Talking the Talk and Walking the Walk: In ABA, It Can Be Hard to Do Both.

By Katherine DeCotiis Wiedemann, M.A., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Last week, I totally bombed an interview, and it wasn’t because I showed up 10-minutes late in yoga pants, or because I had horrible garlic breath. It was because I couldn’t remember the definition of “surrogate motivating operation.”

Now, before you throw virtual tomatoes at me and file a complaint to the Board, when the interviewer defined the term for me (thankfully it was a phone interview and he couldn’t see how red my face was), I knew exactly what he was talking about – I just hadn’t used the official vocabulary in years. And so I was left on the other end of the phone line, sitting in my car, bumbling on like an idiot.

The founders of Applied Behavior Analysis were very clear that its purpose is to offer solutions to human problems, and named the discipline accordingly. “Applied” is the first of seven dimensions of ABA, and in many ways, is the characteristic that sets it apart from other more cerebral scientific fields. The mission of Applied Behavior Analysts is to take a set of principles and use them to impart socially significant, meaningful change to the lives of other people. Not rats, not pigeons, not molecules in a test tube – real, breathing human beings. The only problem is that the other human beings we try to help are usually not Applied Behavior Analysts themselves. They usually have no idea who Jack Michael is (is he a figure skater?) and have completed 0 of our 1,500 supervised field hours. They may not even be college educated. Heck, sometimes they may not even share your native language. The dilemma presents itself: how do we maintain the integrity of our discipline (and all its attendant jargon) without alienating the people we’re serving? Ultimately, is it more important to format a behavior plan in flawlessly scientific language, or to be able to effectively communicate what it means to the heartbroken mother of a self-injurious teenager? I may not have the answer, but I’d like to share my experience. 

I will never forget a moment from my first interview after passing the board exam. I sat in the HR office of a local ABA agency that offered home-based services to kids with autism. Before being called into the face-to-face portion of the interview, there was a written test to complete. The first question was, “What is the definition of Applied Behavior Analysis?” I froze. Of course I knew what ABA was; I had just passed the exam (and on the first try, might I add). But I was panicked that I wouldn’t use the right terminology, or I would “dumb it down” too much and look stupid. I remember going home and actually searching YouTube for the “everyday definition of ABA” and listening to different people explain it. Today, the definition of ABA rolls off my tongue at least two or three times a week, but I remember being so scared in the beginning that I was going to “get the lingo wrong” and be scoffed at by others in the field.

I’ve been working as a consultant in the public school sector for a bunch of years now, hopping around to different districts in the state and providing hands-on training to administrators, child study team members, teachers and paraprofessionals. I would say that of those groups, I spend 75% of my time with the last bunch. They go by many names – paraprofessionals, teaching assistants, personal aides, classroom shadows. They generally report to a teacher, and are often reassigned to a different student or classroom each year. Paraprofessionals in the state of New Jersey are required only to pass a criminal background check, get a tuberculosis test, and have completed at least 48 credits at an institution for higher learning. No special training in education, and definitely no special training in ABA.

Let me paint a picture of an assignment I had last year, and perhaps you’ll see the predicament before I’m even finished painting. I was contracted by a huge, urban school district to spend one month inside a specific classroom, assess the needs of 12 multiply disabled students, and train the teacher and five paraprofessionals on the principles of ABA and how to apply them to the individual needs of the students. If you’re thinking, “Hold up – that’s nowhere near enough time to be able to do that,” just wait until you hear the next part – three of the five aides spoke limited English, and I was even more limited in my Spanish. They were kind, willing, friendly people who were eager to learn, but had little to no prior experience.

Now I suppose I could have turned down the assignment, citing all the roadblocks that stood in my way of achieving behavior-analytic perfection in this classroom, but I didn’t. In my view, something is always better than nothing, and I was determined to help this classroom – they needed it. And so I set out to do the best I could with what I had. And what that meant in this situation was making some changes and adjustments to the way I explained things and the way I wrote things. My job wasn’t to turn these paraprofessionals into Board Certified Behavior Analysts, it was to give them a basic and functional understanding of behavior and how to manipulate the environment to cause a change. If I had used our short month together to drill them on terms like “compound stimulus”, “habituation” or “partial interval recording”, we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish much. So I spent more time showing than telling, I wrote behavior plans in layman’s terms, and when there was language barrier, I did the best I could to get around it using Google Translate. And wouldn’t you know – when our month together had come to an end, one student was using PECS fluently, another was on a visual prompt system to decrease inappropriate talking during class, another on an independent academic activity schedule and yet another on a variable interval reinforcement schedule for the absence of aggression. The paraprofessionals were running these things, collecting data, seeing progress and feeling excited about it. I think part of our victory was that I was able to give them usable knowledge without making them feel “less than.” I’ve learned over the years that people don’t ask questions because they don’t want to appear “stupid.” In our field, we can’t afford this – especially since our ultimate goal should always be to fade our services into the hands of others. Just like in the age-old biblical story, we need to teach people how to fish – not just prepare and serve them a flawless Chilean sea bass.

Of course, there is something to be said for staying true to the language of our discipline, and whenever possible, imparting the knowledge of that language to the people we come in contact with. However, it may be more important to take a good look at each situation we’re in, and tailor our treatment (and the explanation of that treatment) accordingly to ensure that people can use it. The first step to positively impacting a life is making sure our clients understand us.

When do you speak technically and when do you loosen up your language?  Let us know in the comments below, and remember to subscribe to bSci21 to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox! 

Katherine WiedemannKatherine DeCotiis Wiedemann, M.A., BCBA had her very own behavior intervention plan as a kindergartner in 1989. She had to earn five smurf stickers every morning in order to go to recess. Katherine eventually graduated from kindergarten and beyond, and after a false start as a comedic actress (she dropped out of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts) she found herself very at home in special education and behavior analysis.

After 10 years in the field, she founded Every Child Behavior Solutions, a NJ-based consulting practice that provides behavior-analytic services to school districts, families and anyone else who asks. She loves public speaking, and has done countless school in-service presentations about ABA, as well as for pediatric groups and medical students at the top hospitals in the state.

Although the first chapter of her career focused mostly on children with autism spectrum disorders, she has also spent a good deal of time in general education and specializes in the school-based treatment of ODD, ADHD, OCD and anxiety disorders. One of her short-term goals is to convince the world that ABA is not just a teaching tool for autism (although it does that well), and that behavior analysts are not all condescending blockheads (although some may be). You can contact her at katherine@everychildnj.com.
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