Motivate your ABA students with Acceptance & Commitment Therapy

By Sarah Kupferschmidt, M.A., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

I have had the opportunity to develop the content for, and to teach Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) courses for,  a local college over the past ten years.  I find this to be one of my more rewarding roles.  There is nothing like teaching a new group of students about ABA…it is something that I am extremely passionate about.  I cherish those moments when a student reports to me that since being in one of my classes, she has been inspired to pursue future studies or even a career in ABA.    

Over the years I began to notice that more and more students were asking for examinations to be deferred, and that students were asking a lot more questions and for more accommodations when reviewing assignments.   Keep in mind that in some of the classes I was teaching, the assignments had barely changed at all from when I first started teaching, and yet they were evoking quite a different response from my current students.  I am a proponent of Fred Keller’s well known statement that the “student is always right” so I began to wonder how I could do a better  job of supporting my students. As I listened to my students, I realized that they were finding it difficult to cope with stress in general, and that they were indeed experiencing stress related to writing quizzes and exams, but also in a number of other areas in their lives.

When I looked into the research on students and stress, and after speaking with colleagues, I realized the truth of what I had long suspected…that my students were not unique.  In fact, as cited in Pistorello (2013), nearly 50% of college students have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder (Blanco, Okuda, Wright, Hasin, & Grant, 2008), nearly one-fifth of college students have suffered from depression, and two-thirds have experienced overwhelming anxiety in their lifetime (ACHA, 2011).  Furthermore, in many instances, college students will not actively seek support for a mental health concern (Coles, Coleman, & Schubert, 2015).  In summary, students are experiencing stress in conjunction with mental health concerns, and they tend not to seek help to manage it. 

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has been shown to be effective for helping people manage stress and anxiety (Bond & Bunce, 2000).  Moreover, ACT has been shown to be effective as a brief intervention (Bach & Hayes, 2002) and it can also help improve college students’ academic performance when students receive goal setting and  ACT-based values training (Chase, Houmanfar, Hayes, Ward, Plumb, Vilardaga, & Follette, 2013). 

One of the main premises of ACT is that, sometimes, maladaptive behavior is an attempt to avoid some of the symptoms of stress, such as negative thoughts or bodily sensations (Hayes, Wilson, Gifford, Follette, & Strosahl, 1996).  ACT teaches acceptance and provides mindfulness based exercises and metaphors to help the student notice the occurrence of these negative thoughts and/or sensations and to accept them without struggling with them.  Finally, ACT helps the student focus on engaging in behaviour that produces outcomes that align with his individual values.

Given that the course I was teaching last fall actually included a short introduction to ACT as part of the curriculum, Dr. Heather Poole (a colleague at McMaster University) and I decided to develop a classroom-based ACT protocol.  Working under the supervision of Dr. Wanda Smith, a fellow Behavior Analyst and Clinical Psychologist, we developed a 10-session ACT protocol that we could implement with my classes. 

It just so happened that I was teaching two sections of the same course, which presented us with a unique research opportunity.  Each class received ACT training on a unique schedule.  Class 1 received ACT training in a distributed manner.  Specifically, ACT exercises were delivered for 10 successive classes for 10-15 minutes per class.  Class 2 received the ACT training in a condensed manner: the same 10 ACT exercises were delivered for 1.5 hours per class for two successive classes at the end of the semester. 

Our measures included test anxiety and stress measures as well as acceptance and mindfulness measures.  We also looked at student academic performance on quizzes and exams, as well as frequency of exam deferral requests and social validity.  We will be saving a full discussion of our results for presentation at the upcoming Association for Contextual Behavior Science (ACBS) conference in Seattle, but I can tell you that we are very excited by the results. From the perspective of the instructor, it was relatively easy to implement and it did not take up a lot of time (as mentioned earlier, it only took 10-15 minutes in every 3-hour class).  I was also relatively new to delivering ACT, and I found the resources that are freely and widely available to be very helpful.  It was all about knowing where to look, which was easy for us, because we had a seasoned ACT professional supervising the selection of and implementation of the exercises.  From the perspective of the students, the social validity data were compelling.  The vast majority of the students reported that they enjoyed the exercises and many reported that they actually found them helpful.

If you are a university or college professor, you are likely interested in supporting your students to help them reach their potential.  If you suspect that your students are having difficulties with stress and anxiety, aside from reaching out to your campus counseling centre, incorporating ACT into your classes is something worth exploring.  I am very excited about the potential benefits of incorporating ACT into my classes, and like I said, it is relatively easy and can be quick to implement.  If that wasn’t enough to inspire college professors to consider incorporating some ACT exercises into their classes, one needs only ask the students who have experienced it themselves.  If you would like to hear more specific information about our results, please come and check out our symposium at ACBS in Seattle in June.  We hope to see you there!

Have you experienced similar challenges in your classroom?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox.


American College Health Association (ACHA, 2011). ACHA-National College Health Assessment II: Reference group executive summary Spring 2011. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association.

Bach, P., & Hayes, S.C. (2002).  The use of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to prevent the rehospitalization of psychotic patients:  A randomized control trial.  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 70 (5), 1129-1139.

Blanco, C., Okuda, M., Wright, C., Hasin, D. S., Grant, B. F., et al. (2008). Mental health of college students and their non-college-attending peers: Results from the national epidemiologic study on alcohol related conditions. Archives of General Psychiatry, 65, 1429-1437.

Bond, F.W., & Bunce, D. (2000).  Mediators of change in emotion-focused and problem-focused worksite stress management interventions.  Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 5, 156-163.

Chase, J.A., Houmanfar, R., Hayes, S.C., Ward, T.A., Plumb Vilardaga, J., & Follette, V. (2013) Values are not just goals:  Online ACT-based values training adds to goal setting in improving undergraduate college student performance.  Journal of Contextual Behavioural Science, 2, 79-84.

Coles, M.E., Coleman, S.L., & Schubert, J. (2015).  College students’ recommendations for dealing with anxiety disorders.  International Journal of Mental Health Promotion, 17, 68-77.

Hayes, S. C., Wilson, K. G., Gifford, E. V., Follette, V. M., & Strosahl, K. D. (1996). Experiential avoidance and behavioral disorders: A functional dimensional approach to diagnosis and treatment. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64, 1152–1168.

Pistorello, J., (2013). Mindfulness and acceptance for counseling college students. Theory and Practical Applications for Intervention, Prevention and Outreach.  Oakland, CA:  New Harbinger

Sarah Kupferschmidt


Sarah Kupferschmidt, M.A., BCBA, is the Principal of sarahkconsulting and realized that Behaviour Analysis was her calling when she first started working with children with autism in 1999. Once she discovered its effectiveness and the impact it had in helping children with autism and their families, it inspired her to pursue a Masters of Arts in Psychology, with a specialization in Behaviour Analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno. She is also a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst (BCBA).

Not only does Sarah enjoy working directly with children with autism, she’s also very passionate about empowering others with the most effective tools to teach children with autism.  She has been training staff and clinicians, and coaching parents on how to do this since she started.  She has been a Part-Time or Adjunct Professor since 2005 teaching ABA courses and regularly presents workshops to parents, therapists or educators on a variety of topics related to teaching or working with individuals with autism.  Sarah is a Huffington Post Contributor, a TEDx speaker, the Behavior Tech Contributor for Behavior Analyst Quarterly, and was named Top Safety Contributor for Autism Parenting Magazine in 2014 and Top Behavior Analysis Writer for 2015. You can contact her at [email protected].

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1 Comment on "Motivate your ABA students with Acceptance & Commitment Therapy"

  1. Martha Gabler | May 9, 2016 at 8:22 am | Reply

    Hello Sarah,

    Thank you for this fascinating article. Like many people, I am looking forward to hearing the final results.

    It is sad and sobering to read that nearly 50% of college students have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder. It makes one wonder. Your students are lucky to have a pro-active professor who does the research and implements an evidence-based protocol to provide support.

    Looking forward to the next installment.

    Thank you!

    Martha Gabler

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