Surviving the Holidays: ABA Edition

Surviving the Holidays: ABA Edition

The Holidays can be some of the most joyful and exciting times of the year. They are also known as a period of time where goals go to die. Sometimes all it takes is one family meal or holiday party to open the floodgates of competing contingencies for healthy food choices and daily movement practices.  While I don’t have any conclusive data, I think it’s safe to say that nearly everyone reading this article has succumbed to the immediate reinforcers frequently available during the holiday season in lieu healthier choices that come with delayed reinforcement in the future. If this year you are choosing to break a pattern of pushing off goals in order to partake in sweet treats and hours on the couch watching Hallmark movie marathons, here are some tips to get you started:

  1. Know your values. Before you enter any difficult situation, know your “why”. We are more likely to engage in behaviors that we have linked to core values.
  2. Set goals.  Having a goal helps drive behavior in the desired direction. Make sure any goal you set it realistic, obtainable, and challenging. If you are new to healthy behavior change, these goals may be very small.  Just make sure you are able to contact reinforcement in some way. For example, if your goal is to make healthier food choices during meals, set a goal to make 1 healthy choice during each meal.
  3. Predict difficult situations.  Before entering a challenging situation, have a plan.  Take a look at your past behavior and how you have responded in the past. Then, make a plan for how you will behave differently when this situation arises. Make sure you are armed with several healthy replacement behaviors.
  4. Communicate your intentions. This tip is critical! Make sure you communicate your intentions to those you will be spending time with this holiday season.  Communicate your goals, values, and intended behaviors. If you want, take it one step further and ask them to help hold you accountable.
  5. Manipulate your environment. Environmental modifications can be powerful tools for engaging in desired behaviors and reaching goals.  The possibilities for environmental manipulations are endless so here are a few to get you started:
    1. Surround yourself with people of similar values.

    2. If you are not cooking, bring healthy food options you like to a meal.

    3. Drink plenty of water throughout the day.

    4. Take frequent walks or movement breaks with your family.

    5. Start a new healthy tradition for you and your family, such as a Thanksgiving Day hike, walk, or 5k run.

    6. Use smaller plates during meals.

    7. Write your values and goals on a piece of paper and keep them with you at all times.  If they involve eating, write them on an index card and set it on the table in front of you.


Now, these are very basic and broad tips. This time of year can be complex and challenging. Regardless of your individual situation and goals, make sure you acknowledge the struggle this time of year brings. Don’t shy away from the feelings associated with a challenge.  Instead, give yourself permission to feel any emotion that arises and then make a conscious choice to move in the direction of your values. You may experience a different type of reinforcement this holiday season--reinforcement from value-driven committed actions.

About the author: Erin Lusby-Donovan is a graduate of Shenandoah University and has been a Board Certified Behavior Analyst since 2014. She is the founder of ARROW Health and Wellness, a coaching business that uses the applied behavior analysis to help people reach their personal health and wellness goals. Erin has worked with individuals on the autism spectrum and with developmental disabilities for more than 10 years. She has experience in Organizational Behavior Management and is passionate about helping organizations function effectively through to use of ABA. Currently, Erin is working toward a doctoral degree in ABA from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

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