Working with an applied behavior analyst is often a significant commitment of time and resources, so you want to make certain the therapist you choose is a good fit for you and your child.
We spoke with Jamie Waldvogel, BCBA and founder of Behave Your Best, about what type of red flags parents should be looking for when working with a new provider.
Lack of Data Showing Your Child’s Progress
Data is at the crux of determining what methods of behavior analysis are effective with a particular child. Virtually all providers will say they are “evidence-based.” That’s the hot ticket phrase these days, but sometimes it’s more marketing than matter and doesn’t always mean they are truly adhering to evidence-based methods.
Ask your provider what metrics are being used to determine exactly how your child’s progress is being measured, and how you will know they are improving before behavioral changes become obvious.
Your therapist should provide data sheets tracking every skill your child is working on and showing evidence of change. If they tell you, “You’re going to see it in their behavior,” that isn’t good enough. Such observations tend to be very subjective and the changes can be transitory, so simple observations without careful tracking and recording of data don’t tell the full story of how your child is learning and progressing.
Jamie explains …
“Some children require more baby steps to make progress while some require fewer. We use the data of how your child is progressing at a certain step to guide us to break down new skills as needed and meet your child where he/she is at to support his/her continued success! By regularly looking at your child’s previous and current behavior, we are able to make data-based decisions to guide us to resolve [problem behaviors].”
This is especially true for kids with autism, where the ability to learn a skill and then generalize it enough to make it fit into another context can take a lot of work… just because your child learned how to ask for a turn on the swing doesn’t mean they know how to ask for a turn using the blue crayon.
Giving Advice Before Doing a Functional Assessment
Not all advice works for every child, and in order to determine your child’s needs the provider should first do an assessment to better understand why the behavior happens and how external and internal factors might be triggering the behavior.
One child may throw tantrums at school because he is experiencing sensory overload and genuine distress, while another may throw tantrums because she figured out that she is sent to the principal’s office every time she acts out and gets to enjoy a break from class.
Jamie gives the example of a childcare provider who insisted that a certain child should be able to drop their morning nap. What the provider didn’t take into account, however, was that the child was the youngest in the room and developmentally still within the norms of two naps a day. They also gave the advice without considering the fact that the family was working hard to get night sleep in order first, and that the child would at times be up for four hours in the middle of the night and often came to daycare unrested.
Failing to Respond to Your Concerns
You should always feel free to voice your concerns. Does it seem like a certain form of therapy agitates your child unnecessarily? It’s ok to ask the therapist about this. They shouldn’t take it personal or feel like you are questioning their professional judgment just because you express concerns or make reasonable inquiries. You’re the parent, that’s your job.
Does your child seem to be improving in some areas but not others? Feel free to bring it up.
An ABA’s expertise really comes out in their ability to respond to your concerns and address them in a way that makes you feel comfortable about the situation without derailing the therapy. They’re the therapist, that’s their job.
If you share your concerns with a provider and they get defensive or argue with you, that’s a big red flag that this likely won’t be a good fit for your family.
Jamie says that unfortunately she’s seen a number of instances where therapists resort to aggressive behavior in working with a child. Hopefully this never shows up as anything overtly mean or abusive. More likely, it will be something like forcefully getting a child to sit on a chair, raising their voice, or anything that shows that the adult is out of control, even if only for a second.
If a provider lacks the skill to manage their own emotions and responses, this is not the person you want to be responsible for trying to teach emotional regulation and self-control to your child. ‘Do as I say not as I do’ simply doesn’t apply in ABA.
Remember, your child learns more through how we interact with them than what we say or overtly teach, so ABAs need to be leading by example.
Trust your gut. As a mommy or daddy you’re imbued with a parental protective instinct for a reason. Trust it.
Jamie says that over the years she’s learned that in addition to using data when making decisions if something just feels off it’s better to look elsewhere else for the interventions you need.
Your investment of time and money in a particular therapist is no reason to stick it out if you don’t feel like you’ve got the right person in your corner. It’s a lot easier – and potentially less traumatic – to start over early in the process than to wait until things really go awry.