Haring Center

January 17, 2019

Leading the Field: Haring Center Faculty Respond to Change in Applied Behavior Analysis Practice

How a Simple Change in the BCBA Code of Ethics Could Completely Change the Field

Dr. Nancy Rosenberg (left), Dr. Ilene Schwartz (right)

Two Haring Center Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA) have taken issue with the newest version of the Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts. Center faculty Dr. Ilene Schwartz and Dr. Nancy Rosenberg have published a new paper in the journal Behavior Analysis in Practice to voice their response to the changes.

BCBAs are professionals who have specialized expertise in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a widely-used teaching approach for individuals with disabilities. BCBAs oversee educational and behavioral intervention programs for young children in school, home, and clinical settings. The UW College of Education has a certification program in ABA, which Dr. Schwartz and Dr. Rosenberg oversee.

In 2016, the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) revised the ethical code it published in 2001. This document dictates how BCBAs should act professionally. The most stunning change to the code was not anything added or subtracted — it was a change in the nature of the code. Prior to 2016, the ethical code was a guideline to help BCBAs navigate various dilemmas. The certification board changed this dynamic of the code from guidelines to a set of enforceable rules which could result in a BCBA losing their license.

“This is a big difference in how our field is approaching our work. There is now fear around the code,” said Rosenberg. “We have to figure out how to obey it and not get in trouble instead of finding the most ethical course of action.”

Since the rules have become black and white, as well as enforceable, BCBAs can now be brought before the board and decertified for not adhering to them. Rosenberg, who teaches BCBA ethics at the University of Washington, says that this change is not practical.

“In my classes we work through specific instances where after debating and considering all the complexities, you should do something different than what the code suggests,” she said.

An example of such behavior is BCBAs are no longer permitted to accept gifts of any kind. This has been a guideline for decades, but now it is a punishable edict. While good intentioned, this rule is not practical for all situations, and can be culturally insensitive. A cup of coffee is considered a gift, and also hospitality in some cultures and could offend a BCBA’s client by not accepting, thereby dissolving trust between the two.

Rosenberg went as far to say there are conflicts in the code where certain case studies make it impossible to comply completely with the code.

That the code went from being guidelines to hard-and-fast rules isn’t the whole issue, it is that there was not any discussion about this change within the field. Had that occurred, there might be fewer potential negative implications and consequences as a result.

What Rosenberg and Schwartz propose a solution: an ethical decision-making process to guide BCBAs through specific ethical dilemmas.

“It’s not about a set of rules that encourages non-thoughtfulness,” Rosenberg said. “It’s about seeking out the highest levels of ethical behavior in all situations while considering all the unique variables.”

For more information on the new paper or BCBA ethics, contact Nancy Rosenberg at nancyr@uw.edu.