Valerie Zagurksy is a Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) with Patterson Behavior Services. In this role, she works directly with children to teach new skills and reduce challenging behaviors.
Valerie has been an RBT for more than 4 years and is currently studying to become a Behavior Analyst. She completed her bachelor’s degree in psychology at University of Virginia and is completing her graduate coursework at George Mason University. She is also an Army veteran and a CrossFit coach! We asked her a few questions about her background and what it is like to work in the field.
How did you find ABA? Was there anything in particular that drew you to the field?
I found ABA, oddly enough, while looking for work when I moved to North Carolina. I saw a building that said “autism therapy” on the front door and I decided to look into it. I expected to get a position as a scheduling or logistics manager, but found out that my bachelor’s degree qualified me to interview for RBT positions. Once I learned what kind of work that entailed and that it would give me avenues to further my career in the field, I decided to give it a shot!
One of my younger sisters has autism, but ABA was not as prevalent when we were kids as it is today. So learning more about ABA therapy and how it can help families like my own also piqued my interest.
How do you describe your job to someone new? What’s your “elevator pitch?”
I usually start by stating that I work with children with autism. I try to use non behavior analytic terms to explain that we help teach kids with autism to communicate in socially appropriate ways. We also help them navigate challenging social situations in ways that they can use in more than one setting.
Do you remember your first client? What did he or she teach you?
My first client was the first child I ever worked with who was completely non-vocal. I ended up working with him for almost a year and a half before I moved to Virginia. He taught me that we can communicate in so many ways, even if we don’t speak with words. He also taught me the importance of advocating for our clients when they cannot advocate for themselves.
Can you tell us about your time in the military? Did you learn anything in the Army that has helped you in your current role?
My time in the military has helped me feel more prepared to handle challenging or quickly evolving situations.
I was in the Army as a transportation officer for about five years. I deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, which was a really interesting opportunity as a brand new officer at the time. Most of my time was spent working with combat units, helping them to create supply plans and get what they needed to support either combat or humanitarian missions. Outside of deployment, one of the coolest things I got to do was support the Japanese Ground Defense Forces during a training exercise. That gave me an insight into a different culture and how they treat their commissioned and enlisted service members.
What do you think is your main strength in ABA?
I think I can be very patient, which is incredibly helpful when practicing ABA. Many of our clients are still learning about their environment, and this takes time. If we’re patient and remember to celebrate the small wins, that can really help us in this field.
Have you ever created a behavior intervention plan for yourself? How did it go?
When I was in grad school, I created a plan to help with my sleeping. I tracked my sleep by paying attention to how many times I woke up in the middle of the night and for what reason. This was actually really helpful because it led to me learning that I cannot drink liquids too close to bedtime. If I cut off my intake of water, tea, or anything else about an hour before bed, I’m much less likely to get up in the middle of the night. Understanding that data of waking up multiple times really helped me to improve my sleep!
If we did a preference assessment for you, which reinforcers would we find?
I think I am a candy type of person for sure. My first client loved sour candies, and it was so hard to give him reinforcement without wanting to take some myself (of course I didn’t). Sour Patch Kids would be at the top of my high value reinforcers list for sure. Outside of candy, I’d be happy to play with a Slinky or Rubiks cube, some kind of toy I could manipulate with my hands.
Can you share a favorite book, article, or video about ABA?
I loved the Greg Hanley series on the IISCA and “My Way.” I wish all parents and teachers could watch it! I also really like the Behavioral Observations Podcast with Matt Cicoria. He had a great episode with Tina Long about working with police officers from Fairfax County on the ACT Matrix. This episode was really relevant to anyone looking to work with a different clientele, and looking to improve police-community relations in their neighborhoods.
You’re studying to become a BCBA. What are you most looking forward to about being one?
I’m looking forward to exploring practicing ABA in novel environments. RBTs don’t usually get the opportunity to work with clients outside of the ASD/IDD population. There are so many areas that can benefit from ABA and I’m excited to see how I can help my community in the future.
There are some misunderstandings about what ABA is and how ABA therapy works. What is something you wish everyone understood?
I think the most important thing I want people to understand is that we prioritize each client’s ability to make choices and live independent, meaningful lives. Even clients with severe communication deficits have the power to make choices, and as practitioners in this field, it’s so important for us to promote client autonomy.
We’re not just helping clients to “behave better.” We’re helping them to navigate challenging situations in ways that allow them to be their unique and amazing selves.
If you would like to join the team, please let us know! We are always hiring behavior analysts and behavior technicians.