The importance of finding the right supervisor BEFORE you get started in the field of behavior analysis

When I began working in the field of behavior analysis I didn’t realize how important beginning well was. I got very lucky. I met my first BCBA supervisor at my second job, which was also a side job for her, working at a gym. I applied to and was accepted into the FSU Masters program, bigtime score! Then I was encouraged to have various experiences in various settings under the best supervisors.

I’m skipping a lot here, but fast forward (many years) to my first child.

I learn by relating to past experiences and in this case I’m going to relate beginning in your profession to giving birth: Many people research and plan it out, some better than others. Some people get lucky with a good experience despite their lack of planning. Sometimes plans do not pan out no matter how thought through. Changes to the plan are necessary at times for the safety of all involved, though not typically welcomed. There’s one thing in common: everyone has an experience to share. Here’s mine.

Like most first-time mothers, I had a solid birth plan and everything went as planned… until it didn’t. Unfortunately, the epidural was only partially effective, and even more unfortunate was the fact that I didn’t complain about it. I was in pain and those tasked with following my birth plan and keeping me pain-free were not “in-the-know”. After several painful hours the nurse, who had watched me in agony for hours, grabbed the foot of my bed and firmly stated, “It shouldn’t be like this! You shouldn’t feel anything! You can ask for them to come back and do the epidural again.”

In my situation, the nurse had obviously assisted many laboring mothers and had the experience to know that things could be better for me.  I think, at least initially, she assumed I knew how epidurals work and that I knew I could ask for it to be done again. I’m fairly certain she had tried several other, less overt ways to communicate that I could ask anesthesiology to come back and do a better job with my epidural. In the end, though, because of her experience, she was intuitive enough to know that I didn’t know better and she didn’t worry about stepping on other professionals’ toes, so she almost literally shook me to get me to listen to her. And for what reason?  She had no stakes in giving this advice other than to make the experience of childbirth better for me.

Having someone that will grab you by the shoulders and emphatically tell you when something isn’t right is a precious resource.

In my experience, the top three reasons supervision experiences are less than ideal are due to supervisors who:

  • lack a sound knowledge of best practices,
  • aren’t comfortable with conflict/confronting problems, and/or
  • operate under the assumption the supervisee knows more than they actually do.

I’ve been privy to many cleanups following not-so-good supervision experiences and what I’ve learned is that a lack of best practices can occur even when someone is well educated or has a wealth of experience. Best practices, in my opinion, has to do with values. There are a lot of ways in which one can get distracted from upholding best practices. For example, demands of the job including being overworked or understaffed, focus on billable hours, or simply lack of experience or leadership. A good supervisor can filter things in order to prioritize best practices, which includes the way they supervise others; if they can’t filter and prioritize, they shouldn’t be supervising and should likely still be getting some supervision themselves.

Challenging situations in the field of behavior analysis are diverse. Being well-versed in various ways to confront different circumstances is paramount. Conflicts may occur with professionals or laypeople and some may be open to discussion or while others may be defensive. There’s no specific approach that will work in every situation and an appropriate strategy to address challenges goes right back to experience. Either way, a great supervisor can deal with various challenges directly and as a result, can model and coach you through how to handle those situations in the future.

Finally, more often than not, subpar supervision experiences involve the supervisee being given too much responsibility too soon. While I enjoy working with eager supervisees there is a delicate balance involved in providing the right experiences and in the right way, which differs, to some degree, by the person. An experienced supervisor has figured these things out through the experience of supervising others and provides a supervisee enough that they are challenged and continue to grow, but not so much that the scales tip over.

All these details ultimately boil down to a culmination of well-rounded experiences under the supervision of great supervisors. Great supervisors have had great supervision, a wealth of experiences, and time. Time to practice, time to learn, time to grow and develop.

Finding someone who will unselfishly advise you regarding what is best for you is a rare, invaluable find! A great plan doesn’t always go as planned and you must have someone who knows what they are doing and will insist on things being better for your sake. You may get lucky but odds are you shouldn’t play the odds. Make a good plan. I strongly advise you, the supervisee, to search high and low for a great mentor and supervisor.  It isn’t easy to do but worth the time, effort, and investment. Plan well, be somewhat flexible when needed, and most important – if you want to begin well in the field of behavior analysis, you need to surround yourself with people who will vigorously guide you on the best possible path throughout the long arduous experience that is supervision to begin well in the field of behavior analysis.