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This post is Part 5 in the Trauma-informed Behavior Analysis series by Dr. Teresa Camille Kolu, Ph.D., BCBA-D.

Supervising trauma-related cases? Here are a few tips to help you nurture your team.

  1. Model how to reach out when needed, by reaching out when needed.

Does this seem obvious? Maybe. Do we do it sufficiently? Maybe not. If you want your team to do this with you, show them how you are doing it as well, with your own mentors. Read, obtain consultation, and seek mentorship. I meet rather regularly with a mentor whose experience outweighs mine in some areas (like brain injury) and donate regular time as a mentor for others who need support on issues such as supervision of clients who have been through adverse childhood experiences. It’s easier for me to say to supervisees, “don’t forget to seek ongoing supervision and mentorship when you reach the boundaries of your competence” (e.g., see Professional and Ethical Compliance Code items 1.02-1.03) when they see me doing this at the same time.

  1. Update your team’s FBA practice.

For example, are you documenting the client’s history with respect to aversive experiences, development, and the risks (see Code items 2.09c and 4.05) involved based on their history and behaviors? Are you documenting and fostering robust communication with other professionals involved (see Code items 2.03a-b)? Treating trauma is not the kind of case one does alone (and needs more than a team whose members are all behavior analysts). Cusp Emergence is doing trainings this month for teams who treat cases affected by trauma and we’d love to hear from others on how your FBAs meet the complex needs of this population. The SAFE-T model includes training for supervisors on several components of an ethical and comprehensive trauma-informed behavior assessment.

  1. Understand that clients affected by adverse childhood, medical, feeding or other aversive experiences may differ from your other clients– and that your resulting individualized treatment strategies and recommendations necessarily will differ.

In the next weeks, the “Trauma-informed behavior analysis” series is sharing a couple of articles related to this topic, including “When praise doesn’t work” and “Different types of adverse experiences that change us”. Behavior analysts can document how the trajectories for alternative skill acquisition, or reduction of challenging behaviors, differ depending on their clients’ histories. It can be off-putting to realize that the go-to strategies that worked for most previous clients on your caseload are simply not effective here, but it’s important to know this before you start, because what you don’t know may actually hurt someone! If you think this feels awkward to you as a behavior analyst or teacher, just imagine what this must feel like to a new foster parent of a child with a “reactive attachment” history, when the everyday parenting strategies just make things worse. (For more on this, see #6 in this list.)

  1. Teach your team how to document barriers and risks.

When your staff shares something they overheard a child say, or when your registered behavior technician walks in the house and something fishy is going on, don’t just have her leave with a disturbed feeling… you should already have documented your process for the conditions under which the staff will be required to write it down and discuss it with supervisor and team in a planned way. Over time these documented paths are more important than anyone in the middle of the problem could ever know. For those of us already tasked with reporting MANE (mistreatment, abuse, neglect or exploitation) and honoring our ethics code, it’s important to train staff on what to do with the “not necessarily abuse but definitely inappropriate and risky” situations they see and hear in their line  of work. Don’t leave them to figure out the answers on their own.

  1. Create role maps for key roles on the “trauma triage” team.

This is a tool you can create (an upcoming Resource Wednesday post shares one of ours) that documents the role of each relevant team member. Even if you begin only with the behavior analyst, teacher, and family members on the team, it’s a great start. If the behavior analyst you are supervising is new to trauma, it may be tempting for them to take on too much, to give advice when they should still be collecting data, or to initiate a behavior strategy before you have finished communicating with the social worker about the history of abuse. We can help by using role maps listing roles and responsibilities, making explicit how people can do things within their role that are helpful versus not helpful. Yes, I explicitly spell these out (e.g., if a family is divorced and I work with both sides, I share documents that say how they can help us benefit the child, who remains at the center of the family). “Makes positive statements about mom in front of child” or “writes down concerns with co-parent instead of says them out loud in front of child” are two examples from the recent role map I made for a broken family who was working together for the first time in several years. Grandparents, teachers and anyone who asks “I want to help, but what can do?” also benefit from these role maps. It gives you something to reinforce while you wait, and trust us on this: when there’s nothing specified, people fill in the gaps, often by doing other things that they hope, but that are not necessarily, helpful.

  1. Before you try to help a client affected by trauma, find ways to hear from listen to families who have been there.

There is more on this in an upcoming story, but you can start now by start now researching ways to hear from families in your neighborhood. I learned so much—about what is helpful, and what is simply hurtful and devastating—from volunteering time in various parent support groups, going to county events for adoptive parents, and hearing what foster parents or teachers of children with emotional and behavior disorders are going through. I don’t mean that at that point I was providing any parent support at all, or giving any behavior analytic input: I was just listening to the stories as adoptive or foster parents went round the room sharing from their hearts, their own pasts, and their children’s experiences. The behaviors you hear about will break your heart, and the complex needs of their families may overwhelm you. If you can listen quietly and then you still want to help and not run away, this is a start. Please don’t do this work without this important step. People don’t want to hear from behavior analysts who cannot listen.

I’m listening. Contact me any time.