Haring Center

November 17, 2020

New Research Offers Practical Principles to Guide Behavior Analyst Ethical Code

“Imagine you’re a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), and there is a child who you are uniquely qualified to help, but you have another relationship with the family as they go to your church,” says Nancy Rosenberg, Haring Center researcher and associate teaching professor at the University of Washington College of Education (CoE). “Do you take on that child as a client?”

Rosenberg explains that according to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts (“The Code”), BCBAs should avoid having multiple relationships with clients. However, she says that often reality is much more complex.

Rosenberg teamed up with three CoE colleagues to explore how BCBAs can navigate ethical dilemmas like this one. The workgroup’s inquiry builds on research previously done by Rosenberg and Ilene Schwartz, director of the Haring Center, around ethical decision-making in the field of Behavior Analysis.

“We all want a way to help Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) students and colleagues address ethical dilemmas in a way that is true to the field and also true to their practice and dilemmas faced by families,” says Schwartz.

Elizabeth Kelly, Haring Center fellow and doctoral candidate at the CoE studying special education, explains that using a rule-based approach to applying the Code to every decision is impractical and ineffective.

The workgroup decided to examine other fields’ ethical codes and develop principles to accompany the BACB Code for the ABA program at the CoE. This research turned into a paper published this autumn in Behavior Analysis in Practice, “When rules are not enough: developing principles to guide ethical conduct.”

“We looked into some of the ways other fields were thinking about ethical codes and principles,” says Katie Greeny, also a CoE doctoral student studying special education. “We examined the American Occupational Therapy Association, the American Psychological Association, six allied professional organizations in total to see how they approached ethics.”

“Every other field’s code has principles to accompany it,” says Kelly.

The workgroup then conducted a broad literature review around ethical code development and merged two models of ethical code and principle development into a single process. Following surveys and feedback from other BCBAs, the researchers selected five principles to guide the Code for the CoE’s ABA program.

The final principles — beneficence, inclusion, professional excellence, self-determination and social justice — now feature on the CoE’s ABA program website and are part of the curriculum for the program’s Masters students.

“The principle of beneficence is where we have the responsibility to engage in practices that maximize our client’s well-being while avoiding those that cause harm,” says Rosenberg. “As BCBAs, we prioritize outcomes for the most vulnerable clients.”

She explains how this principle can help a BCBA manage the situation of multiple relationships described earlier. “You could decide that what is going to help this client the most is to take them on, while arranging safeguards to protect from potential harm of those multiple relationships,” Rosenberg says.

According to the workgroup, ethics in the field of ABA has traditionally been dominated by one worldview in which there is always a right and wrong decision. The researchers seek to bring focus to a more contextual worldview and ensure the field listens to a new generation of practitioners and consumers.

“We got involved in this work because we are committed to ensuring ABA consumers receive services that positively impact the quality of their lives,” says Schwartz. “In order to ensure that, we have to get into these hard questions, whether they’re questions of ethics, or questions of culture, diversity and equity. We are learning we need to explore what it means to practice ABA in a humane and equitable way.”

The recent research paper also discusses how ethical principles allow practitioners to communicate the field’s ideals to those on the outside.

The BACB is currently preparing a revision of the Code. The workgroup hopes that this paper will influence the new version, and that the BACB will decide to include accompanying ethical principles.

“We do not want to impose our principles on others,” says Rosenberg. “Rather, we laid out a process by which the BACB or other smaller ABA organizations can organically develop their own ethical principles.”

In the meantime, the researchers are continuing their inquiry in a variety of ways. Greeny is completing a research and inquiry project that surveyed BCBAs around ethical dilemmas faced in practice. The group is also finalizing a textbook chapter on providing ethical services to individuals with autism spectrum disorder.

“All of our projects combine together to slowly but surely push the field forward in expanding what ethics means,” says Kelly. “We are always getting one step closer to an ever-moving goal post.”