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“Trauma-informed behavior analysis”: Redundant term or useful phrase?

This is the 16th article in a series on Trauma-Informed Behavior Analysis by Dr. Teresa Camille Kolu, Ph.D., BCBA-D.

Trauma-informed behavior analysis, abbreviated TIBA, is a phrase I’ve been using for a few years now to describe what I do to people outside behavior analysis. I do this because it helps them to understand how I apply the science, and not to suggest that “regular” behavior analysis should not address trauma. From those behavior analysts who have not been to my trainings, I often hear the question “Isn’t it redundant to describe behavior analysis as trauma-informed?” I would argue that the short answer to this question is “yes”. However, this article describes why the more important and longer answer is “yes—and it’s still useful”.

About this outline: As one of our current projects at Cusp Emergence, Dr. Camille Kolu is aggregating several years of data (including feedback from existing BCBAs, educators, foster parents, and social workers) in writing a set of articles on the topic of applying the science of behavior analysis to behavior change after a person has experienced significant trauma. This topic comes up frequently on behavior analytic forums. Please note that this brief outline does not describe the SAFE-T model (by which we advocate appropriate supervision, functional assessment, risk documentation, and environmental modification and training) or solutions to all the challenges it raises. Check out the other blogs on this topic, email us if you’d like to provide comments and questions, or see cuspemergenceuniversity.com for CEU and training opportunities.

Background: How is “trauma-informed behavior analysis” redundant?

I. The ethical practice of behavior analysis already requires it.

  1. We individualize (see BACB Compliance Code item 4.03)
  2. We should practice within our expertise (1.02)
    1. People whose lives are changed by major traumatic histories are changed in ways that distinguish them and their needs for specific supports, much like people who engage in serious self injury or have eating disorders are distinguished as a sub population who can benefit by specific expertise and training. We accept clients only if we are appropriately trained (2.01)
  3. We are already tasked with taking history into account, including analyzing functional relationships (3.01) and referring to consultation for medical needs as appropriate (3.02)
  4. We should refer and collaborate when needed (2.03a and 2.03b)

II. The application of behavior analysis already covers it (see Baer, Wolf and Risley 1968, 1987)

  1. Appropriate ABA tackles behavior of meaningful social significance, which it (behavior that is related to historical traumatic or aversive events) certainly is
  2. Appropriate ABA is conceptually systematic, and treatment of behavior after trauma may be conducted within the conceptual basis of behavior science
  3. We already have interventions that can be applicable and effective with this population (see our resources page for a partial reference list) including treatments for post traumatic stress disorder, using acceptance and commitment therapy principles from behavior analysis, and schedule related procedures including NCR for challenging behaviors; or see Fahmie, Iwata and Mead 2016; Iwata, Petscher, Rey and Bailey 2009; Richman, Barnard-Brak, Bosch and Abby, 2015)

III. The underlying science of behavior analysis and work on learning and behavior already describes phenomena related to behavior after trauma (see literature on reinstatement, contextual conditioning, respondent behavior, extinction in multiple contexts, etc)

  1. Laboratory work on extinction challenges from a respondent conditioning perspective can help us understand some of the unique challenges people face after experiencing trauma (see Bouton 2004)
  2. In basic research, “renewal” (return of behavior that was previously extinguished, after exposure to a conditioned stimulus- see Bouton and Bolles 1979; Harris 2000) is stronger with respondent behavior than operant behavior (Crombag and Shaham 2002)
  3. But younger behavior analysts may not have been trained to adequately appreciate respondent conditioning’s effects on behavior, and to teach others how to work with behaviors that are not operant. They may over-rely on using consequences to change behaviors, leading to criticism that “this stuff doesn’t work with my client impacted by trauma”. (Respondent conditioning is an item on both the 4th and 5th edition task lists, although respondent-operant interactions (see 4th edition, item FK-16) has been removed).

The current state: How is the phrase “trauma-informed behavior analysis” still useful (even needed) if it’s technically redundant?

I. I believe it’s helpful to both practitioners and client base.

  1. For practitioners: widespread practicing out of expertise incurs huge risks to clients, agencies, individuals and communities.
    1. Many people assume that the application of behavior analytic principles to trauma affected populations requires no nuances, and have harmed others
    2. There are not widely available risk assessments and tools to help those of us in this subarea document and collaborate as effectively as we need to
    3. There is not a collective understanding of how the collaboration can work, and many behavior analysts proceed unethically (although unintentionally)
  1. For clients: People needing the service are thwarted by bad (or just uninformed) press about ABA or and many think that ABA would be ineffective, harmful, or contradictory to their trauma-informed colleagues’ practice. This phrase gives me a way of introducing my services and assuring the recipients that I
    1. will, and do, consider their history of trauma as something that informs everything I will do for them
    2. will still be practicing behavior analysis, but from this specifically informed perspective
    3. honor both their specific background and their individual needs, using my own training and expertise in behavior analysis informed by additional experiences with social workers, those in the foster family community and others

II.  This phrase also gives me a way in, to talk to groups who haven’t had good experiences with behavior analysis

  1. including professional educators, school psychologists and therapists who have attempted collaborations that failed because clients’ trauma was overlooked or the practices were ineffective
  2. and including foster and adoptive families for whom the practice of “everyday ABA” included go-to strategies that were not (or at least not at first) helpful to their clients
  3. or people who haven’t had ANY experiences with behavior analysis (in my practice this includes people from these groups):
    1. Lawyers and courts
    2. Court appointed special advocates
    3. Social workers
    4. Trauma therapists
    5. Foster families and adoption agencies

Dreaming of the future

My goals include that one day in the near future,

  1. Treating behavior after trauma is a specialty in which behavior analysts can readily obtain experience from several field experts, similar to how they gather expertise specifically in treating behaviors such as severe self-harm, pica, or disordered eating, or behaviors in people with autism or genetic differences, or those in pediatric or geriatric populations.
  2. For recipients of behavior analysis, it will be simple and easy to find several options for treatment for behavior after trauma, from people with appropriate understanding, training and supervision, that can help them and collaborate effectively with other members of their team
  3. There are multiple funding streams to readily serve the population (examples: foster care, social workers, etc)
  4. And “everyday behavior analysis” is no longer viewed as contradictory to the support that would benefit people with historical experiences described as traumatic

Takeaway: I agree that saying behavior analysis should be “trauma-informed” can be redundant, since the basic science is rigorous enough to describe why our behavior is changed after and challenged by trauma. But I use it because it helps communicate what I do to people who have a specific history, and to help other behavior analysts understand how to establish an ethical approach to the intense documentation, risk mitigation, collaboration, and assessment that is required while using existing behavior analytic procedures to support those affected.

What’s your take? Send me a note or share a resource any time.

See or add to our growing reference list related to behavioral treatment of trauma.