ABA Supervision

Beyond the Task List: Soft Skills in ABA Fieldwork Supervision

What are soft skills? Soft skills help us to interact more effectively with others. So, what exactly does that mean for behavior analysts?

BCBA Supervisor  

What are soft skills?

The Oxford Dictionary defines "soft skills" as: "personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people."

So, what exactly does that mean for behavior analysts? "Soft Skills" are interpersonal and non-technical repertoires that lead to more effective practice and productive interactions with colleagues, clients, and stakeholders. These skills involve things like building therapeutic relationships, timeliness, and openness to feedback. Other terms might be things like therapeutic skills or behavioral artistry (Callahan et al., 2019).

Examples of soft skills or therapeutic and professional skills include 

  • Establishing rapport

  • Perception of subtle changes in the environment

  • Openness to feedback

  • Responsiveness to multiculturalism and diversity

  • Active listening

  • Timeliness and preparedness

  • Asking open-ended questions and checking for understanding

  • Advocating for personal and professional needs

  • Obtaining assent/consent before and during interactions

  • Seeking out information and asking for clarification


State of soft skills in ABA

In addition to conceptual and clinical competencies, recent articles have focused on promoting “soft” skills of trainees, such as collaboration, cultural competence, and therapeutic relationships (Andzik & Kranak, 2021; Boivin et al., 2021; LeBlanc et al., 2020; Conners et al., 2019). The Supervisor Curriculum 2.0 states that supervisors are responsible for developing professional skills in the areas of time management organization, prioritization, social skills, and interpersonal skills.

  • A 2019 survey conducted by Callahan et al. found that that students majoring and/or working in the field of ABA had lower levels of "behavioral artistry" than those in other human services professions.

  • Only 50% of 225 board-certified individuals surveyed stated that their fieldwork supervisor provided training experiences in the topics of compassion, empathy, and therapeutic relationships with families, despite 91% stating that they view these skills as extremely or very important (Leblanc et al., 2020).

  • Of 575 board-certified individuals surveyed on training they received in multiculturalism and diversity during their fieldwork experience, only 36% indicated that they had an opportunity and training was provided in racial and ethnic backgrounds, 23% in religious and spiritual backgrounds, and 11% in sexual orientations (Conners et al., 2019)

  • Similarly, Sellers et al. (2019) found that supervisors report a lack of confidence and knowledge in teaching or evaluating soft skills of their trainees.


Teaching soft skills 

While soft skills may seem less obviously measurable than technical skills, they can still be operationalized, addressed and taught, and evaluated. Many BCBA supervision curriculum and fieldwork programs focus primarily on training technical skills. One way to improve your practice of teaching soft skills may be to seek out a structured fieldwork system that accounts for soft skills like our supervision curriculum here that provides structured readings, self-assessments, and graphing tools measuring soft skills.

Other considerations and strategies for teaching soft skills: 

  • First determine what skills are actually relevant while considering cultural responsiveness

  • Self-reflect and seek feedback on your own "soft skills"

  • Prioritize teaching soft skills as highly, or higher, than technical skills

  • Define and operationalize the skills to be taught

  • Conduct an initial needs assessment of the skills

  • Model the professional and therapeutic behaviors you want to see

  • Provide constructive, action focused feedback on the use of soft skills

  • Provide avenues for the trainee to engage in self-assessment and goal-setting related to professional or interpersonal skills

  • Consistently measure the behaviors and graph them, like you would any other behavior to evaluate the effectiveness of your teaching

  • Collaborate and partner with your supervisee or trainee on what skills they find most relevant

What else would you add?



Andzik, N. R., & Kranak, M. P. (2021). The softer side of supervision: Recommendations when teaching and evaluating behavior-analytic professionalism. Behavior Analysis: Research and Practice, 21(1), 65–74.https://doi.org/10.1037/bar0000194

Boivin, N., Ruane, J., Quigley, S. P., Harper, J., & Weiss, M. J. (2021). Interdisciplinary 

Collaboration Training: An Example of a Preservice Training Series. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 14(4), 1223–1236.https://doi.org/10.1007/s40617-021-00561-z

Conners, B., Johnson, A., Duarte, J., Murriky, R., & Marks, K. (2019). Future Directions of

Training and Fieldwork in Diversity Issues in Applied Behavior Analysis. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 12(4), 767–776. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40617-019-00349-2

LeBlanc, L. A., Taylor, B. A., & Marchese, N. V. (2020). The Training Experiences of Behavior

Analysts: Compassionate Care and Therapeutic Relationships with Caregivers. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 13(2), 387–393. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40617-019-00368-z

Sellers, T. P., Valentino, A. L., Landon, T. J., & Aiello, S. (2019). Board Certified Behavior Analysts’ Supervisory Practices of Trainees: Survey Results and Recommendations. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 12(3), 536–546. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40617-019-00367-0


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