What’s In Your Language?

Behavior analysts in general love technical language. I am guilty as charged—I love talking about technical terms, and once I even wrote a paper reviewing how behavior analysts use the term prompt (you can check it here), but I want to know about your everyday language. Have you thought about the implications of your language on patient treatment, stigma, and ultimately how the world perceives ABA?globe-110775_640

Words like “appropriate”, “compliance”, “off-task”, and “nicely” to name a few, are abundant in a behavior analyst’s verbal repertoire and even make its way to peer-reviewed literature, solidifying its sanction in our practice. Have you thought about what they mean, and what they indicate? Control. Ultimately, these are words of control.

Behavioral health care in recent years has shifted towards a recovery-oriented approach (for more info, check here).  water-lily-1533183_640That means that the focus of treatment of people with mental illness has moved towards building more independence and community re-integration. Managed care organizations are interested in treatment plans that promote recovery and self-reliance, and they expect to see recovery-oriented language reflected in the assessment and treatment goals.

When working with people with disabilities (mental health, developmental disabilities, physical disability) our goal is to develop independence, not compliance. Independence includes assertiveness, it includes the ability to say no. When we teach compliance, what are we really teaching? Obedience? michelangelo-71282_640

The Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts mentions the word “appropriate” 36 times (!), and the term “person-centered” 0 times.  Only recently health insurance companies started to offer coverage for ABA services, and it is imperative that we are able to communicate in that same language as other behavioral health providers.

Behavior analysis is suited to promote recovery and community re-integration better than other treatment approaches, because we understand the ways in which the environment intertwines with an individual’s condition. Our language needs to start matching what our practice has done for years: the support of the individual and the families in the recovery process.

Check out these resources for more information on person-centered treatment and recovery-oriented language:

Recovery-oriented Language Guide:


Practice Guidelines for Recovery-oriented Behavioral Health Care:


Guide to Developing Goals and Interventions:



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