When I was a behavior consultant and people asked me what I did for a living, I would tell them something like “I work with parents and develop behavior plans for their children with autism.” Usually people would nod and/or say that sounded really interesting, but the truth is I don’t think they had an idea of what that meant other than understanding the part about working with parents of children with autism. Having been in the field of ABA for such a long time, behavior plans almost seem like something that is common knowledge to me, but I know better. It’s probably a lot like physical therapists being so familiar with the diagnosis of plantar fasciitis, to them it probably seems like everyone should know what that is.
So what really is a behavior plan? Is it just a fancy name for whatever you might do when a child is doing something you don’t want them to do? To answer my own question, no it is not. Unless it is a faulty behavior plan (and there are plenty of those, usually designed by people who have not had the formal education and training needed to design an effective behavior plan). Then, what is it? A behavior plan is a systematic strategy developed for a particular child based on the cause of the behavior in question. Said in another way, a behavior plan is a way of responding (for teachers, parents or others) as related to a specific behavior of an individual child to address whatever is triggering the behavior.
Breaking this down, an important first step is that the behavior plan is based on the cause of a behavior. This is often why a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) is needed and it is what makes the plan likely to succeed. There are boatloads of research studies that show unwanted behaviors can be eliminated or reduced once you determine what is causing a behavior and then design a program using that information in a certain way (based on the principles of behavior). This part of a behavior plan is so important that it is part of the code of ethics for behavior analysts to proceed this way. It is considered shoddy and potentially harmful to not try to determine the cause of a behavior before proceeding with a plan. Luckily, analyzing the cause of a behavior is one of the top things behavior analysts are trained to do, because the cause is often not obvious.
Therefore, designing a behavior plan is pretty involved: the BCBA has to take a number of steps to determine the cause of the behavior we are trying to reduce or eliminate, and then design a behavior plan to address the cause. But it doesn’t stop there. Another part of developing a plan, which is equally important, involves making sure we can evaluate whether the plan works. To do this, the BCBA must be very specific about the behavior we are trying to change (so we don’t include unrelated behaviors or behaviors that look similar but have different causes) and then come up with a way to track the behavior to see if it stays the same, gets worse, or improves. This also is a requirement within the field of ABA: evaluating the effectiveness of a plan. It’s considered unethical to put a plan in place without collecting data on whether it is working or not. There is also plenty of research on this topic, showing that without objectively counting or somehow measuring a behavior, people in general are not too good at evaluating whether behavior is getting worse or getting better, especially if it is going gradually in one direction or the other.
To recap: A behavior plan involves determining the cause of behavior, developing the actual procedures to be followed (definitely much more work than it sounds like), and then figuring out how to objectively tell if the plan is working.
That is still not the end though. Next, everyone who is going to be implementing the plan needs to get on the same page as to exactly what the plan is. This is often where the plan can work flawlessly, or it can be headed for certain failure. Behavior plans often have nuances that might not seem important but that can have a major impact on the success of a plan. Therefore, the BCBA must make sure to train staff and caregivers so that everyone understands what the specifics of the plan are so they can be committed to following those procedures. And the BCBA must come up with alternatives if the plan can’t be implemented as designed. That is, if a caregiver doesn’t think they can follow through with a plan, then it has to be redesigned. Only doing part of the plan is a pretty certain road to failure.
After all this is done, the data are analyzed to see if the plan is working, and then it is fine-tuned if necessary. It’s usually really important to give the plan plenty of time to work (a minimum of 2 weeks or more) because often the patterns of behavior have been occurring for a long time and/or the behavior is resistant to change because it has a powerful cause/motivation behind it. We occasionally hear an anguished “help, it’s not working” and that’s often when we really need to commit to the plan for a while longer. This is also where the data are important, because there might be important subtle changes that we only see reflected by looking at the numbers. A huge disappointment for behavior analysts (and others if they knew no doubt) is if a behavior plan is abandoned right as its effectiveness is really taking hold.
I hope I have communicated that a behavior plan is not just meaningless behavior analytic jargon and it’s not just an idea someone comes up with off the top of their head. There is also an entire separate topic regarding the depth of the analysis that is needed to develop the procedural part of the plan. That part takes not only formal training, but also experience, attention to detail, and a knack for thinking through what a procedure will look like.
It should also be clear that behavior plans have intricate details that shouldn’t be changed by anyone other than a professional clinician (ABA Supervisor or BCBA). Of course, input by caregivers and behavior interventionists (BIs) is essential, being that ABA only works as a team sport. But for all the ingredients necessary for a successful behavior plan, look to your ABA Supervisor.
To find out more about what goes into developing the actual procedures that will be followed as part of the plan, read Function is Everything.