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Supporting Parents and Families

In the ideal world, every child would have parents and other loving family members who are engaged in their education, social activities, health and wellness, and leisure time.  This engagement provides protection for the child, emotional bonding for the family, and opportunities for parents to pass along their wisdom and values.  Caretakers explicitly and implicitly teach their children through modeling, conversation, and interaction every day. 

For families that include individuals on the autism spectrum, sometimes parents and caretakers may benefit from additional support to engage with and help their children.  Additionally, when children are receiving ABA services it is essential for caretakers to be included in planning and delivery of programming. 

One important reason for including parents and other family members in ABA intervention is because they are key sources of information and guidance for behavior analysts.  No one knows children better than the people who love them.  Exploring the functions of behavior and then developing plans for the most effective teaching and behavior support strategies requires collaboration with parents or closest caregivers.  If a behavior analyst wants to know about a client’s reinforcers and motivators, they should speak to the client.  If the client is unable to communicate with the behavior analyst, the people close to the client are the next best source of information.  Parents or other close caregivers can provide a wealth of knowledge about their children who may not yet be able to speak for themselves. 

Next, parents or guardians are the providers of consent for their child’s assessment and treatment.  They should be actively engaged in deciding what goals should be set, how behavior should be assessed, and how interventions should be implemented.  Goals and interventions should be based on the values and culture of the family, not the behavior analyst.  The only way to do this authentically is to connect in a meaningful way with the family and engage in respectful conversation about their needs and their preferences.  Next to the client, parents and/or caregivers as the most essential members of the team.

Another reason to engage caregivers in behavioral intervention planning and implementation is simply that they have almost continuous access to their child and therefore can have the most impact.  If a caregiver who is with the child for most of the day has a good understanding of how to implement behavioral interventions, including antecedent-based strategies, language interventions, and natural environment teaching, the power of the intervention is magnified tremendously.  Not only does the child benefit from opportunities for learning and positive support throughout the day, but generalization and maintenance of skills learned in more formal therapy are dramatically improved. 

Following are some thoughts about how to facilitate this collaboration but remember that every parent or caregiver is different and should be approached and addressed in the way that works best for them. 

  • First, let’s look at the term “parent training.” While the term means “training parents about ABA,” it also implies that parents need to be trained to be parents.  Not only is this inaccurate, but it may come across as hurtful or arrogant.  Also, remember that not everyone who comes to parent training is a parent, and not everyone who comes to parent training needs to learn the same things.  Some parents or caregivers are very new to participating in their child’s programming, and others have been deeply involved for a long time, but we all can benefit from collaboration.  Funding sources often refer to the service as “parent training” so we may be stuck with the term, but it can be very helpful to explain to parents and caregivers from the beginning that they are not going to be told what to do, they are not going to be judged, and everyone is here for the same reason - to work together to help their child.
  • As mentioned above, not everyone who receives parent training is a parent. Remember that families may have very different configurations, and sometimes children are cared for by those other than their parents.  Sometimes grandparents, aunts, uncles, or older siblings are involved in raising children.  For a variety of reasons, sometimes paid caregivers are involved.  Whoever is part of the child’s world on a day-to-day basis may benefit from collaborating with the child’s behavioral programming team.
  • Remember that although the individual receiving the behavioral intervention is technically the client, everyone who is affected by the child’s services should be treated according to the same principles as the client. Take the time to assess the caregiver’s wants, needs, and motivators, and not just in direct relation to their child.  Caregivers will usually readily describe what they want for their child to get out of therapy, but we can also ask what caregivers want for themselves.  We can and should also ask how caregivers prefer to learn, receive feedback, review progress, and interact with us.  Some caregivers will prefer a highly technical experience and will appreciate graphs and journal articles, while others would rather have practical advice.  Some caregivers will want to proceed slowly and step-by-step, and others will want to have a big picture plan.
  • As noted above, this will depend on the individual parent or caregiver, but for the most part it is advisable to start by using approachable language, introducing jargon only if needed or wanted. Most caregivers need to know how to help their child today and tomorrow, and do not need to know about complicated schedules of reinforcement or technical terminology that may be off-putting or upsetting.  Of course, if a parent prefers technical terminology, it is totally appropriate to use it and to introduce them to books, websites, and other resources to provide any background and theory they may be interested in.
  • Be clear and kind in setting boundaries. Collaboration with caregivers usually means getting involved in their family on a deeper and more compassionate level than other professionals.  They may be close to their dentist or pediatrician, but most will likely only see those professionals a few times per year, and not in their homes.  The members of the ABA team, by contrast, are usually involved in family life many times in a week, often in the family’s home, and it is not unusual or problematic to develop concern for each other.  Ethical guidelines against developing dual relationships can be respected with kindness, within the greater context, and should be consistent and not unexpected for the family.
  • Be respectful of competing demands. Remember that as a professional your interaction with the caregiver is mostly in relation to the child who is receiving services, but caregivers often have other responsibilities to be balanced.  These may include other children and family members, work, and their own physical and mental health needs.  If a caregiver is not as responsive as we would like, assume good intentions and try to analyze how they could be better supported to participate.  Sometimes this means changing the expectations for what they can do, and other times it means providing additional resources or different suggestions that are more consistent with their situation.
  • It is important to remember to show interest and compassion for the whole family. Remember that the client is part of a unit, and the people who are important to them can be important to the team, too.  Not only does this level of consideration lead to better outcomes for the child because the family will be more engaged with the professionals, but it will also result in a more fulfilling experience for the professionals.  We all entered this field to help people; working within the context of the family allows us to help many people at one time.


References Consulted

Behavior Analyst Certification Board. (2014). Professional and ethical compliance code for behavior analysts. Author.

Callahan, K., Foxx, R. M., Swierczynski, A., Aerts, X., Mehta, S., McComb, M. E., Nichols, S. M., Segal, G., Donald, A., & Sharma, R. (2019). Behavioral artistry: Examining the relationship between the interpersonal skills and effective practice repertoires of applied behavior analysis practitioners. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 49(9), 3557-3570.

LeBlanc, L. A., Taylor, B. A., & Marchese, N. V. (2019). The training experiences of behavior analysts: Compassionate care and therapeutic relationships with caregivers. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 13, 1-7.

Taylor, B. A., LeBlanc, L. A., & Nosik, M. R. (2018). Compassionate care in behavior analytic treatment: Can outcomes be enhanced by attending to relationships with caregivers?  Behavior Analysis in Practice, 12(3), 654–666.

About The Authors

Dana Reinecke is a doctoral level Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA-D) and a New York State Licensed Behavior Analyst (LBA). Dana is a Core Faculty member and Associate Chair in the Applied Behavior Analysis department at Capella University. She is also co-owner of SupervisorABA, an online platform for BACB supervision curriculum and documentation. Dana provides training and consultation to school districts, private schools, agencies, and families for individuals with disabilities. She has presented original research and workshops on the treatment of autism and applications of ABA at regional, national, and international conferences. She has published her research in peer-reviewed journals, written chapters in published books, and co-edited books on ABA and autism. Current areas of research include use of technology to support students with and without disabilities and online teaching strategies for effective college and graduate education. Dana is actively involved in the New York State Association for Behavior Analysis (NYSABA), and is currently serving as Past President (2019-2020).

Dr. Cheryl Davis: I am a licensed and board certified behavior analyst as well as a special education teacher who received my doctoral degree from Endicott College in Applied Behavior Analysis.  I am an Assistant Professor at The Sage Colleges, as well as owner of 7 Dimensions Consulting, LLC. I received a Master’s of Science Degree in Intensive Special Education from Simmons College in Boston, MA after attending The University of Connecticut where I received a bachelor’s degree in Human Development.  I then pursued my BCBA, while working in a world renown ABA school.  With over 25 years of experience working with children and families with autism, developmental disabilities, and related disorders, I specialize in effective supervision for upcoming BCBA/BCaBA candidates.  I have a passion for supervision, in both providing it to people who are in locations with limited access to behavior analysis and working with other supervisors to develop best supervision practices.  I also specialize in skill acquisition programming for clients in need, online teaching, and active student responding. I have had experience as a supervisor, teacher, job coach, home therapist, residential supervisor, public school consultant, staff trainer and professor. I have extensive experience in developing training topics for both parents and teaching staff.  I am a self-describe radical behavior analyst with one worldview!