What Can You Expect When A Behavior Program is Starting for Your Child

young girl working on a creative art projectSo as a parent, you have finally worked your way through all the steps required by your school agency or insurance company to have the intake evaluation completed and you are waiting for behavioral health services to begin, but you do not know what to expect. What will be in the program? How often will your child be seen? Will the therapist be a good match for your child?  

These are common questions parents have and the answers will likely be different because each program is individualized for your child, his/her needs, and the supports available in the environment as these are all aspects the BCBA considers when developing your child’s treatment plan. While there are many questions, I want to share with you one piece of the program that will need to take place as part of any program and is one that we often forget to talk about when we meet with parents.  

This first step is to build a positive relationship between the therapist and your child because this sets the foundation for effective ABA sessions and serves as the base from which the therapist will work to help your child achieve program goals in working toward independence across a variety of skill areas. This process is called “paring” and should not be overlooked or minimized as it is an essential component of every ABA program/therapy. The pairing process is a one that takes place at the start of the program AND is an ongoing part of the program – it never ends.  

Why is this such a vital part of the program?? – Because as the therapist works with your child to master a variety of behavior targets, the program will continue to introduce new targets and the therapist needs to maintain a strong “value” to your child which increases the likelihood that s/he will work through challenging behaviors to move forward toward independence. In the simplest terms, this process involves the therapist connecting him/herself to your child’s preferred items, activities, and or particular spaces in their environment. As a part of these continuous connections being made across the sessions, the therapist will gain the associated value of those preferred/desired things. This helps your child transition from “tolerating” the therapist to looking forward to engaging and working with the therapist because s/he is less likely to see this time as “work”.  


Guidelines for Setting Up the Pairing Process 

Guideline 1 – Find the Fun 

While the therapist has many things to teach your child and s/he will be leading the program through the ABA sessionspairing is the time that the therapist gets to follow your child’s lead and learn what is motivating to your child. The key for the therapist is to learn what your child finds motivating – not what you find motivating or what “other kids his/her age” find motivating. Initially, this may involve such activities as joining your child when s/he organizes items into groups because your child is motivated to do so.  If your child likes to sing a preferred song, then you and/or the therapist can join in and the adult can add his/her flavor of fun to the activity which will increase the value of the adult.  After you and/or therapist have joined your child in the fun, the adult can add a new way to engage in the play that your child will see and be more likely to tolerate because the adult has joined the child from his/her preferred level.  

Guideline 2: No Demand Zone 

Initially during this process, the adult is pairing with activities/items that are fun and this includes your child being able to access these things without having to follow a direction or respond to another person. You can describe what is taking place during the child’s play which is a way to narrate or tell the story that your child’s actions are creating. Your child is allowed free access to all of his/her preferred activities/things 

Guideline 3: Build on the Reinforcers 

After the adult has joined the sessions and your child is looking forward to the sessions (e.g., looking for the therapist, saying therapist’s name, change in facial expression when the therapist arrives), the adult now has the opportunity to introduce simple demands that the child must engage in to gain access to the reinforcer. The adult may also introduce new items that may be reinforcing to your child. This means that the items will still be available, but the adult will control access to the item and your child will need to complete a relatively easy task to gain access to the item. When the adult is introducing a new item to your child, the child’s motivation to gain access to the item can be measured by the time your child makes contact with the item, looks at the item, and/or reaches for the item. The key for this guideline is to keep the demands simple so your child can easily access the reinforcer(s). 

Guideline 4: Pay Attention to the Area Play is Happening 

It is important that the adult be aware of the space that the play is happening! The adult should be introducing the play in the area that the instruction will be taking place in in the future as a way to teach your child that the adult and the space can represent access to play/reinforcers. The adult should also be sure to limit the child’s access to the reinforcers to the instructional area that will be used during the instructional periods. This means that when your child is outside of the instructional area, there is no access to the reinforcers. 

Pairing should be a part of every ABA therapy session! 

By: Dr. Koonce, Ph.D., BCBA