Supporting Clients in a School Setting


  • What is a school shadow?
  • Types of school shadows
  • The role of the shadow
  • Review the 4 phases of school shadowing
  • Discuss client confidentiality
  • Discuss professional behavior


Many children receiving ABA services, specifically those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), will reach a point when it is appropriate for them to attend school. After intensive behavioral therapy in a home or other setting, transitioning to a school is an ideal next step. Many goals can be achieved in the classroom setting:

  • Learning from group instruction
  • Increasing academic skills
  • Responding to the teacher and other individuals
  • Observing and modeling peers
  • Improving social interactions
  • Maintaining and generalizing skills in a new environment

For an individual with ASD or other developmental disabilities these goals may be difficult to achieve on their own. Transitioning from a one-to-one therapeutic setting to a group environment is a big change. School attendance is a natural occurrence and this is the goal of most ABA programs. It is important for the individual to learn in the classroom; not to just survive. The learner should be an active participant in the classroom and all school activities. The therapist/RBT supporting a client in the classroom setting may be referred to as a “school shadow”. A school shadow aide will help the student participate in major portions of the school day and encourage active involvement in and out of the classroom.

The school shadow works under the direct supervision of a qualified and trained behavior consultant (not specifically a BCBA, but a fully qualified individual, ABA, SPED, etc.)

What Exactly is a School Shadow?

A school shadow is a trained professional who provides 1:1 support to the client in the school environment. They know the principles of ABA and are appropriately trained on therapy procedures. Moreover, they are familiar with the students needs, their strengths and weaknesses as well as any challenging behaviors.

  • During the school day, a school shadow
    • Prompts the child when necessary to respond appropriately in the school environment
    • Implements teaching objectives throughout the day
    • Provides reinforcement for appropriate responding and behavior
    • Facilitates educational and social opportunities
    • Modifies lessons specific to the child’s individualized needs
    • Predicts situations that may be difficult for the child and helps adjust those accordingly

School Shadow vs Classroom Aide

  • A classroom aide is generally hired, employed, and paid by the school or school district
    • A school shadow may be hired by the school, directly hired by the child’s family, or employed by an ABA agency where the child receives services
  • A classroom aide is generally trained by the school or school district, and may not have have any training in ABA
    • A school shadow may be trained by the school or school district, or trained by the ABA agency as part of their employment as an ABA therapist/RBT
    • A school shadow should have specific training in ABA strategies, techniques, as well as school shadowing procedures
  • A classroom aide is typically an assistant to the teacher, and helps all the children in the class, in addition an aide generally assists with clerical work, running small groups, making materials, developing assignments, etc.
    • A school shadow is assigned to one specific student and assists that student the entire time; a shadow facilitates the student’s success in the classroom, facilities social interactions, manages challenging behaviors, and modifies classroom work specific for the child they are assigned to
  • A classroom aide assists the teacher with instructional work by assisting all students with assigned tasks
    • A school shadow will interact with or assist other students as it pertains to the needs or focus of their assigned child, to ensure that child’s participation, independence, and success.
  • A classroom aide may leave the classroom to run errands to other parts of the school or spend time developing assignments in a teacher workroom
    • A school shadow is with their child for nearly all parts of the day to implement teaching opportunities; a shadow may be faded back, but always within viewing distance and ear shot of the child; a shadow may or may not attend a speech therapy or other types of one-on-one pull out services that the child receives
  • A classroom aide is generally assigned to large group supervision during lunch, recess and other free times
    • A school shadow provides one-on-one support to their child only to improve social skills and manage appropriate behavior

Overall, a child receives much more individualized support from a school shadow than a classroom aide. Having a shadow is an effective way to ensure the child will get the support they need to successfully participate in the classroom and have positive social interactions with others.

Different Types of Shadows

The type of shadow aide for the child will depend on the type of classroom that has been chosen and how much assistance that the child will need in order to succeed.

There are known and unknown shadows.

Known Shadows: As the name implies, are shadows that are known, in other words that people other than the parents and the teacher know that the shadow is assigned to one specific child. A known shadow aide is typically needed at first or early on in the school experience, when the child requires more direct, ongoing support in the classroom. So, generally speaking anyone who observes at length would recognize that the shadow is intended for one child specifically. In addition, this type of shadow is often one that is known to the child and the child is used to seeing in a therapeutic setting. In many situation, this means that the shadow also acts as a home ABA therapist/RBT to the child.

Unknown Shadows: When the child has generalized a great deal of skills, is attending in the classroom, is keeping up with all the other students, having successful social interactions, and is monitoring their own behavior it may be appropriate to begin to fade the support of the shadow. However, prior to removing the shadow completely, an unknown shadow is often introduced. The unknown shadow represents themselves as a classroom aide, but is covertly keeping a close watch only on the assigned child. They report back all the information of what they see and any data that the collect to the BCBA/supervisor/etc. and parents, and articulate how the child is really doing. And this is important because often times the child develops a close relationship with their known shadow and this can influence their behavior. It’s really important to know how that student is going to perform when that familiar person is no longer there.

The shadow is unknown to the child, students, parents of other students,  and other teachers. (Not entirely applicable at the high school level where classes change rooms/teachers) As best as can be done, no one else needs to know the true purpose of this additional person in the room other than the purpose of a classroom aide.

Unlike a known shadow, an unknown shadow does not work directly with the child and may represent themselves as an observer in the classroom or may take on classroom duties like an aide. We want their presence in the classroom to seem natural and avoid suspicion of others and the child as to the true nature of their presence. The unknown shadow may respond to the child as they would to any other student in the classroom, based on the level of interaction the program supervisor/BCBA has indicated. Additionally, an unknown shadow may or may not be present for the entire school day and if not, they may only be scheduled for what has been identified as the most challenging time periods for the child. Essentially, by now the child may have gained enough skill and has the independence to be able to go through most of or all of their day independently within the school environment.

Like a known shadow, an unknown shadow reports back to a BCBA/Supervisor and identifies any areas of need that the child may still have. The BCBA/Supervisor will develop goals and procedures to be implemented to better help the child improve these areas, most likely in the home or community environment.

  • Whether using a known or unknown shadow the goal of a shadow is to facilitate independent learning and success and to fade out when the child is ready…

The Role of The Shadow

Is to assist the student in:

  • Learning from the teacher’s instructions
  • Learning by observing peers
  • Attending to important stimuli
  • Controlling their problem behaviors
  • Responding appropriately
  • Applying previously learned skills to the school setting
  • Playing appropriately with peers
  • Promote independence

In all situations the shadow should be able to get assistance from the BCBA/Supervisor to get more in-depth instructions as to how to best meet the child’s individual needs

Modifying the Work

The shadow may need to make modifications to the work that the student is doing in the classroom on a daily basis. In general, the teacher and the BCBA are responsible for determining what information the student can and cannot handle. This could include actual modification to the work, or a reduction in the amount of work to be done or provided with an alternate assignment. That being said, there may be situations where the shadow will have to make this modifications in lieu of the teacher or the BCBA not having been able to.

Phases of School Shadowing

  • Introducing the student into the school setting is often a gradual process with specific goals in mind and furthermore where deliberate prompts are implemented
  • With that in mind it is important to note that there are four distinct phases of shadowing that may be relevant for a student:

Phase 1 (20% Independence)

  • Prompt child to participate in classroom activities
  • Redirect inappropriate behaviors
  • Engage child in parallel play

Generally in this phase the learner requires prompting at least 80% of the time, literally, the shadow will provide prompts 80% of all given opportunities throughout the day. Previously learned skills will likely be independent in this environment. Phase one is generally the most difficult, and this is likely due to the transition from being in home to being in a school environment.

Prompting in this environment also needs to consider what is overstepping the teacher’s boundaries and not being disruptive to the rest of the class. There will likely be more physical prompting during this phase.

Phase 2 (50% Independence)

  • Reinforce interactive play (shadow should become “friend” with peers)
  • Target appropriate classroom behavior (following group instructions)

Prompting in this phase will be more verbal and imitative (both of shadow and through observation of others), less physical. In addition every other action, response or behavior should be independent. And the shadow must navigate carefully to ensure that they are only stepping in where needed.

Phase 3 (75% Independence)

  • Fade prompts from phase 2
  • Encourage independent classroom behavior
  • Fading back on level of instructions
  • Directing the child to pay attention to the teacher
  • Promoting peer modeling
  • Teaching basic self-regulation
    • written prompts
    • symbols in the classroom/task list
  • Targeting language expansion
    • Encouraging asking questions
    • Rewarding good responses to peers and initiating with peers
    • Require child to gain attention of listeners and appropriate times to do so
  • Increasing social interactions/play interactions
  • Promote child’s academic skills

Prompting in this phase are likely going to be visual or textual. Such things as daily class requirement checklists provided at the beginning of each class. Trying to make prompts more subtle, more discrete. In addition, group instructions can be used, instructing the whole class and not just singling the student out, even though the prompt is intended for the student.

Phase 4 (90% Independence)

  • Considering an unknown shadow at this point
  • Require independence in the classroom
    • Working w/teacher and asking the teacher to take over stimulus control want the student to go to teacher for questions/help/etc.
  • Steps in only when necessary and w/other students only when necessary

Prompting only when necessary and then immediately pulls back out. Assesses the child’s abilities. Can they do it on their own? Exactly where is help needed? What skills need to be worked on home to be supplemented at school? What can we do to make sure this child is successful?

A Good Shadow…

  • Adjusts to the learner all day long (Gets involved when necessary backs off when child is doing well)
  • Pays attention to the child all day long
  • Brings the school staff and peers on board
  • Provides the BCBA accurate assessments of the child’s progress in school

Things a Shadow Should Avoid…

  • Being overbearing and interfering with the natural interactions of the child
  • Doing the child’s work for them
  • Stigmatizing and making the child stand out from his peers
  • Being rude and antagonizing the teacher
  • Being lazy and counting the minutes to the end of the day

Other Considerations

  • Client Confidentiality
  • The shadow should never discuss the student that they are shadowing with anyone
  • Abide by school policy at all times: Professional behavior.
  • Respect the classroom teacher(s)
  • Dress to help your learner blend in
  • NEVER make recommendations about how to help other students

When in doubt ask the BCBA/Supervisor for direction

Learn More…

Ethics – Professional Behavior


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