What is a Behavior Interventionist? A Plain Language Guide

Behavior interventionists are an important part of a team that provides behavioral support to families with children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities. Their role is multifaceted, encompassing both the implementation of evidence-based strategies and developing relationships with key stakeholders.

This article aims to provide parents with more information on who a behavior interventionist is, what role they play, what strategies they use, and the impact they can have on families dealing with ASD.

Introduction to Behavior Intervention

Behavior intervention is a type of therapy that uses strategies and techniques to modify and reduce disruptive or maladaptive behaviors and teach alternative or necessary skills for children to navigate their environments effectively. These interventions are based on behaviorism.

Behaviorism is a theory that all behavior results from triggers in the environment. This means that every action a person takes is a reaction to environmental events. Central to this theory is operant conditioning, which refers to the way the environment shapes behavior, making it less likely or more likely to occur in the future.

One of the biggest challenges parents and teachers face is managing difficult or defiant behaviors. When children are faced with a difficult task or are unable to clearly express what they need, they can experience tantrums or emotional outbursts. Behavior issues, such as tantrums or meltdowns, physical and verbal aggression, or repetitive emotional outbursts, can interfere with a child’s ability to function in school and can create stressful environments at home.

Behavior intervention offers a solution to consistently manage behavior challenges and allows children the opportunity to learn and develop the skills needed to navigate their environments. These interventions ultimately create better learning environments at school and calmer and more connected homes for families.

Who is a Behavior Interventionist?

Behavior interventionist is a broad term that refers to the professionals and paraprofessionals who participate in implementing strategies and therapy programs within the realm of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

Behavior interventionists work with children to improve their ability to interact socially. These interventionists commonly work with children with ASD and help them develop social skills, motor skills, and life skills.

The level of education for behavior interventionists varies across the field, and, depending on the state, formal certification or licensure is not always mandatory to become one. Nonetheless, behavior interventionists usually have at least a bachelor’s degree in early childhood development, education, psychology, nursing, ABA, or a related field.

Many positions don’t require formal training beyond degree requirements. However, having advanced degrees, certifications, or licensures provides better behavior interventionist candidates for positions.

For example, a behavior interventionist can be a registered behavior technician (RBT), which involves completing 40 hours of supervised training and passing an exam by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB).

Interventionists can also be Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts (BCaBA). This requires an undergraduate degree in ABA, psychology, or education, 1,000 to 1,300 hours of supervised training, and passing an exam by the BACB.

Behavior interventionists, RBTs, and BCaBAs must all work under the supervision of a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). To become a BCBA you must have a master’s degree in ABA, psychology, or education, 1,500 to 2,000 hours of supervised training, and pass a BACB exam. BCBAs are sometimes called behavior intervention specialists.

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The Role of Behavior Interventionists in Supporting Children with ASD

A behavior interventionist works one-on-one with children with ASD or other developmental delays by implementing an individualized behavior plan of intervention. This support is provided at treatment centers, homes, schools, and communities in collaboration with and under the direct supervision of a behavior consultant such as a BCBA.

Behavior interventionists begin by conducting a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) to understand the purpose of the challenging behaviors and assess the child’s specific intervention needs. The first step in the process is defining and prioritizing the target behaviors. Defining the behavior allows the interventionists to consistently assess and monitor it. It is important to prioritize behaviors because addressing them all at once can hinder successful intervention.

After the behavior is defined, behavior interventionists then gather information about what the behavior looks like, where it occurs, whom it occurs with, and the consequences of it. Information can be gathered in a multitude of ways such as interviews, checklists, and direct data collection either in the natural environment or in contrived settings.

Once sufficient information is collected, it is analyzed to determine the purpose or function of the behavior. Behaviors typically occur to gain attention, access to items such as food or toys, escape or avoid demands, and fulfill sensory needs (e.g., spinning or hand flapping).

The function of the behavior is used to guide the development of goals and the design of the behavior intervention plan. The goals are set in collaboration with parents and other caregivers. They should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound goals (SMART goals).

A behavior intervention plan is designed to achieve the set goals. The behavior interventionist is responsible for creating and implementing the plan. The plan uses evidence-based strategies that are specifically tailored to directly help the child achieve their goals and address their unique needs.

Some additional duties of a behavior interventionist include one-to-one teaching and evaluations, conflict resolution, ongoing progress assessment and reporting, and communication with parents and other professionals such as doctors, psychologists, and teachers, and communicating with parents.

Techniques and Strategies Used by Behavior Interventionists

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Behavioral interventions for children on the autism spectrum have primarily evolved from Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). ABA is the scientific application of behavioral principles to first identify the variables responsible for behavior challenges and then use those variables to improve socially significant behaviors.

ABA therapy can positively benefit children with ASD by teaching them new skills and reducing disruptive behaviors. Some ABA strategies commonly used include positive reinforcement, operant extinction, prompts, and modeling.

Positive reinforcement is the most commonly used strategy in ABA. When positive reinforcement occurs after a behavior, it increases the likelihood of that behavior occurring again in the future. For example, a child can be provided with a high five after they clear their lunch space.

Operant extinction is the idea that a previously reinforced behavior is no longer reinforced and, therefore, decreases in frequency. Take, for example, a child who is usually provided a tablet during a tantrum. To implement operant extinction the child would no longer have access to a tablet during a tantrum which will decrease the likelihood of future tantrums.

Prompting is a technique that is used to teach new skills. By providing prompts for the appropriate response, the child learning a new skill is more likely to experience success. Prompts come in various forms, such as:

  1. Physical prompts: hand-over-hand assistance to guide a child to complete a task.
  2. Verbal prompts: telling a child something to help them complete a task.
  3. Model prompts: demonstrating the correct action needed to complete a task.
  4. Gestural prompts: gestures or body movements that guide a child on how to do something.
  5. Visual prompts: providing pictures or other visual aids.
  6. Auditory prompts: using a noise (e.g., a timer) to support a child’s independence in completing a skill.

Another intervention strategy commonly used by behavior interventionists is positive behavior support (PBS) which is a set of strategies that decrease disruptive behavior by teaching new skills and making environment changes.

With PBS, behavior challenges are viewed as a skill deficit, as children engage in disruptive behavior because they don’t have the necessary skills to deal with various situations. This strategy involves identifying the deficits and teaching appropriate ways to get the child’s needs met.

For example, when a teacher’s attention is on other students or she is focused on a task, a child with ASD will scream, which makes the teacher move toward her and speak to her. A PBS plan for this situation would involve teaching the student to appropriately request attention by saying “excuse me” and teaching the student to interact with peers as an alternative.

PBS also involves changing the environment as a proactive or preventative strategy to address disruptive behavior. For example, when an unanticipated change occurs, a child may throw all their toys out of the toy box, hindering the transition to the next activity. A picture schedule or a written schedule can be created and reviewed with the child throughout the day.

All strategies and techniques used are individualized based on a functional behavior assessment and consistently implemented by the behavior interventionist to meet the unique needs of each child.

Working with a Behavior Interventionist: What Parents Need to Know

When looking for a behavior interventionist, parents can get recommendations from healthcare professionals, schools, or support groups. In addition, the BACB has a search function that allows parents to look for RBTs, BCaBAs, and BCBAs in their local area. Parents should verify the candidate’s experience and credentials. It is important to request and contact references, such as previous families they have worked with.

When selecting the individual to work with your child, consider their experience working with children with similar needs and intervention strategies that you will be implementing. In addition, assess their personality to determine if they can be compatible with your family and, most importantly, your child.

Behavior interventionists need specific characteristics and skills to be effective. They should be able to effectively communicate with a variety of people such as teachers, parents, and doctors. They should also be able to communicate via written reports. Enthusiasm and people skills are critical for behavior interventionists because they will have to build and maintain relationships with children, parents, and other professionals.

A successful behavior interventionist will be adaptable because no two days will be the same, and things rarely go as planned with children. Since no two days are the same and no two children are the same, behavior interventionists need critical thinking skills to create solutions to problems that will arise.

Behavior interventionists should collaborate with parents from the initial assessment stages through the planning process and in implementing the strategies. Parents should actively participate to ensure consistent delivery of the intervention and to increase the generalization of the skills learned.

Parents should also consistently provide updates to the behavior interventionists about changes in the environment, challenges implementing strategies, and general updates on progress seen in children. This communication will guide the behavior intervention plan.

Lastly, parents should have realistic goals and expectations of the process. Behavior intervention is a gradual process, and significant changes take time and dedication. Recognize that progress will vary, and celebrate small wins with your child.

Success Stories and Challenges

Most behavior interventionists will have a success story of implementing an intervention plan. The story of Maiya is one example of success. Maiya would kick and hit other children at school during classroom activities. Through functional behavior assessment which consisted of direct data collection and interviews, the function of the behavior was determined to be access to attention from her peers.

A behavior intervention plan was designed to teach Maiya how to appropriately interact with her peers. She was taught how to greet others, join a group, and how to ask them to play. In addition, Maiya was taught how to play independently or engage in quiet activities during downtime in the classroom. Lastly, the classroom environment was altered. The class adopted a buddy system which paired students together for various activities throughout the day.

The goal of the intervention program was to reduce the instances of hitting and for Maiya to have at least 5 positive interactions with peers. These goals were successfully achieved within three months.

However, not all intervention plans are successful, and many behavior interventionists and parents experience challenges during implementation. Consistency in delivery can be a challenge. Parents or teachers can be burnt out or stressed, making it difficult for them to follow through with the plan at all times.

Behavior interventionists use data to track the progress the child makes. However, the data collection method chosen can be cumbersome leading to missing or inaccurate data. This affects whether adjustments should be made to the plan or not.

Some children have complex needs, and it can be difficult to determine which behavior to target first. In this case, some interventionists may target multiple behaviors at once. However, this has been shown to lead to ineffective intervention.

It is important to recognize challenges and ensure measures are in place to mitigate their effects. Communicate with the interventionist frequently, ensure goals are manageable, and take steps to prevent burnout, such as engaging in self-care activities.

Beyond Behavior: The Holistic Impact of Intervention

A Behavior interventionist for ASD


Behavior intervention plays an important role in promoting positive outcomes in various aspects of a child’s life. For example, behavior intervention can have an impact on social skills. By teaching and reinforcing skills such as turn-taking or initiating conversations, behavior interventionists help children to be able to develop meaningful relationships with peers and participate in social activities.

Behavior intervention can also provide children with ASD with a means of communication. This allows children to be understood by others, to express their emotions, and to be better able to get their needs met. By increasing communication skills, behavior interventionists can also reduce disruptive behaviors that are a result of not being able to access items or attention.

Academic performance can also be impacted by behavior intervention. Outbursts and tantrums can be reduced or eliminated to create a calmer learning environment. Children can be taught self-management skills which allow them to eliminate distractions, follow instructions, and focus in the classroom.

Reducing challenging behaviors and reinforcing adaptive behaviors can have a big impact on the home environment, family dynamic, and overall quality of life as well. When children learn to regulate their emotions, effectively communicate, and engage in positive social interactions, tension in the home can be lowered, the connection between family members can be improved, and meaningful interactions and experiences can be achieved.

Resources and Support for Parents

Some questions to consider asking the behavior interventionist before hiring them are:

  1. What are your educational background and relevant certifications?
  2. How many years of experience do you have working as a behavior interventionist?
  3. Have you worked with individuals with similar needs to my child?
  4. Can you describe your approach to behavior intervention (including how to establish a relationship with the child)?
  5. How will you tailor interventions to meet my child’s unique needs?
  6. What types of strategies do you typically use with children?
  7. How do you involve family members and other professionals in the process?
  8. How do you communicate and provide updates on the process?
  9. What are realistic expectations for the outcomes of the intervention process?
  10. What settings are you able to provide intervention services in?

There are numerous resources available that can provide support and training to parents. There are national organizations such as Autism Speaks that provide resources, information, and toolkits on ASD. Websites such as the Child Mind Institute provide expert advice, resources, and articles.

Parents can also ask healthcare professionals or their behavior interventionist for local support groups and organizations that provide support.  Many areas have autism support groups or parent advocacy groups that provide information and resources about services available in that specific area.

Many behavior interventionists, schools, and local organizations conduct webinars or workshops that provide education on practical strategies that parents can use in the home to support children with behavioral challenges.

These resources can guide parents toward valuable information, connect them with parents with similar experiences, and provide access to support and training needed to understand and support their children’s needs.

Conclusion

Behavior interventionists are an important part of a team that helps to improve a child’s behavior and social skills. They use a variety of strategies such as ABA or PBS to promote socially significant behaviors in the home, school, and community. Parents should look for specific characteristics, skills, and experience when selecting an interventionist for their child. Together parents, behavior interventionists, and medical and psychological professionals can improve the quality of life for children with ASD.

References

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Johnston, J. M., Foxx, R. M., Jacobson, J. W., Green, G., & Mulick, J. A. (2006). Positive behavior support and applied behavior analysis. The Behavior Analyst, 29(1), 51-74.

Whitehouse, A., Varcin, K., Waddington, H., Sulek, R., Bent, C., Ashburner, J., Eapen, V., Goodall, E., Hudry, K., Roberts, J., Silove, N., & Trembath, D. Interventions for children on the autism spectrum: A synthesis of research evidence. Autism CRC, Brisbane, 2020.

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