Self-determination Theory > Behaviorism

I see elements of self-determination theory pop up in liberated ed, critical pedagogy, and other places where people have turned away from behaviorism. Self-determination theory is a better lens for understanding human motivation than behaviorism.

The locus of pathology exists not in the autistic person, but in the interaction between a hostile environment and the subjugated autistic. It is essential for parents, practitioners, educators, and autistic people themselves to ask the crucial question— Is the autistic a machine, or an organism? Are we active agents in our own embodied experience, or are we a locus of behavior? It is not with defiance, but autonomy, that I declare as an autistic person— I am not a manifestation of stimuli and response. I am agential. I am Autonomously Autistic.

Despite the field of Disability Studies’ rhetorical progress toward new models of disability, Autistic subjectivity is still locked within medical pathologies and assumptions of deficit. Self-Determination Theory provides an intriguing contrast to other psychological frameworks, making it possible to reconceptualize and re-localize deficit. We can then disrupt our assumptions and form new principles that empower autistic people to develop in autonomous, competent, connected, and self-directed ways.

Self-Determination Theory positions itself as directly and unapologetically antithetical to behaviorism, a fact that manifests in the literature repeatedly in behaviorist commentary…

AUTONOMOUSLY AUTISTIC | CANADIAN JOURNAL OF DISABILITY STUDIES

Telltales of self-determination theory are the terms autonomy, mastery, purpose, and intrinsic motivation. Daniel Pink’s pop-sci treatment of self-determination theory, “Drive”, helped popularize these terms.

Audrey Watters asks of persuasion and behavior design “how they imagine to leave space for freedom and dignity.” Self-determination theory offers that space, which is why it shows up in progressive education and neurodiversity advocacy.

Dr. Leif Singer has a great introduction to self-determination theory:

https://leif.me/2017/01/self-determination-theory-understanding-human-motivation-for-fun-and-profit/

Jonathan Mooney offers an example of autonomy, mastery, purpose, and intrinsic motivation in this brilliant talk. This timestamped link should take you to the right place:

It is reasonable to ask, particularly given the range of terminology used to define the executive processes that impact outcomes of young people with disabilities, including autism: Why focus on self-determination? Why is innovation in theory related to self-determination important to guide assessment and intervention to promote positive outcomes across the life course, particularly during the transition from adolescence to adulthood? First, as noted previously, the terminology adopted in self-determination research and practice emerged largely from the voices and advocacy of people with disabilities. Advocates across disability popula- tions have consistently used the term self-determination to describe their right to self-direct their own lives. The impact of this advocacy has been significant, particularly in policy. 

Self-determination is a key value and outcome targeted in disability policies and human right treaties enacted over the past 30 years. The right to self-determination also continues to be a rallying cry in the self-advocate community.4 For example, the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) states, ‘‘disability is a natural part of human diversity. Autism is something we are born with, and that shouldn’t be changed. Autistic children should get the support they need to grow up into happy, self-determined autistic adults.’’10 

Second, interventions to promote self-determination have been developed that can support people with disabilities to take steps toward self-directed lives. Such interventions can be personalized based on strengths, interests, and supports. There is the inherent diversity in the autistic community (e.g., ‘‘There is no one way to be autistic’’).11 Understanding each autistic person’s strengths and support needs, from their perspective, must be a focus of self-determination interventions particularly during the transition to adulthood when there are new and changing demands. 

Advancing the Personalization of Assessment and Intervention in Autistic Adolescents and Young Adults by Targeting Self-Determination and Executive Processes | Autism in Adulthood

When a Snake Shows up for Unschool

When a snake shows up for unschool, we take the moment to deep dive snakes.

When a snake shows up for unschool, the question “Is it a Copperhead?” leads to consulting field guides, referencing indexes, and quietly observing a living thing in its environs.

When a snake shows up for unschool, we search “pit viper pupils” and “goat pupils” and “eye evolutionary history”.

When a snake shows up for unschool, we interrogate our context (this snake lurks at water sources in semi-arid environments) and connect with a natural world we often forget we’re a part of.

When a snake shows up for unschool, we get fresh air, large muscle movement, and daylight.

When a snake shows up for unschool, we take photos, write a blog post, and then write a blog post about that blog post tying it to unschooling and recess and play and intrinsic motivation and classroom ux and publishing on the open web. 😉

We don’t need your mindset marketing.

Autistic Special Interest and ADHD Hyperfocus crush learning curves. Both are powered by passion and intrinsic motivation. Without agency to pursue passion, these rockets can’t take off.

We don’t need your mindset marketing.

We don’t need your behavior mods.

We don’t need your sticks and carrots.

We don’t need your compliance cult.

We need agency and acceptance.

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.

Noncompliance is a social skill“. “Prioritize teaching noncompliance and autonomy to your kids. Prioritize agency.” “Many behavior therapies are compliance-based. Compliance is not a survival skill. It makes us vulnerable.” “It’s of crucial importance that behavior based compliance training not be central to the way we parent, teach, or offer therapy to autistic children. Because of the way it leaves them vulnerable to harm, not only as children, but for the rest of their lives.” Disabled kids “are driven to comply, and comply, and comply. It strips them of agency. It puts them at risk for abuse.” “The most important thing a developmentally disabled child needs to learn is how to say “no.” If they only learn one thing, let it be that.” “When an autistic teen without a standard means of expressive communication suddenly sits down and refuses to do something he’s done day after day, this is self-advocacy … When an autistic person who has been told both overtly and otherwise that she has no future and no personhood reacts by attempting in any way possible to attack the place in which she’s been imprisoned and the people who keep her there, this is self-advocacy … When people generally said to be incapable of communication find ways of making clear what they do and don’t want through means other than words, this is self-advocacy.” “We don’t believe that conventional communication should be the prerequisite for your loved one having their communication honored.

Compassion and acceptance are practical and effective magic. They remedy a lot of problems and contribute to psychological safety. Acceptance matters. “A big part of our susceptibility to issues like anxiety has to do with how we were slowly socialized, either implicitly or explicitly, to believe that an autistic lifestyle is something that is defective and therefore needs fixing. A recent Independent article sums up the strong link between lack of autism acceptance and the development of mental health disorders in autistic people: Research shows that lack of acceptance externally from others and internally from the self significantly predicts depression and anxiety in young adults with autism. ” “We also reject the equation that accepting autism and disability means giving up. Research consistently shows that autism acceptance leads to better mental health for parents as well as autistic people themselves. Evidence is mounting that acceptance and accommodation provide a more reliable path to increased capability and independence than fighting autism or disability does. Acceptance isn’t a cure, but it does facilitate recognition and support of abilities that often go unrecognized and under-valued. We are better off when not only our disabilities, but our real abilities, are recognized.”

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

PBIS is Coercion

This is an argument usually used for Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), but it applies to PBIS as well. Because PBIS emphasizes the use of tangible rewards and teacher praise to motivate “appropriate” behavior, it often escapes this description.

The overall focus of PBIS is obedience or compliance with rules leading to a reward. The flip side of that coin is there is a lack of rewards or outright punishment administered for noncompliance. The pressure of complying with this system turns kids into ticking time bombs. Having to focus on compliance with school-wide and classroom rules stresses kids out and causes them to enter a state of anxiety when they come to school. In fact, I have seen this escalate to the point the school building itself was a trigger for panic attacks.

And, take my word on this, no one can identify and rebel against an unfair system as efficiently as a kid or adult with ID, except perhaps an autistic person. They know the system is unfair!

Source: PBIS is Broken: How Do We Fix It? – Why Haven’t They Done That Yet?

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.

In preparing a new Afterword for the 25th-anniversary edition of my book Punished by Rewards, I’ve sorted through scores of recent studies on these subjects. I’m struck by how research continues to find that the best predictor of excellence is intrinsic motivation (finding a task valuable in its own right) – and that this interest is reliably undermined by extrinsic motivation (doing something to get a reward). New experiments confirm that children tend to become less concerned about others once they’ve been rewarded for helping or sharing. Likewise, paying students for better grades or test scores is rarely effective – never mind that the goal is utterly misconceived.

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

Since reading NeuroTribes, I think of psychologically & sensory safe spaces suited to zone work as “Cavendish bubbles” and “Cavendish space”, after Henry Cavendish, the wizard of Clapham Common and discoverer of hydrogen. The privileges of nobility afforded room for his differences, allowing him the space to become “one of the first true scientists in the modern sense.”

Let’s build psychologically safe homes of opportunity without the requirement of nobility or privilege. Replace the trappings of the compliance classroom with student-created context, BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), and BYOC (Bring/Build Your Own Comfort). Let’s hit thrift stores, buy lumber, apply some hacker ethos, and turn the compliance classroom into something psychologically safe and comfortable to a team of young minds engaged in passion-based learning. Inform spaces with neurodiversity and the social model of disability so that they welcome and include all minds and bodies. Provide quiet spaces for high memory state zone work where students can escape sensory overwhelm, slip into flow states, and enjoy a maker’s schedule. Provide social spaces for collaboration and camaraderie. Create cave, campfire, and watering hole zones. Develop neurological curb cuts. Fill our classrooms with choice and comfort, instructional tolerance, continuous connectivity, and assistive technology. In other words, make space for Cavendish.

My cave, campfire, and watering hole moods map to the red, yellow, and green of interaction badges (aka color communication badges). The three-level communication flow used at my company and other distributed companies reflects the progressive sociality of cave, campfire, and watering hole contexts and red, yellow, green interaction moods. These triptych reductions are a useful starting place when designing for neurological pluralism. When we design for pluralism, we design for real life, for the actuality of humanity.

Source: Classroom UX: Bring Your Own Comfort, Bring Your Own Device, Design Your Own Context