In ABA, First Impressions Matter

By Harla B. Frank, M.S., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Two things remain irretrievable, time and a first impression.  Cynthia Ozick

Why is it so difficult to get society “on board” regarding the value of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?  The answer is simple, i.e., behavior analysts make a lousy first impression!  In his April 10, 2015, article regarding myths of ABA, Dr. Todd Ward listed the perceptions we face as we attempt to “save the world with behavior analysis.”  The misperceptions include the beliefs that behavior analysts use punishment in teaching programs – that they condition little robots – and that they can only help those diagnosed with autism (as cited in Ward, 2015).  Behavior analysts have struggled with “bad press” for decades.  Many have written about the problem and have proposed possible approaches.  It is time that those who are trained in improving the human condition, one individual at a time, apply our science to improving ABA’s “first” impression.

When did the “bad press” begin?  Putting aside the early (and possibly lingering) misperceptions of B. F. Skinner as being cold and unenlightened concerning the influence of emotions on behavior, our attention must first focus on some abuses of our science by those who were untrained in ABA.  Jon Bailey and Mary Burch, in their book, Ethics for Behavior Analysts: 2nd Expanded Edition, related the incident of the Sunland Training Center in Miami, Florida, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.  Terrible abuses were visited upon the residents of this institution in the name of a “superb behavior modification program” (Bailey & Burch, 2011, pp. 3-13).  Lack of understanding and training in true methods of ABA ended in abuses too horrific to relate in this article.  The investigation into these abuses led to the development of strict oversight and regulatory systems in Florida (Bailey & Burch, 2011, pp. 3-13).  While this incident made the science of behavior stronger regarding regulation and ethical oversight, the headlines, rather than the details concerning the untrained practitioners at Sunland, lingered in the memories of the readers.  There was no discrimination between expertly trained behavior analysts and the individuals working at Sunland.

Early press certainly posed large stumbling blocks to the establishment of the accurate understanding of, and appreciation for, the science of behavior.  However, it was not, and is not, the only cause of the “pushback” practitioners often experience when recommending a behavior intervention plan. (Yes, I did say “intervention” instead of “modification.”  It seems that “words matter” – which will be discussed a little later.)  Much of the pushback appears to stem from the perception among our clients that behavior analysts are passing judgment on the way they have addressed behaviors – that they are somehow being looked down on or, worse, that they may be part of the problem. Whoa!  That will turn people off pretty quickly! Could we possibly be conveying the impression that we “know it all” when actually, we only want to help?

In an episode of Untold Stories of the ER, one of the doctors was asked what advice he would give newlyweds.  He responded, “Lower your expectations.”  Great line – Great wisdom!  The truth is, many of our clients expect us to “fix it!”  There is a “magic wand” effect that comes from other types of specialists referring clients to us.  The physician, the clinical psychologist, the manager of a large corporation who has achieved great success from the input of organizational behavior managers can have great influence over the expectations of those who are referred.  While these expectations are flattering, they are not realistic.  When the procedures of the Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) and the design of the behavior intervention plan (BIP) (There’s that word again – “intervention.”) are explained, disappointment and frustration can ensue.   Then, one must muster the courage to explain the importance of the joint effort of implementation.  Implementation is not for the faint of heart!

Another contributor to the pushback we often experience from clients and the public is jargon!  Allen and Bowles (2014), in their study, “Examining the Effects of Brief Training on the Attitudes and Future Use of Behavioral Methods by Teachers,” discuss the unanticipated influence of jargon on teacher attitudes of ABA (p. 63).  Behavior analysts are trained in the “terminology of behavior,” if you will.  In fact, we are encouraged to use this terminology when speaking with colleagues, relating research in journals, etc.  Jon Bailey discussed the problem of jargon and the public’s perception of ABA in his 1991 article, “Marketing Behavior Analysis Requires Different Talk.”  He said that we have failed to “develop socially acceptable terminology for presenting our concepts to consumers” (Bailey, 1991, p. 447).  Just as we want our physicians to explain our condition in language we can understand, so too do our clients.  Words apparently do matter!

What can be done about these “first” impressions of ABA?  How do we address the early “bad press” surrounding untrained practitioners of something they mistakenly referred to as “behavior modification?”  How do we avoid coming off as judges of those we wish to help?  How do we change expectations to be more realistic?  How do we communicate that the desire behind our methods is to increase the quality of life of those for whom we work?  We have to change our paradigm! Aubrey Daniels was a quick study when it came to seeing the “handwriting on the wall.”  When he first began working with organizations, he referred to his approach as “behavior management” (Bailey, 1991, p. 445).   He was told very quickly that the problem was with performance, not behavior (Bailey, 1991, p. 445).  What did he do?  He changed his words.  He began referring to his methods as “performance management” (Bailey, 1991, p. 445).  Practitioners of ABA must change the way we market our science.  We have to override the bad press of the past with positive, success stories that are fully understandable by our audience. We know how to create social stories to introduce new skills to our clients, why not create stories to reflect the good that is being accomplished in ABA?

We have to realize that when we work with clients, we are also relying on their significant others.  We must take the time to “walk a mile in their shoes” and express compassion for all they have tried to do and are doing and present our ideas as, “You’ve done so much and worked so hard.  How would you feel about trying . . .?”  Rapport-building is necessary!

Within the stories we relate through articles and books, we have to describe the process – in terms everyone can understand – of FBA and the design of the BIP.  We have to assure our clients and our readers that the time taken to identify the contingencies and functions of behaviors will allow us to design more effective BIPs.  It will be worth the wait.  We also must talk about the strides that can be made when significant others are working with the behavior analyst to implement the program.  We have to promote realistic expectations.

We must relate our science in terms that society can understand and appreciate.  Describing the changes that can be made to the quality of life of the client can be so influential to that parent who feels helpless and alone because he has tried everything he knows how to do to help his child – or to the small business owner who is struggling to get performance up-to-speed so he doesn’t have to close his shop.  These are human beings who feel that everything may be riding on this one last hope.  Our words matter to them.  To the owner of a small factory of 100 employees, instead of saying, “We’re going to implement an independent group contingency in which each worker who produces 15 shirts per day, 5 days a week, will earn a bonus of $50.00 on his weekly paycheck,” try “Tom, let’s see if we can’t encourage more production.  Right now, most of your employees are producing 12 shirts per day.  Let’s see if we can offer them an incentive.  Why don’t we offer a $50.00 bonus to each worker who can make 15 shirts a day for a week?  You’ll make up the money in the on-time shipments and the extra sales.”  Words matter!

First impressions do count.  In 1992, Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal conducted a study on first impressions (Van Edwards, 2017).  From this study, they discovered that students watching a few seconds of video clips of college instructors teaching (without audio) aligned with student impressions of the instructors after an entire course (Van Edwards, 2017).  Apparently, body language and the enthusiasm with which you communicate your message has a strong impact on your listener.  It is time that we convey with enthusiasm the message that we truly can change the world with behavior analysis – in language everyone can understand.

Our first impressions are generated by our experiences and our environment, which means that we can change our first impressions . . . by changing the experiences that comprise those impressions.  Malcolm Gladwell


Allen, K. A., & Bowles, T. V.  (2014). Examining the effects of brief training on the attitudes and future use of behavioral methods by teachers.  Behavioral Interventions, 29, 62-76.

Bailey, J. S.  (1991). Marketing behavior analysis requires different talk.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 24, 445-448.

Bailey, J. S., & Burch, M. R.  (2011). Ethics for behavior analysts: 2nd expanded edition (2nd ed.).  NY, NY: Routledge.

Van Edwards, V.  (2017). You have two seconds to make a first impression.  Retrieved from

Ward, T. A.  (2015). 10 myths of applied behavior analysis.  Retrieved from

Harla Frank, M.S., BCBA earned her Master’s degree in Psychology, with an emphasis in Applied Behavior Analysis, from Florida State University.  Since receiving her certification as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) in 2007, she has worked primarily with children and young adults on the Autism Spectrum, but has also worked with adults with a variety of diagnoses and needs. She has served as an expert witness for Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) in the Colorado court system and has had the privilege of providing “ABA approaches” training to foster care staff and families.

Since 2010, Harla has taught ABA course sequences, as well as general psychology courses, for Kaplan University.  Currently, she also contracts with a pediatric home healthcare company in Denver to provide ABA therapy to children with a variety of diagnoses. You can contact her at [email protected].

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