The Problem with Behaviorism

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?

Source: Behaviorism is Dead. How Do We Tell The (Autism) Parents? » NeuroClastic

Education and healthcare still don’t understand the problem with behaviorism.

Selections from “The problem with behaviorism – Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint” on behaviorism, behavior, stress, and trauma:

Behaviorism is harmful for vulnerable children, including those with developmental delays, neuro-diversities (ADHD, Autism, etc.), mental health concerns (anxiety, depression, etc.).

The concept of Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports is not the issue. The promotion of behaviorism is the issue. 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about the complexity, or even the simple dichotomy of volitional versus autonomic (stress response) and the use of outdated, compliance based, animal based behaviorism (which has no record of long term benefits) continues to fail our country’s students.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 neuroception of 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.

Rewards and consequences, even for children who have the capacity to meet the expectations, are short-term solutions that do not solve the root causes for behaviors and create additional problems, including decreased internal motivation, loss of interest in activities that had been interesting, competition between students, shame for students unable to meet the expectations, and more.

Rather than determining whether the behavior is volitional or a stress response, or even if the behavior could be a result of an expectation that is beyond the child’s capacity to meet, there is simply a decision between managing the behavior in the classroom or sending the child to the office. This is a false choice which misses the point of helping a vulnerable child who is having difficulty meeting an expectation.

There is no question that behavior is a form of communication. It does serve a function. However, the range of possible functions is much wider than simply trying to get out of something or trying to get something. This reduction of the function to a simple either/or option negates all the other equally possible explanations, including nonvolitional behavior and behaviors that were beyond the child’s skill level, trauma flashbacks, and more. The FBA involves analyzing the antecedent – what happened immediately before the behavior in question and what happened after the behavior and drawing conclusions based on what function the behavior was like to have served. The people participating in the analysis include the teacher, the behavioral specialist and any other adults working with the child. **There are several problems with this approach. It does not include the child’s perspective. It does not consider that many factors that are unseen, including sensitivity to light, sound, movement; or internal pain; or trauma flashbacks, worry about a grandparent who had a stroke last night, fear because he doesn’t know how to do the assignment he was just given, or a myriad of other potential factors not visible to the evaluators. **The FBA and indeed the entire positive behavior intervention and supports framework focuses on behavior, not on root causes.

The last concern is **the use of rewards and consequences to achieve the desired goals. This is a top-down, power over, authoritarian approach that is not in alignment with the rest of the goals of the educational system that is designed to teach children to think and learn. **The PBIS system expects students to comply. When they do, they are rewarded. When they do not, they are punished.

The information from the national Behavior Technical Assistance Center (PBIS.org) is contributing to the misunderstanding school leaders, teachers, and support staff have about behavior. Specifically, the repeated assertion that students use their behavior to get something or to get out of something, along with the lack of information about autonomic reactions (stress responses) is incorrect and results in children being misunderstood and punished for behaviors that are not within their volitional control.

Another major concern is the heavy reliance on rewards and punishment. Though the name, Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports, sounds nice, the children with or without IEPs who need support to help with their behavioral struggles are not getting those supports, and instead are being blamed for their behavior. Children are being punished (and shamed) through dojos and color charts, and by being left out of class celebrations and school activities, by being secluded and restrained, by being moved to more restrictive schools, or by being suspended, expelled, or referred to juvenile justice. Some are being handcuffed at school by police.

Based on countless reports from families on social media groups, newspaper reports, government accounts and personal accounts, many of the disciplinary actions directed toward students with disabilities are for behaviors that are flight-fight-freeze behaviors. Teachers, paraprofessionals, school resource officers, and other school personnel do not recognize the difference between willful and involuntary stress responses – and it is **HURTING **our children.

Source: The problem with behaviorism – Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint

Autistic communities understand all of this. Autistic parents and teachers are in our school systems warning against behaviorism. Heed us.

It’s not just autistic people sounding the alarm against behaviorism. Opposition to behaviorism is common ground for neurodiversity, disability, education, ed-tech, and tech ethics advocacy.

For example:

Behaviorism is old, outdated science and has been for a while.

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.

It’s time we outgrew this limited and limiting psychological theory. That means attending less to students’ behaviors and more to the students themselves.

Source: It’s Not About Behavior – Alfie Kohn

The bigger problem is using mummified science to treat a complex neurological condition.

ABA therapy is badly out of date, scientifically speaking.

Behaviorism as a science predates penicillin and the light bulb. Psychology moved beyond it and into the realm of neuroscience and cognition before we even landed on the moon.

Psychology just doesn’t consider behaviorism relevant in contemporary practice and research.

If the entirety of human knowledge on the mind and its workings were represented as a tree, behaviorism wouldn’t even be a branch. It would be a root at best, or maybe an acorn.

Behaviorism was old news by the 1960s.

Source: Behaviorism is Dead. How Do We Tell The (Autism) Parents? » NeuroClastic

So, how on earth have we ended up with this many myths continuing painfully from one decade to the next?

I’m afraid the answer is that too much of the training has been stuck in the 1940s. Too much is done by non-autistic people, often ones who happen to know an autistic person in some way (maybe a relative) but seemingly have never asked them about life. I mean ‘asked’ in any communication sense, not just speech. Over a million autistic people in the UK, and too often, such trainers have none of them as personal friends, none of them as colleagues. Isn’t that odd?

Such trainers pass on the ancient myths, generation after generation. They write them down, put them on Powerpoint presentations, and deliver them to you as if they are fact. Research based in part on materials from the 1990s and 1980s, which was based largely on watching groups of profoundly disabled young men in a care home, as far back as the 1940s. As far removed from a balanced view of autism as one can get, in fact.

Worse still, they often expect you to pay for this. It might look slick, with excellent graphics, and the trainer might look like they could pose for a fashion magazine . But…are you really wanting 1940s material?

Source: Ann’s Autism Blog: Autism. Is your training from the 1940s?

So, then, why is behaviorism everywhere?

Throughout all of this, Applied Behavior Analysis has stuck with their babyish ABCs of behavior, teaching the psychology equivalent of preschool to an ever-increasing number of people… and making a lot of money while doing it.

Unfortunately, treating autism makes big money. For all I’ve been talking about how real Psychology considers behaviorism to be a museum piece, there are plenty of colleges ready to rake in the cash and resurrect it.

Source: Behaviorism is Dead. How Do We Tell The (Autism) Parents? » NeuroClastic

Money. Behaviorism lends itself well to reducing human beings to monetizable data and deficits, thus its prominence in big tech and ed-tech.

None of us should be in the behaviorism business.

Until ABA updates its scientific methods, its functions of behavior, and incorporates modern day psychology – including neurology, child development, educational psychology, and other vital research – it cannot be considered to be a safe, effective, or ethical field.

Source: Behaviorism is Dead. How Do We Tell The (Autism) Parents? » NeuroClastic

Forced Smiling, Psychopathologizing Hopelessness, and George Carlin

In “The Effects of Authority, Compliance, and Pathologizing Students”, I quoted psychologist Bruce Levine’s piece on “Why Anti-Authoritarians are Diagnosed as Mentally Ill” noting how his thoughts on authority and compliance align with social model self-advocacy.

Two pieces on authority in education and a piece on side effects in education caught my eye on social media this week. The first is a Bruce Levine piece from 2012 on Why Anti-Authoritarians are Diagnosed as Mentally Ill that resonates with this social model self-advocate. Neurodivergent and disabled folks are medicalized, pathologized, and written off at school. Levine’s narrative complements Jonathan Mooney’s Learning Outside The Lines and Alan Schwarz’s ADHD Nation.

Source: The Effects of Authority, Compliance, and Pathologizing Students

Having steered the higher-education terrain for a decade of my life, I know that degrees and credentials are primarily badges of compliance. Those with extended schooling have lived for many years in a world where one routinely conforms to the demands of authorities.

So authoritarians financially marginalize those who buck the system, they criminalize anti-authoritarianism, they psychopathologize anti-authoritarians, and they market drugs for their “cure.”

Source: Why Anti-Authoritarians are Diagnosed as Mentally Ill

His recent piece, “Hopeless But Not Broken: From George Carlin to Adderall Protest Music”, further explores authority and how we pathologize and suppress critical thinkers. This paragraph particularly struck me:

Witnessing a mental health profession that is fast on its way to achieving complete ignorance about the nature of human beings would simply have validated Carlin’s general hopelessness.

Students and families who’ve slogged through the deficit and medical models, SpEd, and their collective penchant for behaviorism, compliance, and authority can relate to this sentiment. We leave so many minds out. We have forgotten so much about children, learning, and the nature of human beings that hopelessness is a valid feeling.

Collecting data on human learning based on children’s behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World.

People all over the world know these things about children and learning, and interestingly, they are as workable for learning how to design software or conduct a scientific experiment or write an elegant essay as they are for learning to hunt caribou or identify medicinal plants in a rainforest.

But we don’t know them any more.

Source: A Thousand Rivers – Carol Black

We have a medical community that’s found a sickness for every single human difference. DSM keeps growing every single year with new ways to be defective, with new ways to be lessened.

Source: The Gift: LD/ADHD Reframed

Going around social media right now is a story about a school forcing students to smile.

Students who do not smile in the hallways between periods will be instructed to, and if they refuse, they will be sent to the guidance counselor’s office to talk through their problems, reported Lebanon Daily News. Meanwhile, parents claim that reports of bullying in the district are mostly ignored by administrators.

Source: Students Not Smiling At School Will Be Punished, Say Teachers

This policy is sexist and ableist, among other problems, and ties in with Levine’s thoughts on authority and hopelessness. The students aren’t the problem; it’s the authoritarians who refuse to analyze systemic causes and get structural. Forced smiling pathologizes a hopelessness that is perfectly understandable and reasonable given the structural isms of school and society. Forced smiles don’t address poverty or principals who are sexist, authoritarian assholes. Forced smiles are just more mindset marketing bandages slapped over suppurating structural injury.

Not smiling in the face of reckless and illegitimate authority doesn’t mean you are mentally ill or broken. It’s the authoritarians and those who comply who are broken. Hopelessness is legitimate. Gaslit smiles are not. Forced smiling and the psychopathologization of hopelessness are deeply authoritarian attempts to overwrite another person’s reality.

Carlin was a far better therapist for critical thinkers than are the vast majority of my mental health professional colleagues. Shaming hopelessness as some kind of character flaw or, worse, psychopathologizing it as a symptom of mental illness only adds insult to injury. Hope missionaries ignore the reality that pathologizing hopelessness does not make critical thinkers more hopeful, only more annoyed.

I know many mental health professionals who espouse hope but who are broken and compliant with any and all authorities. In contrast, I know anti-authoritarians who, like Carlin, express hopelessness but who are unbroken and resist illegitimate authorities. Carlin modeled a self-confident rebellion against authoritarianism and bullshit, and he provided the kind of humor that energizes resistance.

I don’t know the exact moment when I became hopeless about my mental health profession, but my experience has been that one can be embarrassed by one’s profession for only so long before that embarrassment turns into hopelessness.

The symptoms of ODD include often argues with adults and often refuses to comply with authorities’ requests or rules. At that time, I was in graduate school for clinical psychology and already somewhat embarrassed by the pseudoscientific disease inventions of my future profession; and throwing rebellious young people under the diagnostic bus with this new ODD label exacerbated my embarrassment.

My embarrassment transformed into hopelessness as it became routine to prescribe tranquilizing antipsychotic drugs to ODD kids; to diagnose kids with mental disorders merely for blowing off school while their entire family was falling apart; and to prescribe Ritalin, Vyvanse, Adderall, and other amphetamines to six-year-olds who had become inattentive as their parents were engaged in a nasty divorce.

Achieving hopelessness about my profession had great benefits. It liberated me from wasting my time with authoritarian mental health professionals in efforts at reform; and it energized me to care solely about anti-authoritarians who already had their doubts about my profession and sought validation from someone within it. Embracing my hopelessness about my profession made me whole and revitalized me.

Witnessing a mental health profession that is fast on its way to achieving complete ignorance about the nature of human beings would simply have validated Carlin’s general hopelessness.

Source: Hopeless But Not Broken: From George Carlin to Adderall Protest Music

Obsession and the Art of Teaching

There’s lots of good stuff in this podcast with Gary Stager on The Lost Art of Teaching, but I’m particularly glad to see educators talking about and centering obsession. Embrace obsession. Autistic Special Interest and ADHD Hyperfocus crush learning curves when allowed to pursue passion.

Less coercion, more obsession.

Selected quotes:

A teacher’s role, then, should be to create the conditions for obsession to happen.

Gary believes that deep, meaningful learning is often accompanied by obsession, and his focus is on answering the question: How can we create experiences and context in classrooms where kids can discover things they don’t know they love? This is done by implementing good projects that spur creativity, ownership, and relevance.

Through his professional learning conference Constructing Modern Knowledge (CMK), Gary has teachers put on their “learner hats” and learn how to create obsession, since, he says, very few of us have experienced what greatness looks like.

Around the time of Nation at Risk, legislatures all over the world removed the art of teaching from teacher preparation and all they left was curriculum delivery and animal control.

Knowledge is a consequence of experience.

The instruction might not be necessary at all. A good project can replace a great deal of reckless instruction.

Curriculum is so arbitrary and so arrogant.

When it comes to a skill like computer programming, the kids never develop enough fluency to be able to use it to solve real problems.

Curriculum is the most dangerous idea in education.

As we remove agency from teachers, they become less thoughtful in their practice.

The best projects are generative.

Not enough adults have experience with what greatness looks like, feels like, tastes like, sounds like.

Great artists reflect the milieu in which they live.

You can’t possibly be 21st century learners if you haven’t learned anything this century.

I never worry about classroom management because I never go into a classroom feeling like I have to manage it.

Much of the PD we see expects nothing of teachers.

Apparently, everyone needs a good seventh grade social studies teacher.

A great 80 year old pianist said: Nothing needs to be taught, only experienced.

There are folks in every walk of life who understand Piaget. You Go to Latin America or you go to Reggio Emilia and they say, “We get John Dewey better than you get John Dewey.” People who are living these ideas of learning by doing, of valuing expertise, of understanding the importance of an aesthetic…

Source: ML Podcast #42 – The Lost Art of Teaching with Gary Stager – Modern Learners

Embrace the obsession. Special interests are “intimately tied to the well-being of people on the spectrum“. “Special interests have a positive impact on autistic adults and are associated with higher subjective well-being and satisfaction across specific life domains including social contact and leisure.

Source: I’m Autistic. Here’s what I’d like you to know.