A Day in the Life of a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, Part 1


A big part of my job is to carefully analyze details of interactions between the learner and the people in that environment when the behavior occurs.

This is the first in a series of articles highlighting the roles, responsibilities and services of a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). Early Intervention Intensive Behavioral Intervention Supervision:


I begin my day by traveling to the home of a two-year nine-month old child boy (Joe) who is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and is receiving 25 hours of carefully structured teaching and family support, based on the principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA). I supervise the staff who do the direct teaching and work with the family to help them better understand how Joe learns. He has made great progress since treatment began at age two. He is now verbal and is now rapidly gaining the social and interactional skills that he did not demonstrate at the time of his initial diagnosis.

I begin my work, by sitting down with mom and the staff, to review the data on the goals and objectives we are working on. We see in the data a continuing improvement in most goals, but we focus on two graphs which show that Joe is struggling to learn the skills. These skills are “turn taking” and “initiating talking to others.” We have been working on turn taking with Joe and his sister and improving his initiation of social interactions with others (in particular other family members and neighbors). After a brief discussion, and review of what is not working, we decide to use video modeling as a prompt for these programs. We chose this because the verbal cues were getting him to talk (imitate us), but were not resulting in independent initiation. Challenges with initiation are a common problem in children with ASD, and a wide range of procedures to address this have been identified in the research that helps; video modeling is just one of these  procedures. Also, we had used video modeling effectively in teaching other play routines. I quickly wrote up a set of procedures (skill program) and then created a video model using mom’s phone. To make sure that the program would work, I implemented the procedures with Joe. Once he was successfully initiating the modeled language, I had the staff and mom practice the program. After some practice and feedback, they both were able to run the program. We continued to review the programs and data until mom raised a concern about how Joe was reliably following verbal directions during our sessions, but often ignored the same instructions from mom after we left. This is also a fairly common problem for many children with ASD, so I suggested that we follow a systematic procedure for supporting responding to mom (we refer to this as generalization of skills).

We began practicing instruction following in the teaching sessions and carefully moved to other activities in the room, then out to other rooms. First we had mom provide reinforcement to Joe for following directions (from staff in the teaching session). Next we had mom give the directions in session while continuing to reinforce instruction following. Once Joe was reliably following them for mom in this context, we moved to other settings in the home and outside in the yard. We used this approach with several types of directions from mom to ensure broad generalization of instruction following. This systematic approach to help ensure generalization is somewhat time intensive, but it worked very well for mom and Joe. After completing all of the services documentation requirements (case notes and other paper work), I left and drove to a local public school where I would be consulting with a kindergarten team regarding the challenging behavior of a student in school.


Team Meeting: My visit begins with a meeting of the kindergarten staff. The staff and administrators described their concerns about the disruptive behavior of a child who is new to their classroom. Prior to my visit, that school had obtained parental consent for me to review assessments, reports and other relevant data about the student which I had reviewed before coming to the school today. The first thing we did was meet to clarify the goals for today’s visit. As is often the case, the staff tell me what problem behavior looks like (e.g., being off-task, bothering peers and not following teacher verbal directions). They also make it clear to me that they want the child to stop doing these behaviors. The staff also report that the child appears to be trying to “avoid” completing work. I politely explain that my role is not just stopping “bad” behavior, but looking at and changing the routines and instructional supports in place so that they more effectively support positive behavior. I note that creating new routines is always easier than stopping bad ones.

The next step for me is to observe the child and determine what the child has learned well and now does independently. I also need to identify skills that have been worked on for a long time, but without much success. I want to be able to describe the difference between effective teaching procedures for this child with those teaching practices that have not been successful in helping this child learn skills or positive behavior. The teachers are able to provide me with a number of useful examples of both effective learning and ongoing problem behavior. With this information to guide my observations, I then go to the student’s class for some direct observation. It is often said that “the devil is in the details.” In my view, it is the answers that lie in the details. A big part of my job is to carefully analyze details of  interactions between the learner and the people in that environment when the behavior occurs. Behavior analysts rely on data from direct observation of behavior, we collect objective information about what happens before and critically, what happens after problem and adaptive behavior occurs. The information obtained allows for the development of hypotheses (an educated guess made from facts about behavior) as to why the child has learned to engage in a particular form or forms of behavior in certain conditions and not others.

I am often surprised by the prevailing notion that only adaptive behavior, (reading, writing, talking etc.) is learned. Many people see problem behavior and attribute it to a disorder or disability rather than learning processes. Behavior analysts do not draw this distinction. We seek to understand how the current environment makes a particular behavior functional for the person who is doing it. That is why observation of the behavior is so important.

Classroom Observations: In the classroom I am introduced as a person who wants to become a teacher and has heard that their teacher is awesome, so I wanted to watch her and learn how to be a better teacher. This allows the students to perceive that I am watching the teacher and not them. I find that this minimizes child anxiety about my presence and increases the chances that students will not be overly reactive to my presence.

While watching the student, I notice that whenever the child is off-task, the teacher comes over to speak with the student to verbally explain the classroom rules to the child. I observe this happen 15 times in a 45-minute block of time, or roughly once every three minutes. It is important to note that while the teacher perceived that the child was trying to “avoid” work, the data suggested that the child was actually seeking teacher interaction. Objective data collection is a critical part of the work of a behavior analyst; it allows us to move from subjective (and often incorrect) interpretation of the reasons for behavior, to more objective analysis of the effects of a person’s behavior on the behavior of others.

I also observe a small group activity where a structured routine involving lots of teacher interaction. I note that almost no off-task or disruptive behavior occurs in this activity. Staff working with the child were all in agreement that he “likes teacher and adult attention,” but they had not thought that the kind of attention they were giving him after problem behavior might be something he wanted. In their view, they were reminding him of rules or reprimanding him for problem behavior, not reinforcing him. The idea that these forms of teacher attention could be preferred by him had not occurred to them.

I suggested that we test the idea that offtask and disruptive was something he did to make the teacher talk to him more frequently. First, we needed to see what was objectively true – did he prefer being left alone (avoiding work) or would he rather have teacher’s attention than be left alone? To do this, we taught him a new routine where he could do one task and immediately get a conversation with teachers, or he could do a similar task and as soon as he was done, they would leave him alone for three minutes. After only a few times, he began to ask for the task that resulted in teacher attention. After the fifth time we did this, he only asked for the task that resulted in teacher attention. This was a fairly good demonstration of his preference for teacher attention over being alone. It also showed that he would ask to work to get teacher attention. To obtain additional objective data showing that he was using off-task and disruptive behavior to get teacher attention rather than avoid academic work, we tried a few similar activities and saw the same result. Once we were convinced by the learning data, I left the classroom to draft some general classroom and instructional recommendations. •

Next Issue: Writing Behavioral Guidelines and Teaching Procedure Recommendations, and more.

Robert K. Ross Ed.D., BCBA-D, LBA is the Senior Vice President of Curriculum and Research at Behavioral Education Assessment and Consultation Inc. (BEACON Services of Massachusetts and BEACON of Connecticut). Dr. Ross is also President Massachusetts Association for Behavior Analysis. He received his doctorate in educational leadership from Nova Southeastern University and his master’s in applied behavior analysis from Northeastern University. He is the co-director of the BCBA certification program at Cambridge College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In addition to his teaching and research roles at BEACON, he consults with programs and works directly with individuals with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome as part of his caseload responsibilities at BEACON. Dr. Ross has presented more than 100 applied research poster presentations, workshops, and symposia at ABAI conferences and authored several related articles.

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