This is Part 3 in a series of how behavior analysts approach “trauma”, by Teresa Camille Kolu, Ph.D., BCBA-D.
Is It Ethical For Behavior Analysts to Treat “Trauma”?
Meaningful answers often depend on asking an appropriate question.
Since this “yes-or-no” question is not the least bit appropriate for many of us to answer “yes” to without more information, let’s start by refining our question.
Under what conditions would it be appropriate for a behavior analyst to treat someone whose behaviors relate to their adverse childhood experiences?
The question above is one way of asking the question, and your team might think of others. It also may help to check out Tuesday’s upcoming article on Behavioral Terminology Related to “Trauma”.
I’ve certainly seen some inappropriate, well-meaning, and harmful treatment of behavior when the children and people involved have been through adverse childhood (or other) experiences.
Part of my concern is that young behavior analysts may have come from a program that did not cover adequately the experimental basis of our field, including schedule effects or concepts like the molecular or molar view of behavior.
I think young behavior analysts who are smart and curious can get these things; they need to have better exposure in their classes (and online course sequences toward certification paths aren’t likely to bring this exposure) or groups (so ask your friendly local or skype article CEU club if you’d like to read an article like this one on the paradigm shift from the molecular to molar view in behavior analysis). This is why a supportive verbal community of reinforcement is so critical for developing behavior analysts (more on that later elsewhere on this site).
(Not sure how to look up pdf’s of articles? An easy way is to first look at the online journal list (for example, for JABA or JEAB) and first enter your search terms, then when you find the article, go to the journal’s archive and click on the issue where the article was published, and download the pdf. This works for all archived JABA and archived JEAB issues through 2012.)
That was fun; let’s get back to the scary stuff: inappropriate, well-meaning, and harmful treatment of behavior.
Sometimes an inexperienced behavior analyst treats only the “local function”, such as treating a behavior in your classroom that seems like it’s related to attention with pure extinction (e.g., without conducting a complete and appropriate functional assessment). This might seem appropriate without more information, but in clients with “trauma backgrounds” or exposure to serious past (or hidden and ongoing) childhood adverse experiences (such as disruptions in primary caregiving and exposure to abuse and neglect), this course of treatment may lead to further harmful escalation, or serious risks and side effects. There are other possibly more appropriate options such as differential reinforcement without extinction, or the preventative schedule approach I mentioned in a previous article. At the least we need to base decisions on better information.
In a classroom where I observed a child who had been through a series of terrible and neglectful situations, when his behavior was placed on attention extinction, he virtually lost all advocacy skills (e.g., stopped manding for help or showing his distress), was being abused by others and never reported it, and started hiding his self-injury which became more and more severe. These were some of the risks involved of using a procedure without evaluating the possible side effects given the child’s repertoire and the reinforcement available for his appropriate skills, and without collaborating with others who had access to the child’s history and current home situation (Compliance Code 2.03b).
The teacher was using the procedure recommended by a behavior analyst, but the BCBA did not know about the child’s history or home life (and did not ask). As I’ve said before, I am NOT asking anyone to stop a function-based approach!- but to demand the information you need to understand the larger context for behavior.
So what’s a behavior analyst to do?
I typically try to think first of ethics (asking, “should I be doing this?”) before diving into strategies (“what should I be doing?”). Here are some ethical considerations:
- Is this in my boundary of competence and based on my education, training, and supervised experience?
See Compliance Code 1.02a). If not, it’s a good idea to first seek continuing study, training, supervision and consultation (see Compliance Code 1.02b). I think the skill of reaching out to obtain supervision and mentorship when appropriate (e.g., accepting clients appropriately) may be an important behavior cusp critical to the future repertoires of behavior analysts trying to practice ethically.
- I think of ethical behavior analysis as practicing within my boundaries, yet at the same time as growing my boundaries of competence so that next year I will have expanded them and will be able to take a client I said no to this year.
Dr. LeBlanc and colleagues have an article on expanding the consumer base for behavior analytic services that is available for a CEU.
- Consider ethics and your own experience and resources carefully, before you begin treating trauma or accepting any kind of trauma-related client.
See 1 and 2 above, and remember not to give advice that stands in for services (e.g., 1.05a). Our responsibility is always to do no harm, and at times the side effects of inappropriate treatment may be riskier than doing nothing (2.09c). It is important to develop a relationship with a mentor who has been there and can assist you to apply new information to an exquisitely sensitive set of problems and clients. If not, arrange for appropriate consultation and referrals (2.03).
- All this goes for supervisors too:
Just like we should be careful before we accept a client for treatment, we accept a supervisee who is treating in a sensitive area only after considering our own defined area of competence (5.01). How will we communicate about and report risks (7.02) if we are not experienced enough to recognize and communicate about the risks of our own treatment (2.09)? Agencies may be under particular pressure to accept clients when there is funding, but there are serious risks of doing this too early or without appropriate in-house supervision.
- Be prepared for extensive collaboration:
I’ve talked to supervisors who have taken on trauma cases without completing assessments of risks and side effects (2.09c) or collaborating with other therapists the child is concurrently seeing, and this means they are already in danger of not being able to review and appraise effects of other treatments that might impact the goals of the program (2.09d).
Why do you need mentorship, education and experience under supervision first?
This is partly because after you accept a client (e.g., 2.01) whose service needs are consistent with your education and training, experience, resources and policies, your responsibilities are to everyone effected by your behavior analytic services. For example, once I started treating clients affected by trauma, I also found myself treating foster families’ other children to deal with the abuse the affected child talked about, the primary caregiver who used to be on drugs and was trying to demonstrate she could follow a plan and get her children back, and the social workers and other team members who didn’t understand schedule effects and were making placement decisions without data on behavior.
In an upcoming article we discuss some treatment approaches and how we can improve our supervision of BCBA’s treating these serious concerns. But first, next Tuesday covers some behavioral ways of talking about “trauma”. Stay tuned!
And as ever, this information is not a substitute for mentorship or supervision. This is intended for use in supporting behavior analysts to reach out to their own networks and supervisors and mentors, growing their boundaries of competence in an ethical and responsible way.
May we all keep expanding our repertoires.