Interventions for learners with autism have become increasingly nuanced and complex over time. It is not easy for organizations and professionals to stay abreast of the changes in instructional technology. The identification of best practice techniques is a moving target; research continually changes and expands the range of techniques known to be effective. The identification of effective intervention is an ongoing and continually evolving process. All service delivery programs that provide state-of-the-art intervention have mechanisms in place to stay informed about changes in evidence-based practices. Similarly, they have extensive systems and curricula designed to train staff in the most current methodologies.
Much is known about what constitutes best practices in staff training (e.g., McClannahan & Krantz, 1993; Reid, O’Kane, & Macurik, 2011; Reid, Parsons, & Green, 2012). A number of studies have demonstrated that effective instruction results from training that is focused on implementation and not on information alone. Lecture-based presentations do not result in the ability to implement a technique. Instead, training must include a much more specific focus on implementation. Staff members learn best when procedures are demonstrated and when the individuals are coached through the actual demonstration of such procedures. When trainers model the procedure and then provide coaching and feedback about the trainee’s implementation, learning is most efficient.
What Works in Staff Training
In behavior analytic programs, training methods that include modeling, rehearsal, and feedback are termed Behavioral Skills Training (BST). This has become the standard of intervention for ABA staff training programs. BST has been shown to be extremely effective in training a wide variety of skills to staff members (e.g., Sarakoff & Sturmey, 2004). It has also been shown to be an effective way to build skills in parents of individuals with disabilities (e.g., Miles & Wilder, 2009). Recipients benefit from the concrete demonstration of the technique and from the practice and coaching that are embedded into BST.
Supervision: The Art of the Science?
While staff training has been well researched, the other elements of supervision are less well understood. All ABA staff members require ongoing training and supervision to ensure the continual quality of the delivered intervention. The skill sets of supervisors are important to identify. In many human service organizations, supervisors are identified from the pool of implementers. Those with the most seniority and the best skills are considered for promotions to supervisory roles. Yet, the skills needed in supervision often do not overlap significantly with the skills needed for implementation and direct service delivery. While those skills may be necessary for effective supervision, they may not be sufficient. What makes for an effective supervisor? How should individuals be helped to assume a supervisory role? What are the skills needed for effectiveness in this role?
Supervision allows for the provision of specific feedback to hone skills. Detailed and concrete feedback must be delivered to correct errors, increase efficiency, and ensure that instructional opportunities are maximized. Supervision also allows for the assessment of the integrity of the instructional procedures. Is the instruction being delivered as planned? Are all elements of the intervention in place? Are there important aspects of instruction that are not evident?
Supervisors also build professionalism skills – helping to train the next generation of trainers, supervisors, and administrators. Supervisors can shape the professionalism of supervisees by providing guidelines and feedback on interactional style, on the protection of confidentiality, on the management of conflicts and differences of opinion, and on building consensus within a team.
Melmark’s Supervisor Training Program
At Melmark New England, Helena Maguire has spent 20 years developing a systematized and evidence-based way to build skills of new supervisors. The program is rooted in the theory and techniques of ABA. It is organized into an 11 session training program focused on core, essential skills for supervisors. Topics covered include: Motivation and Staff Supervision, Pinpointing Work Performance, Monitoring Staff Performance, Staff Training, Communication and Listening, Performance Feedback: Procedural Integrity, Performance Evaluations, Diagnostic Feedback Role Plays, The Discipline Process, and Creating an Effective Team.
An organizational behavior management approach is used (e.g., Reid & Parsons, 2000). Supervisors are taught to use the principles and procedures of Applied Behavior Analysis to improve the skills of staff. Participants at Melmark’s Andover, Massachusetts and Berwyn, Pennsylvania sites are taught to pinpoint needed skills, train staff in those skills, and monitor their performance.
Within the training, emphasis is placed on efficiency and effectiveness. Supervisors are trained to delegate and to follow-up on those delegations. They are taught to provide objective and specific positive and corrective feedback in the context of a supportive and nurturing supervision relationship. Consistency and fairness in approach are emphasized.
As part of their supervision training, trainees take on a supervisory project. This project is designed to help build skills in goal setting, staff motivation, delivering feedback, and assessing the success of an implemented program. Participants in the training might take on a staff compliance challenge such as the collection of data on self-help skills. They might target a cultural issue such as positive interactions between staff, and develop an “applause” bulletin board for increasing staff members’ statements of appreciation and positive feedback to one another.
The project itself offers an opportunity for learning project management skills. The following summary of crucial tasks outlines the strategy for getting a long-term project done. It also builds the skills needed for such projects – problem identification, hypothesis generation, data collection and analysis, the creation of recommendations, and the ability to present such information in a public presentation.
- Identify a problem.
- Identify the behavior with an operational definition you are looking to either increase or decrease (Dependent Variable).
- Collect some descriptive information as to when this behavior occurs and does not occur.
- Collect baseline data on this behavior. Specify what data system you used in written form.
- Summarize this information as to the hypothesis of some potential functions.
- Develop a written specific intervention (Independent Variable) that you have selected to employ to change behavior in the desired direction.
- Collect data until you see stable responding.
- Draw conclusions in writing as to the efficacy of your selected treatment, via PowerPoint.
- Propose recommendations for the continued use of your treatment. Develop a PowerPoint presentation to demonstrate your project.
- Present final presentation (brief PowerPoint with data).
The combination of this project, along with the targeted training in the scope of supervision skills helps to develop the initial skill set essential for success. This novel program takes time to implement, but is efficient in the long-term. Many problems are avoided as the individuals have a strong foundation in an OBM approach to organizational systems development and a behavior analytic approach to staff management.
Every quality program worries about transitions in leadership. Legacy plans are common themes for executive directors and other high-level administrators. Transitions in leadership at lower and middle levels of management are often not given the same attention. Yet, inadequate preparation of supervisors can reduce their effectiveness.
Investing in the next leaders requires that organizations develop training programs that target this crucial group. Melmark has developed an innovative program to build the skill sets of supervisors, to ensure that training is continual, that professionalism is monitored, and that all members of the organization are comprehensively mentored in instructional techniques, collegial interactions, and state-of-the-art interventions.
Helena Maguire, MS, BCBA, is Senior Director of School Services at Melmark New England. Mary Jane Weiss, PhD, BCBA-D, is Executive Director of Research at Melmark. Frank L. Bird, MEd, BCBA, is Chief Clinical Officer of Melmark, Inc.
The mission of Melmark is to serve children, adults and their families affected by a broad range of intellectual disabilities. We provide evidence-based educational, vocational, clinical, residential, healthcare and rehabilitative services, personally designed for each individual in a safe environment of warmth, care and respect. For more information, please visit www.melmark.org and www.melmarkne.org.
McClannahan, L. E., and Krantz, P. (1993). On systems analysis in autism intervention programs. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 26, 589-596.
Miles, L. E., & Wilder, D. A. (2009). The effects of behavioral skills training on caregiver implementation of guided compliance. Journal of Applied behavior Analysis, 42, 405-410.
Reid D. H., Parsons M. B. (2000). Organizational behavior management in human service settings. In: Austin J., Carr J. E., editors. Handbook of applied behavior analysis. Reno, NV: Context Press. pp. 275–294. (Eds.)
Reid D. H., Parsons M. B., & Green C. W. (2012). The supervisor’s guidebook: Evidence-based strategies for promoting work quality and enjoyment among human service staff. Morganton, NC: Habilitative Management Consultants.
Reid D. H., O’Kane N. P., Macurik K. M. Staff training and management. (2011). In: Fisher W. W., Piazza C. C., Roane H. S., editors. Handbook of applied behavior analysis. New York: Guilford Press;. pp. 281–294. (Eds.)
Sarokoff R. A., Sturmey P. (2004). The effects of behavioral skills training on staff implementation of discrete-trial teaching. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. 37:535–538.