How to apply BCBAs’ expertise during the COVID-19 outbreak

5 roles board-certified behavioral analysts are taking on during school closures to support students, parents and teachers
By: | May 21, 2020
A token board can remain on the screen while a student is learning online, or parents can print one out and use it with the student in person.A token board can remain on the screen while a student is learning online, or parents can print one out and use it with the student in person.

Regardless of whether a district contracts with private Board Certified Behavior Analysts or has BCBAs on staff, you can find several ways to use their skills during the pandemic to help students, parents and teachers.

“There is a lot of variation in what BCBAs are doing during this time,” says Lauren Meade, a doctoral-level BCBA and program director at Beacon Services of Connecticut, based in Cromwell, Conn. “Some of them are things they wouldn’t typically be doing if they were seeing students and teachers face-to-face every day. Everyone is adapting and doing the best they can to fulfill students’ needs and IEPs—and support parents and teachers.”

Encourage your BCBAs to use the following strategies to promote teacher, parent and student skills to provide support despite the pandemic. Recognize that they may be overseeing behavior therapists or registered behavior technicians doing a lot of this, and focusing more on reviewing their data collection and writing behavioral intervention plans, if they are typically in a more supervisory role. It’ll depend on how things work in the district or the agreement with an outside agency.

• Work one-on-one with students. Offer one-to-one remote applied behavior analysis sessions to students based on how much time they can tolerate sitting at their device and how much instruction they usually receive when school is open, Meade says. “Some students are in a self-contained classroom at school and receive one-to-one the majority of their day.” Most students likely would not be able to handle that at home. “We’re tailoring it to each student’s individual needs,” she adds. “Some students can work two hours on some goals and objectives and we’re helping them with their classwork. Other students need more breaks, so we might offer three 30-minute sessions a day.”

There are ways to work on the child’s social skills during the school closure, such as by showing a student videos of appropriate and inappropriate social interactions, then discussing them, Meade says. For example: Watch a video together online of how a student joins a group of kids and says hi, then discuss whether the way he did it was appropriate.

• Offer parent training. Some students, such as those who are nonverbal, may require more parent facilitation to learn remotely, Meade says. A student may be confused by instructions on a device, so you can train parents on how to help target student skills. “We’re training the parents and saying, ‘Try saying, X, Y, Z, and he should follow your instructions,'” she explains. “We’re giving them examples of wording to use, such as ‘First you’re going to do X, then you’re going to do Y.'”

At the same time, recognize what parents are going through during the outbreak and try not to add more stress to their day, Meade says. “We’re trying to be mindful of parents’ situations and hoping the video sessions relieve stress. We don’t want to add stress.”

• Consult with teachers. Work with a student’s teacher on modifying assignments according to his IEP and BIP to ensure the student’s behavioral issues don’t impede his learning, Meade says. For example, the team can discuss a student completing five problems instead of 10 problems or turning in an assignment at the end of the week instead of at the end of the day.

Also provide teachers ongoing training on behavioral interventions they can use when they are offering synchronous remote instruction to students, Meade says.

And promote self-care among your colleagues by sharing tips for stress relief, such as mindfulness exercises, Meade advises. “Staff are learning a different way to teach and connect with students, so BCBAs can help them manage their stress.”

• Create visuals. Help make virtual slideshows and other visual supports to enhance lessons for students, Meade says. For example, if a student is working on the postsecondary transition goal of learning functional sight words for grocery shopping and working in a grocery store, you can create a slideshow of related sight words, such as “ketchup” and “mustard.” “Whoever is working with the student can share the slideshow and ask the student to identify the words on the screen,” she says.

• Help set up a motivational system. A token board can remain on the screen while a student is learning online, or parents can print it out and use with the student in person, Meade says. For example, make a virtual card with 10 spots and fill a spot with the student’s preferred item, such as a racecar, every time he does what he is supposed to do. Let him have a break or do another preferred activity when all 10 spots are filled.

Also discuss expectations before and after sessions to ensure the student understands what is and is not appropriate behavior, Meade suggests. For example, a student may not know without your guidance that he should not lie on the couch during a videoconference with a teacher or related service provider. The student may also not know without being taught that he can’t just get up and walk away during one-to-one sessions without saying anything.

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.