Setting Family Goals for ABA Therapy

A child with autism may have better outcomes when parents set specific family goals for ABA therapy. An expert shares how this works.

Families with a child with autism often seek Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy to help their child learn functional skills. Based on the science of behavior and learning, ABA therapy works to increase helpful behaviors and decrease unhelpful behaviors. Parents can create their own family goals for ABA therapy and work with their child’s ABA therapy team for the best outcomes.

Very early in her conversations with parents, Board Certified Behavior Analyst Reena Naami-Dier, Owner and Director of Spark Center for Autism in Farmington, asks about goals and concerns for their child with autism. “For some, the answer comes quickly and easily, and for others, it takes more time to really think about what they want for their child,” says Naami-Dier.

Some desired goals are broad, like transitioning to school or independence with daily living, she says, or they may be more specific, like learning to use multi-word sentences. “Both are OK and necessary. Having an idea of what goals you want for your child is important because it helps guide what our treatment will look like and ensures that we are working on skills that are truly significant to your and your child’s lives,” she explains.

Here, Naami-Dier shares what you need to know about why family goals are important, how to decide what goals to have, how to help your child have the best experiences while they learn — and how you can work with your child’s ABA therapy team to meet your goals.

How do I decide on family goals for ABA therapy?

To get in the frame of mind for setting goals, try asking yourself a few questions, suggests Naami-Dier.

“Are there any significant barriers that keep your child from gaining adaptive skills like communication, daily living or self-help skills?” she says, adding this is a good place to start. “From questions like these, we can get a better idea of what might be some good long- and short-term goals to work toward.”

Other questions you can ask yourself include:

  • Are there any behaviors that your child engages in that prevent you or them from actively participating or going out into the community?
  • How does your child currently communicate their needs?

How can a BCBA and ABA therapy team help determine specific goals?

Your child’s BCBA can base many goals on the results of your child’s diagnostic evaluation and other skills assessments, says Naami-Dier. In addition to assessments, your child’s BCBA should determine how your child learns, how they are motivated and how to meet them where they are.

“Equally important is understanding that you may have specific longer-term or larger-scale goals for your child, but that may need to be broken down into much smaller increments in order to build up to the skill you are hoping for,” she says.

Here’s where a skilled BCBA can use their expertise to determine what prerequisite skills are needed and help you gain a better understanding of how those smaller skills may be pivotal to your child’s longer-term success.

How do smaller skills help achieve the larger goal?

“It is important that we set your child up for success,” says Naami-Dier. If it seems that some of the steps to a complex skill are too simplistic, recognize that practicing these skills helps your child gain the confidence necessary to move toward more difficult skills.

“One good way that BCBAs can also explain their reasoning for goals is to look at where your child is performing developmentally in a variety of areas and domains and explain why those areas are important,” she says. “Giving real-world examples of different skill areas and how they may relate to your child is a good way to break up some of the jargon that often comes with treatment goals.”

What are some common goals families want to achieve?

Top of the list for many families is communication skills, says Naami-Dier.

“Whether your child is verbal or needs a communication device, expanding your child’s communication is a good goal to have. Social goals are also common and these can vary from learning how to parallel play to teaching a peer how to play a new game,” she explains. “We may also target behaviors that are interfering with your child’s ability to be more independent, such as aggression or self-injury.”

How can I help measure success?

To form a complete picture of your child’s progress, share information about progress you’re seeing at home. Has your child started tolerating peers playing with or around them when previously they did not?

“In having consistent communication with the BCBA and receiving updates to progress toward goals, parents can provide their input to help the BCBA determine if changes to how goals are being implemented are needed — or if more generalization measures are necessary,” says Naami-Dier.

Why do some goals take so long to achieve?

The simple answer is progress takes time, and each child moves at their own pace. But there are many factors that can affect progress.

“Every child is different, and as BCBAs, our job is to determine if your child is making steady progress based on their own abilities. While it may seem that a goal is taking a long time, sometimes it is important to keep working at it rather than removing it altogether, and determining if a different approach to that goal is best,” says Naami-Dier.

“Remember that every child is unique and we all learn in different ways,” she adds. “Progress looks different for everyone, and what may seem like very miniscule development could actually be huge for your child. Celebrate every victory, big and small.”

Expertise brought to you by Spark Center for Autism. Learn more by visiting sparkcenterforautism.com.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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