Becoming a Behavioral Intervention Specialist

You’re an 11-year-old sitting in a classroom. Your teacher, Miss Homina, stands at the front of the class, wearing a brown sweater with a shiny dragonfly brooch. Your eyes lock onto the brooch, and study the light reflecting off it. You squint to see if you can bend the light and make the dragonfly sparkle differently. Nothing.

Miss Homina is saying something about nouns and how they’re not the same thing as subjects or objects.

You look over and see Susie drumming her fingers on the edge of her desk. Rat-t-t-t-…Rat-t-t-t. The rhythm lodges in your head and Miss Homina’s voice again recedes into the background. You lose yourself in the tapping of fingers and begin to replicate the pattern with your own fingers. You hear a family sound—your name—in the background, but don’t give it much notice.

“Jackson!” It’s Miss Homina. “Jackson. You just lost recess. For the last time, you need to focus.”

You fume at your desk. It’s been another rotten day. You couldn’t find your homework to turn in on time. You aren’t keeping up with your schoolwork. And now this.

For many children, going to grade school is a joyful experience. It’s a time to see friends, spend time with a caring teacher, and discover the joys of books, science, and history.

However, many children with special needs have a far different impression of school. For these children, school is a time when they find themselves getting in trouble with their teachers, getting made fun of by other children, and becoming frustrated by their schoolwork.

What does a behaviorist do?

A psychological behaviorist attempts to understand both human and animal behaviors by focusing on the external environment. Instead of focusing on an individual’s internal motivation, a behaviorist first looks at the external physical stimuli that acted on the person, and then studies the responses the person made to the environment. Next, the behaviorist observes how that person responds when the stimulus is changed, and makes note of a person’s learning history. Finally, the behaviorist offers a list of positive and negative reinforcements that should help mold the person’s behavior in a desirable way. Among the most famous psychological behaviorists are Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner.

For example, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have difficulty focusing on the teachers’ instruction and often misbehave. A child with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) might have a counting ritual that makes it difficult to attend to the lesson. Children with anger issues have difficulty making and keeping friends, and can act out when the subject matter feels too hard. A child with Asperger’s syndrome can quite easily experience sensory overload from the normal commotion of class, or even from sensitivity to fluorescent lighting. This overload might cause the child to inappropriately shout or even run out of the classroom.

Each case presents a unique challenge to appropriate classroom instruction. The child’s disorder contributes to inappropriate behavior that keeps him or her from learning. It also potentially bothers the other students, further disrupting classroom instruction.

While many teachers have awareness of a broad range of childhood disorders and are highly skilled at appropriately responding to children’s misbehaviors, additional support is frequently needed. Teachers aren’t formally trained in child psychology, and therefore may not fully understand how a child’s diagnosis contributes to his or her inappropriate behavior. Additionally, budget constraints often result in teachers having less than ideal student-teacher ratios, making it that much more difficult to deal adequately with behavior problems.

This is where a behavioral intervention specialist steps in—to provide an objective look at the child’s behavior and create behavioral modification plans to help the child succeed in the classroom.

What is it like?

Unlike a classroom teacher who works with large groups of children, a behavioral intervention specialist (BIS) is tasked with observing an individual child’s behavior. He or she will travel from classroom to classroom, and very likely from school to school. Therefore, it’s important for a BIS to own a reliable vehicle and keep accurate mileage reports for reimbursement.

Initially, a behavioral intervention specialist will simply observe the child in a classroom setting and watch his or her behavior. The specialist attempts to get a handle on how often the child misbehaves, and what “antecedent behavior” triggered the misbehavior. The BIS then creates a plan and suggests it to the teacher. He or she might offer to model a new technique, or train the teacher in the new strategy.

Presenting this plan can present a challenge, as some teachers may feel insecure about their own skills or outright disagree with the notion that the child needs special treatment at all. Thus, the BIS will need to find ways to build strong rapport with teachers, so they can suggest these new strategies to teachers without offending them.

Specialists also attend case review meetings with the multi-disciplinary team. The composition of the multi-disciplinary team varies from school district to school district, but generally includes school psychologists, the child’s psychiatrist, and school administrators. During these meetings, representatives from each discipline share their observations of the child from their unique vantage points, in order to coordinate treatment.

In addition to these meetings, the BIS will attend meetings to formalize the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). The student’s parents or guardians are included in these meetings. By partnering together to understand the child’s strengths and weaknesses, you work together to set goals for the child’s treatment and success in the school system.

It’s in these settings that the BIS will help the parent understand, in practical terms, just how a child’s diagnosis is impacting the child’s behavior. Many parents feel overwhelmed having a special needs child, and struggle to understand the disorder. A skillful behavioral intervention specialist can interpret a child’s psychological testing results into language that parents and teachers can understand, so that both can better serve the child.

In some school districts, behavioral intervention specialists might also run group therapy sessions for students who struggle with substance abuse or other behavioral issues. Also, depending on the school district, BISs are required to keep current on developments in school psychology by attending in-service workshops, seminars, and other professional meetings.

Can I get a job?

Employment in this field is expected to grow 22 percent through 2020, above average for all occupations. In most school districts, a master’s level education is required to become a behavioral intervention specialist. Those who have a doctoral degree in psychology or in a behavioral specialty will improve their chances even further.

In addition to the public school system, there’s a high demand for behavioral specialists in group homes, residential treatment centers, and early intervention centers. Some school districts contract with local mental health agencies to provide behavioral specialists and other emotional support services. Therefore, it’s worth your time to not only look for work within public school systems but also within the social service sector.

Other employment opportunities for behavioral intervention specialists include drug, alcohol, or gambling counseling for adults.

What salary can I expect?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average mean wage for a behavioral intervention specialist in elementary through secondary schools is $68,780. This salary varies by region of the country, the work experience of the professional, as well as his or her educational experience.

How do I get a job as a Behavioral Intervention Specialist?

There are a variety of undergraduate programs which provide relevant training, including psychology, sociology, human services, and behavioral science. But again, a master’s degree is usually required for those wishing to become behavioral intervention specialists.

Several universities are responding to the growing need for behavioral interventionists, and have created master’s programs specific to this subset of school psychology. Coursework includes the foundations and legal issues associated with special education, effective interventions in math and literature classes, special education assessment, and multicultural issues. Other applicants have prepared themselves through master’s programs in applied psychology or applied behavioral analysis.

The final step to becoming a BIS is to earn your credentials through the Behavior Analyst Certification Board; a list of approved university programs can be found at the Behavior Analyst Certification Board website.

What would a behavioral approach look like in a classroom setting?

Imagine a student has a problem with getting out of his seat without permission during class. The behaviorist might begin by asking the teacher to count how many times Johnny gets up during the course of an hour, and then observe what might be influencing Johnny get up. If he pops out of his seat after the boy behind him fidgets or whispers to him, the behaviorist might suggest a different seating arrangement to change the environment.

If the behavior persists, a behavior modification plan would be suggested. The negative behavior would be identified: Johnny gets out of his chair without permission. It would then be stated positively: Johnny will stay in his chair unless he gets permission to get up.

Next, a goal would be set. If Johnny’s baseline behavior is getting out of his seat 12 times an hour, the specialist might set a goal of getting out of his seat six times an hour. The behaviorist might also ask the teacher to place a check on the board every 10 minutes Johnny stays in his chair, and reward him after six checks with a small reinforcement such as a piece of candy. Once one goal is achieved, a new goal is set.

These seeming baby steps go a long way toward creating an environment that not only benefits the student with the behavioral problem, but the entire class.

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