Part 12 in Trauma-Informed Behavior Analysis: What’s behavioral about treating reactive attachment disorder?


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(Part 12 of a series of posts about Trauma-informed behavior analysis by Dr. Teresa Camille Kolu, Ph.D., BCBA-D)

If you’re a behavior analyst, perhaps you read that title as “Is it behavioral to treat reactive attachment?” or “is it appropriate to use behavior analysis with a person who has been diagnosed with reactive attachment?” Perhaps you are really wondering, “is there anything I can do as a behavior analyst to help someone who has been affected by reactive attachment disorder?”

These are all good questions. First, to pose the problem another way, and to see the depth of the controversy, let’s go over some other observations I’ve heard, from mental health therapists to educators to families to BCBA’s: “Behavior analysts shouldn’t mess with reactive attachment.” “Kids with reactive attachment disorder don’t respond to behavior analysis.” “Families (or educators) whose children (or students) are suffering after reactive attachment related diagnoses can be harmed by or mistreated if people use reactive attachment.” “Reactive attachment is not a behavioral term and shouldn’t be treated with ABA.”

Now if you’re a longtime blog reader, you’ll find other ways of addressing these questions elsewhere on this blog. (I especially like talking to educators, family members and staff about what to do when praise doesn’t work, reminding us all that behavior is INDIVIDUAL, trauma-informed behavior analysis might look VERY different than that old discrete trial program you saw in college, and behavior analysis is not one cookie-cutter bag of tricks.) But I continue to hear questions about it, especially from educators, family members, and hospital and day program professionals faced with supporting the “toughest” cases. Continue reading

Part 11 in Trauma-Informed Behavior Analysis: Very early learning relates to behavior much later (see end of post for several references)


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Trigger warning: This topic is disturbing and sensitive, yet I wish more behavior analysts applied their science to this ugly real world problem.  Let’s face the hard thing together, by discussing some effects of initial learning on later behavior and learning. Several references are below for this topic: How acquisition predicts extinction; variability during acquisition and extinction. This article is Part 11 in a series on how behavior analysts can grow towards supporting children and adults affected by trauma, by Dr. Camille Kolu, Ph.D., BCBA-D.

Severely aversive experiences affect us for a long time. And acquisition can predict what someone’s behavior will look like during extinction (or how behavior will depend on original learning even long after those variables are “gone”). A BCBA recently asked me for references on this topic during SAFET logo letters onlya training I provided to an autism agency on how to provide safer and more appropriate supports for individuals affected by events we characterize as “traumatic”. Thank you to the BCBA for the excellent question!

At first try, we might have a hard time finding references and resources showing how a young child’s traumatic history leads to bizarre and challenging behavior much later in life. If this seems strange, consider how absurd it would be to suggest that caregivers are carefully documenting and reporting how they deprived a child of the food, comfort, diaper changes and other kinds of care the child needed as an infant or growing young person. These tragic events are usually documented after, not while, they occur (if ever). But at least scientists can get familiar with how early learning affects later learning, and behavior later in life. This helps us to make sense of otherwise bizarre behaviors, provide important contextual information to caregivers and decision makers, and even to inform our preventative treatment of behaviors that don’t seem related to the ongoing situation.

Behavior analysts or psychologists might relate this to how early learning conditions affect subsequent learning, or how the variables present during early learning exerts effects on behavior, after that situation is no longer present. This discussion is to provide some examples of literature that might be useful for behavior analysts interesting in exploring this topic.

In my work with children and adults after traumatic experiences before and during foster care (or other traumatic events including long duration life threatening illnesses or aversive experiences), I have been collecting data on the types of behaviors that “show up in the behavior stream and repertoire” of children who were exposed earlier – and in some cases much earlier- to situations of neglect and abuse. Continue reading

Part 10 in Trauma-Informed Behavior Analysis: A behavior analysts walks into a hospital


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This article is Part 10 in an ongoing series about ways that behavior analysts can practice in a “trauma-informed” way. Considering that behavior analysts need to be ready to participate with medical and other providers, this article shares some lessons learned about becoming involved with the medical team. Whether your client is going through trauma or not, it should be helpful. But it’s particularly important for my clients who are being treated in intensive settings for their mental and medical health (often resulting from years of trauma). Be well, Dr. Camille Kolu Ph.D., BCBA-D

One of the ways I like to learn from others is hearing their “lessons learned”. By listening to them share what they have learned and what did or didn’t work, I can hone my own role and be more prepared the next time I enter a similar setting. For many of us, the mental or medical hospital is a new frontier. What can we behavior analysts can do to help in this type of setting?

I think about my role this way: As a behavior analyst, I am not the person’s medical doctor. But we often need to collaborate- and yet most medical professionals are not extremely familiar with collaborating with us. What can I do to support our mutual clients, making their healers’ work more effective?

Here are some ideas that have helped me to integrate into these settings more effectively. In some cases they are lessons I learned when I failed to do something up front that could have made a marked difference later on. In all cases, Continue reading

Part 9 in Trauma-Informed Behavior Analysis: On intervention for fetal alcohol exposure


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Early intervention after an unfair start in life: Fetal exposure to alcohol

Those of us who work with people who have lived through adverse childhood experiences are familiar with the importance of individualizing treatment. We can do a lot of harm if we don’t consider what someone went through in life, or if we assume that one child’s preferences and needs are similar to those of another person.

Of course, this series about trauma has emphasized that it is the responsibility of ANY behavior analyst to individualize treatment, to consider the history of a client before moving forward with treatment, and to treat more than the “local” functions of behavior. Unfortunately, it is easy to miss the importance of this component of assessment and treatment, especially for new behavior analysts who have gained their “hours” working with highly similar clients, working without supervisors experienced in a diverse clientele, of without any supervisor or instructor who appreciates experimental as well as applied behavior analysis. One of the ways we find out more, is to go to the literature. This may be easier said than done, and an example of successfully data mining for this topic is provided toward the end of the article.

Today’s discussion involves clients who have been affected by what’s known as “Fetal alcohol syndrome”, or exposure to alcohol in the womb.

This is more than adverse childhood experience, for it goes back further in development, perhaps even as early as the neural tube (which will give rise to the spinal cord) and other important structures were being formed. This kind of exposure can affect an individual for their entire lifetime.

So we can consider it an adverse experience, although it happened even earlier than what we think of as “childhood”, and it has long lasting consequences, altering the way someone will learn and interact for the rest of their life.

Can we treat behavior after this condition? Continue reading

Part 8 in Trauma-Informed Behavior Analysis: When a label masks needs



Buzzing underneath: Wisteria, the bees, and the fly

When you look at this picture, what do you see? wisteria.jpg

When I look into this painting I see pieces of my family’s home.

I see my mother and how she loves wisteria; how she tends it so carefully; how she protects it every year from the freeze. In Texas the freezes may come far between and at strange times. If we can we protect what we love.

When I see this painting I also see through my father’s eye, for he took the photograph on which my painting is based. I look through his eyes and notice how he sees a story in everything.

Some people see other things.

To some it looks beautiful and calm on the surface. Soon, this tree will be getting ready for its annual sleep, when it will look – for months—like a dead thing. But at a certain time of spring, its glory may return (if my mother saves it). And it will become alive with something you don’t see:

At a certain time of year, if you wandered nearby and stared closely, then underneath and within and all around the blossoms that seem like you could just touch them, this tree would again be swarming with bees.

So there are those of us who wouldn’t be able to lean in, to breathe deeply of its fragrance.

There are those of us with life threatening allergies to bees!

And some of us derive our fear not from specific allergies – and to us the stimulus is not exactly the same as poisoning us – but is still just as scary. Perhaps this can be overcome. Perhaps I can use my behavioral skills to get you closer and closer to a bee. Perhaps you’ll hold one in your hand, someday.

But for a moment I just appreciate the reasons some people are scared to approach what others find beautiful, and can love without abandon.

Some troubles are only seen underneath layers of other showy blossoms.

Some are not seen at all.

I think “showy” is such a descriptive word. During certain childhood years of mine, mom studied botany and carefully “keyed out” plants on the dining table, painstakingly identifying each tiny part, comparing each to a photo in her book, making her own drawings and descriptions. And this was just fascinating to childhood me.

Truly, it did not reduce my wonder at their beauty—to discover all the names and parts and the inner workings.

If anything, it heightened it.

Today sometimes I think about that when I appreciate the wonderful complexity that is a person.

Sometimes “behavior analysts” are thought to be incapable of appreciating the emergent wonder that is behavior! But naming all the functions, carefully looking at how the environment exquisitely shapes the behavior of a little child growing up, this only increases my fascination with people and the beauty in each person.

Each child’s history includes millions of moments, genetics, their surroundings, and more… all the things that made up their world.

Buzzing underneath: But why?

Something erratic and buzzing intruded on my thoughts this morning, startling me out of my contemplation while driving to see my client.

No longer focused on the road (and the flowers I’m painting this week), I looked around frantically to isolate the buzzing sound.

It was just a fly.

But for a few moments I was pretty distracted!

I was undaunted to get him out, whatever I did. It took a little while. I noticed a slight elevation in my heart rate, a lapse in my concentration.

And it was just a fly.

What if it was a bee and I was allergic? I imagined myself allergic to something, in that closed space with me, and me, driving, unable to get myself away.

Recently I watched a boy in a 2nd grade class who had been labeled with “ADHD”.

He moves a lot.

He can’t sit still.

He’s pretty “oppositional” and “defiant” too.

He gets distracted. He argues. He picks fights. And he never ever brings completed homework to school.

But I know a secret.

He moves a lot… between family members.

Some of them yell and hit each other.

Sometimes they sleep in their car.

Sometimes it gets impounded. I don’t know where they sleep then.

Sometimes they don’t eat much at night.

And like the flowers I love, which is my luxury to do because of my happy childhood, many of his “behaviors” are showy.

And you know what? They mask what’s underneath.

This series of trauma-informed behavior support continues with a few more “masks” in upcoming articles – such as when physical aggression masks a medical challenge, or verbal aggression masks brain injury. We’ll talk more about what we can do, and discuss the important ideas behind “differential diagnosis” and differentiating local function from historical function.

The past few years have seen an increase in child psychiatrists and pediatricians who discuss the possibility of mistaking the symptoms of serious childhood adversity for ADHD. Do we teach to sit still and medicate? Do we provide more recess? Or do we look deeper and see how we can help families, educators and teams?

A related “cusp” for educators and behavior analysts might be conducting an appropriately rigorous or well rounded functional behavior assessment before jumping into treatment. Even if we must be brief, we can ask important questions and include important people. This could make possible many next steps that would not have otherwise occurred.

See you soon, friends.




Flooded with support when a steady stream is required


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From Oregon to Florida, and Texas to India, people face terrible disasters.

There is trauma born of unpredictable and uncontrollable loss, and unwanted dependency on others for homes or meals after floods or tornadoes or fires devastate their neighborhoods. These events force capable people to rely on others, living out of hospitals or shelters.

And more people, including friends, families and people you don’t know, will suffer medical tragedies and unexpected losses.

There are similarities between these experiences and those of a foster kid moving into her 5th home in as many months. There are similarities between the needs of her foster parent, and those of the natural disaster victims who received initial support and are forgotten, alone, and still in a shelter.

While we were still thinking about Harvey and cleaning up homes, another round of disasters struck all around the world. Today Mexico’s most powerful earthquake in a century was devastating. And it will keep happening, although in between there will be periods of silence.

At the end of this article you can download some resources including visuals for caregivers of people with special needs facing disasters. But first, thoughts about the strange, sustained, nonlinear nature of recovery after tragedy or life after disruption.

A few months ago I attended a series of permanency roundtables. (Permanency… this is something those in flood zones or fire-ripe mountains – or foster homes – might never have.)

These roundtables were events to listen to hundreds of family members attempting permanent adoptions with children who had tragic stories of abuse, neglect, and repeated failed placements.

At these meetings, I heard a repeated chorus:

“We need long-lasting, repeated support.”

“We are grateful for what we’ve been given and still we work hard every day and night with no rest.”

“Our adoption workers mean well and yet are often quick to remove the supports that were so helpful for the 6 weeks of “honeymoon” after the paperwork was finalized.”

“It’s been months (or years) and the struggles are still there.”

“The kids seem to be really impacted by what they went through, and it’s showing up in difficult educational challenges which are hard to address.”

“The behavior challenges are still just as dire.”

“The wounds to our adult family members who tried to restrain the child in the middle of a furious display of emotion and behavior (whether these “come out of the blue” or after he spotted his biological aunt in Wal-Mart) are still healing and there are more coming.”

“The police are getting tired of the calls and the hospital we reached out to for help has started to blame us.”

“We look more normal now. But we actually have less support than ever before- and we still need help.”

Today, as we watch another storm about to hit, I think of a story I read last week, in which former flood victims shared their thoughts on how to help others.

When we want to help someone who will need help long-term, it suggested, we embrace the regular pace of helping a little at a time.

We say what we are doing and ask if there’s anything else. We mention when we’ll be back and we put it on our calendars, or set a reminder on our phone. We come back soon.

This approach reminds us a little of the preventative schedule… of using repeated orienting statements and offers of help and kindness… on a regular schedule, even when someone looks like they don’t need it. We have written about how it can be helpful for adult and child survivors of sexual abuse and dementia, Alzheimers, and those in mental health facilities. It’s helpful in schools. But it’s also important, useful, and do-able—to provide small, regular doses of whatever is helpful, to victims of disasters, and to keep doing this for a while after the visible evidence goes away.

Maybe the hard part is not what to give. Sure, we can give money. And at first, cash is more helpful than supplies because transportation is expensive and slow. But people rebuilding their lives need someone to show up after the show is over.

It might be as simple as dropping off fast food, working a shift piling up ruined household items, bringing hot coffee, or washing clothes and bringing them back clean. The hard part is to keep doing it regularly as long as it is needed.

What if I ask and they don’t tell me how to help?

If you leave near someone affected, but you were not, maybe you are thinking of asking them if they need something.

When someone has been through something very hard, they don’t respond well to questions.

“What do you need?” may produce a blank stare (from new moms with colicky babies after long hospital stays, or foster children or parents who clearly need support but can’t request it, to disaster victims who could really benefit from someone dropping by.

So should we shrug when we get that blank stare? After all, we asked and they said no, right?

Again, sometimes the most supportive thing to do is say how you’re addressing a need and when you’ll be back. “Hello. I’m here with food and next week I’ll be back with diapers. Let me know if there’s anything else you need.”

After the storm is gone but evidence is still there underneath brave faces, people won’t need a flood of support. Instead, try contributing in a steady stream… or even a slow trickle.

Resources and links

Boardmaker downloads for hurricanes and emergencies, including core words

Social stories about hurricanes and tragedies

Emergency preparedness for special needs, and Florida resources:

Oregon fire victims

Examples of special needs groups helping each other after Harvey

Part 7 in Trauma-informed behavior analysis: When praise doesn’t work

For readers following our ongoing series on treating behavior affected by previous adverse experiences (e.g., trauma) from a behavior analytic perspective, you may have noticed a few key concepts embedded in the articles and stories I have shared so far. One of these key ideas is this:

After trauma was present in a child’s life, their behavior may seem to respond a bit (or a lot) differently to everyday behavior management strategies.

Because this is such an important idea, I want to say it a few different ways to help you identify with different audiences and members of your collaborative team.

A parent might say, “I don’t know why, but in my 20 years of parenting kids, many who had disabilities and many who were typically developing, I’ve never had a child who just didn’t respond to my regular parenting skills – this child doesn’t respond the same, and not only does my normal parenting seem to not work, but it feels like I’m actually making it worse when I try to help.”

(Empathy red flag: Remember my suggestion to go to parenting or adoption or foster care groups and to listen hard before you try to help? Any behavior analyst knows to first “do no harm”, and it gets real, right here, when we try to help first by “doing only what we normally do” after someone experienced certain kinds of aversive and “traumatic” experiences.)

A special educator getting his behavior analytic certification new to “kids who have been through abuse or neglect” might say, “it’s so weird how the PBS (positive behavior support) and class-wide token system techniques work on my whole class, but they just don’t seem to impact this student at all; I feel like he doesn’t care, and I can’t seem to get through to him”.

A law enforcement professional new to this population might say, “It’s strange how the mother who called us seemed like she was in crisis and the child was about to commit murder, but when we got there the child seemed super calm and talked to us like nothing was wrong; I’m thinking it might be the parent who has mental health issues.”

(Above, this law enforcement example is a red flag for indicators of possible “Reactive attachment” issues that will be discussed in some upcoming articles. It might sound strange to a behavior analyst, but “attachment” is an idea that can be translated and discussed with social workers and caregivers to make sure that the client is receiving appropriate support. Responding oddly to praise is just one  of the indicators of a past challenging history, and telling vastly different stories to different adults can be another.)

A behavior analyst might say, or at least agree, that someone’s behavior responds differently to social stimuli after a series of difficult, life-changing and aversive experiences that occurred with previous caregivers.

And a behavior analyst familiar with using preventative schedules and comprehensive historical assessments to support a client after serious aversive experiences might say, “We need to document what stimuli the person was exposed to in their conditioning history, and how socially delivered stimuli affect their current behavior stream. We need to prioritize the teaching agenda for the caregivers, parents, and teachers, to make sure they know how to deliver preventative schedules [instead of doing the everyday adult training agenda like teaching people to praise appropriate behavior; we know that because of this person’s history, praise may not function as a reinforcer, and may result in worsening behavior over time, if we are not careful about how and when it is delivered].”

It’s important to point out that this article is not about how praise is not a good idea.

In fact, praise is just a social interaction that involves pointing out what was great about someone’s behavior, and it can be as simple as calling out a behavior when a child tries it for the first time (“Hey, you helped out without asking when we cleaned up the room; I bet Ms. Tilly was super happy to get some help. Did you notice how she smiled at you when we left? You’re a part of this school family and we’re so glad you’re here.”)

It’s also not about how to deliver praise effectively or why we praise or how to fade out praise. (If you’re interested in that, check out research on the subject in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis or our Why we praise handout).

It’s really about how something—a parenting practice, a behavior management strategy, an educational plan—works, given someone’s history. Often this is in addition to how a behavior functions in the moment.

It’s about individualizing our strategies (which can only occur after appropriate assessment). Praise should be a tool that waters the flowers you want in your garden. If you accidentally dump fertilizer on something you don’t want to grow, what happens? What if praise isn’t like water to a flower, but a weed-killer that will stunt its growth, because of the person’s history, and how it was paired with other stimuli in their repertoire?poppies.jpg

Sometimes we jump in before assessing the history.

Clients exposed to disruption in their early learning histories just don’t respond “typically” to praise.

Praise is not magic.

It’s just another stimulus that occurs in a social context.

By definition, it is delivered by a person, meaning it has a social conditioning history.

For some of us, it was just a signal or pre-condition for bad things about to happen.

Unlike in happy homes, for people who have been through abuse, the history of hearing praise (or hearing adults talk to a child) might not be pleasant, or predictable.

Similar to how the history of caregiving was not necessarily predictable or always pleasant, so we can’t expect that learning to trust a new caregiver, teacher or adoptive parent, or starting to enjoy their praise, or follow their helpful suggestions and instructions, will be easy or predictable.

How can we help?

When we’re lucky, sometimes clients use their words to tell us. My 20y old client who had been through abuse (and was living in a jail setting where she felt “safer” than going home to live with people who had abused her in the past) reminded me, “Dr. K, you already know I don’t respond well to compliments.”

When they’re not able to use words, even if they can sometimes speak, clients use their behavior to tell us that they don’t feel safe, or that praise is uncomfortable or that adults are historically not reliable signals of good things.

Let’s listen.

P.S. Why is “risk assessment” checked as a category or tag for this article? If we don’t assess the risks for using interventions in a case that involves “trauma”, we risk using or recommending a strategy that would work in 90% of your other cases but might increase challenging behavior in this one. If you’re a behavior analyst, you’re already concerned with following our field’s ethics guidelines related to risk assessment.

Do trials always make us stronger?


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Sometimes I write of success; of hope; of happy endings.

These are notable in part because so much of the time, the families with whom I collaborate are those whose children probably won’t learn to talk or bathe themselves, or whose middle aged children might die in the mental hospital, or whose children might never overcome their meth addiction—or women who, like me, wonder if their infertility might be lifelong.

And by itself, merely “facing a challenge” doesn’t do anything.

In a cruel twist, those facing stressful and often life-long battles also encounter the most unhelpful and banal clichés that range from “not comforting” to insulting or humiliating. They often come from well-meaning people who haven’t walked a mile in the moccasins of those they are trying to help. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this and that we all will be again.

But who cares about words. The interaction between a speaker and listener, and the actions of people, matter much more. It’s not what I say in a challenge that matters, compared to what I do. I’m reminded of Ogden Lindsley’s quip that “if a dead man can do it, it ain’t behavior”: I guess a dead person can face a problem. But can he solve it?

Maybe I don’t get stronger merely by facing challenges.

In fact, perhaps I become softer, more tender.

I cry more easily.

I empathize more, and longer, with the parents who struggled for 15 years to have a child often to learn that their expensive and long-prayed-for baby has life-threatening and life-long diagnoses.

If I’m not stronger, at least I’m listening more.

And I notice something else a dead person can’t do:

Whatever skills I practice become more fluent.

I listen and get better at listening.

I empathize and gain fluency at showing empathy.

I help, and gain skills in doing helpful things.

I care, and continue to care.

And I share and feel uncomfortable, and become more comfortable at being uncomfortable.

(Sorry, behavior analysts, I’m not sure if that last one was an actual “behavior”. Similarly, I’m sure a dead man could do this one too, but it took me lots of practice to finally become quite skilled at staying calm while having my blood drawn. I would like to stop practicing now, I’m fluent, thank you very much.)

Many parents of my clients with low functioning autism, or the grandparent clients who are raising their great-grandchildren while multiple generations in between are in jail or recovery, tell me that they are tired of being called heroes. That they are simply doing the best they can, all the time, like you or me.

That often they still wish they could do more or do it better.

As I help clients – such as those whose loved ones have dementia – I discover more and more that our trials are universal, although many of them seem so foreign to young people (and to inexperienced behavior analysts in the helping profession).  Lately I have been developing tools that seem so simple, yet also seem helpful to so many different clients, like this Resource_Orienting statement tool for a loved one who is distressed and disoriented.

Whatever tools we use, what matters seems to be to keep going—and to keep holding someone’s hand when it matters.  Granny and PaPa walking.jpg

Part 6 in Trauma-Informed Behavior Analysis: Collaborating like a life depends on it

This article is the 6th post in a series by Dr. Teresa Camille Kolu, BCBA-D, about trauma-informed behavior analysis.

Children on the autism spectrum (or those affected by one of many other developmental challenges) are often less likely to advocate for themselves than their neurotypical peers. This is dangerous, and can mean that if an adult is giving them instructions, they might keep following the instruction – even when it hurts. A dear friend is giving thanks this week for her child’s swift treatment and recovery after he nearly died on a camping trip—when trained team leaders failed to recognize his signs of distress as he followed instructions to continue the hike while he gasped for air.

When our most vulnerable children and adults don’t have a voice, we caregivers and providers must document these risks first, then be ready to look and see (their signs of distress), listen (to their attempts to communicate), and respond, collaborating like someone’s life depends on it (because it just might).

In a few weeks, I will be speaking to parents at an upcoming event around Boulder and Broomfield, Colorado to educate family members and caregivers on what they need to expect from an ethical behavioral provider.

“Did you know”, I said to a mom helping organize this event, “that no one should ever write or enforce an IEP goal that says “Teresa will decrease protesting to 0 levels”? In fact, I would argue that we should not attempt to decrease even “inappropriate protesting” to low rates—at least, not before Teresa can effectively and reliably protest effectively in a way that others understand her.

As we discussed this idea, both mom and I were saddened to remember and revisit the years of similar IEP goals that focused on a target to decrease behavior when there was no meaningful alternative for the child. Regrettably and predictably, Continue reading

Part 5 of Trauma-informed behavior analysis: 6 ways to improve your supervision of trauma-related cases


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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.