By Kate Merrill, Board Certified Behavioral Analyst (BCBA)

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a science that looks at an individual’s surroundings to understand their actions, rather than their thoughts and feelings, and then makes adjustments to those surroundings to improve important social behavior. A large part of my job at COMPASS is conducting Functional Behavior Assessments (FBAs), which involves doing interviews, observations, and collecting data to uncover current and historical patterns of behavior. In particular, myself and other school staff record what happens immediately before the behavior (the antecedent), what the behavior looks like, and what happens immediately after (the consequence). (i.e. In what class is the behavior happening? Does it happen during assignments, when nobody is paying attention to them, when somebody tells them “no,” or after a peer acted out? Did other kids laugh at their disrespectful comment? Did the teacher give them feedback, or did this cause a delay in work starting?)

Once patterns have been identified, I understand the function of someone’s behavior (i.e., what they’re getting out of it). Although we see many of the same problem behaviors on a daily basis, each student is communicating a different need to us through their actions. Students may need different amounts or types of attention, different modifications to their work, more frequent breaks, social skill development, or the use of certain sensory tools to be more successful. While structure, consistency, and predictability are key for providing a safe environment for students who struggle with emotional and behavior disorders, determining individual skill levels, and being flexible to provide students with what motivates them, is key to seeing them grow.

Once the function of challenging behavior is identified, it becomes easier to change it for the better. ABA is an evidence-based treatment, which means that there is a lot of published research I can look through to find interventions that have been successful for other students with similar profiles. Behavior Intervention Plans (BIPs) involve the whole team reinforcing skills that can replace problem behavior (such as more functional communication), and altering the classroom, milieu (environment), and staff responses to decrease the student’s motivation to act out. Once we make those changes, when progress occurs, it often occurs slowly and variably – but with the data that we have, it’s easier to see if we are headed in the right direction! I make graphs that provide a visual of those numbers to see the small steps that students are making towards their goals over time: slightly more time in class each week, fewer aggressions, or more appropriate requests to process with their clinicians, are a few of the behaviors that I may analyze to see if a plan is working, or if we need to try something new. As all the staff at COMPASS school work hard to positively support our students, it’s important to have not only stories, but also numbers, to show the ways students develop during their time with us so that we can document the supports they need going forward to make the greatest gains.

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