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with Heather Gilmore, MSW, LLMSW, BCBA

5 ABA Programming Tips to Help Kids with the Holiday Season

Applied behavior analysis is a field which offers a great opportunity to truly help people in a variety of ways.

ABA services for children can greatly impact the child’s life.

When a child is in ABA for multiple hours per week, the treatment provider has a chance to make a big difference for that child in his daily life.

Not only can ABA providers help kids learn things like communication skills, social skills, and completing various tasks like visual motor activities or daily living skills, ABA providers can also help with more general areas of functioning.

For instance, ABA treatment providers can help their clients to feel more comfortable with the holidays, to participate in family traditions and activities with more ease and joy, and to help kids to successfully get through the holidays in whatever way that looks for the child.

Let’s review five tips for how ABA treatment providers (including behavior therapists and behavior analysts) can help their clients (particularly youth they are working with or even adults with developmental delays) to get through the holidays with joy, peace, and willingness to engage in the holiday-related activities.

Parents can also use these ideas in their daily activities with their child to help their child prepare for the holidays.

5 ABA Programming Tips to Help Kids with the Holiday Season

Updated: 11/4/19 (Per a reader’s comments, I am updating my report about using social stories to provide more information about how this strategy is used and how it is evidence-based.)

#1. Use Story-Based Interventions (ex: Social Stories)

Use social stories and narratives to review the upcoming holidays particularly the holidays that are important to the family.

Be sure to consider the family’s culture and traditions when planning which holidays to focus on in ABA programming.

Story-based interventions are an established intervention for youth with autism spectrum disorder per the National Standards Project Phase 2 Report (2015).

The report defines story-based interventions as the following:

“Story-based interventions identify a target behavior and involve a written description of the situations under which specific behaviors are expected to occur. Most stories aim to increase perspective taking skills and are written from an “I” or “some people” perspective. The most well-known story-based intervention is Social Stories™.”

Story-based interventions can help with communication and learning, interpersonal and self-regulation, as well as problem behaviors.

Within a story-based intervention, a written description of the following should be included (per the NSP Report):

  • A clear description of the target behavior (which falls in line with the technological dimension of ABA)
  • The situations in which the behavior “should” occur (Providing multiple examples can help with generalization)
  • The likely outcome of performing the target behavior (there are many benefits to this item within story-based interventions including use of behavior-mapping to help the child understand his or her own behavior in relation to the consequence of that behavior)

#2. Use a Calendar or Visual Schedule.

Depending on the child’s ability level, a calendar can be a great resource.

It can be helpful to have regular group or individual calendar time within ABA programming or daily routines for kids.

During calendar time, a review of what is coming up ahead can be helpful to reduce maladaptive behaviors that may arise from unexpected events.

Go over dates of official holidays (that the family would like the child to be familiar with).

Go over dates of parties and events that the family plans to attend with the child as well as any changes in the schedule or routine such as time off from school or time off from ABA services.

#3. Have Holiday Events in ABA

Having events such as mini-parties or special activities within the context of ABA services can help kids to become more comfortable with changes in the routine as well as help them to experience more holiday-related activities.

Consider one of these ideas:

  • having a snack that is themed for the upcoming holiday in a group setting
  • completing a holiday-themed craft project
  • practicing an activity common to a specific holiday (such as opening a gift – respecting ethical guidelines of course – or playing with toy food in a way that resembles a holiday gathering)
  • having a mini trick-or-treating event in a center or community setting to practice before Halloween

#4. Teach Functional Communication

Functional communication training is very common as an intervention in applied behavior analysis.

ABA treatment providers can use this intervention in the context of helping kids prepare for the holidays.

For instance, teaching kids – regardless of their communication skill level – about how to appropriately request a break or how to request a preferred item can help improve the communication skills they may use during the holidays.

Consider helping the child to generalize his communication skills by providing scenarios related to the holidays that he or she can practice responding to with his particular method of communication.

#5. Receptive & Expressive Identification Training

Receptive and expressive identification training are also very common programs within ABA services.

Receptive identification, or the ability to respond to a speaker asking the listener to identify a particular stimulus, can be practiced within the context of holiday related stimuli.

Expressive identification, or the ability to communicate with verbal or nonverbal language in order to identify a stimulus, can also be practiced in ABA in a way that can help the child with the holidays.

Consider using the following activities to improve receptive or expressive identification to help kids prepare for the upcoming holidays:

  • Present various flash cards of the child’s relatives (as provided by their parents) who they may be seeing during the holiday season and ask the child to receptively or expressively identify the family member.
  • Present common holiday images (such as a tree, ornament, lights, etc. for Christmas or a pumpkin, costumes, etc. for Halloween) and practice receptive and expressive identification.

When possible, support generalization of skills to new stimuli including stimuli that is likely to be found in the child’s natural environment.

These are just a few ideas for how ABA treatment providers like behavior analysts can help kids to prepare for the holiday season.

Supporting kids with disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorder or developmental delays, with improving skills that will help them to feel more comfortable with holiday-related activities can greatly improve their experience of the holidays – like Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and all holidays that are important to their family.

Consider implementing some of the above mentioned ideas in ABA programming shortly before and during the holiday season or even throughout the year as other holidays come up.

5 ABA Programming Tips to Help Kids with the Holiday Season

Heather Gilmore, MSW, BCBA

Heather is a freelance writer, Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), and social worker. Heather takes interest in topics related to parenting, children, families, personal development, health and wellness, applied behavior analysis, as well as Autism, ADHD, Depression and Anxiety. Contact Heather if you would like to inquire about obtaining her freelance writing services. You can view more articles and resources from Heather at and email her at [email protected] You can also advertise your autism services at one of Heather's websites: Heather is the developer of the "One-Year ABA Parent Training Curriculum."


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APA Reference
Gilmore, H. (2019). 5 ABA Programming Tips to Help Kids with the Holiday Season. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 6, 2020, from