An applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy team is comprised of several moving parts. There are the behavior therapists and analysts whom design, implement and evaluate behavior modification plans based on the principles of ABA. However, ABA therapy also involves a constant collaboration with other important individuals in the child’s natural environment including teachers, peers and parents. How parents interact with their children in their day-to-day lives affects the generalization of the skills learned in ABA therapy (BHCOE, 2017). Parents are an integral part of transferring skills to the natural setting. Many parents and ABA practitioners find it can be difficult for a parent to adhere to a behavior modification program for several reasons. With help from a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), parents can combat the factors affecting parental adherence and work toward improving their child’s skills more directly.
The goal of ABA therapy is for a child to demonstrate acquired skills, not just in the training environment, but across all settings such as the school, home, or when interacting with friends. Similarly, a successful treatment plan will result in a decrease in problem behaviors across all settings. This is what we call generalization. Because parents interact with their children in a variety of settings on a consistent basis (e.g., grocery store, mall, birthday parties, family gatherings, doctor visits, etc.), they are in the best position to help their children generalize the skills they learn in ABA therapy. Generalization also encompasses when a behavior persists across time, and parents are again in the best position to ensure that their child’s behavioral changes last beyond the termination of ABA therapy (BHCOE, 2017).
While there are great advantages to the parental implementation of ABA programs, there are some significant challenges as well. These challenges could discourage or even prevent a parent from adhering to an ABA program, and may lead to little or no behavioral changes in the child’s behavior outside the original training environment. The complexity of an intervention is one factor that can affect parental adherence (Allen, 2000). An ABA practitioner can prevent or resolve this potential issue in creating a task analysis of the ABA intervention by providing short, easy steps for the parent to follow. A parent may also have restricted resources and may not be able to contribute neither the necessary time nor the materials required by some interventions (Allen, 2000). Behavioral programming should therefore be as time-efficient and cost-effective as possible, and should focus on utilizing materials already present in the home in order to reduce financial burden on the family.
Another factor to consider is whether or not the implementation of an intervention is reinforcing to the parent in and of itself (Allen, 2000). As practitioners, we understand that putting a behavior on extinction will lead to an extinction burst. Extinction burst can be described as a temporary increase in the frequency or intensity of a behavior that is no longer reinforced. For example, if a child is crying because he wants his iPad and we stop reinforcing crying behavior by withholding the iPad, this will likely be followed by the child crying more intensely. If we are unwavering in our implementation of the extinction protocol, the crying behavior will decrease systematically over time. However, if a parent feels the intervention isn’t working because they don’t see immediate or dramatic results, or if they simply do not wish to come into contact with the increased intensity of the behavior, this is likely to result in parental non-adherence. By openly discussing the likelihood of extinction burst beforehand, a practitioner can better prepare a parent to handle the initial increase in the intensity of the problem behavior and explain that it is actually a sign of progress. Following this explanation, experiencing extinction burst could turn into a potential reinforcer for parental adherence.
Reservations about what is culturally or socially acceptable may also weigh in on a parent’s decision to adhere to an ABA intervention. For example, it may not be socially acceptable for a parent to ignore a child who is having a tantrum in a restaurant or any other public setting. This situation will likely result in the parent giving the child what he wants in order to make the tantrum stop. Although it may be particularly difficult for a parent to work around this issue, it is important to keep in mind that the goal of behavior modification is to improve socially significant behavior. Although strangers in public places may not readily understand the complexity of the situation at hand, sticking to the behavior plan will produce an end result that will be beneficial for everyone in the long run.
While there exist additional challenges to parental adherence than have been mentioned, nevertheless the role of parents in ABA therapy is integral to a child’s success. Parental involvement can contribute to skill generalization, durability of skills, and an overall enhanced quality of life. It is a practitioner’s responsibility to factor in these potential challenges when creating an ABA program, including parent training to maximize success. ABA therapy may not always be easy for parents but, with a lot of patience and perseverance, they will be able to help their child in learning new skills that will maximize their developmental potentials.