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?
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about the complexity, or even the simple dichotomy of volitional versus autonomic (stress response) and the use of outdated, compliance based, animal based behaviorism (which has no record of long term benefits) continues to fail our country’s students.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.
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.
- Autism, Trauma, and Stress – Ryan Boren
- Behaviorism is Dead. How Do We Tell The (Autism) Parents? » NeuroClastic
- PBIS is Broken: How Do We Fix It? – Why Haven’t They Done That Yet?
- Ann’s Autism Blog: Autism, ABA and PBS: Some questions
- It’s Not About Behavior – Alfie Kohn
- Autism and Behaviorism – Alfie Kohn
- Behaviorism Won
- Persuasion and Operant Conditioning: The Influence of B. F. Skinner in Big Tech and Ed-tech – Ryan Boren
- Rewards Are Still Bad News 25 Years Later – Alfie Kohn
- Neurodiversity in the Classroom – Ryan Boren
- Good Vibrations, Bad Vibrations, Overwhelm, and Meltdown – Ryan Boren
- The Sensory Hell of the Lunchroom – Ryan Boren
- Drop the B from PBS – Ryan Boren
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.