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Dr. Terry Falcomata’s involvement with education stretches back to his days as a seventh-grade language arts teacher. But it wasn’t until he tackled his master’s work in behavior analysis and training that he developed a passion for the research he currently pursues: assessment and treatment practices for challenging behavior exhibited by kids with autism and developmental disabilities.

One of Falcomata’s current focuses is a collaboration between the College of Education’s Department of Special Education with Bluebonnet Trails Community Service. Falcomata supervises a team of doctoral students who conduct a two-pronged assistantship based on a combination of research and in-home clinical work with children who demonstrate challenging behaviors and other skills deficits.

What is the Bluebonnet Trail Community Service?

It’s a community-based organization that provides services to individuals across eight counties. Bluebonnet has several services including ones that focus on early childhood intervention, mental health services, and autism services. We’ve partnered with the autism services program.

How is the work structured?

Ten hours of the assistantship is dedicated to clinical work in which our doctoral students work with families that are referred to our group. Typically, the focus has been on assessment and treatment for challenging behavior, but we’ve also worked with children and families on other skill areas such as self-care, toilet training, and other family priorities. The other 10 hours of the assistantships are dedicated to research activities, which gives us the opportunity to pursue our research agenda. This typically overlaps with our clinical work in assessment and treatment practices for challenging behavior. An advantage we get from the partnership is the opportunity to conduct research with families in the home and in the schools.

“Our results have consistently shown that children with little or no communication abilities can be taught communicative skills that replace their challenging behavior.”

What is your role in this project?

I supervise the work of the doctoral students. I also provide training when Bluebonnet requests some additional help. They call me into some cases to assist when they feel the circumstances are particularly difficult. We had a child recently who refused to go to school and had not been to school for an extended period of time due to his behavior. Two of my students and I developed a plan in conjunction with Angel Filer, a Bluebonnet BCBA. We arrived at the house at 7 a.m. every morning for about a week and a half and provided assistance to the family in implementing the plan. We taught them how to transition the child and actually rode with him in the family’s car to school, helped transition him into the school, and then faded ourselves so the family could provide that support themselves.

The program helps evaluate potential assessment and treatment practices in the community. Have you reached any conclusions or results along those lines?

Our results have consistently shown that children with little or no communication abilities can be taught communicative skills that replace their challenging behavior. We just completed a study in which we were able to teach children to vary their use of different modalities of communication. We have been researching some procedures that so far have been effective in facilitating children’s use of appropriate communication skills instead of challenging behavior by choosing from a selection of four to five other communication options when one fails to produce the outcome the child is requesting. The data showed that by teaching several different modalities of communication the children would use the appropriate communication instead of reengaging in challenging behaviors. And this delayed the reemergence of those challenging behaviors.

What is most rewarding for you personally about your involvement with this project?

It’s gratifying to see the doctoral students’ growth as clinicians and researchers and to see the interaction between them and the families as success is achieved with the children. It’s rewarding to participate in the process of identifying why the child is engaging in those challenging behaviors and then implement a treatment that teaches them to communicate. And then, to see the child start using appropriate communication and the parents’ excitement — we were part of that. It’s just a really powerful thing.

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