Beyond My Current Competence


Whether you’ve been in the field for a year or twenty, and whether you feel like you make a difference each day, or struggle to go to work, anyone can benefit from deliberately expanding their boundary of competence. Perhaps you’ve had calls from a potential client and had to turn down the opportunity, lacking the experience, training, supervision, funds, or continuing education to say yes, or to provide treatment for that particular diagnosis, age group, type of agency or setting, or behavior. If you can identify, you are not alone. In my recent poll of a group of behavior analysis students in a post-master’s degree course that counted toward the BACB requirements for sitting for the exam, 100% of students identified that they were currently working in the autism field. Despite their lack of exposure to other fields, there was certainly no lack of interest! 40% of students were interested in getting involved in education; 88% of students wanted to know more about behavior analysis in animal welfare; and 63% wanted to learn more about behavior analysis in child welfare and human services, including intellectual disabilities. Seventy-five percent of students would have liked to expand into behavioral gerontology, 69% into behavior-based safety, and 56% into organizational behavior management. And a full 100% indicated they were interested in learning how they could use behavior analysis to support those with brain injury!

With this diversity in the interests of entry level certificants (and an array of actual jobs that is even more rich), it is always amusing and a little surprising to see this frequent question on social media: “is there anyone here who practices outside of autism (or its cousin early intervention)? If so, how could I grow my practice?”

Fortunately, the same foundational knowledge, skills and tools that helped you to grow your clients’ repertoire apply to this opportunity that you face. Maybe you’re thinking this is easier said than done. But stick with me… maybe that’s just the initial impression you’re getting from the seeming lack of exemplars. Let’s talk about a skill that’s already in your repertoire: arranging a supportive environment for doing something new.

First, it might help to connect with your “values”, goals, or reinforcers (see this article on values in behavior analysis using the ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) framework). Or you might find it helpful to jot down your answers to questions like this: What do you want to be doing in 5 years? What is one thing that if you began to do it, your entire life would change? Who do you most want to help in your lifetime? What gets you so jazzed up you can’t stop talking about it? Israel Goldiamond, the father of the Constructional Approach, asked similar questions in his Constructional Questionnaire. I think of this as the best motivational interview out there, and you can find it around the end of his wonderful 1974 article, reprinted in 2002 here (see page 187). He wanted to know, “assuming we were successful, what would the outcome be for you?” Another way of asking this question is to ask yourself what “cusp” you need most to achieve your goals. (See this article on how identifying a behavioral cusp can help you make leaps of progress.)

Now that you have gotten in touch with your “why”, you need to arrange some ways to contact related reinforcers, and to see exemplars in action. Just as a video model helps my 13 year old client learn to make a sandwich and see the results – consuming the delicious hand made treat—I was inspired and more, when I broke out of my comfort zone and attended conference talks that only remotely applied to my then-current work in autism. I watched OBM talks, animal talks, behavior safety and gerontology talks, and went to every talk on behavior analysis in mental health that I could find. RELATED TIP:  At conferences, approach speakers who inspire you from different and related fields. Ask them for suggestions. Select a recommendation, apply it for several weeks, and contact the person to follow up and thank them.

When first branching out (or planning your leap), I recommend that you spend some time dedicated to being a generalist. Nearly every area has at least some agencies that support people with developmental disabilities or differently abled people of all ages. Around Colorado, I can do this by connecting with Community Center Boards, ARC’s, and county organizations. If you don’t find full time opportunities for paid work with these organizations, you can gain the same benefit through volunteering at an agency similar to those I have named. The great benefit of this suggestion is that you rapidly move beyond being “a person with experience with autism and early intervention”, to someone who has been around inclusive support of people with an array of developmental, intellectual, and genetic challenges. Doing this step before working on my own meant that I was now experienced with all ages and settings where people might experience treatment, ranging from private residences, host homes, group homes and mental hospitals, to all kinds of day programs.

Next, I encourage others in the “before you leap” stage to begin to collaborate intensively and intentionally. You can do this wherever you are, of course. I can’t count how many letters I have written to the client’s pediatrician, physician, dentist, feeding therapist, psychotherapist, occupational and speech therapist, advocate, social worker, police department, psychiatrist, psychologist, adoptive caseworker, and nurses. When and why do I do this? I initiate the contact to surrounding professionals (when appropriate and after obtaining written permission from the guardian, of course (see Compliance Code Guideline 2.03 and 3) at the onset of a case when I am conducting my documentation review, as part of the FBA (Functional Behavior Assessment). I do this to let the potential collaborator know I am doing an assessment in case it impacts or informs their own clinical work, and request documentation if needed for my assessment. I don’t always hear back. But when I do, these connections grow my network and enhance the client’s collaborative care. And the professional may write months or years later and ask for collaboration or consultation or training for their staff!

At the end of services, a report may not be required. But write it anyway. It helps to document the closing or transfer of a case in an appropriate way, and provides a way for you to leave your information for all parties in case someone wants you to collaborate in the future. Be sure to add the 3 R’s: Always embed resources, risk assessments, and referrals in your reports. The risk assessment piece has helped me grow my career in several ways. First, it’s just plain good (and ethical) practice to document the risks and potential benefits of current and other possible options for what your client is considering. But it’s also a little new to the field; it’s not quite standard practice although it’s a standard recommendation. I have had referrals to do educational evaluations and consultation for companies and agencies who happened to see one of my risk assessments embedded in a report.

RELATED TIP: Graph other people’s interventions. You already know you’re responsible for helping understand the effects of related interventions if the client is receiving more than ABA. But this is also hugely educational for the other professional, and fosters future relationships. What psychiatrist wouldn’t appreciate a cumulative record of challenging behavior or new words learned, with lines on the graph showing her when the medication changes occurred? What social worker would turn down a graph of her home visits and the child’s family interaction, superimposed on a graph of the client’s challenging behavior? What school teacher wouldn’t appreciate a graph of new skills learned at home at the same time as school interventions were occurring?

The above tip only works as long as we respect others and value others’ work. Try to learn about it before you offer to help or intervene, never ask a team to take data before looking at (and perhaps graphing) what data they are already collecting. And I like to enter any environment with a “tips sheet” that puts into words some basic strategies that will help promote appropriate behavior, leaving them with my contact information and availability to collaborate if they need support or want to learn more about behavior analysis. (See this earlier post on collaborating within hospital environments for similar ideas).

Tips for entering a provider network that you’re not familiar with: You can contact a caseworker for the agency and ask to speak with someone in their administration. Or you can ask how people become providers. Usually there is an upcoming provider fair in the next few months you can get invited to. Finally, ask if they have support groups for families or clients; ask if you can audit a support group to learn more about their needs. Be quiet and respectful during this time that families are sharing, and think about ways you would be able to support them. Don’t ambulance chase; follow the ethics code and find other routes. (While you wait you can apply to be a provider, and offer to do a free basic training on behavior analysis and how clients can benefit). The agency may start connecting you to families at that point.

Give back and stay connected. I practice these tips regularly: find a mentor, meeting with someone regularly who can guide you. At the same time, I meet regularly with people who likely can’t help me, but to whom I can be a good source of advice or support. At any level you can do this; BCaBA’s can help to mentor an RBT; BCBA’s can mentor BCaBA’s and RBT’s; and BCBA-D’s can mentor each other, and BCBA’s. Sometimes finding a complementary professional who is in a field that’s only slightly related can be a great source of networking and support, as I find with professional friends who are not behavior analysts but who are mental health therapists, psychiatrists, and psychologists.

Some final thoughts: Ask for supervision and mentorship actively. (We live in an age where you can easily have phone or internet meetings with someone across the globe whose experience you lack.) Give referrals to others (help others grow their networks). Read articles, and attend conference meetings, slightly out of your field. Check out what other behavior analysis professionals have to say about expanding boundaries. Contact conference presenters. Trust me, we usually welcome it. Be interested in other people and their work, research, articles, podcasts, what they love to talk about. DO give a firm “no” before, not when, you are overloaded (this helps you do a good job in every case). When you have to say no, teach people how to locate a behavior analyst in their area. Keep growing your skillset (my current frontier is an ACT supervision group I have joined with therapists who are not behavior analysts). And finally, try keeping a yes/no log! This is a place to write down the contact information, date and nature of any referrals or opportunities you received, that you must turn down because you still lack the mentorship, experience, continuing education, training or supervision. Check whether the opportunity aligns with your values and goals (see the first step we discussed today). If it does, then program for yourself an action plan in which you identify at least three actions that put you closer to saying “yes” to similar opportunities in one year. One year later, check in with the old referral and let them know you appreciate the ways they helped you grow and that you’d be happy to meet for tea to hear how they are doing.

If this post helped you, let me know how YOU are doing… or feel free to write me and add suggestions and solutions you have found. May we all keep growing! 


LeBlanc et al. (2012) on expanding the consumer base for behavior analytic services

Website on Goldiamond’s Constructional Approach:

Goldiamond’s article Toward a Constructional Approach to Social Problems (you can download the PDF by first going to this page):

Article on “values” in behavior analysis using the ACT framework:

Click to access bhan-32-01-85.pdf

Article on ACT and behavioral activation related to depression and avoidance:

Click to access bhan-29-02-161.pdf

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 analyst 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, we have an ethical imperative as behavior analysts to get a medical perspective (or to rule out medical concerns) when there might be a medical component to behaviors that are challenging… but most home and clinic based behavior analysts don’t typically work in the hospital settings.

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