Sunday, November 30, 2014

Teaching self-advocacy to a child with special needs

Teaching a child with special needs self-advocacy skills can have a tremendous impact on a child’s future success in all aspects of his/her life. Self-advocacy involves knowing when and how to approach others in order to negotiate special accommodations that are needed to achieve maximum success. For a child with autism, this can involve learning how to articulate when a particular situation is overwhelming and asking for help. For example, imagine a student with autism being asked to take an important test in a room illuminated with fluorescent lights. This kind of lighting can be very distracting to a person on the spectrum and might hinder test performance. If an individual knows how to self-advocate, they will know how to appropriately request special accommodations.

Parents should begin teaching self-advocacy at a very early age by taking advantage of real life situations and modeling good advocacy skills. If you see that your child gets very easily over-stimulated by the sights, sounds and smells of large stores like Target, you can teach your child to recognize and articulate those feelings. Even before children learn to speak, parents can begin to teach them to express feelings in an appropriate manner in order to get their needs met. For example, if you see that your child is starting to get uncomfortable (most parents recognize the pre-meltdown signs - it is helpful to become aware of those signals), you can ask your child if he/she is having a difficult time.  Model the words for your child and request that they repeat it back if they can. You can model by saying “Mommy, it’s very loud in this store, I need to go somewhere quieter”. For a young child, this will go a long way in preventing tantrums and meltdowns. As the child gets older, being able to express these needs could mean the difference between success and failure at school, college, in relationships or in the workplace.

When a child with special needs reaches school age, teaching self-advocacy should be continued by the schools. Parents should request that it be part of the IEP as it is a necessary part of the child’s education if they are to become more effective citizens.

As the parent of a hearing impaired child, I witnessed first-hand the outcome when a child is taught to self-advocate at a very young age. At first it may be the role of the specialist to advocate on behalf of the child but as the child gets older, he/she learns to do this in a completely independent manner. Currently in 7thd grade, my daughter has had the benefit of working with deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) specialists who have taught her self-advocacy since a young age. Now at the age of 12, she always knows to request to sit at the front of the class and to request that the teacher repeat instructions if she misses something important. When there are spelling tests, she doesn’t hesitate to remind the teacher to face her when reciting the spelling words, or even ask that they be used in a sentence if there is a word she can’t decipher.

Once we were out to brunch with our extended family when my 6-year old niece asked my daughter if she would sit next to her at the table. My daughter said no. At first I thought she was just being difficult and told her to mind her manners. As parents we tend not to give our kids the benefit of the doubt. My daughter quickly put me in my place. She insisted on sitting across from her cousin. After we settled at the table and were all quietly reading the menu, my daughter looked up at her cousin, and without any prompting explained to her that the reason she wanted to sit across from her and not next to her was so that she would be able to see her mouth and therefore understand her better (she relies on lip-reading to an extent and especially in noisy environments). I was amazed by her maturity and ability to be so self-aware. She instinctively recognized that it was going to be difficult to hear her cousin in the noisy environment of a restaurant and that it will be easier to converse if she had the ability to see her face and read her lips from across the table. Even more impressive was the fact that she was completely unapologetic about it, simply stating very matter-of-factly that this was what she needed and why. 

As this example demonstrates, there are important benefits that come with learning about one’s strengths and challenges in order to successfully adjust the environment to accommodate one’s needs and it can be accomplished at a very young age.


Daniel Adatto, BCBA

Friday, November 21, 2014

Another look at stress management

Stresses of everyday life are virtually unavoidable, whether they are job or business worries, family problems, or social stresses. People who feel themselves to be competent are generally able to cope with these stresses and make the proper adjustments, often bringing the problems to satisfactory resolutions. On the other hand, for other people normal stress situations can be overwhelming, not because the challenges are actually so enormous, but because they feel unable to cope with them.

For more information and tips about stress management please see our February 2012 blog

Today I want to give you another perspective on this important topic.
I recently learned that patience is not equivalent to delay of gratification. Delay of gratification involves a choice to wait. Patience does not always involve a choice to wait or not, patience is deciding how to wait. Instead of changing the situation, patient people change themselves to fit the situation.

As I discussed in previous blogs we, behavior analysts, work on changing the situation, not the person. Environmental variables are arranged to prevent the challenging behaviors and trigger the desired ones. So, how does this definition of patience fit here? How does it apply to parenting?
Modern life requires multitasking, which is proven to lead to high stress and frustration levels, involves a dispersion of minds: doing several things at the same time reduces your capacity to focus. Patience here could be focusing on the priority at any given time. Try to stay focused. When you are engaged in something important (taking care of your kids, for example) nothing else exists (i.e. turn your phone off). Anything not pertinent to the matter does not exist right now. If you’re playing with your kids, feeding them or dealing with a tantrum, your kids are the most important thing at the time; that should be your priority.     

Use your time successfully. You can’t add time, but you can make the most of it. 

Here are some tips:
-        Cut the things you can cut. Unclutter your life.
-        Speak about your worries with somebody else, somebody who will listen without judging.
-        Cast it away, forget about it. You worry if you think about it. If you forget, you don’t worry. Distract yourself with something else, it’s not enough to try “not to think about something”, you need to direct your mind to other matters. When you feel overwhelmed, try playing solitaire on your computer, listen to your favorite song, or read a book you like.
-        Learn to prioritize.

Take care of yourself. That’s the first step.

Daniel Adatto, BCBA


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

California to again cover autism therapy

“…This is something that is going to make a lot of difference for a lot of families in California,” says Norman Williams, the Department of Health Care Services spokesman in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times. He is talking about Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Children in California enrolled in public healthcare are to regain access to this form of therapy for children with autism after September 15, 2014 when the state became the first in the country to comply with the new federal guidelines issued in July 2014.  

“It can be the difference from a child who can’t communicate at all to being able to say ‘I’m hungry.’ Or ‘I’m tired,’” said Kristin Jacobson, president of Autism Deserves Equal Coverage, an advocacy group.

An article like this should be on the front page of the newspaper. If you are not affected by autism in your family, you might not understand why I’m saying this. The syndrome involves several areas of deficit, including challenging and antisocial behaviors that not only segregates these children, but have a strong effect on their families and cost a great deal of money to the taxpayers. If these children do not receive the help they need they could end up being a heavy burden on society as adults. They might need assistance for life and some of them will never become productive members of society.

ABA therapy involves working closely and intensively with these children to improve their behaviors and develop functional skills. It can cost tens of thousands of dollars per year, which makes it inaccessible for a majority of families. While private insurance companies must cover the therapy under California law as of a few years ago, it has been left out of Medi-Cal, the sate version of Medicaid.
“This important milestone will ensure that all children in California, regardless of their economic status, will have access to life-changing treatment for autism spectrum disorders,” Senate President Darrell Steinberg said.   
As a proud professional dedicated and committed to implementing ABA therapy with people with special needs, I couldn’t agree more. I see firsthand on a daily basis the burden this spectrum can cause to families. I share in their happiness when their child finally speaks, plays with other kids in the playground instead of standing aside flapping hands or asks for help to complete their work independently. One of the therapists I supervise showed me a few days ago how our student is now able to do one-digit additions by himself. It made my day.  Another student is finally asking for water and to go to the bathroom independently. These may seem like minor steps. Believe me, it is huge for these children.

This is why this article is definitely worthy of the front page news.

Daniel Adatto, BCBA

Sunday, October 19, 2014

What a school can do when it wants to

This was the title of the email that caught the attention of the author of the editorial of the September 30th Los Angeles Times edition.

The story you will read of what this school district did for Eunice might seem routine. Sadly it’s not. But today we will focus on the positive. “What the school has done for my daughter, you won’t even believe it,” says Sari Weiner.
Eunice, a 14-year old girl, spent most of her life in foster care before moving in with Sari Weiner two years ago. “The district spotted the talent in this bright but neglected girl and nurtured her so she can reach her potential.”
You may wonder, is that so exceptional? Isn’t that what a finely tuned educational system should do?
Eunice had attended 15 different schools by the time she was 12. Her elementary school record was full of failures and emotional outbursts. She was then placed in a special education class for disabled students. Last year she made the transition to general education. This year she’s enrolled in honors English, history and science classes. “The staff at Hale, a charter school, tutored, challenged, listened and encouraged Eunice in class and out,” Ms. Weiner says. “They learned to tolerate her moods and taught her to trust them. They know when to ease up the pressure and when to give her a nudge.”

Eunice’s teachers had apparently focused on her strengths and devoted a great deal of time, energy and patience to understanding rather than blaming and scolding her. A failure turned into success. Can you imagine what would happen if all teachers were like that? How many kids trapped in the gridlock of mediocrity and disdain could be saved from a permanent state of punishment and turned into productive and happy members of society?

I once heard the phrase “every child has strengths.” Visiting special education classes on a daily basis I can see firsthand how many children go through the system without anybody ever discovering their strengths. Some classes look more like daycare centers than special education.

I feel it is our mission to help these students triumph like Eunice, to become success stories. Passion and compassion have to be part of the recipe. Knowledge and experience are crucial too. Education has to be encouraging and motivating. Instruction for special needs kids has to be individualized. Lunch and recess have to be opportunities for learning self-help and social skills, and not break time for teachers and aides. Music, arts, audiovisual technology have to be the rule because these kids need an extra dose of motivation. We don’t have the luxury of losing them because of boredom.
Like water in California these days, every moment is precious, there is no time to waste.

Daniel Adatto, BCBA

Monday, September 22, 2014

Behavior Detectives

The behaviorist was observing the student when the teacher said “We’ve tried everything, nothing works with him.” The behaviorist response was “There is something, we haven’t found it yet.”

B. F. Skinner (1904- 1990) is considered the father of Behavior Analysis, the environmental approach that revolutionized the understanding and treatment of behaviors. Throughout the years I’ve been gathering some of his assertions regarding the field of behaviorism. Here are some jewels, in my opinion.

“One can picture a good life by analyzing one’s feelings, but one can achieve it only by arranging environment contingencies.” 1

“The subject is always right.” 2

“Control the environment and you will see order in behavior.” 3

“Responses in relation to environments were precisely the objects of study for those psychologists who called themselves behaviorists, and Skinner counted himself among them. For Skinner, behavior was worthy of study in its own right, not as a symptom to be used as a window on physiological processes.” 4

“The task of a behavior analyst is to discover all the variables of which probability of response is a function. It is not an easy assignment, but it is at least an explicit one.” 5

This is what the behaviorist meant when she said “We haven’t found it yet.” A good behaviorist does not rest on the assumption that there is nothing to do because the child is “broken” or “there is something wrong with him.”

It’s detective work. Understanding the variables that elicit the behaviors involves searching the environment for evidence: tight routines and structure, or lack of; physical setting, such as furniture, lighting, ventilation, space, big or small groups, etc.; and last but not least the behaviors of the people who interact with that child. How is the parent/teacher giving directions? Are caregivers frustrated and reacting violently to the child (yelling, threatening, punishing)? Are the curriculum, materials and demands appropriate for this child? Are the tasks the child is expected to complete too difficult, long and/or boring?

I worked with this family a few years ago. We eventually discovered the main problem was homework. It used to take hours for this child to complete his work, and a great deal of nagging and yelling from his mom. When I asked him why he did not want to do homework, he responded without hesitation “Because it’s boring.” And it was. Basically, it was “paper-pencil” work. After consulting with the teacher the student was allowed to do homework using the computer, a preferred activity of his. The problem was reduced by about 75% overnight.

Of course it is not always overnight, but oftentimes simple environmental changes suffice. For more information, see our blog “Behaviors and Environment” at

Ask the detectives, become one yourself. And stay away from the excuse “nothing works.” Something works. You just haven’t found it yet. Your child and your family will thank you.


Daniel Adatto, BCBA


1.     Skinner, Notebooks, p.127 1983

2.     Skinner, 1948, p 240

3.     Skinner, 1967, p. 399


5.      J.E.A.B.- VOLUME 9, MAY, 1966- B. F. SKINNER


Monday, September 8, 2014

The challenge of raising a child with special needs

Raising a developmentally different child is a challenge for parents. The challenge begins when parents first learn that their child is not “normal”, something has gone wrong. When this happens there is a natural period of mourning and sadness in them and their family members. This is important because the people who are their support system are affected too, they are dealing with their own pain. Therefore, they have a difficult time responding to the grieving parents.

In other cases parents have a “typical” baby for several months before suddenly problems begin to occur- the child does not respond to situations in a typical manner, has developed unusual mannerisms and/or has lost previously acquired language- these are some of the losses of functioning that commonly occur in autism.  

In any case, there may be some issues that interfere in their ability to cope with the unexpected reality. Some of these issues include the loss of the “perfect child” they fantasized about and all the expectations from “I wanted my daughter to be a ballerina,” or “I hoped my child would be a doctor” to college, marriage and procreation. Suddenly parents are faced with the possibility that their child may be dependent on them for their entire life.

Parents are overwhelmed with having to learn about a disability they had only vaguely heard of and how to navigate the cumbersome route of doctors, diagnoses, school systems, therapies, and funding sources of services. All of these while they are grieving.     
Therefore, it is important for parents to deal with their own emotions, a frequently overlooked side of the situation. The burden of having a child with special needs involves a level of stress that often affects relationships and health, adding wood to the fire. So my advice is first TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. As the flight attendants instruct us before a flight, place the mask on you before helping others. Because if you can’t breathe, how can you help? Remind yourself that it is not your fault and seek professional help if necessary.

My next advice is take the time to observe your child. It is important to remind yourself that although your child is not responding in the “normal” way, she still is responding. Be a detective to get clues and solutions to the problems that parents of typically developed children don’t have to deal with. Your child will “tell” you the answers. What gives her pleasure? How to adapt to her changing moods? What turns your child off? How to deal with her challenging behaviors? How to set the environment to avoid problems and trigger the desired responses?  Your child have special needs and is different from other children, but he is also special in his own way, and it is your job to figure out how. Capitalize on opportunities to let him experience his special-ness. For example, if he loves numbers, engage in activities where he can be the “smart” one. If he can’t stay still and jumps all the time rather than telling him to stop get a trampoline, a bouncing ball, and other equipment that will help him express himself. 
Be ready to change your priorities. A dad in one of my classes once said to me “I understood that I’m here to help my son, not the other way around.” There will be sacrifices, accept them. One of the most difficult things you may have to learn to do is to keep a check on your expectations and learn when to push for more and when to place your child’s self-esteem in the first place.  

And know that you are not alone. You are surrounded by professionals and specialist that devoted their careers to understand children like yours. Use them as much as you can, and FOLLOW THEIR ADVICE. It is not enough to ask for help, be ready to do the work.

Daniel Adatto, BCBA




Wednesday, August 27, 2014


I was reading Applied Behavior Analysis, 2nd edition, Cooper, Heron & Heward, and some concepts in the chapter about “Self-Management” caught my attention. Here are some passages I would like to share with you.
“The ultimate goal of behavior management is to develop independent, self-directed people capable of behaving appropriately without the supervision of others.”
“Self-management is an ultimate goal of education.”
In 1974 Skinner wrote about self-control: “When a man free to do whatever he wants controls himself and chooses the right course of action, he is behaving”.
“Self-management is simply behavior that a person emits to influence another behavior. It is the personal application of behavior change tactics to produce a desired change in behavior.”
“Self-management can help a person be more effective in his daily life, replace bad habits with good ones and achieve personal goals.”
“People with self-management skills are more likely to fulfill their potential and make greater contributions to society.” 

As we teach our kids effective life skills, they become more responsible, develop independence, and learn how to solve problems.  Have this in mind when you are working on managing behaviors. Rather than reacting out of frustration yelling, punishing, focusing your energy on “the bad” you want to teach children what to do instead, reward good behaviors, build behavior repertoires your children will be able to use in the future in order to be be successful.
The way you manage the hassles of life sets the best example for kids. Children will do as you DO, not as you SAY. For example, of you throw a tantrum when something doesn’t go your way, do not be surprised if your little ones react in the same way. You can teach them that lying is not OK but then if you lie (“tell them I’m not home,”) or don’t fulfill a promise (“I know I told you we are going to Disneyland today, but I’m so tired. Let’s leave it for another weekend”) that is what they learn.

Providing children with choices and the opportunity to make decisions, when appropriate, is another good idea when teaching self-control. Tell them the difference between right and wrong and then let them decide. Again, model the decision making process by sharing with them why you made this or that decision. You can also read books to them or tell them stories of real life people who make the right choice.    
Self-management should be your ultimate goal.

 “The goal of parents is not to control their children but to teach their children to control themselves while building their self-esteem.”

                                                                                         - Janet Hackleman

Daniel Adatto, BCBA

Monday, August 11, 2014

Yes, We Can!

Recently I have been thinking about the influence this positive phrase can have and the power of “Yes” as it applies to all aspects of our lives. This is particularly relevant when it comes to parenting. 

As discussed in a previous blog (see “Parenting Five Common Mistakes” at ), “we say no 100 times a day and I can almost guarantee that 75% of those NO’s could be YES’s.”

“Don’t jump on the couch”, “No, you can’t have ice cream”, “No more TV, it is time to go to bed”, “No more cookies.” And the list goes on and on.

Who likes to be told “No”? Being told “No” frustrates your child and can instigate bad behaviors, such as crying, screaming, hitting, throwing things, etc., which can be very problematic, especially when in public. Have you ever seen a child throwing a tantrum in the grocery store or at church? Children don’t need to read blogs to know how to make our lives difficult. If we rephrase our response to a more positive alternative and redirect the child instead of just saying “No”, we can reduce the child’s frustration and prevent “behavior disasters.”

Instead of saying just NO, what he CAN’T do, tell the child what he CAN do. Some examples can be:

“Can I have a cookie mom?” Instead of immediately saying no, you can say “Yes, you can have a cookie when you finish your dinner”.

“I want to play outside.” Try “It’s too cold right now but we CAN play blocks or dance inside”. It is very effective to offer two “Yes” for every “No.”       

“It seems you want to jump, let’s go to the trampoline.”

By the way, when you say “NO” to your child, you are teaching him/her to say “NO” to you when you place a request on him/her. So, save the NO’s for when it is necessary. If you child is running to the street or playing with a knife, that’s a NO.

Making positive behavioral changes is crucial to behavior management. Try the “Yes We Can” approach and see what a difference it will make in your child’s behavior. 

 Learn how to behave so your child will too.


Daniel Adatto, BCBA





Tuesday, August 5, 2014

My daughter is right

My daughter likes to ask me about my job and sometimes she “helps” me find solutions for my clients’ behavior problems when I present her with hypothetical situations. One of our “case analyses” was about a student who is placed in a regular classroom in middle school because the only autism class is not suitable for his academic level. The problem is that the pace and curriculum of regular education is way over his head, causing this student a great deal of frustration. This in turn leads to frequent outbursts: crying, screaming, throwing objects, dropping to the ground and refusing to move. All this is very disruptive to the classes he attends and leads to countless meetings to try to fix what is broken. And I’m not talking about the student, but about the system.     

My daughter said he needs something in between the low autism and the challenging typical education class. I think she is right. The problem is no such thing exists in the public school system, at least not in the student’s area.

In previous blogs I talked about NBC television show “Parenthood” because one of the families in the show has a child on the autism spectrum. They faced the same problem, no classes that can fit their bright but behaviorally and socially challenged son.  In one of the last season episodes, fed up with being called to school endless times because of behavior problems, the parents decided to create their own school despite all the hardship it involves.

The point is that we don’t have to accept a reality that precludes these children from accessing a learning environment that will allow them to be successful, which in turn condemns them to a state of recurrent punishment (angry school staff, frustrated parents, exclusion from the social life of school, etc.). As stated by Don Baer (1970), “Not to rescue a person from an unhappy organization of his behaviors is to punish him.” Let’s commit to rescuing these kids. We can create a different reality.
I think we all can agree that being “special” is not the fault of these children. They need help the same way a blind or a deaf child needs. With the right assistance, most of these kids can have a happy and successful school experience, which for sure will be crucial in developing productive members of society. The benefits of this are enormous and probably a good topic for future blogs.

So, what can be done? At this point I have to admit I don’t have all the answers.

I don’t accept the argument that there is no money. I’ll submit that the resources spent (wasted?) in managing the problems that the current situation involves could be redirected to create appropriate classrooms and curriculums for these precious children. I’m talking about money spent on all kinds of ineffective therapies, all the time spent in useless meetings, all the frustration, etc. There are also non-profit organizations that receive money from foundations dedicated to this population which could be an additional resource.

In my opinion it is a question of will and commitment to a solution. Let’s stop the laziness and let’s put our minds together to find solutions rather than managing a broken system.
My daughter is 11. What would it take for us, grownups, to arrive at the same conclusion she did?

Daniel Adatto, MA, BCBA

Monday, July 21, 2014

Mental disorders and the environment

Dr. Paul Patterson died last month. He was an epidemiologist and neuroscientist who worked on the influence of the environment on mental disorders. “Researchers examined the role that viral infections, such as the flu, might have in schizophrenia and other disorders, including autism.” This according to the obituaries article in Saturday July 19th, 2014 LA edition.  Patterson was part of one of those groups of researchers at Caltech. He studied the connections between infections and brain development. Patterson was a leader in the field of neuroimmunology. His research provided strong evidence that environmental factors play a major role in developing mental disorders. The challenges in the pregnant mother’s immune system can result in changes in the child’s immune system.

The exciting news is that this may lead to new ways to ameliorate the symptoms. Working with mice in the lab Patterson and his team demonstrated that bone marrow transplants significantly reduced the autism-like symptoms. While this is not likely to be the treatment for children with the disorder, the discovery may take scientist to other manipulations of the immune system that could reduce the incidence of these disorders. For example, Patterson and his team demonstrated that injecting the “autistic” mice with a specific human bacteria reduced the symptoms of the disorders. They are now working on an application to the U.S Food and Drug Administration to start testing with humans. Even when the process may take some time, it is very promising. Reducing the symptoms of the disorders would help us significantly in working with the kids to help them become productive and happy members of society. 
This is very encouraging news. The kind of news that papers don’t show in the front page or don’t make it to the TV news broadcastings. But for sure the kind of news that could change somebody’s life. Or even a family’s life. Working in the field of autism and related disorders I see first-hand the devastating effects the disorders cause in the quality of life of many families. We should make people aware of these scientific developments.

On a note related to our parenting blogs I think that knowing that health and immune system challenges, such as the flu, have a direct influence in possible mental disorders in the new born, may also lead to parents watching the future mother’s health very closely. It is imperative that before and during pregnancy the mother-to-be is under the care of appropriate medical professionals and she follows their advice carefully. Eating and drinking appropriately, managing stress, avoiding any kind of drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, are only a few aspects of the prenatal care. Prevention is a very powerful tool.

When my wife was pregnant of my daughter she was feeling very sick. We went to the doc and asked him for some meds to help her feel better. I’ll never forget what the doctor said: “Absolutely no meds, it’s the first sacrifice you make for your kid, but it’s not going to be the last one.”

Thank you Paul Patterson. You and your colleges make our lives better.

Daniel Adatto, BCBA



Saturday, July 5, 2014

The World Cup in the classroom

This week I had the chance to visit a middle school classroom. While observing the class, I was so pleased the teacher was incorporating a lesson about the World Cup, the Olympics of soccer which is taking place right now in Brazil. Being from Argentina, soccer (futbol for us) is my favorite sport. 

But more importantly, I loved this teacher’s approach. I have always advocated that education has to be made interesting and relevant to the students. Delivering a lesson through topics such as sports is interesting for children. Students were listening to the teacher, answering questions, doing some research on the computers and presenting their findings in front of the class. There was no yelling or scolding, not having to continuously repeat directions, no frustration, just a lot of fun enjoyable work and compliance. Subjects like mathematics, geography, history, even science and social studies can easily be taught through topics of interest and experiential learning. For example, I can’t think a better way to teach fractions to fourth and fifth graders than through cooking. All recipes, especially baking, include 1⁄4 cup of something plus 3⁄4 cups of something else. In the case of the this particular class, students were split in groups to work on the computers to find out the number of participating countries, their history in the world cups, statistics and much more. I can guarantee so much information was internalized and yes, I’m talking about a special education class.
As I wrote in my blog “Teaching Teachers”: ( )

“We can conclude that instead of forcing the kids to fit teachers’ way of teaching, teachers need to be able to change their way of teaching to fit their students’ needs. Children with special needs do not learn the way we teach, so we need to teach the way they learn.”
“As a first step, teachers can have more of an impact by learning the art of motivation and the power of stimulating instructional routines and structure. Simply put, this means motivating students to perform non-preferred activities. Good teachers motivate their students when they tell them they can have 10 extra minutes of recess if they finish their work on time, or give them points towards a pizza party or a preferred activity. Motivating materials (i.e. arts & crafts, music, tablets loaded with educational software, etc.), topics relevant to kids, and a loving, warm, and passionate approach to teaching are excellent tools. Education does not have to be synonymous with boredom.  It should be an amazing experience.”

The class I visited was a real life example of this. The teacher did a great job. At one point he looked at me and said “you need to find something they like,” as if he was justifying the “crazy” subject. He was also planning to implement a rewards system where students get points towards preferred activities. Sound familiar? I was in heaven.

The sad part of the story is that this teacher is the exception, not the norm. I can’t help but wonder why. When is education going to catch up with sound, scientifically proven methods of education? When are we going to stop demanding kids to participate in boring, long and irrelevant classes?
When is it going to be teachers and students tackling learning TOGETHER rather than teachers AGAINST students?  

Daniel Adatto, BCBA

Monday, June 23, 2014

Kids need structure and routine, even in the summer

We are just a few weeks away from summer vacation and already I can see the behavior problems creeping in. Boredom is one of the main culprits of behavior problems in children. The lack of predictability that goes hand in hand with summer and the absence of regular routines can cause stress in children and can in turn cause them to act out.

Parents may overlook this factor. After all, what child doesn’t love being out of school? Adults assume that most children would be happier during the stress-free days of summer. But this isn’t always so. Many children do much better with routines that are more synonymous with the school year. When a child can anticipate what is coming it increases his sense of control and independence and therefore encourages cooperation. Having a familiar routine builds confidence and decreases anxiety.  

But all is not lost just because it is summer. If your child is not attending a summer camp or doesn’t have a daily activity to depend on, it is still possible to build structure and routines into the day. Some useful tips are:

- Try to maintain times and sequence of events as structured as possible. For example, if a child is used to eating breakfast as soon as he wakes up, stick to this routine.

- Since children feel more secure when they know what to expect, it is best to plan the day ahead of time and discuss it your child the day before.

- Build some choices into the day to help your child feel some control and nurture self-esteem.

- Use visual schedules (pictures, drawings, etc.) to cue a child about what is happening. 

- Present scheduled of activities in a positive manner and try not to be overly rigid. Some flexibility is always necessary. If you remain flexible and adjust your expectations, it will be easier to maintain a stress-free environment for your children.

- Plan physical outlets daily. Kids need to burn energy. Sitting in front of the computer or playing video games for hours long is a recipe for disaster. Planning play-dates at the park or at the beach could be good ideas. Going hiking and bike riding is always fun. 

- Watch what they eat. If your child is not overweight some “junk-food” is OK as long as you balance it with healthy food. Food is the main source of energy. Too much sugar and processed food have a direct effect on mood changes. When in doubt, consult with you pediatrician or a nutritionist.

-  Plan some quality one-on-one time with your kids where they are the “boss” and you play with them. 

And finally, always include some free time in the day – children need some down time and it can be exhausting to be overly scheduled.

And have a happy summer!


Daniel Adatto, BCBA

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Can your child recover from autism?

The results of a study on early intervention for children on the autism spectrum, performed by the Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD), are very encouraging.  The researchers followed 14 young children receiving intensive Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) over the course of three years. Although there are many varieties of early intervention, ABA is the method of treatment most often recommended by professionals because it is the only method of autism treatment that is scientifically backed. This means that results achieved utilizing ABA methodology are proven and documented using scientific clinical studies such as this one.
According to their press release, the CARD study showed improvement in all of the children who participated, and claims 43% of participants “no longer display clinical symptoms of autism.” These results are extremely encouraging and send a message of hope to all parents that with the right interventions, children can recover from autism. This type of study were beneficial to the process that led to the bill mandating insurance companies to pay for ABA therapy for constituents diagnosed with autism in California and several other states.  Insurance claims for ABA were often rejected in the past on the basis that ABA therapy was experimental in nature.

Without trying to squash any hope brought about by this study, because it is very positive, we do need to be cautious in the conclusions we draw from it. The sample size of this study, 14 children, is very small and does by no means prove that all children will be able to recover from autism. We also need to be careful on how we define “recovered” or “cured”. It is true that many children grow out of the symptoms of autism and can eventually fall off the spectrum (as measured by standard assessment tools). However, many of these children continue to have a tendency towards problematic behaviors. These behaviors often reappear during times of change or stress. If a child and parents are continuing to receive proper ABA treatment and training, the reoccurrences can be minimized and even prevented.

Since the study was performed on children receiving early intervention, the participants are still very young. By diagnosing them as recovered at such a young age, we may be preventing them from receiving the continued services they need to ensure proper development. So while it is nice to believe that children can recover from autism, we also need to be careful about being overly optimistic.

For parents of children in the spectrum, the road is not easy. Receiving direct in-home intervention services, usually daily, can be intrusive. Parents (at least one of them) are recommended to participate in session in order to receive the hands-on training necessary to carry on the intervention when the clinical team is not present, thus providing their child with the necessary treatment for most of his/her waking hours. President Barack Obama just urged fathers to get more involved in their kids' lives in his weekly radio and Internet address this Father’s day weekend. Obama said “being able to have a child doesn't make you a man, but having the courage to raise one does.”  To read the entire article click on

Also, identifying the right provider requires education and experience. Families usually receive services from different companies until they learn the process and are equipped to choose.

It is definitely challenging. However, it is currently the only way. Consider it an investment, a sacrifice that parents make for the family’s quality of life.

The good news are that there is hope. And that is what matters.

Daniel Adatto, BCBA

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Does punishment work?

We discussed punishment in previous blogs. The LA Times bring the issue back, this time in school settings.

“School administrators typically have handled misbehavior problems by suspending students. But this year Markham and Gompers middle schools have reported marked reductions in that form of discipline — as has the L.A. Unified School District overall, where the suspension rate dropped to 1.5% last year from 8% in 2008.”

In this article ( alternative discipline strategies in school settings are discussed. 

“The drop came after the Los Angeles Board of Education and L.A. schools chief John Deasy called for fewer suspensions as concern grew nationwide that removing students from school imperils their academic achievement.”

Kudos to the chief. I understand that schools may suspend problematic students for safety reasons. Aggression (physical and verbal, including cursing), property destruction, class disruption, threats (including bringing weapons to school), are all safety concerns.

However, from a discipline point of view sending problematic students home not only doesn’t address the real problem but often times rewards bad behaviors. Students who don’t want to go to school get to be home playing videogames, or something worse, frequently unsupervised because their parents need to work.

I’m aware of the fact that teachers and school administrators have a hard time dealing with misbehaviors, especially since years of tight budgets have left limited funding for the critical extra staff and training. 
“Principal Traci Gholar said she readily suspended disruptive students in 2011-12, her first year at the helm, to drive home to families that she was intent on building a safe, orderly and positive school climate. When superiors questioned her high suspension rate, Gholar asked for new resources that would support alternative disciplinary approaches: a conflict resolution specialist, a restorative justice coordinator, more campus aides, performing arts events and other activities.”

Alternative disciplinary approaches, interesting. Since I know you are a fervent follower of our blogs, you are familiar with alternative forms of discipline, positive ones aimed at building behavior repertoires, including life skills.

“The extra help appears to have made a difference. According to school data, incidents involving student misbehavior declined from 1,035 in the last school year to 663 as of May of this year. And although most of the misbehavior was serious enough to warrant suspensions, Gompers made a greater effort to address it in alternative ways, reducing the suspension rate to 3% from 30% last year.”

“Markham has also reported significant progress. Student incidents have declined from 1,732 in the last school year to 1,463 this year and the suspension rate has fallen to 7% from 12%. Like Gompers, Markham has received extra help, including a restorative justice coordinator.”

 Wow! These alternative strategies not only sound good but they work.

“As Gompers students celebrated "peace week," featuring games and banners decrying violence and bullying, eighth-graders Wesley Price, Cindy Birrueta and Maria Gomez said the atmosphere on campus has improved greatly. Gomez said that "community building circles," in which students share experiences, build trust and forge friendships, have helped reduce tensions.”

In other words, proactive strategies to foster and encourage appropriate behaviors and create a positive atmosphere (“peace week”, visual reminders, support groups, special activities to increase motivation, etc.), address the real problem. As we always say, behaviors are communication. When an individual misbehaves he/she is expressing a need. By punishing, the needs remain unresolved.   

Often times I hear the statement “there are no real and consistent consequences in school settings,” meaning punishment.

I think the problem is that there are no real and consistent rewards, making learning fun, teachers that know how to get the attention of their students by motivating them rather than policing or forcing.  

Let’s stop the madness and start training and educating parents and teachers on effective ways of teaching and fostering appropriate, functional, social significant behaviors. It would be cost-effective by rising and nurturing productive members of society. It is the right thing to do. 


Daniel Adatto, BCBA


Monday, May 19, 2014

Kids and Summer Time

We are just a few weeks away from summer vacation and already I can see the behavior problems creeping in. Boredom is one of the main culprits of behavior problems in children. The lack of predictability that goes hand in hand with summer and the absence of regular routines can cause stress in children and can in turn cause them to act out.

Parents may overlook this factor. After all, what child doesn’t love being out of school? Adults assume that most children would be happier during the stress-free days of summer. But this isn’t always so. Many children do much better with routines that are more synonymous with the school year. When a child can anticipate what is coming it increases his sense of control and independence and therefore encourages cooperation. Having a familiar routine builds confidence and decreases anxiety.  

But all is not lost just because it is summer. If your child is not attending a summer camp or doesn’t have a daily activity to depend on, it is still possible to build structure and routines into the day. Some useful tips are:

 - Try to maintain times and sequence of events as structured as possible. For example, if a child is used to eating breakfast as soon as he wakes up, stick to this routine.

- Since children feel more secure when they know what to expect, it is best to plan the day ahead of time and discuss it your child the day before.

- Build some choices into the day to help your child feel some control and nurture self-esteem.

- Use visual schedules (pictures, drawings, etc.) to cue a child about what is happening. 

- Present scheduled of activities in a positive manner and try not to be overly rigid. Some flexibility is always necessary. If you remain flexible and adjust your expectations, it will be easier to maintain a stress-free environment for your children.

- Plan physical outlets daily. Kids need to burn energy. Sitting in front of the computer or playing video games for hours long is a recipe for disaster. Planning play-dates at the park or at the beach could be good ideas. Going hiking and bike riding is always fun. 

- Watch what they eat. If your child is not overweight some “junk-food” is OK as long as you balance it with healthy food. Food is the main source of energy. Too much sugar and processed food have a direct effect on mood changes. When in doubt, consult with you pediatrician or a nutritionist.

-  Plan some quality one-on-one time with your kids where they are the “boss” and you play with them. 

And last but not least, always include some free time in the day – children need some down time and it can be exhausting to be overly scheduled.

And have a happy summer!


Daniel Adatto, BCBA

Monday, April 28, 2014

When the rewarding program is not working

My clients (parents, teachers, therapists) often come to me in frustration that the rewards plans to change behaviors are not working, or that their child does not respond to reinforcement.

We know that behaviors are governed by the same principles across people, ages and environments. Behaviors that are rewarded (they work to obtain desired objectives or avoid undesired ones) continue in the future. On the other hand, behaviors that are not rewarded (or are rewarded inconsistently) stop. So if a rewards program is not working, we must delve deeper and examine where the breakdown is and how can we adjust the program to make it work, because when implemented properly, the programs DO work.

Because these principles are based on decades of well-designed and proven scientific research, one can not say that someone does not respond to reinforcement.  As Bobby Newman and Dana Reinecke put it in their book “Behavioral Detectives” (highly recommended, very easy to read), “that is like saying someone does not respond to the laws of gravity.” If the desired behavior does not continue it is because there was no reinforcement, the reinforcement program was not implemented effectively. As the authors say, “Just because you delivered a consequence does not mean that you delivered a reinforcement.”

From Applied Behavior Analysis, by Cooper, Heron and Heward: “Reinforcement (rewarding) is the most important and widely used principle of Behavior Analysis,”

Let’s take a look at some examples:

Scenario 1: Paul works at the grocery store. He receives $15 per hour. His supervisor approaches him one day to inform him his pay will be reduced to $10 per hour.

Scenario 2: Marie has been working at the doctor’s office for a few months already. She is paid randomly so she works for free several times per month.

Scenario 3: John realizes that co-workers who don’t come to work every day and/or do not complete their assignments get paid the same amount of money as he does.

Scenario 4: Nick is rewarded with stickers for cleaning up his room. He has several binders filled with stickers. He recently expressed not being interested in stickers any more.

As a result, Paul resigns, Marie doesn’t come to work anymore, John attends work and does not complete assignments as expected, and Nick stops cleaning up his room.

Not surprising, right? Well, this is what often happens with the implementation of rewarding plans when managing children’s behaviors. And yet, parents, teachers, therapists and caregivers continue with the inconsistent implementation of rewarding plans and the lack of change in the child’s behaviors.  

Our focus should always be to reward good behaviors and ignore (not allowed access to rewards or “pay offs”) the not so good ones. But this has to be effective, or the plan will not work. How we know that the plan is working or not? The individual, through her behaviors, is going to tell us.

Some of the keys to making a reinforcing program successfully are:

-        Do not ignore good behaviors. If you promise a reward, even when the child might forget that you promised him an ice-cream, you must follow through and get him an ice-cream. If you asked your child to hold your hand in the parking lot, don’t go to your smartphone as soon as he holds your hand. Praise him, give your child some positive attention, reward him with some quality time. In other words, you want to reinforce because your message is “there is a reward if you behave as expected.”

-        Adjust the way in which rewards are delivered according to the behaviors displayed by the individual. If it seems that is not working, perhaps the rewards have to be provided more often and/or in different magnitude.

-        If the reinforcement plan is to be effective the criteria for the response need to be planned out in detail, understood, and implemented consistently by everyone involved in the child's program.

-        Reinforcement should be motivating to the student: use reinforcements of sufficient magnitude.

-        Initially, set a criteria for earning reinforcement that is easy to achieve for the child.

-        The reinforcer has to be exclusive to reward the specific desired behavior. If the child has free access to candy, why would he make an effort, right?

Reward more, reward often, reward effectively. And you’ll be handsomely rewarded.


Daniel Adatto, BCBA

Monday, April 14, 2014


“Stop it right now or…”

Threatening your children is almost never a good idea. First of all, you’re teaching them a skill you don’t really want them to have: the ability to use brute force or superior cunning to get what they want, even when the other person isn’t willing to cooperate.

Secondly, you’re putting yourself in an awkward position in which you either have to follow through on your threats—exacting a punishment you threatened in the heat of your anger—or you have to back down, teaching your child that your threats are meaningless. Either way, you’re not getting the result you want and you’re damaging your relation with your child. And there is that bitter taste in your mouth, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about, right?

While it can be difficult to resist the urge to threaten, try sharing vulnerably and redirecting to something more appropriate instead. “It’s NOT OK to hit your brother. I’m worried that he will get hurt, or he’ll retaliate and hurt you. If you’re mad, you may punch a pillow, the couch or the bed.”

By offering an alternative that is safer yet still allows the child to express her feelings you’re validating her emotions even as you set a clear boundary for her behavior. This will ultimately lead to better self-control and emotional wellbeing for your child.

When I was a child, not so long ago, my grandma used to threaten us with “The Old Man with the Bag” who comes and takes the kids that misbehave. Well, you can imagine the nightmares and dark thoughts trying to picture this evil guy who might come and take me, or my brother, forever.

Some threats are a little less intense. For example, “You won’t get ice-cream,” “I’ll call the police,” or “I’ll tell your dad,” only to forget later and give your child ice-cream and….. Well, you get the idea. Try instead “When you finish your homework you can watch TV;” “If you guys play nicely you can have ice-cream;” or “You cleaned your room, I’ll call your daddy at work, he’ll be so proud of you.” As discussed in previous blogs, praise and rewards go a long way.

Try to avoid aversive techniques of discipline, including loss of privileges and any other way to cause emotional or psychological suffering. In your quest to raise your kids you’ll be ahead of the game because motivation and love are the most powerful tools of discipline. 

For the record, I found out that there is no “Old Man with a Bag.”


Daniel Adatto, BCBA