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about the complexity, or even the simple dichotomy of volitional versus autonomic (stress response) and the use of outdated, compliance based, animal based behaviorism (which has no record of long term benefits) continues to fail our country’s students.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

Neurodiversity, the social model of disability, intersectionality, and equity literacy are necessary professional development.

As my neurodivergent and disabled family navigates healthcare, school, and life, I wish over and over that the professionals we interact with knew something about neurodiversity, the social model of disability, intersectionality, and equity literacy. We spend so much time educating folks in hopes they’ll gain the framing needed to see our family.

These are essential frameworks that every professional should be conversant in. In my experience, corporate harassment and discrimination training doesn’t really go into any of these. Wishing it did. Let’s bake them into our annual training and our company cultures. Let’s bake them into the curriculum for everyone. Those wanting to do ethical, inclusive, and informed work need to do the work of obtaining these tools.

Here’s my attempt at an introductory primer that got some good feedback on Twitter this week:

Design is Tested at the Edges: Intersectionality, The Social Model of Disability, and Design for Real Life

Further, we need MESH in our schools, our companies, and our professional development:

View at Medium.com

We all need these lenses and tools. Start baking them in so that the most marginalized and vulnerable people don’t have to provide free emotional labor and education over and over and over. It’s exhausting.

For “All means all” to actually apply to neurodivergent and disabled and marginalized kids, public educators need these tools.

To avoid building behaviorism and bias into our systems, tech workers need these tools.

Everyone working with other people need these tools.

Letter to My Representatives on the Sadopopulism of the “Napkin Scribbles” Tax Bill

The tax bill as passed by the Senate remakes the entire social infrastructure of America. It is a fundamental re-plumbing of the American economy. The bill:

  • gets rid of homeownership as a policy goal.
  • eliminates a whole swath of the safety net and government in blue states.
  • ends taxation on concentrated capital.
  • cuts education.
  • cuts healthcare.
  • cuts access.
  • cuts Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security.

This isn’t a ‘tax’ bill, it’s sadopopulism deliberately designed to administer pain. It’s a way of putting an increasing number of Americans under the control of landlords in nearly every segment of their lives. It’s 1.5 trillion in debt on the backs of our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. It’s an attack on small businesses and the self-employed. It’s an enemies list and the purposeful destruction of every asset in the knowledge economy. It’s a straight-up war on public education. This bill beggars the country.

On the Senate floor, we watched septuagenarians and octogenarians pull up the ladder of the New Deal. They reaped the benefits their entire lives and are now callously burning down our systems on their way out the door. The GOP is trashing our democracy with a poorly constructed and hastily passed “napkin scribbles” bill that manifests the kleptocratic fantasies and sociopathic greed of its donors.

This bill will not grow the economy. It will redistribute wealth upwards and shrink the revenue of the federal government so severely that Republicans can justify austerity programs that will destroy the paltry social safety net we have. We’ve seen it in Kansas, Oklahoma, and other states. And now, the entire country will suffer under these morally, ethically, and intellectually bankrupt policies. Partisanship and sadopopulism have trumped patriotism.

We are tottering between democracy and oligarchy. If this becomes law, we will have chosen oligarchy.

These are policies that are deliberately designed to administer pain, to add to the total amount of pain in American society.

If you hurt people you create a resource of pain, of anxiety and fear which you then direct against others.

If, in the long run, the way that you govern is by hurting people who don’t mind being hurt because they think other people are hurting worse, what you will tend to do is take the vote away from people who expect more from government, what you will tend to do is try to suppress the vote and keep the vote down to the people who accept that government can do nothing except for administer pain. And then that moves you away slowly from democracy.

Source: Timothy Snyder Speaks, ep. 4: Sadopopulism – YouTube

Rule by the rich few doesn’t answer the question of what comes next.

It’s very hard for oligarchs to make markets because oligarchs can’t really accept the rule of law.

Markets will not work under oligarchy.

It’s very hard for oligarchs to redistribute.

Citizens United, in 2010, ignores exactly what’s happening in Russia.

The United States is tottering between democracy and oligarchy.

We cannot expect policy from a would-be oligarch, from a wannabe oligarch, that will benefit the population as a whole.

In conditions of oligarchical impotence, you shift the task of government from doing anything to affirming identity. Government is no longer about doing, government is about being.

What you end up doing as an oligarch is deliberately hurting your own followers and asking them to applaud you.

Source: Timothy Snyder Speaks, ep. 3: What is Oligarchy?


Props to these Tweets for information, language, and feels used in this post.