By: J M Coimbra, MS, BCBA, LBA
Scrolling through a list of occupations on an electronic document, I don’t see my title – behavior analyst. I’m forced to choose the closest option, but what is it? I’m left contemplating, “What does a behavior analyst do?”
The short, first response to this question is “analyze behavior.” Seeking a better description, I reviewed the Behavior Analyst Certification Board’s (BACB) website to find a similar description, if not more ambiguous – behavior analysts are “practitioners who provide behavior-analytic services.”
Alright, so we do behavior analysis – what is that? Applied behavior analysis (ABA) by the definition found in my fundamental, graduate-program textbook, is “the science in which tactics derived from the principles of behavior are applied systematically to improve socially significant behavior and experimentation is used to identify the variables responsible for behavior change.”
Basically, the work of a behavior analyst is to make evidence based changed to an environment to affect behavior positively and systematically.
Also, check out this video, made by the BACB, which provides an overview of behavior analysis:
But how does it all translate to the more palatable occupation titles?
Sooner or later it is the role of a behavior analyst to be an advocate – to fight for the rights of our clients. It is in the very definition of ABA that the science focuses on understanding and improving behaviors that are socially significant. That means, we change behaviors that are important to change that result in improved conditions. We fight to be ethical and fair to the client. This can take the form of teaching the client to stand up for himself or herself in unfair situations or even supporting the best interests of the client ourselves during attempts to coordinate care with others.
As challenges arise, questions amount. Why is this happening? What do we do about this problem? Where did that action come from? It is the job of the behavior analyst to act as consultant for their clients, whether it be a family, a school, or organization. We are given a list of variables, we generally observe these variables, come up with solutions, and develop plans to realize those solutions. We may serve as a consultant for an isolated occurrence (e.g., a single assessment) or we may work for years with a client shaping continuous change and development.
One of the most generalized roles that a behavior analyst has is to educate. Yes, we can go in and cause behavior change in our presence. However, more often than not, the real concerns will not be addressed until members of the normal environment (parents, bosses, teachers, etc.) learn how to do some of the basic techniques of ABA (e.g., differential reinforcement, prompting, programming, etc.).
Even though we teach technicians, caregivers, and other practitioners the basics of ABA, behind the scenes, we are engineering complex behavior change plans. One truism from my graduate program is ‘Behavior does not occur in a vacuum’. The solution to a behavior problem may be delivering a gummy bear at a specific time, but coming up with a contingency diagram and evaluating all variables in the setting to determine exactly when, how much, and by whom that gummy bear should be delivered requires true engineering.
If behavior analysis were to be considered a natural science (see the behaviourologists for the argument that it should be), it would seek to answer why behavior happens. Let’s also remember that just about everything an organism does is behavior. Crime and punishment, religion, ethics and values – all of these philosophical topics can be viewed through the lens of behavior analysis – and have been by Skinner (e.g., in About Behaviorism). Behavior analysts commonly work in micro-environments now, but the potential to produce meaningful change in communities and macro-environments exits using the laws of behavior, in which behavior analysts specialize.
Take Psychology 101 at any university and without question, you will come across the behaviorism section that focuses on some of the old scientists, like Pavlov and Watson. You will learn about how salivating can be shaped just like a phobia can be shaped. Behavior analysts shape processes that occur in the “mind” like any other psychologist may, but we do it using the principles of ABA. We consider reinforcement history and derived relations, for example. We look at a personality as a behavioral repertoire and we enhance that personality by teaching new skills and replacing undesirable behaviors with desirable ones.
With clipboards, tablets, and/ or clickers in hand, you will see us behavior analysts, always collecting data. We use data to inform our decisions (inductive examination) so that we remain unbiased. We write our procedures using specific, technical, objective language, so clear that another behavior analyst, who is unfamiliar with the intervention could implement the program. Behavior analysts systematically evaluate behavior change variable by variable and determine interventions based on evidence taken for each individual.
Just like behavior does not occur in a vacuum, and organism does not exist independent of a network. It is the case for many behavior analysts working with individuals, that the social system in which the individual is enmeshed is also examined. Behavior analysts ensure the safety and well-being of their clients and are mandated reporters in cases of neglect and abuse. We try to help clients and their families or those in their networks cope with disability, disadvantage, trauma, and other social deficits or challenges.
Proudly behavior analysts have a commitment to continuing their education. Not only are the attitudes of science drilled into us during our formal education, but the BACB requires all board certified behavior analysts to received approved continued education credits to ensure we are utilizing the most up-to-date, evidence based practices relevant to the populations we serve. Conferences are offered multiple times a year and the BACB has approved countless other resources (e.g., webinars, videos, seminars, etc.) that are available even from our own homes.
The Board Certified Behavior Analyst may have a formal role of supervising students, Registered Behavior Technicians, and those seeking board certification themselves. The role of supervisor requires preparing educational materials, delivering feedback, modeling procedures, testing skills, meeting regularly, and guiding supervisees through the ethical guidelines and practice of ABA. Furthermore, behavior analysts may be supervisors, who manage a clinic or manage other behavior analysts. Since it is less likely that a behavior analysts works alone for a client, we at a minimum supervise an intervention team for each client – whether it be a technician or a faculty.
Aside from writing the occasional blog, which may not be so common for the average behavior analyst, we write proposals, behavior change plans, behavior intervention plans, insurance-based progress reports, analyses of assessments, manuscripts, teaching procedures, recommendations, translations, books, tips, and anything else to help produce the results we seek.
So given all of these roles – what might a behavior analyst do in a typical day? Well, it varies greatly because of all of the roles and because of all of the fields in which a behavior analyst may be employed – autism & intellectual disorders, behavioral gerontology, behavioral pediatrics, clinical behavior analysis, education, health, fitness, & sports, organizational behavior management, intervention in child maltreatment, and sustainable practices. However, I can give a basic rundown of my typical day as a clinical supervisor in the field of autism and intellectual disorders.
A Day as a Behavior Analyst at Attentive Behavior Care
At 9:00, I begin my day doing some treatment planning so that I can slowly sip my coffee. I access the electronic data for a specific client and look at the data that have been collected over the last week or two, since my last treatment planning session. I look at the graphs to see if the interventions I have in place are effectively changing behavior (scientist). I input updated goals as some had been mastered and I write a teaching procedure for the technicians, who work with the client daily, so they know how to target that goal (writer).
By 10:00, I travel to a school, where I have a meeting with the school professionals, who are writing a new Individualized Education Plan for another one of my clients. Here I present data to support interventions that address my client’s needs best (advocate). I coordinate care with the teacher, when he asks me about a new problem behavior. We discuss the events that occasion the behavior, and I offer to conduct an observation the following week (consultant).
By 12:00 I begin traveling to a client’s home. En route, I turn on a podcast about feeding procedures that informs me for behaviors I plan to target in the next authorization period (student).
At 1:00 I arrive to the client’s house for parent training, and I help the parents practice following through with demands and giving reinforcement equal to their child’s effort in a given task. I prompt them and explain the rationale for more reinforcement or less in each trial (educator). Following the training, my client’s parents reveal to me that they are in need of additional support for respite services and seek guidance (social worker).
At 3:00 I am at clinic, where I take an hour to review a new client’s initial assessment. I review the qualitative data collected during observation and the quantitative data collected during formal assessment, and I create a plan for intervention (engineer). I see this client has stereotypical behavior and fixates on objects obsessively, and hypothesize other stimuli that I could use to expand his interests to vary his thoughts and interests for enrichment (psychologist).
When my next client is home at 4:00, I arrive to oversee the treatment fidelity of one of the technicians working with this client (supervisor). I provide feedback and instruction. She asks me a broad question about why a method is selected over another, and why it works, and if that method works then why does another exist and I tell her to email me or schedule a time to chat about it outside of session time (philosopher).
Each day will be different as a behavior analyst, but each day a behavior analyst will do his or her best to make meaningful change to improve lives – to achieve better living through behavior analysis.
For more information about Attentive Behavior Care and how we can help your child, please contact us today.