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.


Resource Wednesday: Paradigm Behavior, for family-supportive resources beautifully designed by a friendly BCBA


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At CuspEmergence, we love finding resources or information we can share with our families and community. Imagine our excitement when we discovered this close-to-home resource, an entire website devoted to helping parents become even more amazing at playing, communicating, and connecting with their children! Paradigm Behavior maintains a website and resource library where families can learn, with the support of a Board Certified Behavior Analyst who is a parent herself. Christina posts blogs, resources for supporting play, and online coaching for families interested in developing play skills, language, and more. Paradigm Behavior maintains a well-stocked Playroom, which could teach students and supervisees cutting their teeth in behavior analysts a thing or about connecting with families and using materials in effective ways.

The resources we found were helpful even to seasoned behavior analysts, taking much of the work out of connecting parents with individualized resources that were at once friendly and helpful. We think you’ll love them as much as we do

Check out

Trauma-informed behavior analysis, Part 4: On terms (Is “trauma” behavioral?)

This article is the fourth installment in a series on trauma-informed behavior analysis, by Dr. Teresa Camille Kolu, Ph.D., BCBA-D.

Is “trauma” a behavioral term?

“Trauma” is a buzzword lately. As several people recently noted on behavior analytic forums, it seems as though schools and other entities are requiring “trauma-informed care” from people tasked with providing behavioral interventions, yet it isn’t clear whether trauma actually presents as anything different than the reinforcement history, or a client’s past, that would be explored routinely in any old behavior assessment.

On a recent facebook post in a behavior analytic group, one person posted, “Trauma”, “trauma-informed”, etc, is [just] the new buzzword to get grant funding and sell product”. Another poster chimed in, “Trauma? What’s the behaviors [sic] of concern? What’s the function?” This seems to imply that if we know the current function of behavior, what more do we need to know? It suggests that the resulting treatment path is likely to be no different than that for a “typically developing child” of the same age and an apparently similar behavioral repertoire.

The implication in the social media posts above seems to be, “what’s the big deal?” In other words, trauma is thought of as some in the behavior analysis community as simply another sexy concept that is meant to sell and sound good, rather than being something critical to appreciate (and to suggest differential treatment based on its presence or absence).

As a behavior analyst who has treated children and adults exposed to serious and adverse childhood experiences, I have come to appreciate that the current function is NOT the only important thing to know before treating someone’s challenging behavior patterns, or helping an adoptive parent cope with challenges a mental health therapist might call “reactive attachment”.

So what’s a BCBA to do? Continue reading

What does hope sound like?

What does hope look like?

The behavioral doctor sat between house calls in her car with amazed tears streaming down her face.

Was this viral story true?bird.jpg

Intuitively, she knew that it must be, for she instantly recognized the chubby little face she saw on the screen. She suddenly recalled the clear little voice asking for “music!”, and a couple of weeks later, “music, please!”. She remembered when his list of words included about five. She recalled singing songs (“Way up in the sky, the little birds fly….”) to a toddler who had needed early intervention desperately.

But the story she read on facebook was also hard to believe, because this young man wrote so confidently and was about to graduate. He also sang so beautifully, as links posted by his mother—and his scholarships to prestigious programs—confirmed. It had been at least 15 years since she saw the toddler’s face, or said “do this” and prompted him to carefully stack one block on top of the other, painstakingly teaching play skills that other children seemed to learn so naturally. At the time she had worked for an early intervention program, providing or supervising up to 7 hours per day of behavior therapy to children whose tantrums often overwhelmed and injured their parents, teachers and skilled therapists—but communicated their wants and needs before they had words. And at the time, she did not know that behavior analysis would become her fulfilling career and that she would go on to study neuroscience and learn how the brain really does change with the hundreds and in some cases, thousands of hours of careful social input that certified behavior analysts are trained to provide.

But this was definitely the same little guy, except he was all grown up. Continue reading

Trauma-Informed Behavior Analysis, Part 3: Is It Ethical For Behavior Analysts to Treat “Trauma”?


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This is Part 3 in a series of how behavior analysts approach “trauma”, by Teresa Camille Kolu, Ph.D., BCBA-D.

Is It Ethical For Behavior Analysts to Treat “Trauma”?

Meaningful answers often depend on asking an appropriate question.

Since this “yes-or-no” question is not the least bit appropriate for many of us to answer “yes” to without more information, let’s start by refining our question.

Under what conditions would it be appropriate for a behavior analyst to treat someone whose behaviors relate to their adverse childhood experiences?

The question above is one way of asking the question, and your team might think of others. It also may help to check out Tuesday’s upcoming article on Behavioral Terminology Related to “Trauma”.

I’ve certainly seen some inappropriate, well-meaning, and harmful treatment of behavior when the children and people involved have been through adverse childhood (or other) experiences.

Part of my concern is that young behavior analysts may have come from a program that did not cover adequately the experimental basis of our field, including schedule effects or concepts like the molecular or molar view of behavior.

I think young behavior analysts who are smart and curious can get these things; they need to have better exposure in their classes (and online course sequences toward certification paths aren’t likely to bring this exposure) or groups (so ask your friendly local or skype article CEU club if you’d like to read an article like this one on the paradigm shift from the molecular to molar view in behavior analysis). This is why a supportive verbal community of reinforcement is so critical for developing behavior analysts (more on that later elsewhere on this site).

(Not sure how to look up pdf’s of articles? An easy way is to first look at the online journal list (for example, for JABA or JEAB) and first enter your search terms, then when you find the article, go to the journal’s archive and click on the issue where the article was published, and download the pdf. This works for all archived JABA and archived JEAB issues through 2012.)

That was fun; let’s get back to the scary stuff: inappropriate, well-meaning, and harmful treatment of behavior.

Sometimes an inexperienced behavior analyst treats only the “local function”, such as treating a behavior in your classroom that seems like it’s related to attention with pure extinction (e.g., without conducting a complete and appropriate functional assessment). This might seem appropriate without more information, but in clients with “trauma backgrounds” or exposure to serious past (or hidden and ongoing) childhood adverse experiences (such as disruptions in primary caregiving and exposure to abuse and neglect), this course of treatment may lead to further harmful escalation, or serious risks and side effects. There are other possibly more appropriate options such as differential reinforcement without extinction, or the preventative schedule approach I mentioned in a previous article. At the least we need to base decisions on better information.

In a classroom where I observed a child who had been through a series of terrible and neglectful situations, when his behavior was placed on attention extinction, he virtually lost all advocacy skills (e.g., stopped manding for help or showing his distress), was being abused by others and never reported it, and started hiding his self-injury which became more and more severe. These were some of the risks involved of using a procedure without evaluating the possible side effects given the child’s repertoire and the reinforcement available for his appropriate skills, and without collaborating with others who had access to the child’s history and current home situation (Compliance Code 2.03b).

The teacher was using the procedure recommended by a behavior analyst, but the BCBA did not know about the child’s history or home life (and did not ask). As I’ve said before, I am NOT asking anyone to stop a function-based approach!- but to demand the information you need to understand the larger context for behavior.

So what’s a behavior analyst to do?

I typically try to think first of ethics (asking, “should I be doing this?”) before diving into strategies (“what should I be doing?”). Here are some ethical considerations:

  1. Is this in my boundary of competence and based on my education, training, and supervised experience?

See Compliance Code 1.02a). If not, it’s a good idea to first seek continuing study, training, supervision and consultation (see Compliance Code 1.02b). I think the skill of reaching out to obtain supervision and mentorship when appropriate (e.g., accepting clients appropriately) may be an important behavior cusp critical to the future repertoires of behavior analysts trying to practice ethically.

  1. I think of ethical behavior analysis as practicing within my boundaries, yet at the same time as growing my boundaries of competence so that next year I will have expanded them and will be able to take a client I said no to this year.

Dr. LeBlanc and colleagues have an article on expanding the consumer base for behavior analytic services that is available for a CEU.

  1. Consider ethics and your own experience and resources carefully, before you begin treating trauma or accepting any kind of trauma-related client.

See 1 and 2 above, and remember not to give advice that stands in for services (e.g., 1.05a). Our responsibility is always to do no harm, and at times the side effects of inappropriate treatment may be riskier than doing nothing (2.09c). It is important to develop a relationship with a mentor who has been there and can assist you to apply new information to an exquisitely sensitive set of problems and clients. If not, arrange for appropriate consultation and referrals (2.03).

  1. All this goes for supervisors too:

Just like we should be careful before we accept a client for treatment, we accept a supervisee who is treating in a sensitive area only after considering our own defined area of competence (5.01). How will we communicate about and report risks (7.02) if we are not experienced enough to recognize and communicate about the risks of our own treatment (2.09)? Agencies may be under particular pressure to accept clients when there is funding, but there are serious risks of doing this too early or without appropriate in-house supervision.

  1. Be prepared for extensive collaboration:

I’ve talked to supervisors who have taken on trauma cases without completing assessments of risks and side effects (2.09c) or collaborating with other therapists the child is concurrently seeing, and this means they are already in danger of not being able to review and appraise effects of other treatments that might impact the goals of the program (2.09d).

Why do you need mentorship, education and experience under supervision first?

This is partly because after you accept a client (e.g., 2.01) whose service needs are consistent with your education and training, experience, resources and policies, your responsibilities are to everyone effected by your behavior analytic services. For example, once I started treating clients affected by trauma, I also found myself treating foster families’ other children to deal with the abuse the affected child talked about, the primary caregiver who used to be on drugs and was trying to demonstrate she could follow a plan and get her children back, and the social workers and other team members who didn’t understand schedule effects and were making placement decisions without data on behavior.

In an upcoming article we discuss some treatment approaches and how we can improve our supervision of BCBA’s treating these serious concerns. But first, next Tuesday covers some behavioral ways of talking about “trauma”. Stay tuned!

And as ever, this information is not a substitute for mentorship or supervision. This is intended for use in supporting behavior analysts to reach out to their own networks and supervisors and mentors, growing their boundaries of competence in an ethical and responsible way.

May we all keep expanding our repertoires.