Expanding the Impact of ABA with ACT: New Tools for a New World

Author: Kenzie Davison, MA, BCBA

ACT in Action

Many applied behavior analyst (ABA) folks are curious about acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and how the approach can support meaningful social change within our science.  We finally have a tool with “broadly useful methods of change that work, and that do so through change processes that have precision, scope, and depth” (Hayes, 2019, p. 45).

ACT is so powerful that I cannot predict how it will impact your life and work. Here, I will share how ACT has impacted my work in the last 18 months – and my hopes for the future of ABA.

After the seminal ACT Bootcamp® for Behavior Analysts, I dove into ACT books, workshops, and participated in one of Dr. Tom Szabo’s 9 Week Online ACT Courses

Integrating ACT with clients, families, and co-workers resulted in multiple shifts:

  • new employees now self-report their values during orientation sessions that are used to collaboratively develop monthly individualized staff goals.
  • organizational values are now integrated into employee interviews and progress reviews. 
  • ACT parent coaching resulted in increased accuracy of BIP implementation and generalization of skill acquisition.
  • a client drastically decreased hitting his brother with special needs when ACT was added to the treatment plan.
  • a client decreased verbal protest and challenging behavior during transitions, and also increased positive statements regarding living in two homes (divorce).
  • parents and staff self-reported increased values-driven behavior and
  •  decreased rule-governed behavior after participating in brief ACT workshops (6 hours for parents; 1 hour for staff).

Too many variables have changed at my organization to identify clear correlations for staff turn-over. Non-ABA staff shared positive consequences of implementation of ACT tools with parents & clients such as increased BIP compliance and decreased escape-maintained behaviors. 

Why ACT for BCBAs?

As a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA), ACT caught my attention because the approach addresses so many of the stereotypical labels of our field: robotic, controlling, cocky, unsympathetic, uptight, loner. These labels hurt people – including those we do not serve –  due to their avoidance of our stereotypes.   

It is time for behavior analysts to be known as compassionate, intelligent, caring, team-playing, change makers.

If we are not invited to the table, we cannot make a difference. 

Our science of behavior is powerful. We need to have a bigger impact.  

Change as a Constant

It’s a jungle out there. Our lives are not predictable.

It’s important that we guide learners to increase the flexibility of their responses to an ever-changing world. For most of us, we do not address the jungle inside our minds as dependent variables. 

We need to increase the tools in our toolbox to  address private events and their impact on overt behavior.

Don’t get me wrong, we are skillful masters at creating linear plans: task analysis, backward chaining, reinforcement, antecedent strategies…

Everything is clearly designed. 

Yet life is not as strategically organized as our treatment plans. Life is dynamic, multi-faceted, overwhelming, and often scary. 

With today’s stories including:

  • school and community gun violence
  • racial disparities across housing, employment, justice systems
  • decrease of biological diversity as sea levels rise
  • drastic employment changes
  • daily living in a modern world full of information overload

How do we provide tools for learners to live full and meaningful lives?

Historically, most ABA practitioners have pigeon-holed (pun intended) themselves into working with a specific population. Yet our behavioral technology is centered around function – not topography. CEOs, children, parents, teachers, and yes – even behavior analysts – engage in rule-governed escape-maintained behaviors.

ABA can be applied across a myriad of populations.

So why aren’t we having a bigger impact?

We excel with decreasing problematic behavior and increasing basic, socially meaningful behavior.

However, most of us flounder to find the tools to pivot from rule-governed avoidant behavior to reinforcing complex, values-driven behavior. 

We can acknowledge private events as variables. Yet we have no clear visual blueprint. 

We need more tools to address the nuances of private events.

Our linear plans for overt behavior are no longer enough.

New Tools for a New World

Enter acceptance and commitment therapy, catalyzed in 1982. This technology now has over 300 randomized controlled trials and almost 50 peer-reviewed assessments of ACT

Finally, we have a behavioral analytic approach that acknowledges our evolutionary tendencies to apply prey/predator reactions to private events.

Yes, we are animals. 

Even more challenging, we are animals that can recall when a bike ran over our foot or vomiting after eating our favorite cereal. 

Hearing a commercial for that cereal can result in ugly consequences.

And that’s just from listening to a short jingle. 

Even worse, we can even make up stories about our future. 

We have the power to create terror, joy, and  anything in between… all in our minds.

So, how do we engage with our thoughts while orienting towards our values – even if fear is present? 

Moving Towards Our Values

During the seminal ACT Bootcamp® for Behavior Analysts, I was exposed to incredible applications of ACT such as Accept, Identify, Move (AIM), ACT Parent Training, Promoting the Emergence of Advanced Knowledge (PEAK), and more. Detailed ACT research was shared. 

Yet I did not leave with the foundational skills to assess, measure, and apply ACT fluently. I felt like I had watched and studied Olympians on double-black diamonds and I was still stuck on the bunny hill.

ACT Bootcamp for Behavior Analysts “2.0” has arrived

Future ACT Bootcamp® for Behavior Analysts workshops will dive into BST for measurements, tool selection, assessments, and more. The workshops will utilize individual, dyadic, and small group participation. While important general strategies will be included, attendees will also practice individualizing metaphors and approaches on the fly to incorporate learners’ interests within the treatment. 

Previous bootcamps showed us the research of what is possible. Now, ACT Bootcamp® for Behavior Analysts will provide the scaffolding for us to build our own foundation and guide others to do the same. 

See also: ACT BootCamp: What’s in it for Behavior Analysts?

As BCBAs, we work with folks to create a map of where they are headed.

Now, we can support them in developing their inner compass so they can recognize when they are off track.

We can model attending to our own inner compass, including losing our way. This science is bigger than one narrow path.

We can navigate life’s terrain based on our values rather than fear. 

The tools exist. The possible applications are limitless.

Let’s get invited to more tables. Let’s have a bigger impact on our world. Together. 

Join Us. Learn How ACT Can Enhance Your ABA Skills!


Hayes, S. C. (2019). A liberated mind: how to pivot toward what matters. New York: Avery.