A Parent’s Role in ABA Makes All the Difference


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A parent’s dedication to their child’s success in ABA therapy is arguably just as vital as that of the Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) themselves. Analysts not only work with the learner, but the learner’s caregivers, to understand the behaviors of the learner as well as the ways in which their environment impacts or encourages those behaviors. There are many opportunities for a child to learn outside of ABA therapy sessions, but often these opportunities present themselves in high-anxiety-inducing situations, and it is up to the parent to navigate with a level head. Take the classic trip to the mall, or grocery store, for example:


  • After picking up your child from school or daycare, you decide to run a few errands before heading back home.
  • Your child sees something they want, maybe a toy, or chocolate bar– and you say no.
  • In response, your child begins screaming and crying at the top of their lungs. You notice the side-eyes and stares you get from other customers. “I’d never let my child act like that,” you imagine them saying. Regardless of what you do now, there will be judgement: if you give in, you’re raising an “entitled brat,” and if you ignore the screams, you look like an inconsiderate parent who doesn’t care about their child or the surrounding customers.
  • You reluctantly purchase the chocolate so your child will stop the screaming.


This kind of situation is stressful for any parent to go through, regardless of how much ABA training they may have had in the past. In the above example, the child got their way through screaming and crying, and unfortunately, though giving them a chocolate bar may have temporarily reduced those behaviors in the short-term, the long-term impact of that reinforcer would be that the child has now learned screaming and crying = free chocolate bar. In these moments, a parent can feel easily defeated. This is where BCBAs come in: the concerns of a parent will be heard by a listening ear and in return, the BCBA will help the parent to identify the ways in which their own behavior impacts that of their child. During an ABA session, in order to maximize the effectiveness of therapy, it is essential for a parent to sit in.

Parent Participation is Key

Prepping for an ABA Session

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Before an ABA session, there are a few initial steps a parent can take to make sure the learning environment is ideal. ABA therapy can happen almost anywhere: backyards, kitchens, bedrooms, living rooms, and even in swimming pools. In order to determine which place is best to do work on a given day, think of the 3 C’s:


  • Clean
  • Comfortable
  • Easy to Concentrate


This describes an environment that is ideal for learning– one that is relaxed, and not overly-stimulating. It is important to remember that small stimuli that may not bother you could, in fact, be very distracting for your child, which is why it’s important to turn off any TVs, music or radios during a session (Unless they’re being used in therapy, of course!). To make the overall experience more enjoyable for your child, feel free to ask them where they’d like to hang out on a given day. If it’s a nice day outside, and they’d like to go out, setting up a few lawn chairs can make a world of a difference. And if all else fails, feel free to ask your BCBA if they have any suggestions!


Parent Participation During Sessions and What to Expect:

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There are so many ways in which a parent can participate during an ABA session. At first, your therapist may ask you to sit quietly in the same room and watch from a distance, so both you and your child can get a feel of what a session might be like. ABA is play-oriented, and the goal is to allow the child to become engaged in an activity while learning useful skills (communication, taking turns, problem solving, following directions, etc.). The session will also include a 10-15 minute break, during which your child can grab a snack and get a diaper change if needed. In the meantime, this break will give your therapist time to catch up on notes to plan for the remainder of the session. During sessions, if you have not been invited to directly participate yet by your child’s therapist, the goal is to sit back, watch the session, and learn not to jump in when your child is having difficulty. If you see your child throwing a serious tantrum during a session, the last thing you want to do– although it may be tempting– is run in with their favorite stuffed animal or snack to calm them down. Though the chaos might stop, giving them positive reinforcement for their actions will inadvertently teach them that tantrums lead to rewards. The best thing you can do in these moments as a parent– both during ABA sessions and outside of them– is to ignore the behavior. For many parents, this means finding an alternate task to distract themselves when tantrums occur, like reading a book, doing a chore around the house, going on the computer, or listening to music.

After both you and your child have gotten an initial feel for how therapy sessions play out, your therapist will begin to train you with ways you can participate. Most of the time, a parent will be directly involved in the session at least once per hour. This may mean joining in on a game, jotting down notes for the session, teaching your child a skill, or simply being in the room as a distractor. 

At the beginning and end of each session is a great time to ask your therapist any questions you may have regarding your child’s behavior or progress. If you believe the questions may take more than 5-10 minutes, let your therapist know so they can end the session a few minutes early. The reason you sit in on sessions is primarily so you can learn ways in which you can engage with your child, and how to navigate real-life situations that may arise outside of a therapeutic setting. Preparing questions before a session can make a world of a difference in what you learn, and even outside of therapy sessions, ABA principles can be applied to your daily life.