Behaviorism only looks at observable behavior which can be measured. It doesn’t take into account thoughts, genetics, anxiety, trauma, health, or emotions because those things cannot be measured.
Ultimately behaviorism provides a simplistic lens that can’t see beyond itself.
Why is the doctrine of behaviorism still being used, at all?
How can ABA be the gold-standard for autism when it ignores everything we know about autism?
Assuming for the sake of argument that ABA is effective at changing people’s behavior, it either does so via changing their underlying thought structures or values (“deep change”), or it does not (“superficial change”). If ABA is “successful” by way of deep change, then ABA violates autonomy insofar as it coercively closes off certain paths of identity formation. If ABA is “successful” by way of superficial change, then ABA violates autonomy by coercively modifying children’s patterns of behavior to be misaligned with their preferences, passions, and pursuits. Such superficial change is a pervasive form of interference that compromises children’s present and future autonomy.
Plenty of policies and programs limit our ability to do right by children. But perhaps the most restrictive virtual straitjacket that educators face is behaviorism – a psychological theory that would have us focus exclusively on what can be seen and measured, that ignores or dismisses inner experience and reduces wholes to parts. It also suggests that everything people do can be explained as a quest for reinforcement – and, by implication, that we can control others by rewarding them selectively.
Allow me, then, to propose this rule of thumb: The value of any book, article, or presentation intended for teachers (or parents) is inversely related to the number of times the word “behavior” appears in it. The more our attention is fixed on the surface, the more we slight students’ underlying motives, values, and needs.
It’s been decades since academic psychology took seriously the orthodox behaviorism of John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, which by now has shrunk to a cult-like clan of “behavior analysts.” But, alas, its reductionist influence lives on – in classroom (and schoolwide) management programs like PBIS and Class Dojo, in scripted curricula and the reduction of children’s learning to “data,” in grades and rubrics, in “competency”- and “proficiency”-based approaches to instruction, in standardized assessments, in reading incentives and merit pay for teachers.
But the enduring lesson for educators isn’t just that “positive reinforcement” turns out to be anything but positive. It also concerns the conceptual dead-end of behaviorism more generally. Every day, and with every child, we need to keep in mind that behaviors are just the protruding tip of the proverbial iceberg. What matters more than “What?” or “How much?” is “How come?”
The underpinnings of that ideology include: a focus only on observable behaviors that can be quantified, a reduction of wholes to parts, the assumption that everything people do can be explained as a quest for reinforcement, and the creation of methods for selectively reinforcing whichever behaviors are preferred by the person with the power. Behaviorists ignore, or actively dismiss, subjective experience – the perceptions, needs, values, and complex motives of the human beings who engage in behaviors.
The late Herb Lovett used to say that there are only two problems with “special education” in America: It’s not special and it sure as hell isn’t education. The field continues to be marinated in behaviorist assumptions and practices despite the fact that numerous resources for teachers, therapists, and parents offer alternatives to behavior control. These alternatives are based on a commitment to care and to understand. By “care,” I mean that our relationship with the child is what matters most. He or she is not a passive object to be manipulated but a subject, a center of experience, a person with agency, with needs and rights. And by “understand,” I mean that we have an obligation to look beneath the behavior, in part by imaginatively trying to adopt that person’s point of view, attempting to understand the whys rather than just tabulating the frequency of the whats. As Norm Kunc and Emma Van der Klift urged us in their Credo for Support: “Be still and listen. What you define as inappropriate may be my attempt to communicate with you in the only way I can….[or] the only way I can exert some control over my life….Do not work on me. Work with me.”
It is nothing short of stunning to learn just how widely and intensely ABA is loathed by autistic adults who are able to describe their experience with it.
PBIS.org focuses only on surface behavior, what one can observe. Whether this is due to lack of understanding of the complexity or an intentional omission is unknown. The focus on surface behavior, without seeming to understand or be concerned about the complexity, or even the simple dichotomy of volitional versus autonomic (stress response) and the use of outdated, compliance based, animal based behaviorism (which has no record of long term benefits) continues to fail our country’s students.
The documents on PBIS.org imply that all behavior is willful. There is no acknowledgement in the PBIS.org literature that behaviors can be stress responses (fight-flight-freeze responses). This is a profound omission that does great harm to children whose brains and bodies have highly sensitive neuroceptionof danger. To be punished for a stress response is harmful and traumatic.
The second concern about teaching replacement behaviors goes back to the lack of distinction between willful behaviors and stress behaviors. Teaching replacement behaviors is not possible for stress responses since they are automatic responses that occur beneath the level of conscious thought.
Behaviorism and ABA are superficial, misguided, and abusive. That the folks most able to feel the wrongness of behaviorism are the ones most subjected to it is immensely cruel.
If we were not threatening to the social order in some way, there would not be therapies designed to control how we move our bodies and communicate.
- The Problem with Behaviorism – Ryan Boren
- Autism, Trauma, and Stress – Ryan Boren
- Post-truth, Open Society, and the Business of Behaviorism – Ryan Boren
- Persuasion and Operant Conditioning: The Influence of B. F. Skinner in Big Tech and Ed-tech – Ryan Boren
- Drop the B from PBS – Ryan Boren
- Tech Ethics and the New Behaviorism – Ryan Boren