Behavior plans. If you have a child with autism, you’ve probably heard about these in some form. You ears might sometimes ring with acronyms that stand for some version of a behavior plan, a behavior support plan, or a positive behavior support plans. You might have received some training on what a behavior plan is and how it gets developed. But often, families are given a behavior plan and asked to implement it without any prior training. In this article, we’ll go over some quick tips for how to read a behavior plan and make it work for you.
Tip #1: Let yourself be overwhelmed.
Guess what? I have been practicing behavior analysis for 11 years and I still get overwhelmed when a colleague sends me a behavior plan. They are long. It is easy for the writer to slip into use of jargon. And they deal with sensitive content – usually the challenging behaviors of your child.
I even get overwhelmed by behavior plans that I myself have written. Why? These documents are intended to be rigorous. That is because the person writing the plan has to justify whatever intervention is being used. It a big deal to dictate what adults will do when a child “misbehaves,” and that is what behavior plans do. Of course, behavior analysts and ABA therapists don’t call it “misbehavior.” The essence of a behavior plan is to teach the child how to get their needs met, by engaging in positive behaviors – not challenging ones. But the behavior plan still has to say what to do when the challenging behavior occurs.
That’s why behavior plans have to include so much detail. By the title of this post, you might think ten pages is super long – but I’ve seen longer. And more often than not, these documents are single spaced!
So, it’s OK and natural to feel overwhelmed when you get that plan. Give yourself time to read it. Try reading it in a few different chunks. Try the first couple of pages one day, and a couple more each following day. Let your therapist know that you need time to review this plan before you can give feedback. Of course, there might be a reason for your review of the document to be time sensitive, such as an IEP deadline. If this is the case, try asking your partner, a friend, or another trusted individual to have a look at the document and help you review it.
In reading the document, don’t feel that the world hinges on every single word. Instead, try to read the document for its overall meaning and what it is telling other adults (including you) to do. Try to envision what is described in the document as happening in real life. Can you picture it? Based on what you know about your child, does it seem like it has a good chance of working in real life?
Tip #2: Ask for a cheat sheet.
OK, so now that you’re familiar with the long version of the behavior plan, chances are you might never read it in that form again. This is for a few reasons:
- You’re unlikely to reach for a 10 page document when challenging behaviors happen.
- If the behavior plan works, it will get updated very soon by the therapist to reflect your child’s success.
- If it doesn’t work, it will get updated within a few weeks or months to try something else.
- You and the other people on your child’s team can ask for training or coaching on the plan from the therapist. This is also something that your therapist may reach out to you to schedule.
Of course, scheduling a session to receive training and coaching on the plan takes time and work. It might not happen right away. But it is important to establish clarity on how to implement the plan as soon as possible. There is usually something in a behavior plan about parental involvement at home. Even if the behavior plan is school based, I have seen a lot of examples where the family does have some role. This might be in delivering reinforcement at home, for a contract that is met at school. It might mean the therapist is asking you to respond in a certain way when a behavior does occur at home. It might mean that you are being asked to send certain supplies or materials to school.
So, if you are on board with the behavior plan, but don’t want to have to keep track of the large and long document, ask for a cheat sheet. Ask your therapist to write this cheat sheet not only so you can implement it, but so that an older teen or babysitter could implement it, too. Even if you don’t have a babysitter, this kind of framing will help your therapist write something that is easy to understand. Ask that the cheat sheet not be more than one page if possible. I also find that bullet points are helpful. This is not the time for a long narrative.
Tip #3: It’s OK if you can’t do it.
What if you read the plan and you’re not sure you can do what it is asking you to do? That is OK. Often environments and routines look so different between the home and school or the home and the clinic that extensive adjustments need to be made. Sometimes families do need a completely separate behavior plan for the home environment. It can inform and be informed by the other setting plan, but it might not even be developed by the same provider. I have worked with several families where they had one team in the school environment and a totally different team at home. Both teams collaborated and shared their behavior plans with each other, and made edits accordingly, but the plans were written and implemented separately. This might be the right route for you.
What if a therapist is working with you in developing the plan specifically for your home, and you feel nervous about it being successful? I encourage you to be honest about that sooner than later. They should be able to work with you to develop something that meets your needs and what you are able to do in your home. Sometimes, this might mean taking a step back and doing some parent training with you on general behavior support strategies. It could mean putting the parental component of the individualized plan on hold until later.
You can and should ask for as much training as you need to be able to feel confident about implementing behavior strategies yourself. And, you can and should be honest about which strategies fit with your parenting philosophy, and which don’t. If something isn’t working in your home environment, it could be that adjustments can be made to the environment itself. But, it could also mean that the strategies need to be adjusted to fit your home environment. Don’t be afraid to have these conversations openly and honestly with your child’s therapist.
Courtney Gutierrez, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA Courtney is a behavior analyst, educator, and writer in the Pacific Northwest. She has over fifteen years of experience in the field of autism services, and over ten years of master’s level experience in classroom teaching and ABA therapy. Her areas of expertise include infant and toddler development, parent coaching, ABA clinical leadership and training, P-12 special education, and case consultation for children and young adults with autism and other special needs. Courtney lives in Seattle with her husband and two children.