Many people have a mistaken understanding of just what it is that behavior analysts do, including some behavior analysts themselves, I’m afraid. They believe that we deal with problem behaviors, that we reduce problem behaviors. Well, I’m here to tell you today that we don’t. If all we did was reduce behaviors, and indeed we were successful at it, then at best we would create a nation of individuals who did nothing! What we do is teach skills, we teach replacement behaviors. That’s what we do!
This is important on so many levels. First of all, it is important because a focus on reduction of behaviors leads to the only two processes that actually reduce behavior: punishment and extinction. Both have side effects that often include emotional reactions and aggression. And the use of punishment can become habit-forming, leading to the types of egregious abuses that closed down many institutions in this country. (Why? If you deliver a punisher, and the person stops whatever it was they were doing, it reinforces you delivering that consequence in order to stop their undesired behavior—leading to more punisher delivery!) In any case, the use of procedures designed to reduce behaviors doesn’t make the individual of focus very happy, and it is often taxing on the person doing the procedure, if they do it right, because they must catch the individual doing wrong each and every time, and deliver the consequence!
Secondly, focusing on reducing behaviors isn’t person-centered; it doesn’t help the individual get what they want! From a behavioral perspective, people do things because of the consequences they produce. The individual gets something when he behaves this way, and taking it away (extinction) or providing an aversive consequence (punishment) doesn’t address the motivation and how to get it! By conducting a functional assessment (see “The squeaky wheel gets the pig.”), we can determine WHY a person engages in this behavior, and begin to answer the second biggest question: “What should they do instead”?
I remember the mother of a two-year old boy who shared with me that she was not able to go to Target, because her child would scream and tantrum so terribly that she was embarrassed and stressed, and would just leave the store. She had since simply avoided going there. Now, I believe in every mother’s right to enjoy the little slice of heaven that is Target, so this is a problem of importance. “What would you like him to do instead?” I asked. “Um, I guess sit in the cart quietly”, she answered. And that is what we set out to reinforce. Knowing that he would sit still for about 5 minutes before the chaos ensued, I instructed her to take along a bag of M&M’s or Skittles, give the boy one every 3 minutes, and say “I love the way you are sitting nicely in the cart” or something to that effect. Now, for those of you who are concerned about the use of edibles with humans, keep in mind that this child was quite young, and praise had no value…yet. It wasn’t long before the mother was calling me a miracle worker, as she had just come from a visit to Target with no tantrums, AND no M&Ms! I refused to take credit, as I had never even been able to accompany her on a trip to the store. She focused on a behavior she wanted to see (sitting nicely), and it increased! Even if the child screamed once in a while in the early stages of the process, I imagine the mother would be more focused on how many 3-minute intervals had passed without tantrums!
I have found that in data collection, coming home at the end of the day knowing that little Johnny did the right thing 3 times more than he did yesterday is so much more rewarding than knowing that he only screwed up one less time than the day before. Think how much happier middle management would be if they realized their job was really to catch people doing the right job, rather than catching those falling behind—all day, every day!
Again, most problem behaviors stem from a skill deficit–if the person could do something different in that situation, they would! I was once called to consult with Chad, a gentleman in his early 20’s who worked at a sheltered workshop, and would run out of the building several times a day, smiling and laughing at the staff as he did so. In addition to the fact that he wasn’t popular with the staff for this reason, there was also a safety concern, as trucks and buses were often coming through the parking lot, and he could get hit if he wasn’t paying attention during one of these elopements. When I met his mother for intake, he paced the kitchen waiting for my session to conclude, so he could go outside and walk and ride his bike, his favorite pastimes. Then I visited him at work, where he was to sit for 6 hours, often with little to do, as the work supply was inconsistent, depending on the individual’s functioning. So what did Chad want? A break, a chance to get out of the chair and stretch his legs! And what could he do instead of running out of the building, I asked myself? Ask for a break, and then walk around the inside of the building. And that is what we worked on, until he was asking for a break independently, and walking around the inside of the warehouse with minimal supervision. By concentrating my attention on increasing appropriate break requests, the elopement decreased!
I often refer to the analogy of the seesaw: by increasing desired behaviors, we simultaneously decrease the undesired behaviors they compete with. By focusing on replacement skills, we address the individual’s desires, teach them new ways to impact the world around them, and improve their lives. This is why behavior analysts teach communication, self-care skills, daily living skills, social skills, and academic skills. Because people with large skill sets are generally happier, and less likely to engage in problem behaviors! And by focusing on teaching and reinforcing such skills, we as caregivers are happier as well. Because after all, what you look for is what you will see, and what you see is what you get.