struggled to FIND professionals willing to spend time mentoring a new BCBA. This is a numbers problem, but it is a huge problem. There are so many people entering the field, and most are coming up through online programs, while working at ABA clinics started by relatively new BCBAs. Many new BCBAs have credentials, but lack well rounded experience, confidence, and fluency in our skills. I didn’t know what I didn’t know until I was in the position to need it, but a lot of newbies are being trained as one trick ponies because we are being trained by people who learned the tricks that pay the bills. Insurers are paying the big bucks for our expertise, but most of us don’t have it yet. It is numerically impossible for most BCBAs to have well rounded experience. Most of us are under-qualified, but don’t want to jeopardize careers by admitting it.

  5. I’m so sorry to hear of your experience! The reality of the situation is that some folks are just not “warm fuzzies” and/or they have been trained in more early 70’s DTT-type “styles” of running clients’ programs, and/or they have been using “old school” methods for so long their implementation of ABA has not evolved with the current research. Even some of the “current” on-line training videos for students (& CEU’s) are painfully rigid (and SO boring to watch). I once had to direct/”give permission” to one of my BI’s to “act like a goof-ball” to motivate one of our 4 year-old clients to “want to” interact with her. She had been working in the field for years, was a sweetheart, and “knew” her ABA (in theory), but had only been taught to run “rigid” DTT trials up until then. We (my staff and I) encourage more play-based skills training methods using Pivotal Response Treatment that is based in ABA. We know behavior is based on motivation and PRT focuses on motivation to acquire new skills (No – they didn’t pay me to say that [Lol]. I’m not ashamed to admit that I LOVE PRT!). And, “YES!” this applies to our kiddos, parents, and team members as well. I always tell my team members, “If you’re feeling bored while working with your client, just imagine how your client feels.” A “great” therapist will work his/her tail off to motivate and engage the child throughout session so the child’s having fun and “thinks” (s)he’s playing while learning at an excelled rate and mastering out skills, so we can quickly move onto working on higher-order skills. Oh! And communication is DEFINITELY encouraged between therapists and BCBA’s & vice versa. To make a short story longer 🙂 , talk to your BCBA. If their teaching method doesn’t appear to be working for you (if it’s parent training or discussing programming) tell her how you “learn best” – whether via verbal instruction, her modeling skills for you, &/or using visuals. I’m a “verbal learner” myself, but have to remind myself that some of my staff (& parents) have informed me they are “visual learners” so we often need to make adjustments in how we discuss/explain programming with each other. If all else fails, you can always request that your current agency replace your BCBA; however, IF your child has been making progress, you may seriously want to reconsider that decision. Even if it doesn’t “appear” that your BCBA is very active on your case, they may be evaluating, updating your child’s programming, and communicating with your therapist(s) in the “background” (off-site). The time to be concerned with your BCBA is when… your therapist regularly comments that your child has definitely mastered certain skills, yet they continue to run them over & over again (not just for maintenance), your therapist has commented that they have tried to reach their supervisor multiple times with ?’s, but have not heard back from them (in which case they should escalate to a higher-up within the agency), you are not able to reach the supervisor, &/or they are not showing up for scheduled parent training sessions or to provide supervision – particularly if you rarely have cancelations yourself.

    Hope some of that helps! Good luck & Yay for ABA! 🙂

  6. I enjoyed reading your article and you make some really interesting points. As an ABA tutor who has worked in this field for 20 years now and still love, love, love what I do I have had the privilege of working with some amazing BCBAs over the years , of
    course back in the day they weren’t called BCBAs, and in some respects that credential has enabled some less experienced folk to take on a position that maybe they aren’t quite ready for. That said, my experience of the consultants I have and am working with is mixed, the majority being a great balance of professionalism with presenting themselves as personable and caring human beings, it’s a tough call I can see that and many balance that so well. I have met a couple of consultants over the years however that clearly struggle with that balance and don’t interact much with the child, appear stand-off ish with the parents, sit with a laptop just writing notes and don’t get on the floor to demonstrate when needed. It’s so important for BCBAs to SHOW what they know by getting on the floor with the child and modelling to new tutors and family members how to teach, reinforce etc. Equally important is to show how to behave with the child when things don’t quite go to plan, I think maybe some BCBAs prefer not to run the risk of that happening in a meeting and appearing that they haven’t got a grip on the situation (only some!). I love learning from consultants at meetings, there’s always new tricks and strategies I pick up to help me improved how I work.

    Thanks for this article 🙂


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