Using ABA Principles to Navigate the IEP Process

Photo credit: Joe Loong

One of the things I’ve been trying to get across to people for years is the understanding that Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) is a science, not a special education service, much less a service specifically for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). The confusion arises from the fact that instructional strategies and behavioral interventions based on the principles of ABA, which work with all learners, just so happen to also work for students with ASDs and often it’s the only approach that does.

As such, the demand for ABA-based programs for students with ASDs, and the peer-reviewed research around its efficacy with this particular population, has resulted in confusion among the lay public as to what ABA actually is. Because so many people in public education and the families that rely on it only see ABA used with respect to ASDs, they think that’s all it’s for, and this is a gross failure on the part of the professionals who know otherwise to set things straight.

This is why I’ve been trying to get this point across for so long. Knowledge powers solutions for parents, which is the whole reason our organization exists. The absence of relevant knowledge on behalf of any of the stakeholders in the IEP process can prevent students with disabilities from getting the kinds of help they actually need, so a failure to appreciate that ABA applies to anyone or anything that behaves can have dire consequences for students who would benefit from ABA-based interventions, even if they have conditions other than ASDs that create these needs.

That’s a whole conversation unto itself, but that’s not the focus of this post. Because ABA applies to anyone and anything that behaves, it therefore applies to all the members of a student’s IEP team. For parents, the science of ABA can be not only constructive with respect to developing an appropriate IEP for their children, but also in navigating the behaviors of the other IEP team members during IEP meetings and related exchanges with public education agency personnel, which is what I’m focusing on in this post.

To be clear, ABA is not a method or strategy. It is a way of describing behaviors according to how they naturally occur. When it is used to make something happen, it’s all about how to interact with others in a way that promotes the behaviors we want to see from them. Used ethically in a team context, it keeps conversations productive and collaborative. However, the proverbial snake oil salesman “selling ice cubes to Eskimos” abuses ABA as part of a con to manipulate people’s behaviors for personal gain at other people’s expense.

The thing to understand is that ABA is a reality-based approach to understanding what is going on and planning what to do about it. It isn’t an invention; it’s simply a tool that measures what already is. That data can then be used to change how things are. So, it’s not like I can give you a checklist of things to do, whether you understand them or not, and you’re off and running. You need to understand the underlying science, which I’m going to grossly oversimplify here to make the concepts as digestible as possible.

Before I launch into what ABA is, I first have to back up and explain the three key tenets of science. Science relies on:

  • Determinism – an understanding that there is a logical, evidence-based explanation for everything in existence.
  • Empiricism – an understanding that every evidence-based explanation can be described in quantifiable terms using fixed increments of measure.
  • Parsimony – the understanding that the simplest explanation that fits the measured evidence is the correct explanation.

That’s not an ABA-specific thing. That’s how all science works, and ABA is a science.

Like a financial audit, science renders reality down into measurable bits that can be analyzed for black-and-white, yes/no answers, regardless of what is being discussed. There is a reason that “accounting” and “accountability” share a common root word. Financial audits examine accounting records for accuracy because those records are supposed to account for where money has gone or will go. For this reason, accounting is actually a science.

All other forms of science account for things the same way, measuring what is according to fixed increments of measure and giving us an accounting of what is really going on. Such is the case with ABA.

The increase of neo-fascism in America, in which science is frequently denied, is really a rejection of accountability and/or a significant detachment from reality consistent with mental illness. It’s about skewing numbers (like the 45th President attempting to offload COVID-infected cruise ship passengers at the beginning of the pandemic onto Guantánamo Bay so as to prevent the numbers of infection cases in the United States from going up) or otherwise pretending the numbers are untrue (like “The Big Lie” told by the 45th President regarding the vote count in the 2020 Presidential election), so as to avoid being held accountable.

Science is all about explaining reality using numbers, which requires the application of mathematics. There’s only one right answer to a math calculation. It never ceases to amaze me the number of people who grasp this concept when it comes to money, but not with anything else.

These are generally the kinds of people who own profitable businesses and use their money to hire private jets to fly to Washington, DC, so they can attempt to violently overthrow our government because they fear accountability and equate any perceived loss of privilege or unfair advantage with oppression. Oppressed people can’t afford private jets, in case you were wondering. These are also the kinds of people who end up in handcuffs over cooking their companies’ books, once the accountability finally catches up with them.

When you understand science as a form of accounting for anything that exists in numerical terms, just as with money, it isn’t possible to take it as an affront to your belief system, unless you believe things – or are trying to convince other people to believe things – that are not true. There is no rule that says we have to like the truth.

An intact person will acknowledge an undesired truth and deal with it. A person engaging in disordered thought will attempt to argue against it and assert beliefs unsupported by evidence as fact, thereby confusing opinion with fact and arguing against what they don’t want to be true as though it really isn’t.

As a parent going into the IEP process, you need to stick to the facts. An IEP is all about measurable annual goals that describe what your child is supposed to be taught and how to measure the degree to which your child learns from that instruction. Services are determined on what is necessary to achieve the degree of success targeted by the goals and placement is determined according to what setting(s) are the least segregated from the general education setting in which the services can be delivered such that the goals are met. The entire process hinges on the appropriate application of the relevant sciences.

As a parent, know going into the IEP process that it is scientifically driven and, therefore, relies on measurable facts to inform your child’s educational planning, plus it must do so according to the rule of law. The whole system was designed with the education agency’s accountability to the individual student and the student’s family in mind, which is why it boggles my mind every time I encounter anything but that in the IEP process.

Specifically with respect to using ABA to navigate the behaviors of the other team members as a parent attempting to exercise your federally protected right to meaningful participation in the IEP process, there are some ABA-specific concepts you first need to understand. The first concept is that of ABC data collection and the second concept is that of reinforcement.

ABC data collection is a process used to determine the function(s) of a specific behavior. The “A” stands for “antecedent,” the “B” stands for “behavior,” and the “C” stands for “consequence.” Each of these has a specific operational definition in ABA, and any deviation from their respective definitions means whoever is taking the data is not actually practicing ABA.

An antecedent in ABA is whatever happened right before the behavior that triggered it. When you’re talking about students, the presentation of a task demand can be the antecedent to a challenging behavior being addressed by an IEP, for example. When you’re talking about corrupt and/or incompetent public agency officials in an IEP meeting, the presentation of a parent request could be the antecedent to some kind of challenging behavior displayed by educational agency personnel, as another example.

The behavior in the ABC data collection process is the actual observable behavior being addressed. In the example involving a student just given, let’s say the challenging student behavior upon the presentation of a task demand involving a worksheet, is verbal aggression while tearing up the worksheet. In the example of a difficult IEP team member, let’s say the challenging behavior upon the presentation of a parent request is a bunch of hyperbolic excuse-making and changing the subject.

The consequence in ABA data collection is the immediate outcome produced by the behavior, specifically the pay-off the individual gets by engaging in it. This is an important distinction because it is often inaccurately reported in school-based behavior assessments, where the previous century of relying on a punishment model of behavioral intervention regards “consequence” as something meted out by staff. That is wholly inaccurate. Anything the staff does in response to the behavior, whether it works or not, is a “reactive strategy,” not a “consequence” within the meaning of ABA.

The point of identifying the actual consequence achieved by engaging in the behavior is to determine the function served by the behavior for the individual engaging in it. Once the function of the behavior is understood, you can choose how you want to respond to it in a constructive way. When you don’t know the actual function of someone else’s behavior, you can respond to it in a way that hurts more than helps the situation. Identifying the function of an inappropriate behavior is entirely necessary before an evidence-based approach can be developed to address it.

So, using the examples I just gave, let’s say that the consequence of the student engaging in verbal aggression and tearing up the worksheet upon the task demand being presented is to escape/avoid the task demand. With respect to an IEP team member engaging in hyperbolic excuse-making and changing the subject when a parent makes a request, the function of the behavior is to escape/avoid addressing, much less honoring, the parent’s request.

In both of these examples, the function of each of the hypothetical behaviors described were both escape/avoidance, but this is not the only function a behavior can serve. Behaviors happen for only one of two reasons: to get something or get away from something.

As such, behaviors can be reduced to a one or a zero, depending on whether its function was to get something (1) or escape something (0). Even the most complex behaviors can thus be reduced down to simple binary code as the most parsimonious way to describe what is happening.

In ABA, the functions of a behavior are typically described as access/attainment, escape/avoidance, and automatic. Automatic reinforcement speaks to behaviors that address internal drive states, such as physical wellness and emotionality, but even those are based on access/attainment or escape/avoidance. Sensory-seeking and/or sensory-avoidant behaviors are based on automatic reinforcement for someone with sensory processing issues based on their unique neurology, for example.

That leads us to the second key concept of ABA that you need to understand, which is that of reinforcement. A reinforcer is anything that increases the likelihood of an individual engaging in a specific behavior in response to a specific antecedent. If the consequence of the behavior is reinforcing, the individual will continue to engage in it whenever that specific antecedent is presented in order to achieve the reinforcer.

For example, if you get hungry (antecedent) and go put money in a vending machine and push the right buttons (behavior), you will get food (consequence). The function of the behavior is access/attainment of food to satisfy your hunger. It’s pretty simple.

Reinforcement can be positive or negative, but these are not judgments of “good” or “bad.” Just as with magnets, the poles of the Earth, and batteries, the terms “positive” and “negative” have specific meanings within ABA that are also frequently misunderstood in special education behavioral interventions. In reality, when it comes to ABA, “positive” means “to present” and “negative” means “to withdraw.”

Positive reinforcement, therefore, is the presentation of something that is likely to reinforce a specific behavior. Negative reinforcement is the removal of something unwanted in order to reinforce a particular behavior. The aforementioned vending machine scenario gives an example of positive reinforcement because food is presented in response to the behavior of putting money into the vending machine and pushing its buttons. Both forms of reinforcement were best explained scientifically back in the early days of behaviorism by B.F. Skinner using what came to be referred to as a “Skinner Box.”

In Skinner’s positive reinforcement experiments, rats in a cage were taught to pull a lever in order to access food pellets. At first, pulling on the lever was accidental, but as soon as food came out, the rats quickly learned that engaging in the behavior of pulling the lever resulted in the presentation of a food pellet. The presentation of the food pellet reinforced the pulling of the lever.

In Skinner’s negative reinforcement experiments, rats in a cage with an electrified floor that delivered mild shocks to their feet learned to pull a lever in order to turn off the electrification of the floor. Again, at first, pulling the lever was accidental, but as soon as their feet were no longer getting zapped, the rats quickly learned that engaging in the behavior of pulling the lever resulted in the termination of discomfort caused by the electrified floor of the cage. The removal of the electrification reinforced the pulling of the lever.

In both cases, the behavior of pulling the lever was reinforced. It’s just that one form of reinforcement provided access to something preferred and the other removed something aversive. Again, this can all be reduced to getting something (1) or getting away from something (0).

In the IEP process, you’re either getting what you want for your child or you are not. The public education agency personnel are either satisfying their agency’s agenda or they are not. The whole situation is riddled with ones and zeros depending on what you are talking about and who is involved.

Again, this is all a gross over-simplification of these basic ABA concepts. There are other considerations that have to be taken into account, such as setting events, otherwise known as Motivating Operations (MOs). MOs increase the likelihood of a specific antecedent triggering a specific behavior.

In our previous example regarding the student becoming verbally aggressive and tearing up a worksheet upon the task demand being presented, it could be the case that the student normally complied with task demands but, that particular day, the student had a stomach ache and didn’t have the concentration and stamina to engage in the task when it was presented. As such, the antecedent was still the presentation of a task demand, but that antecedent occurred in the presence of the MO of a stomach ache, and the consequence was still to escape/avoid the task demand.

Similarly, in our example previously regarding education agency personnel engaging in hyperbolic excuse-making and changing the subject in response to a parent request for something, it could be the case that said personnel would have normally agreed to honor the parent’s request, but that morning there had been an agency budget meeting in which personnel were told they would be subject to disciplinary action from the agency if they committed the agency to services for students that cost more than a certain amount, which is illegal but nonetheless happens all the time. As such, the antecedent was still the parent request, but it occurred in the presence of the MO of a threat of disciplinary action against agency personnel for committing the agency to costs it didn’t want to have to bear, and the consequence was still to escape/avoid honoring the parent’s request.

Sometimes you don’t know what all the MOs are because the education agency personnel won’t make them known to you. In many instances, the only way you know something is wrong is because the presentation of an antecedent results in a behavior that produces a consequence that doesn’t fit what should be happening. In that case, you know something is wrong because the behavior doesn’t fit the situation, at which point you have to ask yourself, “What is the function of this behavior?” It’s pretty obvious that any “no” response you receive is an escape/avoidance behavior; it’s just sometimes hard to know whether what is being avoided is cost, accountability, or both.

For example, data collection practices in special education throughout the country are generally pretty unscientific and shoddy in spite of a federal mandate that special education be delivered according to the peer-reviewed research, which is all scientific, according to measurable annual goals. As black-and-white as the process is supposed to be, it often isn’t because school personnel 1) have no idea how to do it correctly, and/or 2) are attempting to avoid accountability.

In most cases, it’s been my observation that the initial inappropriate behaviors are a consequence of incompetence, which creates a need to pursue accountability, at which point they engage in cover-ups to try to avoid getting into trouble for the errors of their ineptitude. You have to assume as a parent going in that not everybody on your IEP team knows everything they should and that they may respond unethically when they get called out on their errors. In other situations, public education agency personnel are just grifting the system for a government paycheck at taxpayer expense from the outset and see students as a means to their own financial ends, engaging in cover-ups when their self-serving behaviors become exposed.

As a parent going into the IEP process, you have to be a shrewd negotiator. If you don’t understand the functions of the behaviors of the other IEP team members, you are at risk of being robbed blind by unethical public servants and/or otherwise getting a poorly developed IEP from inept public servants.

It’s not on you to know all of the science and law that applies to your child’s situation, but if you can develop your skills at reading the behaviors of the other IEP team members, you can often figure out whether they are acting according to your child’s actual needs or not. At that point, how you respond becomes the next hurdle to clear.

Every situation requires its own analysis and there is no way I can give you a one-size-fits-all solution, here. What I can tell you to do is pay attention, try to get a sense of the function of someone’s inappropriate behavior as best as possible, and offer reinforcers in order to achieve the behaviors you want to see.

For example, send a thank-you card to the school psychologist who actually threw down on an excellent report and you will positively reinforce legally compliant behavior. Or, withdraw a compliance complaint if the agency remedies the problem that compelled you to file it and you will negatively reinforce legally compliant behavior. They can earn a food pellet or stop their feet from getting zapped, metaphorically speaking, but, either way, they’re going to have to pull the lever. If you can keep these concepts straight, you will be in a much better position to effectively participate in the IEP process.

Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych. on Linkedin
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne has worked as a special education and disability resource lay advocate since 1991 and as a paralegal to attorneys working in special education and disability rights law since 2005. She earned her master's degree in educational psychology in 2013, with emphasis on human development, learning and memory, evidence-based instruction, and educational program design and evaluation. She has received additional training in mediation and post-graduate studies in applied behavioral analysis and individualized educational data collection methodologies.

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