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Help Your Clients Get the Most Out of ABA Parent Training

As a behavior analyst working with young children, it’s important to remember that your clients’ parents are going through the process with them. Parents can function as important members of their child’s applied behavior analysis (ABA) team. To get the best results from parental involvement, however, you’ll need to provide parent training around ABA interventions.

This type of training has proved highly effective. But providing high quality training to your clients’ parents and family members is easier said than done. To stand the highest chance of success, you’ll need to know how to get parental buy-in, how to properly train parents or caregivers in certain ABA interventions, and how to measure the efficacy of your training program.

Table of contents:

Getting buy-in for ABA parent training

Family involvement has a major positive impact on the success of any ABA program. Parents and caregivers spend hours every day with their children engaging in routines and activities that are typical for their individual families. They play a key role in generalizing the skills gained during ABA sessions into their daily lives.

Before you can begin to secure parental buy-in for ABA parent training, however, you first need to understand why families may appear to be hesitant to undergo such training. For example, parents may prove reticent because they have demanding jobs and fear that taking time away from the office could cost them their means of supporting their child.

As an ABA professional, it’s your job to approach these parental anxieties with compassion. This means taking time to understand their concerns and collaborating with them to approach parent training in a way that works for them.

Work in partnership with your client’s family members to identify the sources of these anxieties and develop a plan to cope with them. This can help parents and caregivers feel better about ABA training and help them develop their own responses and alleviate their own distress. A demonstration of understanding can go a long way to assuaging parental fears and getting them on board with ABA training.

Another way to gain buy-in for ABA parent training is by communicating its efficacy. For one, studies have shown that training families to help deliver interventions may also reduce the need for medications used to address behavioral challenges. Additionally, if their child’s ABA services have to be temporarily or permanently interrupted, ABA-trained parents or caregivers can maintain these services until additional help can be found.

Using these techniques, you can work with your clients’ parents or caregivers to help them understand the importance of ABA training. But how can you, as an ABA provider, administer appropriate parent training?

How to train your clients’ parents and caregivers

Deciding what to teach your clients’ parents or caregivers, and when to teach it, can be challenging. When doing ABA parent training, remember that they do not need to know everything about ABA that you know. They only need to know what will help them help their child. Reminding yourself of this during the course of parent training will help your client’s family to get the most from it.

Parent and family training programs should be individualized to the child’s needs and the context of their lives. This means the bulk of parent training should occur in individualized contexts. When training parents, use Behavioral Skills Training (BST) to address specific skills that will result in the biggest impact to their daily lives.

For example, if their child whines to get what they want because they are non-vocal, model how to prompt using pictures that demonstrate proper requesting behavior. Provide parents with written steps on how to prompt and have them practice under your guidance so you can provide needed feedback.

A few studies indicate that effective parent training programs include at least 10 to 12 sessions delivered over the course of 16 to 24 weeks. This provides time to deliver intervention and obtain feedback on the training itself. If your client is just starting an ABA program, you may want to approach initial parent training with a limited number of very simple skill acquisition and behavior reduction objectives. You want parents to experience success quickly so they will be motivated to continue their efforts.

Behavior analysts and caregivers play two completely separate roles in an individual’s life. Behavior analysts help shape the behaviors that allow individuals to become as independent as possible. Caregivers play this role as well but must also have time to play their primary role as parental figures.

While adults may enjoy implementing ABA interventions with their children, and children may also enjoy having their parents deliver interventions and subsequent reinforcement, families need time to be together and have unstructured fun. Remember not to set the expectation for parent-led intervention so high that they become frustrated trying to meet it.

Topics to teach parents and caregivers

The ABA intervention programs you build likely address many different skills. The goals and learning targets you include should fall into two overall categories:

  • Behaviors to increase
  • Behaviors to decrease

Parent training on program-specific content can be made much clearer when you reference these categories to the specific targets you are addressing. You want to do this to emphasize the importance of the program as a guide that will help their child gain independence. For example, if you are training a parent on how to get their child to use picture icons to request items, reference its category (increasing behavior). This will help them to make the connection between the intervention goal and the overall program goal clear.

Increasing positive behaviors through reinforcement

Teaching families when and how to provide positive reinforcement is an integral part of ABA parent training. It is important that you emphasize how to provide contingent reinforcement. It is equally important to make sure that they know how to identify reinforcers that are available in the environment.

Contingent reinforcement is critical for increasing any new desirable behavior and should be addressed. However, non-contingent reinforcement should be addressed as well. Non-contingent reinforcement helps to maintain desirable behavior and a positive environment. Non-contingent reinforcers can be especially helpful when the individual must be in a less than comfortable environment, such as a doctor’s office.

When you address non-contingent reinforcement, clearly distinguish it from contingent. Make sure you also remind parents and caregivers that non-contingent reinforcers should not be as valuable to the child as contingent ones.

For clients who can delay reinforcement for certain tasks, teaching families to use token systems can be helpful. Work with parents and caregivers to determine:

  • What behaviors earn tokens
  • What form the tokens will take
  • What backup reinforcers will be available
  • A schedule for exchanging tokens for backup reinforcers

Having families take the lead on decisions, such as what type of token to use and which backup reinforcers can be easily provided, will make the system more effective and more likely to be used consistently.

Strategies for decreasing behavior

The behavioral excesses of children with autism may cause distress to their parents. For this reason, the most urgent concerns that your clients’ caregivers will raise are related to reducing or eliminating these behaviors. While you must address these concerns, it is often not necessary to make reducing behaviors the primary intervention focus.

If a child is demonstrating high levels of self-injury or aggression, you must directly address and prioritize reducing those behaviors. Show parents and caregivers how to safely response block, identify even the most subtle prosocial behavior, and provide immediate reinforcement. If this sequence is performed correctly, these behaviors will be reduced. If behavior change is slow, it is important that you show families that it has, nevertheless, been reduced by using the data you collect.

Many undesirable behaviors will reduce as more prosocial behaviors are learned. For example, as children learn to communicate their needs more efficiently, the number of tantrums used to get something they want will reduce. Convincing a parent or caregiver who is distressed by these behaviors to take a “wait and see” approach can be difficult. Because it is critical to show parents how effective ABA can be early in the process, you may need to explicitly demonstrate how behaviors can be reduced quickly.

How to evaluate the effectiveness of your ABA parent training

An often overlooked, but important, part of ABA parent training is evaluating its effectiveness. Evaluation of the effort should be an ongoing process. It is unlikely that you will know a specific date when services will end when you begin working with a client. For this season, evaluation should occur at different points in the parent training process, including:

  • During sessions when the first few skills are addressed
  • During your regular visits and data sharing meetings
  • Prior to re-assessment and treatment plan revision

The overall goal in evaluating parent/caregiver training is to evaluate the training itself, not the family members as deliverers of the training.

If you see that they need assistance, provide it. Evaluations should center around how well they understand the process and, if they do not, changing how you train them or the scope of intervention. In other words, use the parent’s implementation of protocol to evaluate yourself as a trainer.

Assessing ABA parent training with fidelity checks

Interventions should always be applied as they are intended. This applies to anyone who is implementing them, including parents. One way to maximize treatment fidelity in parent- or caregiver-led interventions is to provide feedback and retraining as necessary. Another way is to use fidelity checks and checklists, which are procedures used to gauge how accurately parents are implementing the treatment or interventions they learn in your training.

After you train families on an intervention and are confident they can do it without your prompting, observe their performance. Use a simple fidelity check based on the protocols you have previously provided them. Review the results of the observation using the protocol. Reinforce what they performed well and model the steps that need refining. Use the same protocol on subsequent visits so you can determine if the training and re-training you provided are effective.

Gauging parental perception of the training

Parental perception of training is also a key indicator of effectiveness. If families do not implement the interventions you have taught them, then they may not perceive the training as valuable to them. An ongoing assessment of training value can reveal important information that will help you improve ABA parent training.

Many parents will not tell you directly that the training you have provided is not valuable to them. However, you must directly address this question in case they feel uncomfortable giving you feedback. You may be able to get information on the perceived effectiveness of the training you provide by asking:

  • Did you learn something you did not already know?
  • Did the feedback help me to deliver the intervention better?
  • Did the BCBA explain the steps clearly?
  • Did the BCBA listen and respond to your questions?
  • Did the parent training help you help your child?

If you suspect the parent or caregiver does not feel comfortable answering these and similar questions, you must find other ways to determine if the training is valuable to them. If parents or caregivers do not, or only seldomly, implement the interventions, it could indicate that the training is not perceived as valuable. It also could indicate that families do not understand or cannot find time to implement it into their schedule. If any of these apply, it is important to revisit the training plan and adjust so it is feasible for them to use what you teach.

Evaluating effectiveness is an important component of parent and caregiver training. You can use fidelity checks and client data to determine if your efforts worked. It is also important to know how families perceive the training so you can make adjustments. Processing the feedback they give you can help you to deliver training in an improved and more accessible way.


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