Seeing Snakes and Spiders


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This is the 17th article in a series on Trauma-Informed Behavior Analysis by Dr. Teresa Camille Kolu, Ph.D., BCBA-D.


What did you do when you saw this picture? Chances are you experienced some additional events beyond just “seeing it”. Did you jump? Experience an increase in your breathing rate? Use some choice verbal behavior? Avert your eyes? (And are you prepared to read on? Fair warning… there’s a snake coming up).

Seeing with fresh eyes

I noticed a couple of things about our culture, and fear responses, this past week.

My young daughter’s love for flap books—the kind where you pull back a piece of paper to reveal something—knows no bounds. So she was instantly drawn to a tattered old library copy (apparently she shares this love with lots of peers) of “Buzz Buzz, Baby”- with poorly rendered babies exploring “bugs”. Around the third page the baby pulls back a web flap to unveil, in the book’s words, “EEK! The itsy bitsy spider!”

Whenever I read the book to her I leave out the “Eek!”.

I think she can come up with that on her own, if she happens to, although chances are she’ll get it from me in a non-mindful moment. (In the 1980’s Cook and Mineka did a classic study in which infant monkeys “acquired” a persistent fear of snakes by watching their scared mothers encounter a snake).

Now that we’ve moved out to the country, we encounter our own “Itsy” (and many for whom that name is woefully inadequate) all the time. (I do recommend this thing called the BugZooka… it does work really well, if you like catch-and-release). Itsy and I go way back, and not necessarily in a good way, although I always appreciate her beauty. But I still want to be warned before you text me her picture, dad.

This summer, one tenacious spider (pictured, top) built a web, over and over, in a windy area outside the kitchen, where we see it numerous times daily. The first few (ok, few hundred) times I nearly jumped out of my skin. When I remembered in time, I was very careful to breathe and compose myself before walking to the sink with my daughter, where I’d point out the spider cheerfully and sing (with all the hand movements) the requisite song. Before long she was signing the song herself. Next I noticed myself no longer jumping when I saw the spider.

THEN… one windy morning Itsy was gone. Gone!

I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief.

I was surprised and curious to feel a strange emotion… like MISSING. I missed her! Was she alright? Would she come back? (She was. She did).

With painful awareness that this is temporary, I often marvel that my daughter’s eyes are not only young… they are unconditioned. They don’t have a lot of pairings with events like scary movies about this deep primate fear, being bitten, or seeing spiders while a parent jumps and screams. They are fresh, curious, hopeful eyes.

Yesterday we chanced upon something rather larger than even the biggest spider. It was this old girl… fat and long, with ring upon ring adorning her useful brown rattle. Depending on my readers, maybe you’ll be happy that instead of grabbing a hoe, I called a guy I read about in my new community’s online forum… apparently this guy LOVES snakes. “ANY snake’s worth my time”, he told me as he jumped in his truck. 35 minutes later he had driven up to our homestead, hooked it and taken it. Now it’s in a quite different rattlesnake heaven than the kind I had sort of planned to send it… blissing out in a protected wilderness area up near Fort Collins, I’m told.


As he removed our snake into a large vented box and curiously counted the rings (while remarking on how huge it was), the guy’s face was composed; he exuded a strange calm excitement. Normally, the fear response to snakes and spiders is part of our biology. Evolutionary biology has several theories why it’s present even in infancy, and why it might have behooved our ancestral mothers to experience more arousal and get out of there to protect their young in the presence of these critters. I can’t help but wonder what this guy’s history is like. Why does he love something that most of us are scared of?

Kids with traumatic histories

If you’re an educator going back to school, many of your kids are coming in with an avoidance response, or a “get out of there!” escape response, ready to go. Some of them will use these responses in the most annoying ways, dropping all their work on the floor or crawling under desks when you announce the quiz. But some of them have a special background you can’t see. For some, they will use these “fear responses” when they encounter “triggers” that you and I do not think of as scary.

Why is that?

Well, the things that were there when they experienced really bad situations are now “paired”, living together in their past, the same way I smelled an old lady yesterday wearing my own granny’s soap and got emotional thinking about my dear departed loved ones. Or the same way you hear a certain song from your high school dance and think about that year, or that person, or that kiss.

And that’s not all. Psychology explains in anxiety journals why, if you’re a person with an intense “fear” or phobia of spiders, not only do you spot them more quickly and tend to see them where your peers might see other things, like mushrooms or flowers faster in the SAME PICTURE—but to you, they also appear BIGGER.

What can we do about it?

How can we help students show up for their education and get all the learning opportunities they can… even when the school, teachers, and peers accidentally give them “fear related” stimuli all day long? (While psychology explains partly WHY these pairings happen, behavior analysis does too, especially if you read some relational frame theory, learn about respondent conditioning, and take a long-term functional analytic approach. Behavior analysis also goes a long way in helping the helpers undo some of the damage, teaching kids to approach adults and “unpair” adult attention from it’s previously bad parts: if I’m a student who has been through neglect abuse, my teacher coming over to me to praise my “good behavior” might not be a welcome stimulus at first… and my teacher’s praise, as well-intentioned as it may be, might not work).

Cusp Emergence University has been hard at work getting the new online training course ready for educators, and behavior analysts who work in education. We hope to help you to start answering these questions for yourself and your students and teams. On Monday, September 30, our course “Education and Trauma-Informed Behavior Analysis” opens to a 7 day sale (use the code EDTIBA10 for 10 percent off this CEU opportunity). We’re providing BCBA’s and BCBA-D’s with 3.5 continuing education credits, and 3 of those are in ethics.


Sign up now!

Start your fall to-do list: Register now for Paradigm play webinar this Monday (and more)!


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This summer has been a busy one for Cusp Emergence. Dr. Kolu taught Ethics to University of Colorado Denver students, jumped back into work doing consultation to support businesses and BCBA’s to reach their behavior analytic goals, trained CASA volunteers and more. Next month we will be training Friends of Broomfield and (finally!) putting the finishing touches on the Education and Trauma Informed Behavior Analysis course by Cusp Emergence University.

In the meantime, we just learned about a great low-cost resource for parents! Paradigm Behavior has all kinds of great parent-oriented supports that also help behavior analysts and caregivers. This Monday they are having a sale on an informative webinar!  REGISTER HERE:

You know who would also benefit from this? Foster and adoptive parents, preschool teachers, and church nursery staff would find this super helpful. Our trauma informed teams also love learning how to enrich “time in” with kids who are just learning to have fun with adults in carefree ways after a difficult early life.

And coming up, this fall we’ll register for the APBA (Association for Professional Behavior Analysts) convention coming to Denver 2020, attend COABA (Colorado Association for Behavior Analysts) on November 2,  sign up for 4CABA (Four Corners Association for Behavior Analysis) that meets in Colorado Springs April 2020, and submit proposals for the May 2020 workshops at ABAI (Association for Behavior Analysis International) in DC. We’ll be back shortly to tell you all about the new courses we’re offering this fall. Contact us today if you’d like Cusp Emergence to tailor an online workshop or training for your team. Hope to see you soon at a local event or meet you at one of our webinars (CEU’s offered at all of our events)!


“Trauma-Informed Behavior Analysis” is redundant. Here’s why I use it anyway.


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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 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.

Beauty and the Bug: Trauma and individuals who are differently abled


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Beauty and the Bug (in which we briefly explore trauma and non-neurotypical people, ask how to raise tender-hearted children, and see a bug portrait in pointillism)

This is the 15th article in a series on Trauma-Informed Behavior Analysis by Dr. Teresa Camille Kolu, Ph.D., BCBA-D.

How do we teach others to tend the needs of those who cannot express them (or for that matter, appreciate the lesson of loss, the tenderness of pain, the beauty in brokenness)? And how common is trauma in individuals with serious developmental disabilities? Many of us have not considered the relevance, let alone the prevalence. Is this because we can’t see it, don’t hear about it, or think that it is out of our scope to address? These questions occurred to me this week as I thought about a participant from a recent training I provided, who asked if the model of trauma-informed behavior analysis (about which I’ve been writing here) applied to individuals with intellectual differences (it does!). Even to us professionals in the field of behavior analysis, the complexity of and subtlety of trauma and behavior remains elusive.

This week my family lost a wonderful man. He and his wife tended to the needs of others (often before their own). Also this week, my reason for taking a work break turned three months old, and Imagine! (a nonprofit agency in my area) had its annual celebration. As I mulled over these questions about trauma and differences and on raising good people, a therapist friend posted Imagine’s video of one of their clients. I realized I had not blogged before specifically about treating challenging behavior in someone who is differently abled. I need to do that, lest one more reader think that this approach (trauma informed behavior analysis) is mainly useful for “vocal” clients, or those who can easily articulate their pain and past. Today, Shelly and her zany personality inspired me to do this.

Individuals with developmental and intellectual differences express or show their history and needs in different ways, and sometimes caregivers overlook the contributions and signs of trauma, neglect or even ongoing abuse. When we (especially behavior analysts) overlook these, we are not addressing the real reasons for challenging behavior, and we might miss the importance of connecting the person with critical mental health resources, or of offering a chance to heal past wounds. We know about functional communication training. But do we fully address subtle needs to communicate pain—both emotional and physical? And when someone lives in an environment or is exposed repeatedly to a situation or person that is aversive (even abusive!) do we teach them to effectively advocate for removal and communicate their discomfort, or do we merely try to reduce the “challenging behavior” that often accompanies the terrible situation? Do we recognize the signs of abuse in individuals who have few skills to communicate?

Too many times, I took a case where team members requested decreases in “challenging behaviors” in someone with diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer, or Spina Bifida, before the team had recognized that the main thing challenging about the behavior was that it was going on because the individual had NO dignified way out. A conversation with a peer last week revealed that without training in these issues, a behavior therapist or even the entire team might treat “suicidal ideation” as a “behavior to be decreased” rather than a serious problem to be solved. (Even when this “behavior” is partly a habit the person has learned to use as a tool to produce needed attention from others, a whole behavior analysis of the situation would consider the risks and possible outcomes of addressing it in different ways, and document and address the related needs to understand and address why this was happening.)

As Shelly and her team alluded to in the video, the very state of not being able to communicate one’s needs and preferences can be traumatic in itself, and can lead one to develop desperate behaviors that just get called “behaviors for reduction” in the individualized behavior plans of thousands of clients. Today there are no more excuses for not helping someone access and master a communication system that works for them. To be sure, not everyone has access to a Smart Home residence decked out with all the tools we saw on the video- but have you seen the article on an accessible app developed by the brother of a man with autism in Turkey (so that he could communicate needs  and gain leisure skills using only his smartphone)?

Tragically, many of my clients went through abuse and neglect and need someone to write careful and informed behavior plans that teach them skills they did not have at the time, like articulating emotional and physical pain, advocating for their needs, and requesting to be removed from a serious adverse situation. Just as important, these clients need an informed analyst who designs ways that these skills will persist when the client moves environments, as I found when a former client kept being exposed to new team after new team that didn’t read the plan and failed to recognize the communicative intent of the behaviors, and the medical component to the “challenges” the team demanded to be decreased. This calls for TIBA or trauma informed behavior analysis (if the team is not already using it).

So it’s not enough for our clients to learn these skills one time. The people who make up the audience, the environment, must respond enough to maintain them. If I ask for help and you respond no, why would I ask again? Remember the lessons of the family whose school team actually discouraged them from using “saying no” as a goal for their adolescent girl with autism, arguing that they didn’t have the resources to deal with her protesting all day long. Actually, the opposite is more likely to be true—that when our “no” is respected (listened to the first time), its use will be more limited to situations in which the person really “needs” it.

So back to my original questions. How do we raise little ones who are likely to grow up to appreciate and shape the voice of the voiceless, who honor the needs of people in ugly situations, who see the beauty in what others view as broken or beyond repair? How do we insure people will have the internal resources to value what isn’t immediately perceived as “valuable” by the culture? Maybe it starts when they are little, in modeling ways we can accord dignity to the frail, the elderly, the dirty. We cultivate tenderness as we show them we appreciate the spiderweb (AND the spider), the weed and its flower, the worm (thanks, mom and dad, Nicolette Sowder of wilderchild, and my very first client who taught me that not being able to talk is not the same as not having anything to say- click here to learn about Rett Syndrome).

Thanks to mom and dad, I still notice bugs and their beauty. I thought this one was wonderful when I looked closely, so I spent even more time to study and draw him. I thought he became even more beautiful as I continued to look. Maybe you can see his beauty too.


Colorado Potato Beetle by Camille Kolu (c) 2018

P.S. There is so much trauma in our schools today, whether you work with students who are “typically developing/ neurotypical” or those with intellectual, developmental and physical differences. Don’t miss the next course from Cusp Emergence University on trauma informed behavior analysis in the educational setting (complete with CEU’s including one for ethics).

Some references and resources


Articles on prevalence of assault and ACES in individuals with developmental differences:

Read about Imagine! Smart Homes:

Watch Shelly’s story:

Read about the man who developed an app for his brother:

Get the full TIBA (trauma informed behavior analysis series):


CEU stands for Cusp Emergence University!


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Need training for your team in trauma-informed behavior analysis? Cusp Emergence University has launched! 

Come check out the site, sign up for one of Dr. Kolu’s courses, or just have a look around.

While we’re beta testing, save 15% on 3 CEU’s in a 2.5 hour continuing education course (Introduction to the Ethics of Trauma-Informed Behavior Analysis).

This course is for intermediate audiences interested in learning more about the ethics of trauma-informed behavior analysis, or using behavior analysis to provide responsible, evidence-based and sensitive support to individuals whose backgrounds include early or serious adverse experiences. Take this course to prepare your practice and team and plan for the increased risks associated with this population. BACB certificants receive your certificate upon completion of the course, which includes quiz questions to help keep you engaged. Course includes 2 ethics CEU’s.

DISCLAIMER: Dr. Camille Kolu of Cusp Emergence is a Behavior Analysis Certification Board (BACB) approved ACE provider. Advertisements for new continuing education opportunities (per the board requirements) will often be placed here. Check for the full details, to enroll in courses, or to learn more about the continuing education opportunities provided.  The BACB does not endorse any individual courses.

Come back to the tab Cusp Emergence University, or check out  any time for updates on courses in development.

Dr. Kolu of Cusp Emergence interviewed by Awake Labs


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This post is part of the series on Trauma-Informed Behavior Analysis by Dr. Camille Kolu, Ph.D., BCBA-D.

TIBA quote

Sometimes you meet someone who does work that you can really get behind. Over the past month, I have enjoyed learning about Awake Labs, a Canadian company providing easy and elegant solutions to self-advocates, families and teams who need to track information, data, and progress in the context of clients’ stories and strengths. Their Reveal Stories are an interesting way to do this. Awake Labs partners with community educators, providers, and medical professionals, offering ways to collect data and graph progress. During our conversations this month, Paul Fijal of Awake Labs also interviewed me about my work with trauma and behavior analysis, posting our interview on their blog. Check it out!


Spotlight on team role: CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates)


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This post is part of the series on Trauma-Informed Behavior Analysis by Dr. Camille Kolu, Ph.D., BCBA-D.

Why is this in the trauma-informed series? Behavior analysts have ethical responsibilities to disseminate information about our field (Compliance Code item 6.02), cooperate with others (2.03), individualize treatment based on the contextual variables involved in our clients’ cases (4.03), and identify, eliminate and communicate about the environmental constraints on the effectiveness of our treatment plans (4.07). All four of these ethical imperatives can be positively impacted by involving CASA! And these ethical areas are even more important when treating behavior of a person who has been through trauma, abuse or neglect.

Spotlight on team role: CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocates

Cusp Emergence has had a busy summer! We’ve been continuing public speaking and training, spreading the word about trauma-informed behavior analysis to community partners. There are few things more rewarding than working on a case with a partner who asks us to come back and train their agency, providing continuing education for their team members. This is even more exciting when the provider is newer to behavior analysis. We love disseminating information about the field and hearing from the community!

This post is a shout-out spotlighting CASA. Never heard of them? These people form a compassionate army of people from all walks of life providing long-term relationships and supportive advocacy to local children whose lives involve the family court and foster care system. Some organizational positions are paid to keep the group running, but many are volunteers. The program is nationwide, and depending on the location and jurisdiction, a CASA may be a guardian ad litem or volunteer their time. Some are young professionals, others are retirees; they have in common a passion for children who have experienced inconsistency in caregiving, often including abuse and neglect. Court Appointed Special Advocates receive extensive training and may donate their time to attend visits with the child in the child’s group home, foster home, adoptive family home, residential facility, or hospital. I see them advocating at meetings, attending court dates to speak in the child’s best interest after gathering information; visiting at school; and attending trainings where I provide reviews of behavior assessments and plans. For some children removed due to abuse and neglect, a CASA may be the ONE familiar face present at family court, several foster homes, many schools, and holiday parties held in the hospital where the child was placed after using aggression and receiving a medication change. Caseworkers are familiar too, but may change more than the court appointed special advocates—many of whom follow a child for life.

Maybe you’re a BCBA reading this, thinking “How does this relate to my role?”

First, if you’ve got a client in foster care, you can ask the client’s caseworker if the person has a CASA. If so, you can offer to meet with them and learn more about their role and their history with the person. (I have never had a CASA refuse to meet with me, although this is on their own time—more commonly they are excited to learn about behavior supports, and often advocating to get me on their other cases after they learn more about behavior analysis).

I also train all my client’s CASAs in the functional behavior assessment results and behavior plan. Why?

  • On their visits they may see challenging behavior and want to know the best, and most supportive, way to respond or prevent challenges.
  • They may conduct unannounced visits in the child’s home or school, and these may be followed by increases in challenging behavior that the team finds confusing. It is helpful to educate the entire team, CASA included, on the changes in behavior that may occur after the child is visited by an unannounced person associated with previous family visits, even if the child typically enjoys visits with the CASA.
  • Since the CASA is by definition an advocate, they can be very helpful in sharing information with the court or team that help them to put behavior services in place. In some areas, services can be more difficult to fund if a child has severe behavior needs but not a diagnosis like autism that makes it easy to get insurance on board. In these cases, the county or court may step in and require or help fund some behavioral treatment that is instrumental in helping the foster family understand and manage the child’s behaviors.

Thank you so much, to Becca and Mara at CASA of Adams and Broomfield Counties! It was fantastic to see so many of your team last month.

Want to learn more?

Check out the national CASA movement:

Are you local to the Cusp Emergence community around Adams County, Colorado? Check out the Adams County CASA page (and be sure to attend their free informational event on October 18!)

Read about CASA in the news, with stories about topics like how to become a CASA…

or read from the perspective of a judge whose decisions are informed by their work:

Find the Behavior Analysis Certification Board Compliance Code here:






Too risky to document risks?


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This post is part of a series on trauma-informed behavior analysis by Dr. Camille Kolu, Ph.D., BCBA-D.

When treating behavior concerns after trauma, we may find that clients exhibit risks to themselves, risks to their community, and risks to caregivers that should be documented. Why have behavior analysts sometimes turned a blind eye to documenting these risks? Read on to discover some common reasons I found in the field, and ways we can address them. 

When it’s too risky to even consider the risks

Our field has adopted a Compliance Code which mentions the need to document risks. As an instructor for courses in a BACB-approved course behavior analysis course sequence, I use a textbook that provides sample templates for documenting and analyzing risks. And as a practitioner, I have found that my analysis or assessment of risk is almost always helpful to a case (as in some situations I’ll describe below), not to mention that it’s quick and simple it is to do.

Despite these facts, most behavior analysts I encounter do not analyze risks in any sort of written format. The behavior analysts around me range from BCBA-Ds to RBTs, and many have expertise and long careers. Why are we averse to documenting risks?

I have been researching the answer to this question for several years, and often the answer is “because I don’t have a good risk assessment”. So I made some and piloted them with different agencies, working through the problems of how to identify, define, document and mitigate the risks related to the populations with whom I work most closely. But at a recent training opportunity I received a different kind of answer, and I think it’s too important to keep to myself.

Some of the BCBA’s I talked to at that event were not documenting risks, they acknowledged, because it was just too risky.

At first it seemed counterintuitive. If I was providing a new document that made it easy to document several options, and the potential risks and benefits of each, wasn’t that inherently reducing the risk? No, it turns out. To many of us, highlighting a risk necessarily imposes some degree of liability.

We’ve faced this challenge before. In pointing out a problem we may become partially responsible for solving it, as some educators have learned the hard way when their schools are upset with them for discussing the observations of a student’s difficulties outside of the official process. This responsibility may carry a financial burden or create an unsolvable problem in a resource-poor area. And some pediatricians I know have mentioned the frustrating dilemma of being given a new depression screen for teens or moms, only to have nowhere to go with the results.

A new ethical responsibility is only as useful as your agency’s process to fulfill that responsibility, and procedures to support the people implementing the new responsibilities.

And in the discussion with the BCBA’s that day about risk documentation, I learned something really interesting. The specific language I used made a huge difference in their willingness of adopting a new procedure.

When I called it a “risk assessment”, BCBA’s were unwilling to adopt my new “assessment”, even if it was backed up by the compliance code and plenty of evidence and anecdotes how it has supported my work.

But when I called it a “risk versus benefit analysis”, they were willing to try.

The difference?

“Risk assessment” is a loaded term that carries legal weight in many contexts.

On the contrary, the other term (“risk versus benefit analysis”) is something that I use daily, and that is simply a process of documenting and analyzing the several different options available, together with their respective potential risks and benefits. It’s called for by the Compliance Code (and discussed by Bailey and Burch in their Ethics text).

According to the Compliance Code, “a risk-benefit analysis is a deliberate evaluation of the potential risks (e.g., limitations, side effects, costs) and benefits (e.g., treatment outcomes, efficiency, savings) associated with a given intervention. A risk-benefit analysis should conclude with a course of action associated with greater benefits than risks.”

The Compliance Code mentions risks in several places. In 2.04b, we are to consider risks of performing conflicting roles (e.g., when we are clarifying third party involvement in services). In 2.09c we are asked to use a risk-benefit analysis as part of our process in deciding between different treatments. And in 4.05, we are asked to work with stakeholders to present the potential risks versus benefits of which procedures we plan to use to implement program objectives. 7.02 asks us to consider risks involved, when there may have been an ethical or legal violation by a peer. And of course, we consider the potential risks and benefits when doing research (9.02).

The Task List does not mention “risk” by name, but alludes to the process when requiring that we are required to be able to state and plan for the possible unwanted effects of reinforcement (C-01), punishment (C-02), or extinction (C-03), as well as behavioral contrast (E-07). Similarly, the Code makes it clear that we are to identify potential for harm with using reinforcement (4.10) and identify obstacles to implementing recommended treatment (4.07).

In my practice, the most efficient way to meet all these objectives and more, is to complete a risk-benefit analysis. I love to include sections on mitigating the risks I do identify, so that the team can make an informed decision about what resources, training, information or support they will need to implement the least risky option.

And a final benefit I’ve heard many stakeholders mention during this process (and typically I do the analysis as an open discussion in which they are involved and brainstorming), is usually stated like this: “I didn’t think we had any other options, but when we approached this with a goal to identify alternatives and the risks and benefits of each, we uncovered several more”.

The risk versus benefit analysis is something I document, add to a treatment plan or employee or client file or IEP, or simply something I share with the team in writing and in person to solidify systems support for my next move. Recently, the following situations were ameliorated by using a transparent risk versus benefit analysis. Outcomes included increasing appropriate funding; securing appropriate medications; identifying appropriate caregivers; funding appropriate training; and improving client satisfaction.

-what kind of residential facility would be most appropriate to move a client to

-whether to discharge a client now or later

-whether to use a cheaper program with fewer resources or a costly one with many

-whether to put a client in a foster home in a potentially risky but supportive situation

-whether to delay an assessment to have an operation

-under what conditions should we discontinue a client who violates our informal no-show policy

-what caregiver to select from several available

-how to appropriately include police contact in a plan in a way that reduced long term risks

-what medication to decrease and when

-whether to put a student in a restrictive school with more behavior support, or a less restrictive placement with more social interaction options

As you can see by the last two, sometimes these decisions are not cut and dry. They depend on the team and family input, and one family may weigh a given outcome more heavily than another.  Everyone has a history. To do these analyses in a compassionate and open way is important, and sometimes we don’t agree. To involve high level stakeholders and funders is critical as well.

What are the risks of doing a risk-benefit analysis? Perhaps you’ll highlight more risks than you thought were there; perhaps you’ll have to take some responsibility for the outcome of your recommendations. But what are the risks of avoiding this important process? If you are certified, your responsibility as a behavior analyst “is to all parties affected by behavior-analytic services” (e.g., 2.02). So are there risks of not documenting risks? Sure. You could cause harm or be negligent if there is a known risk you didn’t plan for or discuss with the team. Just like there are risks, there are benefits too. Doing a good risk versus benefit analysis is certainly a helpful cusp for supervisors and behavior analysis leaders to acquire! Many times we have uncovered risks that can be totally avoided next time if we were to act now to change or solidify policies, or use preventative measures in the future. A risk-benefit analysis can be a wonderful contribution to discussing lessons learned.

There are more options to be uncovered. Go out there and find and document them!

Want a resource? Check out the 3rd edition of the Bailey and Burch text Ethics for Behavior Analysts (2016), read more on Cusp Emergence , or check out a risk versus benefit tool (I like to do this on a whiteboard with my teams).

Convinced? Have a question? Drop us an email. And thanks for reading about this important topic. We’d love to see how YOU document and discuss risks!

See you in San Diego!

Going to San Diego this weekend for ABAI? See you there (Thurs through Sunday)!

Find Cusp Emergence at our workshop Friday (see details here) on Safe Assessment and Treatment after Adverse Experience (we still have a few spots left!) . If you didn’t register online, you may still be able to get a spot by going to the in-person workshop registration when you get to the convention.

If you miss the workshop, I look forward to running into you at the UNT reunion, a panel on effective supervision, or a poster session.

Find me on facebook to connect, or just come up and say hi. I would love to meet you!


Part 14 in Trauma-Informed Behavior Analysis: Intersections with Mental Health


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(Part 14 of a series of posts about Trauma-informed behavior analysis by Dr. Teresa Camille Kolu, Ph.D., BCBA-D)

Connections between mental health and behavior analysis cof

This topic is always close to my heart as I work regularly in mental institutions, and as my business supports wellness practices that affect everyone—including those of us who need help prioritizing our own mental health. But it’s an especially important topic right now: May is Mental Health Month!

Sometimes my work involves conducting an assessment to see whether a client needs behavior analysis, or mental health support, including ways to thrive with a history that includes mental illness. In other words, sometimes (many times!) directly providing mental health support goes beyond my scope, and my job in those cases involves referring to other providers or more typically, collaborating with them. But instead of those cases, today we discuss some intersections between behavior analysis and mental health. If you’re board certified or licensed you’ll want to keep a copy of your field’s ethics code handy (here’s mine, as a BCBA-D). If you’re a family or team member wondering about these connections, read on.

No matter your certification, it’s never ethical to work completely out of one’s boundaries of competence. However, it’s also true that applied behavior analysis has supported individuals with mental illness concerns (including those with symptoms of challenges such as schizophrenia) since the field’s very beginnings. Young BCBAs without historical education in the full range of our field’s applications might have been surprised to see the transformation on some 1950’s psych wards of a population with various psychiatric disorders as patients changed from non-social and despondent individuals to interacting with their peers and their behavior analysts. They met goals they set for starting to take care of themselves again as they got dressed, talked more with peers, worked, visited families, and traded in tokens they earned for individual items they wanted to earn, such as a radio to keep in their room. In the earliest days of applied behavior analysis, Ogden Lindsley and colleagues used reinforcement schedules and behavioral apparatus to analyze psychotic behavior and to reveal that it was subject to operant mechanisms just like other behavior. Behavioral treatment of schizophrenia, in that area, became robust, effective, and almost commonplace. For example, Kurt Salzinger analyzed the verbal behavior of persons with schizophrenia and showed that it was related to discriminative stimuli and consequences of people around the patients (Salzinger and Pisoni, 1958, 1961). A later literature review of articles between 1959 and 1972 (Stahl and Leitenberg, 1976) showed that across 23 articles describing programs for psychotic and chronic mental patients, the individualized behavior programs were widely and substantially effective, producing large improvements in the behaviors that were targeted. History students might enjoy Stephen Wong’s “Behavior Analysis of Psychotic Disorders: Scientific dead end or casualty of the mental health political economy?” (Wong, 2006).

But don’t forget the important caution I mentioned while beginning this section: Without training and expertise and supervision in a given population, any work, no matter your field’s history, is still out of one’s scope. Even so, for those behavior analysts with a more limited history, there are still the vast literatures on the empowering use of self-management to change addictive behavior, manage anxiety, self-monitor triggering situations and select and strengthen one’s own coping skills. These are widely used and well researched. In fact, before there was ACT (or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), there was self-management. (For a good introductory text on behavioral self management see Alexandra Logue’s Self Control: Waiting Until Tomorrow for What You Want Today). Wherever social contingencies matter, behavior analysis can generally help.

Although using behavior analysis in mental institutions generally fell out of favor decades ago, it has been markedly effective in my last few years of work helping others with mental illness learn skills needed to transition to meaningful lives outside the institution, sometimes after decades in those facilities (or years in group homes, foster homes, and inpatient units). Here, the behavior analytic skills of systems support and functional assessment have been useful for teaching teams how to support individuals who had nearly given up on finding a more permanent home.

Collaboration with providers

What someone needs most and first is sometimes collaboration and support, not an intensive 1:1 ABA session. For my clients with mental illness or mental health needs, it has been extremely helpful to:

-get the entire team on the same page

-look at what has been going wrong (e.g., review incident reports and challenges that have repeatedly plagued the attempts to help the person)

-discover what the team wants

-find out what has been a recurring problem? What is keeping the client from the life they want? Who cares about the client and what skills are missing?

-establish communication protocols for the team

-find out what behavioral and other strategies were already in place and whether or how they are working (Often, a team has been using a token system, or behavior plans, or consequences, or attempts to change behavior using antecedents or instructions and modifying motivation, before a behavior analyst ever entered the picture. Our job is to document what has been done and how this has worked; along the way we can often help an entire agency understand how to make their routine interventions more ethical and effective.)

When I have gathered all of that information plus interviewed team members and my client, documented my review of reports, other supports, and the contributions of medical, historical and childhood factors and the client’s and team goals, I have the makings of a behavior assessment and am able to begin sharing recommendations with the team. These recommendations may include more appropriate and consistent strategies, additional documentation of risks to the client and their community, and training on treatments and ways of interacting that may be more effective and helpful to the team and client than what has been attempted in the past.

Stop for a minute: does all of this suggest that a client is necessarily out of a behavior analyst’s scope of service because they struggle with mental illness? No; furthermore, nothing suggested here discounts the important roles of mental health counselors, psychiatric nurses, social workers, psychiatrists and psychologists, and the other members of the treatment team. If anything, my past several years of work has taught me that a good collaboration has usually resulted in making their roles work even better.

Another way behavior analysis is involved in mental health is the important need to protect our own mental health.

In our line of work, we must be able to respond compassionately and calmly to burned-out staff or clients whose behavior “targets” us, perhaps physically, emotionally, or all of the ways a staff person can be targeted or hurt in the line of work. A recent and excellent training on ACT for intellectual disability shared studies in which it helped reduce staff burnout and increase engagement with clients. These two are related, for when I am healthy and calm I can respond more appropriately and consistently to my clients. Since my clients are often staff, it also helps when I train them in techniques that will help them maintain consistency and calm when they are confronted with the daily grind of their own jobs.

One of the simplest yet most effective interventions is arranging an enriched environment—it grows neurons, increases social behavior, and supports virtually every population. Although it can take less time than waiting and intervening in crises, it is not something an inpatient staff can or wants to do when burned out.

When I teach staff how to stay calm and respond calmly and with preventative input (e.g., my preventative schedule or NCR approach), this is often a burnout-protective approach. It IS behavior analytic, but it’s not complicated.

Connections no one planned

Mental health and ABA are also connected accidentally, when a mental health therapist learns their client is receiving ABA, or a behavior analyst learns their client has also been diagnosed (e.g., anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, or others). In these moments we are forced to look at the connection: what do we do to support the client? Ethically, perhaps we should reach out to learn how the family feels about collaboration; maybe the psychiatric team would love to hear how we are supporting behavior change at home or school and how the data change when medications are changed; or maybe there are important risks to document, or helpful suggestions to make that would help the team stay on the same page. Yet often one or more parties says “not my role!” and makes no efforts to implement connected support. Notice again this is still not suggesting to go outside your role, but to work more collaboratively with others as much as it is appropriate (e.g., Ethics Code 2.03a-b).

Taking care of myself

Finally, here are some other simple behavior analytic strategies that help me manage and protect my own mental health so I stay focused and available to bring my best self to client interaction.

Manage my schedules of reinforcement

I carve out time for myself daily- I make time for tea, breakfast and stretching- all important preventative appetitive things I need to approach regularly.

Set up and honor stimulus control strategies to decrease my exposure to stressors

-Take off email notifications on my phone: Sure, you don’t have to answer them, but how many times has one subject line told you about an upcoming stressor, increased your heart rate, or interrupted your use of coping skills or important family time?

-Limit checking email to when you are prepared to respond (not necessarily by hitting reply, but read it and respond by writing a note you’ll save and send later, perhaps). (If scrolling through my account before bed I notice an inflammatory email, I can pause and return tomorrow. I recently practiced this—stopped reading past the subject line until the morning, and first meditated and had breakfast. It was still upsetting but I found that I was able to answer it and move along).

How do you think behavior analysis and mental health are connected? We love to hear your input, stories or questions.

Selected references and resources

Anthony Biglan, Georgia L. Layton, Laura Backen Jones, Martin Hankins and Julie C. Rusby, The Value of Workshops on Psychological Flexibility for Early Childhood Special Education Staff, Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 32, 4, (196), (2013).

Lindsley, O. R. (1960). Characteristics of the behavior of chronic psychotics as revealed by free operant conditioning methods. Diseases of the Nervous System (Monograph Supplement), 21, 66-78.

Lindsley, O. R., & Skinner, B. F. (1954). A method for the experimental analysis of the behavior of psychotic patients. American Psychologist, 9, 419-420.

Salzinger, K., & Pisoni, S. (1961). Some parameters of verbal affect responses in schizophrenic subjects. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63(3), 511-516.

Salzinger, K., & Pisoni, S. (1958). Reinforcement of affect responses of schizophrenics during the clinical interview. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 57(1), 84-90.

Stahl, J. R., & Leitenberg, H. (1976). Behavioral treatment of the chronic mental hospital patient. In H. Leitenberg (Ed.), Handbook of behavior modification and therapy (pp. 211-241). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Stephen Wong (2006). Behavior analysis of psychotic disorders: Scientific dead end or casualty of the mental health political economy? Behavior and Social Issues, 15, 152-177.