ABA Therapy in Schools

“I want my child in an ABA program.” ABA therapies are very popular (and controversial). Many parents want their child in an ABA Therapy Program at school or to receive ABA therapy during school hours.

It took us over a year to get my child into an ABA therapy program at school and he is showing progress, finally! So I asked around, got some advice from those knowledgeable in the field, and put together this post.

ABA Therapies

What is ABA?

ABA stands for Applied Behavior Analysis. It is a combination of behavior modification principles to bring about positive and meaningful behavior in one’s behavior. There are many components, and you may have heard terms like “VB Mapp” or “ABLLS” which are also used in ABA programming.

When people think of ABA, they often get a picture in their head–of a child and a behaviorist sitting at a table doing “work” or discrete trials. ABA is not a narrow set of guidelines or practices, but can and should be applied to wherever or whatever the child needs.

ABA in Schools

ABA has a lot of science behind it and is data-driven. Numerous studies have been done on ABA and autism in particular, and have shown it to be effective. It’s important to remember though–it is NOT just for autism. The principles can be applied to modify any behavior for a positive change. Since it is behavior driven, it’s non-invasive. In other words, it is a way for our kids to gain positive changes in skills without medicine, surgery or something else that may have negatives to it.

Please know that ABA is controversial in some circles. I strongly urge you to read both sides of the argument and visit multiple facilities before making your decision.

As an aside, I do not feel that my son’s “flavor” of ABA is neither abusive nor ableist. He is free to make choices and refuse tasks.

How to Get the School District to Pay for ABA Therapy

ABA, when done right, takes an immense amount of training (for the behaviorist doing the therapy). It’s intense and repetitive. Each program needs to be very individualized for the child. 1:1 isn’t absolutely necessary, but at the very least it needs to be done in very small groups. Each child in the group needs to have similar behavior needs. Best practice is 1:1 because of the immediate and appropriate reinforcement that is needed. It also is very data-driven, so to modify behavior, reward and take data–takes a lot of hands! Highly trained professionals can do small groups effectively with aides or helpers. But of course 1:1 is very expensive from a staffing standpoint.

All in all, it’s very expensive to provide good quality ABA programming. There aren’t enough qualified folks out there to meet the need. It’s not a huge moneymaker for companies, so sadly there’s not much incentive to provide it.

Is ABA just for autism?

No, no, no! That is a myth. It is a behavior modification program which can be used on any person or living creature really. Heck, I verbally prompt my husband 1000x a day, but his behavior doesn’t change. (admittedly the reinforcement is not consistent!)

Depending on the child and how long they take to learn something, it can also be lengthy. You have to find what works, make it work, then have it apply across all environments.

But isn’t ABA Abusive?

Ok, so ABA is controversial in some circles. Some ABA providers are mistreating kids under the guise of Applied Behavior Analysis. Some staff will not ever let the child not comply with the demand. They are forced to perform tasks that they do not want to do. You can see why at best this would take away a person’s autonomy, and at worst, the person would lose decision making skills and comply with anything.

That however, is not ABA. I’m of the opinion that those folks would be mistreating kids even if ABA was never invented. They’d just call it something else. Of course I want my son to have autonomy and self-determination! I/we never force him through a task.

Now, if that means that technically, we’re not doing ABA, because we don’t force 100% compliance, I’m fine with that. We use ABA therapy principles to teach him skills in the school setting and at home. I don’t abuse my son, I don’t let anyone else abuse him and really, I don’t care what you call it.

We ask him to do something and if he does it, he is rewarded. If he doesn’t, he is given choice cards to choose “all done.”

How to get ABA Therapy in your IEP

As far as getting an ABA placement or programming, you have to approach it like anything else you think your child needs. You have to document the need. In my child’s case, it was a matter of showing that he was not successful at other interventions. Technically a child is not required to fail first. But if your child has not succeeded in other ways, educate yourself on ABA to see if it can be reasonably expected that it would be successful for them.

I also had recommendations from several specialists, so you may want to consider an IEE.

You want to get the ABA defined, and then choose the placement that is best going to be able to implement ABA programming. I have known parents who have pushed to have people in their own district trained in ABA for their child because there previously were not any. If there are no schools for out-placement, you’re going to have to create the program if the team decides it’s appropriate. Not you personally, but if the team decides the child needs ABA, then the team has to find/create an ABA therapy program for the child. Make sense?


ABA would not be an IEP goal. It is a support or service. ABA is a method used to teach something, any skill. You apply the ABA principles to the skill being taught. My son’s IEP says something like “Kevin’s skills and curriculum will be taught to him using ABA principles.”

I am kind of a stickler about getting programs named in an IEP. Many schools don’t want to name ABA or reading programs, for example. But I like having the added accountability. If it’s not documented that we’re using ABA, what’s to keep anyone from moving his placement to a non-ABA setting?

Where can I find an ABA program for my child?

I can only tell you what I know about PA. From my experience, there is a huge disconnect between the state, the schools, and the community as far as ABA programming. As far as I know, there are no public districts near me that offer ABA at the elementary level or above. They may apply some ABA principles to their teaching, but I haven’t seen any true, data-driven ABA programs to modify behaviors in public schools. There are, however, some of the APSs that offer this and it was the driving force as to why I wanted my son in an APS. (APS meaning Approved Private School or out of district placement)

At the preschool level, the state (PA) does run the Verbal Behavior Project in conjunction with many of the IU preschool programs to offer it. That program (from what I saw) was data-driven and used ABA principles. However, the staffing ratios were too high to provide effective feedback to all the students, all the time. “Errorless teaching” or immediate feedback is one of the key principles of ABA.

It’s also a head-scratcher for me as to why the state and Pattan would do this project, only to abandon these kids at age 6. Usually, ABA Therapy Programs are not available in public schools. I sure hope that there is a project in the works to encourage this at the elementary level and beyond, but I digress. If you do have a preschooler and live in Pennsylvania, call your IU and see if there is a location near you that is participating in the Verbal Behavior Project. Then work with your child’s team to determine if it’s an appropriate placement.

At school age, I find that the only decent ABA programs are found in the APSs. The APSs unfortunately, for the most part, are near our major cities, so if you are in rural PA you may not have access.

There are private ABA programs and businesses, you just have to find them. There are some companies that just hire behaviorists to come out to your home and work with your child. These types of programs are usually either private pay or paid for by insurance. I don’t know how you find these programs other than word of mouth and internet searches.

I found SPARC just by word of mouth from other parents. You may also want to look in your insurance company’s published list of authorized providers to see if there are any. Some universities run clinics or programs as a way for their grad students to learn and gain experience. SPARC is attached to West Chester University. Another route you may want to try is with wraparound behavioral health services. Tell your wraparound diagnosing doctor that you want your child’s team to use ABA to address their behavioral challenges.

Side note: If your child does have autism, you may want to familiarize yourself with PA Act 62. Act 62 covers services for autism in PA, because, again, since ABA is expensive, insurance companies don’t usually just smile and gleefully pay for it. Sigh, nothing is easy.

Great, I found an ABA program, now what?

Like any other business, some are better than others. There are good ABA teachers and not-so-good ones. I asked SPARC for some assistance in this area and they provided me with the following document. This has some great information.


In full disclosure, my own child used SPARC services for almost six months and we are quite pleased. The only information they provided to me was that document. All opinions expressed here are mine. I am by no means a behaviorist or behavior expert of any kind–these are my experiences and learning as a parent and advocate.

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