5 Ways to Engage Parents to Build Generalization at Home

As professionals in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis, one of our greatest challenges is making sure our clients demonstrate the skills we teach in other relevant situations. Ensuring generalization at home presents unique challenges. Parents often want to leave treatment to the experts for a variety of reasons. This prevents generalization and may also limit payments from funders.

Engaging parents in treatment leads to improved program implementation at home. This leads to more effective generalization at home with less intervention from professionals. Behavioral skills training (BST) provides a framework for teaching parents (Lafasakis & Sturmey, 2007), yet fails to offer a way to ensure parent participation. Five of the best strategies you can use include:

  • Build a Rapport
  • Assess the Parents’ Reinforcers
  • Be Flexible about Training
  • Set Realistic Goals
  • Use a Homework Calendar

Build these strategies into a structured parent education program that you can implement again and again with new families as they come in. Johnson et al. (2007) developed a replicable parent training system to efficiently teach necessary skills. We also have an ABA Parent Training that provides a solid foundation you can use immediate. Altogether, this course offers 16 lessons, each with an assignment for the parent or caregiver. 

Being an effective instructor will assist you in getting the most out of these other strategies.

1. Build a Rapport

From the first moment you meet your client’s parents you define your relationship with them. Building a strong, collaborative, supportive relationship with clear expectations on both sides sets the stage for smooth generalization at home. Create a balance between establishing yourself as an authority and becoming a team with the parents.

Try these strategies for effectively building a positive rapport with parents and caregivers.

Let parents know upfront that their participation is part of the process

Set participation as an expectation right from the very first conversation. This lets parents know immediately what they sign on for. While we might assume parents understand their vital role in treatment, many parents walk into your first meeting with a medical mentality. When you bring your child to the doctor’s office for treatment, the doctor does his thing and the parent rarely needs to participate.

Use language that normalizes this participation. Rather than saying “I would like to meet with you monthly,” try saying “I meet with all of my parents monthly.” Make sure that they understand you provide this training to all parents.

Set a schedule for training from the very beginning

Establishing a schedule for training from the beginning develops good habits for participation. Let the parents know that you start with a lot of basic information and you don’t want them to miss out on any of this information so it’s important to get started right away.

When the child first starts services with you, your focus is on building a skill repertoire or reducing maladaptive behavior. You’re not yet ready to think about generalization at home. Waiting until you are ready for this allows the parents to develop habits of being uninvolved in treatment. Start your training from day 1.

Assume they want the best for their child

Often as professionals, we struggle with seeing the parents’ perspectives. We might even assume that lack of participation means they don’t care, are lazy or just want us to “fix” their child. Start with the assumption that your client’s parents honestly want what’s best for their child but they just don’t think they are the best ones to provide that.

It can be difficult to accept that, as a parent, you don’t know how to help your child. Help the parents understand that it’s OK that they don’t know now, but you will help them learn.

Understand their obstacles

There are many reasons why parents fail to participate in services or implement programming to the extent we want them to. Some parents will openly tell you why they struggle. Others may give only hints and clues for you to try to identify their obstacles. Ask open-ended questions to help you gain insight into the challenges they encounter either in following through with appointments or with implementation. Common obstacles include:

  • A rigid work schedule
  • Confusion about how to implement an intervention
  • A lack of understanding of why you want them to do something
  • A feeling of not enough time to do what you ask
  • A sense of hopelessness or overwhelm
  • Difficulty changing a routine or habit
  • Their own executive functioning deficits making it hard to remember appointments or commitments
  • Lack of childcare
  • Insufficient support systems
  • Conflicting loyalties or disagreements between parents as to how to do what you ask

Remember that parents have a full life outside of ABA treatment. Often they experience the feeling of just trying to keep afloat and here you come asking them to take on more.

Show your weaknesses

Parents appreciate knowing that you’re human and make mistakes. Often they are afraid of doing things the wrong way and so resist making any effort at all. Show you can laugh at yourself and mistakes happen. Don’t expect perfection from them or yourself.

Many parents with autism begin ABA treatment with low self-esteem in regards to their parenting skills. Dillenburger, Keenan, Gallagher, and McElhinney (2004) found that after short-term exposure to ABA, parents reported improved self-esteem. Getting the ball rolling is the most important step. As parents begin to develop more confidence, their participation will grow.

2. Assess the Parents’ Reinforcers

Sometimes as professionals we lose sight of the fact that behavior is behavior no matter the subject. Parent behavior is subject to the same rules as the child’s behavior. Providing insufficient reinforcers often leads to lack of follow through.

Parents won’t do what you want for a few minutes with a toy, a high five, or even an M&M. You need to assess what your specific parents value.

While most parents will follow through if assured positive behavior change, often that change occurs very slowly over time. This lack of immediacy allows competing contingencies to overrule this change as an effective reinforcer.

The book Carrots and Sticks by Ian Ayers provides useful insight into understanding the impact of different aspects of reinforcers and will help you understand why parents struggle with follow through without the right contingencies in place.

3. Be Flexible about Training

As a busy professional it can be tempting to try to fit parent training around our many other responsibilities. We offer choices between our available time slots, usually during the traditional work week. Parents trying to pay for the astounding cost of raising a child with autism squeeze in as many working hours as possible around their child’s needs. Many can’t accommodate schedules that are convenient for professionals.

Become creative and innovative when setting up training. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Set up a once per month group parent training on a Saturday or in the evening.
  • Offer remote training if their payer allows.
  • Consider traveling to their place of employment at lunch or offer to provide training during the family’s meal time (this allows the added benefit of an opportunity to model some skills).
  • Offer parent training in the community while the parent runs some errands (with the child present you have another opportunity to model skills and provide coaching).
  • Meet for an early morning training with the child before sessions start for the day.
  • Conduct 4-8 mini sessions per month that are 10-15 minutes long (you need to make these sessions efficient for them to be effective).

Parents face enormous challenges. Don’t let meeting with you become another one. Make it easy by being flexible and offering choices.

4. Set Realistic Goals for Generalization at Home

Generally, involving parents in treatment should focus on generalizing already mastered skills rather than skill acquisition. Many parents are able to learn strategies needed to teach their child new skills, but unless they express the desire to tackle this, focus your efforts on mastered skills. Ask questions to identify those goals that are most important to the parents. Working toward those goals will get the parents on board far faster than focusing on goals you feel are most important.

Try asking these questions:

  • What’s the 1 thing your child could learn that would make the morning routine easier?
  • What frustrates you most at bedtime?
  • How do you feel about how your child spends his free time at home?
  • If I had a magic wand and could change just 1 thing at home, what would make the biggest difference for you?

Digging down to find those things that have become the biggest problems for the family will likely yield the greatest return, provided that the skill is achievable for the child and family at that time. If the parents want to work on something that the child isn’t ready for, let them know that you hear what they’re saying and will definitely work toward their goal, but for now you want them to pick something the child has already mastered. Offer some choices that relate to their responses to the above questions.

5. Use a Homework Calendar

Parents are busy people with a lot on their plate. It can be difficult for them to prioritize the things you want them to do. Provide a homework calendar that demonstrates clear expectations for different activities for the month.

In this example, the parent is expected to do 2 different “assignments” 10 times during the month. The goals state clearly what the parent needs to do, but make sure to go over the assignments in person so there are no questions. Not only does this keep the parent on track, it also provides you with some data on the child’s skills at home.

If you have the time and are creative, another fun way to create a calendar is to provide specific activities for practice with some mastered skills. Simply have the parent initial that the “assignment” was completed. Take a look at this example.

Get Started Building Generalization at Home Now

Generalization at home can be difficult to achieve. Get parents excited to engage with you. Help them overcome their obstacles. Provide them with quick tips and tricks that they can refer to and use right away.

Looking for more ideas? Many of the strategies in our article: 5 Ways To Increase Collaboration To Improve Generalization in School are effective with parents as well! For more on generalization read these posts:


Dillenburger, K., Keenan, M., Gallagher, S., & McElhinney, M. (2004). Parent education and home‐based behaviour analytic intervention: an examination of parents’ perceptions of outcomeJournal of Intellectual and Developmental Disability29(2), 119-130.

Johnson, C. R., Handen, B. L., Butter, E., Wagner, A., Mulick, J., Sukhodolsky, D. G., … & Scahill, L. (2007). Development of a parent training program for children with pervasive developmental disordersBehavioral Interventions22(3), 201-221.

Lafasakis, M., & Sturmey, P. (2007). Training parent implementation of discrete‐trial teaching: Effects on generalization of parent teaching and child correct respondingJournal of applied behavior analysis40(4), 685-689.