How to Easily Engage Parents in ABA Parent Training-Learn These 3 Secrets

You already know the importance of parent training to the success of an ABA program and that it’s usually required by the insurance company. Showing up to parent training isn’t enough to help your client succeed. Parents must engage in training and change their own behavior outside of sessions. The question is: how do you get parents to not only show up but to actually engage in parent training?

Based on research and 30+ years of experience working with families, I have finally discovered the answer to this question and it lies in these 3 secrets:

  • Construct an Alliance
  • Goal Getter and 
  • Cultivate Confidence 

Your master’s degree program failed to teach you these critical pieces that transform parent training forever. Engage parents in parent training by building a collaborative relationship, setting the right goals, giving parents the confidence to believe they can make a difference.

Why Parents Avoid Parent Training

Before we dive into the 3 secrets, you first must understand why parents avoid parent training. Most parents sought ABA services because they want help so it’s easy to assume that they should want to participate in training. Parent training should improve the family’s quality of life by helping parents recognize how their behavior impacts their child’s behavior. The overall goals of parent training include the following 3 components:

  • Educating parents
  • Generalizing skills
  • Supporting parents

Even though the parent training is meant to benefit them, it’s often difficult to engage parents. Why?

  • Parents already feel overwhelmed
  • The reinforcer for changing their behavior (i.e. the benefits for their child) are not immediate enough or certain enough
  • They don’t understand what you’re saying
  • The recommended interventions don’t align with the parents beliefs, values, or goals
  • They believe someone else will be better at helping their child

Each parent is unique so their specific reasons might be different, but the examples above account for the vast majority of the barriers parents face when asked to participate in parent training. Once you understand why parents don’t engage, you can see how applying the 3 secrets help to overcome these objections.

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Earn 1 general BACB CEU by taking our course Reducing Parent Stress Through Effective Parent Training. This course will help you understand in more detail why parents often fail to follow through with your recommendations.

The 3 Secrets of ABA Parent Training

The video below provides an overview of the 3 secrets, but if you’re a reader, scroll below the video to get the details. There are also links to the most current and relevant research on parent training.

The secrets below are not magical new interventions, but few of us have been taught to use them in parent training. Once you implement these strategies, you will shatter the walls between you and your client’s parents.

Construct an Alliance-How to expertly build a collaborative relationship with parents for successful parent training

The first secret is to construct an alliance with parents.  Your goal here is to form a collaborative relationship rather than one of the expert and student.

We all know how to build rapport with our clients, but do you know how to create an alliance with parents?  Most parent training curriculums are filled with basic ABA terminology and education.  The research and my experience agree that this doesn’t work.  Parents need to feel like an integral part of the process or they won’t engage with you.  

Early on in my career, I shared a lot of facts about ABA.  I started ABA parent training by teaching the functions of behavior and how in the field we viewed behavior according to the context.  I thought it made me sound smart so parents would listen to me.

But what it did was build a wall between me and the parents.  

The Story of How I Learned to Use Stories

One family that I worked with was particularly difficult to connect with.  The mother was pleasant and met with me each week.  She would routinely tell me everything was “fine” and I would talk about the ABA strategies I used during sessions, encouraging her to use them at home. 

Each week, we started the meeting by reviewing the previous week’s recommendations and I’d ask if she tried any of the strategies.  The answer was always the same.  No. 

She didn’t give me excuses.  In fact, she often said she knew she should try them, but just never actually did.

After months of wasting our time and the insurance funds, I decided to just start over at the beginning.  This time, I would do things just a bit differently.

I knew I needed to continue providing parent training with her, but it didn’t seem like she would ever follow my recommendations.  Giving her the facts about behavior and making recommendations clearly wasn’t working.

One day, out of the blue, she apologized to me.  She said, “I’m so sorry that you see me wearing this same sweatshirt every day.  I don’t want you to think that I don’t have other clothes or don’t want to wear them, but J, gets really upset when I don’t wear this specific sweatshirt.” 

J is her son, my client.

I wasn’t sure how to respond but didn’t want to embarrass her so I simply asked her to tell me more and left the details up to her.  When she finished, I asked her if I could tell her a story about another family I worked with. 

She said yes and I proceeded to tell her about another family whose child tried to control everything that went on at home.  I shared how, over time, the parents were able to help their child accept that she couldn’t control everything.

Why Building an Alliance Works

Although we had a lot of work ahead of us, I realized that I had missed a crucial step when I jumped in trying to teach her about ABA.  I needed to take time to create an alliance with her so we could become a team working together.  

Building an alliance with parents involves letting them see you as human. You become their partner rather than the expert. Do this by:

  • Eliminate jargon
  • Understand the parent’s perspective
  • Share stories

By building and alliance with the mother in the story above, we built a strong relationship that allowed her the opportunity to share her challenges.  Best of all, her son started making huge gains once we were working together.

Goal Getter-How to engage parents in parent training by choosing goals that are life-changing

The second secret is Goal getter, how to engage parents by choosing goals that are life-changing.  

When I first started working with parents, I focused on the wrong things.  I thought I needed to get parents to see me as the expert so they would listen to me and follow my advice.  The problem is that each time I tried to position myself as an expert, parents shut down and didn’t share their real challenges with me.  

The Story of How I Learned to Set Goals Meaningful to the Parent

Years ago, I worked with a single mother of 2 autistic kids.  These kids were super tough and this was one of the most dedicated mothers I’ve ever met.  She did everything she could to accommodate her children but they continued to engage in severe behavior that put them and her at risk.  Parent training goals involved helping her understand the function of her children’s behavior so she could effectively use some of the interventions used during sessions.

After months of ineffective parent training I finally asked her why she wasn’t using the interventions we used during sessions.  She said that she was used to their behavior and just didn’t see how the interventions were going to help.  Her vision and mine obviously weren’t aligning.  

I told her that I really wanted to help make her life a little easier and asked her what she thought would help.  I said, “if I had a magic wand and could change just one thing, what would make the biggest difference in your life?” 

She said it would be amazing if her kids could get their own lunch.  She said she felt like she was constantly making food and would love for them to be able to get something on their own.  Now this was something I could help with!  

Why Setting the Right Goals Work

As the BCBA, you probably choose parent training goals when writing the initial assessment or treatment plan. These goals are often based on the child’s treatment goals. They might include teaching the parents strategies to generalize the skills learned during sessions or to reduce challenging behavior at home.

There’s no doubt that you choose parent training goals that are meaningful to your client. The problem is that the parents are probably not invested in or ready for these goals.

Choosing a goal that had real meaning and value for the mother in my story above allowed us to work together toward a shared purpose.  We became an effective team and she started seeing her children succeed.

Cultivate Confidence-How to empower and motivate parents to change their parenting strategies

The third and final secret to ACHIEVE is to cultivate confidence.  How to empower and motivate parents to change their parenting strategies.

I don’t know about you, but when I started out doing parent training, I assumed parents would jump at the chance for some help.  I figured the reason they reinforced challenging behavior was because they didn’t understand reinforcement.  I thought all I needed to do was educate them and things would magically get better.  

If you’ve paid attention during the other stories I shared, I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that I was completely wrong.  

The Story of How I Learned to Empower Parents

Years ago, I worked with a struggling mother, let’s call her Sarah, whose son, we’ll call Tim, engaged in seemingly constant challenging behaviors that included some pretty scary acts of aggression.  Sarah loved Tim, but it was safe to say she didn’t enjoy her time with him.  She was constantly on edge wondering if today was the day he would actually hurt her.

At 10 years old, Tim had spent years developing behaviors to control those around him.  Sarah routinely gave in to his demands, knowing that if she didn’t, he was likely to attack.  It all developed innocently enough.  

He was diagnosed at an early age with Prader-Willi Syndrome.  Sarah had done research on the complex disorder and learned that many of these children display significant problem behaviors and Tim seemed to slide right into that description.  She assumed that his behavior was the result of his disability and therefore outside of her control.  She felt hopeless and simply tried to get through each day.

When I met her and introduced the concept of the ABCs of behavior, she simply shook her head sadly and said, “But he has Prader-Willi Syndrome,” essentially dismissing the entire foundation of ABA.  

I explained again how behavior is a result of the conditions that surround it.  I went into details describing how her own behaviors have been reinforced.  I acknowledged her skepticism and asked her to give my recommendations 21 days.  If, after 21 days, she still wanted to give up she could do so, and we would look for an easier solution.

I was a bit shocked to see her stand and walk to the calendar hanging on the wall.  She scrawled across the date exactly 3 weeks from today the words “give up.”  I knew she was tired and scared and, most of all, afraid to hope that things could get better.

Over the course of the next few days, I met with her regularly just reviewing the ABCs of behavior and helping her shift her view of Tim’s behavior.  

Finally, a bit frustrated from my apparent inability to get through to her, I said, “I understand that he has a disability, but his behavior is not his disability.  It is the result of the conditions that surround his behavior.  If the conditions stay the same, so does the behavior.  If you change the conditions, you change the behavior.”  

At that moment, I saw the figurative lightbulb glow above her head, and she jumped from the couch and ran to the kitchen.  I couldn’t see what she was doing, but she came back with a piece of paper clutched in her hand.  On it she wrote “his behavior is not his disability.”  She said, “for the first time, I get it.  This means that he doesn’t have to hurt me.”

We proceeded to implement interventions designed to gradually shape and improve his behavior.  It required a lot of work and commitment on her part, which she wasn’t always able to follow through with.  The experience was a roller coaster of progress and then the seemingly inevitable slide back into old habits.  Each slide didn’t take her back quite as far as the one before and he continued to make gradual improvements.

Why Empowering Parents Works

Many parents don’t know what to expect of their autistic child. They aren’t sure what he’s actually capable of or what’s fair to ask of him. Often they need us to help them understand autism and the strengths and weaknesses that come with that diagnosis.

One day, I showed up for a meeting with the parent from the story above and she greeted me at the door with a huge smile on her face.  As soon as we sat down, she began to tell me about a recent experience she had where she and her son sat outside at the little table on the porch eating a snack and playing a game.  She said, “I finally enjoyed spending time with my son,” and broke down in tears.

Take the Challenge

If you’re ready to learn more about building a partnership with parents to make your parent training actually effective, take the Partnership Language 5 Day Challenge and earn 2 CEUs!

Conclusion

We learn a lot of technical information in school but fail to learn to share this information in a meaningful way with parents. Using the 3 secrets below, you can engage and inspire parents:

  • Construct an Alliance
  • Goal Getter and 
  • Cultivate Confidence 

These are the pieces that have been missing from your parent training. Incorporate them and change the lives of your clients and their families.

If you want more parent training tips, you might like our post: 10 Tips for Providing Better ABA Parent Training.

References and Related Reading

Andrews, M. L., Garcia, Y. A., Catagnus, R. M., & Gould, E. R. (2021). Effects of Acceptance and Commitment Training Plus Behavior Parent Training on Parental Implementation of Autism TreatmentThe Psychological Record, 1-17.

Bagaiolo, L. F., Cunha, G. R. D., Nogueira, M. L. M., Braido, M., Bordini, D., Sasaki, T. N., & Pacífico, C. R. (2019). Implementing a community-based parent training behavioral intervention for Autism Spectrum DisorderPsicologia: teoria e prática21(3), 456-472.

Chadwell, M. R., Sikorski, J. D., Roberts, H., & Allen, K. D. (2019). Process versus content in delivering ABA services: Does process matter when you have content that works?Behavior Analysis: Research and Practice19(1), 14.

Dai, Y. G., Brennan, L., Como, A., Hughes-Lika, J., Dumont-Mathieu, T., Carcani-Rathwell, I., … & Fein, D. A. (2018). A video parent-training program for families of children with autism spectrum disorder in AlbaniaResearch in Autism Spectrum Disorders56, 36-49.

Ferguson, J., Dounavi, K., & Craig, E. A. (2022). The impact of a telehealth platform on ABA-based parent training targeting social communication in children with autism spectrum disorderJournal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 1-32.

Fisher, W. W., Luczynski, K. C., Blowers, A. P., Vosters, M. E., Pisman, M. D., Craig, A. R., … & Piazza, C. C. (2020). A randomized clinical trial of a virtual‐training program for teaching applied‐behavior‐analysis skills to parents of children with autism spectrum disorderJournal of applied behavior analysis53(4), 1856-1875.

Yi, Z., & Dixon, M. R. (2021). Developing and enhancing adherence to a telehealth ABA parent training curriculum for caregivers of children with autismBehavior analysis in practice14(1), 58-74.

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