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about the complexity, or even the simple dichotomy of volitional versus autonomic (stress response) and the use of outdated, compliance based, animal based behaviorism (which has no record of long term benefits) continues to fail our country’s students.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

College Admissions Scandals, the New Aristocracy, and the Grading and Ranking of Children

Three reads to go with the college admissions scandal:

One of the hazards of life in the 9.9 percent is that our necks get stuck in the upward position. We gaze upon the 0.1 percent with a mixture of awe, envy, and eagerness to obey. As a consequence, we are missing the other big story of our time. We have left the 90 percent in the dust-and we’ve been quietly tossing down roadblocks behind us to make sure that they never catch up.

The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children.

Source: The Birth of the New American Aristocracy – The Atlantic

These kids and their parents display a range of beliefs about race. “Racism is not a problem,” one girl tells Hagerman, adding that it “was a problem when all those slaves were around and that, like, bus thing and the water fountain.” Meanwhile, the girl’s mother nods along. Other parents in the book have educated themselves better, but often, intentionally or unintentionally, still end up giving their kids advantages that, in the abstract, they claim to oppose. (White Kids is not, as Hagerman writes at one point, “a particularly hopeful book.”)

I recently spoke to Hagerman, and that second group kept coming up in our conversation—how, despite their intentions, progressive-minded white families can perpetuate racial inequality. She also discussed ways they can avoid doing so.

Source: How to Teach White Kids About Race – The Atlantic

Harvard is but one of many US universities whose admissions policies ensure that the entering class is comprised of the ruling class.

What they are defending is a system in which wealth is passed off as merit, in which credentials are not earned but bought. Aptitude is a quality measured by how much money you can spend on its continual reassessment.

Students whose parents pay tens of thousands for SAT tutors to help their child take the test over and over compete against students who struggle to pay the fee to take the test once. Students who spend afternoons on “enrichment” activities compete against students working service jobs to pay bills – jobs which don’t “count” in the admissions process. Students who shell out for exotic volunteer trips abroad compete with students of what C Z Nnaemeka termed “the un-exotic underclass” – the poor who have “the misfortune of being insufficiently interesting”, the poor who make up most of the US today.

For upper class parents, the college admissions process has become a test of loyalty: What will you spend, what values will you compromise, for your child to be accepted? For lower class parents, admissions is a test failed at birth: An absence of wealth guised as a deficiency of merit. In the middle are the students, stranded players in a rigged game.

It does not have to be this way. Imagine a college application system in which applicants could only take standardized tests once. Imagine a system in which young people working jobs to support their families were valued as much as those who travel and “volunteer” on their parents’ dime. Imagine a system in which we valued what a person did with what he had, instead of mistaking a lack of resources for a lack of ability.

Imagine a system in which a child’s future did not rest on his parents’ past.

A higher education system that once promoted social mobility now serves to solidify class barriers. Desperate parents compromise their principles in order to spare their children rejection. But it is the system itself that must be rejected. True merit cannot be bought – and admission should not be either.

A false meritocracy breeds mediocrity.

Education is a luxury the minimum wage worker cannot afford. This message is passed on to their children.

Source: The View From Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America

The grading and ranking of children perverts everything.

the last time marriage partners sorted themselves by educational status as much as they do now was in the 1920s.

Source: The Birth of the New American Aristocracy – The Atlantic

“That as long as we construct learning as a competition where we measure and rank individuals against one another, individuals with more power and money will find a way to game that system so they win. #MeritocracyEqualsAristocracy”

“As long as schools are grading and ranking children, they are shaming them.”

Person-first Language and Sarcastic Teachers and Behaviorists

I hear administrators, and behavioral professionals mandate person first language but freely mock students in front of peers and teachers.

I am sick of it. Words matter.

This is how a lot of teachers in both general education and special education classrooms “communicate” with their students. Snide remarks abound. Direct answers are not provided to direct questions. Sarcasm from teachers is rampant, but the same behavior is not tolerated from students.

Sarcasm is never okay. When we are sarcastic with students it fits both the CDC definitions for relational and verbal bullying.

We are harming the child in front of their peers and we are intentionally denigrating them.

What is sad is that even the when teachers said no to using sarcasm, they managed to miss the point entirely. They avoid it because they may get in trouble or because famous education researchers like Robert Marzano are emphatic in his appeal to why sarcasm is never appropriate. It strikes me as puzzling that so many people defend using sarcasm in their day to day life as a form of humor, but then immediately turn and say it is never appropriate for a students to be sarcastic back to the teacher. It is a behavior that is a non-negotiable from students.

Source: Students Do Not Deserve Your Sarcasm – Why Haven’t They Done That Yet?

Person-first language is problematic:

“People-first” language is meant to divide, it is meant to demean, it is meant to dehumanize, it is meant to pathologize, and yet, it is meant, as I said before, to make its users feel good. In that way it is ultimately destructive because it covers up the crimes.

Only when people get to choose their own labels will we get anywhere toward building an equitable culture.

If we convert horrid prejudices into pleasant sounding phrases, we diffuse those prejudices as an issue.

Source: Using “Correct Language” And “People First” by Ira David Socol – Bowllan’s Blog

I’m autistic, not a person with autism. Autistic is my identity.

I’m a disabled person, not a person with disabilities. Disabled is my identity.

Identity first language is common among social model self-advocates. When hanging out in social model, neurodiversity, and self-advocacy communities, identity first is a better default than person first. Every autistic and disabled person I know uses identity first language. The words autistic and disabled connect us with an identity and a community. They help us advocate for ourselves.

Disability’s no longer just a diagnosis; it’s a community.

There’s a language gap between self-advocates and the institutions that claim to represent us. There’s a gap between parents and their #ActuallyAutistic and disabledkids. There’s a generational gap in the disability movement. This is confusing for those trying to be allies. The articles below offer perspective and advice on identity first and person first language from self-advocates. At the end, I collect tweets from autistic and disabled self-advocates in a Twitter moment. Witness and respect these perspectives.

Source: Identity First – Ryan Boren

This is autistic life in the person-first cultures of education:

We navigate systems stacked against us to get access to what amounts to dog training-that dog trainers know better than to use-and a segregated “special” track through our systems that pathologically pathologizes difference and fails to connect with the communities it helps marginalize.

The specialists that serve this “special” track aren’t so much specialized in the lives and needs of neurodivergent and disabled people (managing sensory overwhelm, avoiding meltdown and burnout, dealing with ableism, connecting with online communities, developing agency and voice through self-advocacy) as they are specialized in deficit and medical models that pathologize difference and identity.

So heartbreakingly many can’t even bring themselves to use our language or educate parents about our existence. After autistic students age out of our care, we erase them again as adults.

Source: Neurodiversity in the Classroom – Ryan Boren

We hear the “abuse them now to prepare them for later abuse” line regularly at school. It is used to justify bad practices not at all in touch with the “real world”.

More than a few teachers have notified me that by being sarcastic – particularly with autistic students – they are preparing the students for sarcastic people in the “real world” and these teachers ardently refuse to “coddle” these autistic kids because they demonstrate difficulty with recognizing or learning social cues.

Source: Students Do Not Deserve Your Sarcasm – Why Haven’t They Done That Yet?

“Coddle” suggests a lot about the people saying it. It suggests they don’t have a structural understanding of our society. It suggests their framing is deficit ideology and meritocracy myths. It suggests they’re out of touch with the workplace and the future of work.

They’re not interested in designing for real life. They’re not allies.

Compassion is not coddling, and sarcasm from teachers and therapists isn’t comedy.

There’s been a lot of talk, of late, about laughter. Laughter as power. Laughter as luxury. Laughter as empathy. Laughter as beauty. Laughter as philosophy. Laughter as complicity. Laughter as division. The current political moment has been in one way a lesson in how easily jokes can be weaponized: Jokes can win elections. Jokes can insist that, despite so much evidence to the contrary, lol nothing matters. Jokes can contribute to the post-truth logic of things. They can lighten and enlighten and complicate and delight; they can also mock and hate and lie and make the world objectively worse for the people living in it-and then, when questioned, respond with the only thing a joke knows how to say, in the end: “I was only kidding.”

Source: Trump Mocks Christine Blasey Ford; The Rally Loves It – The Atlantic

“We can hear the spectacle of cruel laughter throughout the Trump era.”

Source: The Cruelty Is the Point – The Atlantic

Suddenly, even the most powerful people in society are forced to be fluent in the concerns of those with little power, if they want to hold on to the cultural relevance that thrust them into power in the first place. Being a comedian means having to say things that an audience finds funny; if an audience doesn’t find old, hackneyed, abusive jokes funny anymore, then that comedian has to do more work. And what we find is, the comedians with the most privilege resent having to keep working for a living. Wasn’t it good enough that they wrote that joke that some people found somewhat funny, some years ago? Why should they have to learn about current culture just to get paid to do comedy?

Source: The price of relevance is fluency