Wait, What’s Applied Behavior Analysis?

My job title has shifted depending on the company I’ve worked with (Behavior Tutor, Behavior Technician, Instructional Assistant, Behavior Interventionist, etc…) but no matter the title, whenever someone asks “so what do you do?” I’m faced with a choice: rattle off my title, which leads to glazed over eyes and a neutral response, or say “I work with kids with autism”, which is technically accurate but brings to mind a classroom aide, which doesn’t seem quite sufficient.

So here’s the basics. I work in Applied Behavior Analysis, which is complex and fascinating, but I’m about two degrees short of being able to thoroughly describe it to you, so I’ll settle on this: it’s all about reinforcement. What do you want? How are you getting it? How can you get that in a more appropriate, socially acceptable, or healthy way?

The Behavior Analysts and Assistant Behavior Analysts I work under do all sorts of assessments, data tracking, observations, and reports, and what I end up with is a binder full of lessons, a child to teach them to, and 6-10 hours a week with them (in our youngest kids that get the most intense treatment, they get a full 40 hours of lessons a week, divided between 3-4 behavior techs).

I’m sure you must be just dying to know what this looks like, so I won’t be offended if you skip this one, I just wanted to make it a little clearer what I do.

If I’m in a preschool with someone, often meaning that they’re higher functioning, I stay back a little bit and try not to draw attention to them or make them stick out as different. I take data on their behavior (listening and looking at a teacher, playing with peers, responding to instructions) versus that of a neurotypical* peer, but step in to help them if they start drawing attention to themselves with inappropriate behavior or need help with a task.

They have a token board that looks something like this, earning tokens for listening to teacher, following directions, playing with friends, or whatever it is that they’re personally working on, and when it’s filled they get to go have some play time on their own for 3 minutes, and the cycle starts again.

Working in a center is a bit more intense.

My current company has centers scattered around the greater city area where each room has about 5-6 stations, which look like cubicles, with each one having a table, a board listing specifics for each client, and a drawer full of materials specific to them.

At the start of each session, we pull out lessons from the binder to work on. Each one needs to be done either 5 or 10 times, sometimes explicitly scattered throughout a couple of hours or ten times in a row, depending on the lesson and the client. Each lesson sheet has everything I need to know to run it listed; materials needed, exact wording of instruction, how to prompt a response, and what the response should be.

So if the lesson is imitating a 3 block pattern, I might put two blocks on the bottom with one on top of them and say “build this”.

If the child does it correctly, he gets social praise (i.e. “Yay! Awesome job, you did it!”), a token, and whatever small toy or other item he was working for. If he doesn’t respond I don’t repeat the instruction, but instead use a gestural cue, model the action, or physically help him do it, and he doesn’t get a token or praise. If he does it incorrectly (like making a tower that’s three tall) there’s an error correction procedure I go through and again there is no praise, token, or item given.

We repeat this ten times, stopping throughout to see if there’s something else he wants to work for, and occasionally giving tokens and items for nice sitting, looking at me, etc.

Bam. One lesson done.

The only exception to this formula is self help skills like brushing teeth or washing face. These lessons have a list of steps written out (turn on water, get toothbrush, put toothpaste on…) and each one is scored for whether they completed that step independently or needed prompting to complete it. They might have a book or strip of pictures of each step that they reference, or may be expected to do it independently.

This continues for the 3-4 hour session, with play times earned for every token board filled up, and one ten minute break in the middle.

If the kid has a maladaptive behavior (aggression, crying, screaming), the response on my part depends on two things: what happened just before it (giving an instruction, transitioning from a preferred item) and their client specific instructions.

I know, I know, I’m being vague, but there are really so many different behaviors and possible responses that it would take awhile to give a good variety of examples, and I’m already impressed you’ve made it this far. But suffice it to say, sometimes I end up sitting and averting my gaze while a child screams and cries. Other times I’m prompting them through it to complete a task, or in other situations I give known instructions repeatedly (stand up, sit down, touch your head, do this).

At the end of a session, I mark down all of their scores in a packet that shows all of their lessons, noting any that have been mastered, leave comments in another binder about behavior, attending, what they ate and how often they went to the bathroom, and pass the child off to either another behavior tech or their parents.

It can be a hard job at times, but seeing the huge amounts of progress made by this kids makes it absolutely worth it. It’s also been good for me on a personal level; I’m generally quiet and reserved, but at work I have no problem dancing and singing the hokey pokey with one of our kids while a tour of parents walks by, or being silly to get a laugh out of the kids. It’s definitely been good for teaching me to loosen up a bit and be confident enough to risk looking silly in front of other people.

*When you’re trying to think of what to call a “normal” kid, this is the word you’re looking for. Don’t do what I do and accidentally say “hetero-normative“, because that is something very, very different.

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