Treatment Approaches – what is Behavior Analysis?

Introduction to Behavior Analysis

Learners who attend VBI programs have many behavioral deficits and surpluses.  To correct these behavioral “barriers,” the goal for each learner is to increase desirable behavior and decrease undesirable behavior.  This is accomplished by changing the consequences of these behaviors.  Changing behaviors by changing the consequences of the behaviors is operant conditioning.

The operant conditioning process is sometimes represented by the ABC model.  ABC represents Antecedent events, Behavior, and Consequences.  Antecedents are events that immediately precede behavior and consequences are those that immediately follow behavior.  For the learners at theVBI, observable behaviors (e.g., task completion, speaking) are targeted for change.  This is not to say that unobservable behaviors, such as thoughts and feelings, are unimportant.   Such behaviors, however, can be difficult to deal with because the learners often have undeveloped verbal skills that prevent effectively addressing these behaviors.

Instructors change behavior by setting up and executing ABC relationships.  Such a relationship, or contingency, describes what happens when a behavior occurs in a particular situation.  For example, say that Bertha strikes her instructor when she is engaged in a task, and consequently, Bertha is required to sit in the corner.  In this case, the antecedent is “Bertha working on a task,” the behavior is “striking the instructor,” and the consequence is “sitting in the chair.”  The contingency can be expressed in the following way:  When Bertha is working on a task, if she strikes a instructor, she will then sit in the corner.  Let us say that this contingency does not decrease striking out, as Bertha appears to exhibit the behavior three or four times each day.  The instructor then programs a different contingency:  When Bertha is working on a task, if she strikes a instructor, she will apologize to the instructor and she will be required to work an extra 5 minutes on the task.   As a result, striking out behavior during task decreases to about one every week.  The instructor’s job is to arrange similar contingencies (ABC relationships) to increase desirable behavior and decrease undesirable behavior.

What is Behavior?

             A behavior is any action of the muscles and glands – Behavior is what we do!   For example, we walk, talk, eat, drink, and write letters, laugh, cry, drive cars, and fly airplanes. (A response is a single instance of behavior).  Some behaviors are observable, in that they can be observed by others (e.g., talking); still others are unobservable, in that they are “private” and cannot be observed by the public (e.g., feelings).  For the most part, we deal with observable behaviors at the VBI, as the learners do not have the skills to detect and report behaviors such as feelings, changes in heart rate, and thinking.

How would behavior best be described? It is most useful to describe the behavior in objective and observable terms.  For example, it would be preferable to say, “Linda said ‘hi’ to me yesterday” rather than “Linda was friendly yesterday.”  The first description used observable terms such that others would know precisely how Linda acted yesterday.  It would also be more informative to say, “Joe hit his brother four times today” than “Joe was upset today.”  Again, Joe’s actions were described in objective and observable terms.  The table below gives some descriptions of behavior, some that are in objective and observable terms and some that are not.

Ø   Sulking    
Ø     Sticking the lip out
Ø      Good mood
Ø      Throwing chairs
Ø      Throwing a tantrum
Ø      Cleaning a room
Ø      Putting shoes in a box
Ø      Nervous
Ø      Scratching instructor’s arm
Ø      Aggressive

When behavior is described in objective and observable terms, it is then easy to precisely communicate and document a learner’s behavior to others.  For example, let us say that you wanted to know how Susan’s day went. Well, her instructor can provide information such as “she hit her head 20 times today” or “she made her bed without help this morning.”

When a behavior is targeted for change, it must be defined in objective and observable terms, but additional details are also necessary.  A complete definition should include where the behavior begins, where it ends, and other important features in-between.  For example, a tantrum may begin with whining, escalate to throwing tables and chairs, and end with quiet sobbing.  Other behaviors constitute tasks, which are long sequences of behaviors.  When pinpointing such behaviors, it is also important to identify all of the necessary elements, including where the behavior begins, where the behavior ends, and all of the steps in-between.


Why do we “behave”?


Many behaviors occur because of their consequences.  For example, Joe may go to work because he gets paid to do so; Sally goes to class because she sees a handsome guy in the front row; or Robert plays ball because he receives adulation for his fine play.  Learners at the VBI exhibit some severely maladaptive behavior, such as head banging, biting, hair pulling, and pinching staff.   Why do they do so?  Well, they obtain many kinds of desirable consequences such as:


  • Gaining attention tangibles, edibles, access to activities, etc
  • Escaping situations
  • Self-stimulation (it feels good!)
  • Reducing pain


These consequences may serve as a function of behavior.  Fortunately, such behavior can be changed, and to do so involves changing the consequences!   For example, say that Billy nags his mother throughout the day, and as a result, mother frequently gives in to his demands.  Thus, Billy nags because mother will eventually give in.  Billy’s mother soon tires of this, and decides to ignore the nagging.  Although Billy “tests” mother by nagging even more often for a few days, he finally gives up and stops nagging.   Mother decreased her son’s nagging by changing the consequences of the behavior – instead of “giving in” to the nags, she ignored them.  As a result, a desirable change in Billy’s behavior ensued, and life with him improved by 100%!  This scenario provides an example operant conditioning, wherein behavior is modified by changing the consequences of the behavior.


How is Behavior Taught?


Learners who attend VBI programs usually require two kinds of behavior programs.  We teach learners adaptive skills using acquisition programs.  In acquisition programs, some new skill is taught and then transferred to the learner’s everyday life.  For example, a learner may learn to count to “10” and then the skill is used in a community task.  We decrease maladaptive behaviors using deceleration programs.  In deceleration programs, some maladaptive behavior is decreased and the learner learns an appropriate behavior to replace it.  Thus, every deceleration program has two elements:  one that decreases a maladaptive behavior and one that increases an appropriate behavior.  What are some behaviors we may want to decrease?


What is Behavior Analysis?


In general, behavior analysis involves the following characteristics:

  1. Focus on behavior of the individual.
  2. Study the behavior and identify what environmental variables cause the behavior to occur.
  3. Focus on changing behavior by changing the environmental variables.
  4. Use data to evaluate the behavior-change process


Behavior analysis as applied at the VBI involves focusing on the behavior of individual learners.  For example, we may decide to decrease Susan’s head banging, teach her to request for items, teach her to label things, teach her to dress herself, or teach her to follow directions; likewise, we may teach Ron to wait without crying, ride the bus, or complete tasks (focus on behavior of the individual learners).  To do so, we may try to understand why these behaviors occur, or do not occur.  For example, Susan may hit her head to gain attention, or to escape task work; she may not dress herself because she was never taught; Ron may act up on the van because he does not want to leave school; or he may not follow directions because there is no incentive to do so (identify what environmental variables cause the behavior to occur).  Armed with this information, we can then set out to change the environment.  To decrease Susan’s head banging, we can ignore her when she hits, and teach her more appropriate ways of gaining attention (just ask!).  To increase the amount of directions Ron follows, we can provide reinforcers for the behavior that will (change the behavior by changing the environment).  To make sure we are being effective in accomplishing these tasks, data must be collected.  That is, record the number of times Susan hits her head to make sure it is decreasing; or record the number of times Ron follows directions vs. how many times he does not (use data to evaluate the effectiveness of the environmental changes).


These elements are important, as they represent the activities of each and every instructor at VBI.  Commit them to memory, and learn how they work, and you will be a successful, effective instructor who will improve the lives of each and every learner the VBI.