Behavior Plan Development: A Collaborative Approach

Behaviorists, educators, and mental health practitioners are drawn to their line of work to help people. Working with clients is the most rewarding part of the job. The client-behaviorist relationship is special. Sometimes it can be really challenging to work with a client exhibiting disruptive behaviors, and from the outside perspective, it might even look like we are “managing” that client and those behaviors. But the truth is, every person, regardless of their ability to communicate and regardless of their measureable abilities, is a person with agency and a point of view. It’s so important to recognize that every person is an expert in his or her own perspective and has something to teach us. 

Working with clients is a collaborative process in which both the client and clinician are open to change and learning. As a behaviorist, it’s my job to understand the client’s perspective and put myself in the person’s shoes. I am in a partnership with the client; helping the client find another path in the world. Below are some ways to advance clinical outcomes, through empathy, understanding and collaboration. Considerations: 

Safety first

Creating a safe environment is the first step to working with a client. If immediate safety is threatened, take charge, but once safety is confirmed, a collaborative and empathetic mindset is the approach to take.

Know your blind spots

Remember what you don’t know. You don’t know what it’s like to live this client’s life. Pause and consider differences and similarities. Similarities can build trust. Differences can guide the growth of the working relationship. 

Observe, don’t judge

Take the judgement out of your work with the client.  In our work, observation is a profound agent for change and judgment is a blocker. Through the power of observation, patterns can inform the function of behavior. I want to understand what the client is experiencing and what the client may be telling me through actions.

Be open to the client’s perspective

What is important to the client is just as critical as what is important for the client. The client’s perspective on what is important sets the platform from where long-term change can launch. Keep your mind open and if you can’t, seek consultation from another professional. A closed mind can happen with anyone at any time and colleagues are the source of wisdom to work through these moments.

Be mindful and communicate with respect

Some people speak to clients as they would to children, by raising the lilt of their voice. It is crucial that you speak to clients in a measured and neutral tone paired with friendly nonverbal language. Use a smile to keep the casual interactions engaging. Crisis communication is focused and firm because safety comes first but a client’s self-worth remains the foundation for all interactions, even in a crisis.

Empower clients to take agency

We are not here to impose our views on clients, but to empower them. They can and should make the decisions without experiencing a power struggle. Motivating a client is the key to successful behavior change and forging empowerment.

The whole picture

Each person who has contact with the client is a valuable part of the whole picture.   Gently ask interview questions peppering in how that person has been a positive influence in the client’s life. Keeping the interviewee engaged gleans rich information and is helpful in gaining the information that organizes the whole picture. The whole picture is greater than any single part.


Observation done with the gut is important. What feelings come up for me when I am with a family member or a team member when they are interacting with the client? The transference I feel may be what the client feels. Do I feel nervous? Do I feel nurtured? Do I feel nothing? Observation is key to developing a behavior plan that is empathically-based and therefore client-centered. 

Prevention strategies

Experiencing the verbal and nonverbal experiences of, say a family member, informs prevention strategies and in turn helps the client to make good choices. It takes a village to support the client in good choice making and an informed behavior plan sets everyone on the same page.

Behavior plan development: It takes empathy, understanding and collaboration to make the process rich enough to motivate the client to embrace good choice-making and affect long-term change.

How do you create a collaborative environment when working with clients in the development of their behavior plans? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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