Using Ecological Assessments to Set Meaningful Goals for ABA Interventions

When professionals develop ABA intervention programs for students with ASD and other disabilities, they use many different approaches when selecting goals.  Some use criterion-referenced assessment tools such as the Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills- Revised (The ABLLS-R) or The Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment and Placement Program (VB-MAPP) to set intervention goals.  Others use informal assessment procedures such as interviews with students, caregivers, and teachers, checklists, and informal observations to set goals for ABA interventions.  What professionals do not typically use nearly enough are ecological assessments to set goals for ABA interventions.

An ecological assessment begins with examining the skills needed for an individual to be successful in a specific environment (i.e. reading group in the general education classroom, school cafeteria, playground at recess, dinner table at home, restaurant, library, movie theater, workplace).  Professionals use task analysis by listing all of the skills required for the selected environment, observing the student in the environment, and documenting which skills the student demonstrates and which skills the student does not.  Then goals are set based on the skills the student needs to be successful in the environment but does not currently display.  Of course, goals need to be developmentally appropriate.  Consider this situation: one of the skills on the task analysis for eating at a restaurant indicates that the student verbally tells the waitress what meal he would like. However, the student is non-verbal. Thus, the goal would need to be something such as pointing to a picture or description of the desired meal on a menu when the waitress asks what he would like. 

Ecological assessments can be conducted to assess students’ independence and present levels of participation so that meaningful goals can be set to teach the necessary communication, social, behavioral, cognitive skills, or daily living skills the student needs to maximize performance.  Below is an example of an ecological assessment of a student’s participation in small group reading with suggested goals that can be targeted for ABA interventions:

Skills Needed Student Performance Goal
Sit at the table The student sat at the table appropriately. N/A
Look at the teacher when the teacher is providing instruction The student did not look at the teacher while the teacher was providing instruction. However, this is not necessarily an indication that the student is not listening. No goal at this time because the student may be listening to the teacher even though she is not looking at the teacher.
Read along silently when someone is reading The student did not look at the words in the book while someone was reading. The student will move her finger along the words while someone is reading.
Read when called on The student is non-verbal so she cannot read aloud. The student will hit a switch to “read” a pre-recorded section aloud when called on. 
Answer comprehension questions The student did not answer any questions.  Since she is non-verbal, she did not have a means to communicate whether or not she comprehended the story. The student will respond to literal comprehension questions by pointing to pictures given a field of four.
Make Predictions The student did not make any predictions Provide the student with a communication board that has a symbol for “I have an idea.”  This can be the words and/or a light bulb.  The student will hold up the symbol when she wants to make a prediction.  To make a prediction, she can use gestures, choose from a set of pictures, or she can use an AAC device.


In the example above, the teacher can design ABA interventions for all of the goals listed or target them one at a time until the student is able to participate in reading group independently.  As you can see, using the ecological assessment approach allows professionals to set goals that have immediate relevance to the students and those they interact with across different environments.  Although specific social, communication, cognitive, daily living skills, and/or positive behaviors are addressed when writing goals, they are selected based on what the student needs to learn to increase independence and active participation in the environments in which they engage.

Written by Deb Leach, Ed.D., BCBA
Posted in Assessments Tagged with: , , , ,

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