Towards true multidisciplinarity

Katerina Dounavi explains how behaviour analysis can feed multidisciplinary work.

Girl with hand raised in classMultidisciplinarity is regarded as a crucial part of educational (and clinical) assessment and intervention. But collaborative work by cross-disciplinary teams calls for a solid scientific base which permits mutual understanding, conceptual coherence, and consistent applications and evaluations of outcomes. Without this common ground, professionals coming from different backgrounds might end up adopting a mixture of conflicting and incoherent approaches which are counterproductive for those they are trying to help.

The evidence from conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and other special educational needs suggests that most, if not all, effective interventions are behavioural in nature. This leads us to think that Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), the applied branch of the science of behaviour analysis, may well serve as the solid basis required for productive cross-discipline work that enhances students’ learning.

ABA’s methodology is different from traditional approaches in that it emphasises data-based decision making. It makes use of operational definitions of target behaviours; the break-up of complex skills into teachable units; objective measures of progress; and the implementation of scientific principles and methods in teaching. These include reinforcement, shaping and prompting. Prompting is the process of encouraging desired behaviours, reinforcement is the rewarding of these behaviours, and shaping involves working gradually towards a desired behaviour in small steps that converge upon the target.

Professionals trained in ABA, whatever their area of expertise, share the same code of ethics and a focus on evidence-based procedures. These cornerstones in the practice of behaviour analysts – be they psychologists, medical doctors, teachers, speech and language pathologists or allied-health professionals – allow them to collaborate efficiently, and to bring in their special expertise while following a common scientific route.

In ABA-based educational programmes for students with ASD, a team of ABA-trained professionals would gather before the intervention starts and assess the student’s needs in different developmental areas. These might include academic, social, communication or motor skills. This assessment would be the baseline against which the student’s progress would be measured, and different professionals would contribute according to their expertise. Occupational therapists, for instance, would provide the list of fine and gross skills to assess, according to the student’s age. An individualised educational curriculum would then be set for the student, incorporating teaching methods driven from the science, as well as indications of how to break down skills into smaller teachable units and how to monitor progress. Again, different professionals would set the targets and methods for different areas.

Continuous measurement of the student’s progress by all professionals would provide the basis for maintaining teaching procedures that work, and changing or substituting the ones that do not seem to yield the best outcomes.

To illustrate how this might work, let’s take a student who is currently receiving ABA-based one-to-one instruction at home and attending a mainstream school with an ABA-trained shadow teacher. At the beginning of the academic year, all professionals involved in the student’s education would meet with parents to discuss the learning goals for the upcoming year and decide on the most appropriate teaching procedures to achieve them. For instance, if the student needed to learn how to respond to the teacher’s questions on specific content, the following strategy might be adopted: the one-to-one tutor would teach the material at home and record progress; the shadow teacher would provide prompts for the student to raise her hand at appropriate times in class; and the teacher would make sure that there were opportunities for praise and other forms of reinforcement for correct responses. All the professionals involved would gather data on whether the student increasingly participated in class, and would adapt their processes if the outcomes were not as positive as expected.

It is clear that cross-disciplinary work is possible and can prove very fruitful when teaching individuals with a variety of needs. For it to work effectively, however, consistent scientific accountability needs to underpin all strands. The science of ABA has a long-standing history of achieving this level of accountability, and we recommend that more professionals be trained in it.

Dr Katerina Dounavi, BCBA-D (Board Certified Behavior Analyst-Doctoral), is a lecturer in the School of Education and Deputy Director of the Centre for Behaviour Analysis at Queen’s University, Belfast.


Dillenburger, K., Röttgers, H. R., Dounavi, K., Sparkman, C., Keenan, M., Thyer, B., et al. (2014). Multidisciplinary Teamwork in Autism: Can One Size Fit All? The Australian Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 1–16. 10.1017/edp.2014.13

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