Lately I have been craving conversations with professionals in education that aren’t necessarily teachers, administrators, or consultants. Don’t get me wrong, I love all of you, but I think we should admit that we have our blind spots. Enter Tricia Keller.
I’m so proud to work in a school board that includes talented professionals like her. Tricia is an Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) Facilitator in the York Region District School Board, and although I can’t remember how we first connected in the Twittersphere, I do know I am grateful that we did. In the short time that we’ve followed one another, I have learned so much. I hope you take the time to read this interview I conducted with her about ABA, its importance in education, and the extent to which all of us in education can learn from and with it.
What is Applied Behaviour Analysis? Why is it important in education?
Applied Behaviour Analysis is the scientific approach of discovering functional relationships between behaviour and the environment and using these findings to either increase or decrease socially significant behaviour. In education, ABA is important for two main reasons: it is the science behind skill acquisition and its technologies can be systematically used to teach skills; and since there will always be learners who struggle, and/or display maladaptive behaviours, ABA can be used to understand a student’s behaviour and intervene accordingly using its principles.
What do you do as an ABA facilitator in our school board, and who do you work with?
As an ABA Facilitator I am part of the Complex Needs Services Team in the board. This team consists of four ABA Facilitators and four Complex Needs Services Psychologists – one of each discipline for each area of the board. We are an adjunct service to the Autism Team (students with Autism in grades JK-3), Regional Behaviour Team (students with an identified disability in grades 4 to age 21) and the area Intervention Teams (students in JK-8). We work in collaboration with the team members, the classroom team and community partners to support students who are displaying significant learning or behaviour challenges in the classroom. Typically, the student’s challenge is such that safety (both students and staff), school attendance and quality of life are at risk. Often, these students have more than one diagnosis or there are mental health concerns. My role as the ABA Facilitator may be to conduct a Functional Behaviour Assessment which is a process of gathering information and taking data on a particular behaviour challenge in order to determine its cause – i.e., the environmental, social conditions that might relate to the behaviour(s) either before or after it occurs. With this information, I then collaborate with the team, classroom team, parents and community partners on ways to intervene. Typically the intervention consists of: a) proactive strategies to prevent the behaviour from occurring; b) new skills to teach the student so that they can get their needs met in more adaptive ways; c) staff responses so that everyone is safe while also ensuring that adaptive behaviour is reinforced and the challenging behaviour is not reinforced. Once a plan has been agreed upon, our team will typically do some mini-PD with the classroom staff on the intervention components. This can include brief description of the rationale and steps to implement, then some modeling (working with the student directly), role-playing before and after school, hands-on coaching and feedback in the classroom and then monitoring of the data to ensure whether or not it is working.
How or why did you get into this field?
I originally went to school for music therapy and worked as a music therapist for a couple years. Having worked for agencies that served individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder, ABA was something I picked up on the side. I began working closely with behaviour therapists and consultants and soon started to enjoy that side of the work more so than doing music therapy. The analytical side of me appreciated the science behind behaviour and behaviour change and so I immersed myself in the ABA literature. I eventually got hired as a behaviour consultant. When a Masters program started at Brock University I set in motion a plan to go back to school and study ABA.
Why do you call yourself a radical behaviourist?
I take the position of a radical behaviourist because I see everything we say or do as a behaviour and therefore affected by the social and physical environment in some way. This means that all behaviour including our language, thoughts and feelings are up for analysis through a behaviourist lens. They are evoked or elicited by environmental stimuli and then, depending on the events that occur afterwards, may or may not happen again. This does not mean that I ignore genetics, neurology or internal bodily states; rather, they may play a role as part of the response chain
What are the biggest rewards you gain, and most significant challenges you face as an ABA Facilitator?
There are several rewards that keep me going: First and foremost I love being in schools and seeing all kinds of learning happening; especially the students with disabilities being included in their community. Challenging behaviour is often a barrier to this happening so it’s welcoming for me to see a whole school team come together to ensure that we get to a place where least restrictive practices are being used while ensuring community participation and inclusion. This is the ultimate reward for me: that because of changes in our behaviour or how we set up the learning environment, our student is now able to participate in school routines and experience success while doing it.
Another reward for me is to see the competency in and understanding of ABA principles among staff as a result of our collaboration, assessment and intervention planning.
And finally, being a data geek I have to admit that I receive some pleasure from reviewing and analyzing data gathered on a student’s behaviour. Seeing the actual evidence that our intervention is working is very satisfying.
A significant challenge I face is a reluctance to accept that our behaviours have to change in order to support the behaviours and learning of others. This doesn’t mean that as an ABA Facilitator I come in judging that what you are doing is bad, wrong or ineffective. It simply recognizes that we are part of the social/physical environment which may be having an effect on the behaviour. ABA-based interventions is often a new way of doing things (never mind the language). It can feel counterintuitive at times and is often a lot of work up front. This is when people are most tired and frustrated with the behaviour so it can be a challenge to keep the morale up during the rough beginning stages.
What is a four-term contingency? What is its purpose?
The four-term contingency is the sequence of events that occur in a behaviour chain. They are the necessary conditions if a behaviour is to occur, not occur. It consists of: 1) motivating circumstances; 2) environmental cue(stimulus); 3) a response; and 4) a consequence. For example in the case of asking for directions the four-term contingency would be: 1) missing information; lost; 2) security guard nearby; 3) ask security guard how to get to [place]; 4) security guard provides you with information, directions. Assuming the security guard was helpful you are more likely to ask a security guard again should you find yourself in a similar situation. Its purpose in ABA is to analyze the conditions under which a behaviour is more likely to happen. We then plan to change those conditions in order to increase desirable behaviours (i.e., teach skills) while reducing or eliminating the maladaptive ones.
Are there any other important ABA terms that are important to know?
Unfortunately folk psychology and media have misused many behaviourist terms like consequence, reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment etc. such that the misunderstanding is more common than their true definitions. It is important to understand the general definition of a consequence as the event that occurs after a response/behaviour (meaning there is always a consequence). Once we can accept that there is always a consequence then we try to determine its different distinctions: reinforcement, punishment or extinction. Reinforcement as a consequence means an increase in future responding, regardless of how pleasant or nice the consequence was. Punishment is a consequence that decreases future behaviour (again, regardless of how unpleasant the consequence was). And finally, extinction involves suddenly withholding a reinforcer for a behaviour – i.e., the usual reinforcer is not delivered or forthcoming. This will also decrease behaviour.
Since so much information lies in the analysis of a behaviour’s consequence it is important that these distinctions are understood and that there is no value judgment attached to them. There are no good or bad consequences. What we do either works (reinforcement) or doesn’t work (punishment or extinction).
Why is B.F. Skinner important in your work? What are the biggest myths about him?
B.F. Skinner started the field of experimental analysis of behaviour. His work in the lab provided evidence of reinforcement and how behaviours are shaped and conditioned over time. Applied researchers then took his theories and applied them to human behaviours to start the field of ABA. Skinner’s work is important because he set the stage for understanding of behaviour from a scientific, objective standpoint. He advocated for a science of human behaviour which behaviour analysts operate from.
Some of the biggest myths about him have do with his intentions: that his work was evil and dehumanized people; that he advocated for punishment and that technology based on behaviour analysis was designed to control people, take away our freedoms. Rather, Skinner recognized that as society we relied too heavily on punishment and aversive antecedent control (i.e., threats of punishment) and advocated for the use of reinforcement. He recognized the complexity of human behaviour and one’s learning history as contributing to their uniqueness. He advocated that the theories and technologies learned from behaviour analysis be used to better society through analysis of what occurs in the external and social environment which can then give way to change. Skinner thought himself a humanist and in my work, I do too.
Which other theorists inform your work, and in what way?
While Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning is given much focus in ABA, Pavlov’s classical conditioning also applies to the work that we do.
I also subscribe to Daniel Goleman’s ideas on emotional intelligence and its important in teaching students to regulate their emotions and self-manage. Emotional regulation and self-management skills are essential for independence and success in the community and his work (and the others who have followed) remind me that its just as important for a student to know how to interact with others and manage the day to day situations that come up as it is to read and solve math problems.
I also work in Ross Greene’s Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) approach when supporting students who appear defiant, inflexible, anxious or angry. He works from a skill deficit model; in that kids will do well if they can and so the presence of challenging behaviours speaks to an underdeveloped or missing skill. Using this framework we can turn away from blaming the person; and rather we can help them develop the skills they are missing. CPS actually fits well with ABA; the principles and beliefs are aligned. Now, if only someone could tell Ross Greene that so he stops telling others that us behaviourists are the bad guys that would be great (here again, misunderstanding of what behaviourism/ABA, leads to faulty assumptions).
Other schools of psychology as well as models of human development have expanded our knowledge of why people may do what they do or how they learn. When reading about or researching these schools of thought, I often find myself applying a behaviour analytic lens or explanation to fit with theirs.
You have stated in a previous twitter conversation that ‘intrinsic motivation’ means something entirely different from the perspective of a ABA professional than it does in the world of teaching. A big debate in education surrounds the intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation dichotomy. Generally speaking, progressive educators tend to favour the former because it is student centred, and seen to foster self-efficacy and lifelong learning. The latter, thus, is admonished as the domain of traditionalists who use carrots and sticks to coerce behaviours and achievement. What are your thoughts?
Ahhh, my favourite topic of discussion. ABA professionals don’t see extrinsic and intrinsic motivation (or reinforcement) as fitting on a dichotomy; where one is the opposite of or more favourable than the other. They both fit under the general category of reinforcement and everyone has a bit of both working for them depending on the circumstances. Behaviour analysts evaluate reinforcement as either socially mediated (here, people or the physical environment delivers the reinforcer) or as automatic (here the behaviour itself feels good or it alleviates pain/discomfort; reinforcement occurs within the person). There is no judgement that one results in “better learning” than the other. Different behaviours and skills are maintained because of different reinforcers. We want reinforcers to function and make behaviours/skills work for us which means sometimes what is gained is an external (or extrinsic) reinforcer.
When people discuss extrinsic motivation they are usually talking about the things that we would put into the socially mediated reinforcement category while intrinsic motivation could be seen as synonymous with automatic reinforcement. But I think our categories are much broader with an understanding that more sources of reinforcement fall under the extrinsic motivation category than we want to admit (and that’s okay!). An example I like to use is our motivation to get groceries. Going grocery shopping typically results in us getting groceries to bring home and yet according to the extrinsic/intrinsic motivation debate those groceries in a bag (because they’re technically external) are inferior. I think we would all agree that it’s not, so then the blanket statement of “extrinsic motivation is bad” doesn’t stand up very well to this and many other examples.
I think the real debate comes down to contrived vs. naturally occurring reinforcers (where naturally occurring reinforcers can be both extrinsic and intrinsic). At times, people may use tokens (stickers, checkmarks, points) or tangible rewards as reinforcers; however, these are not meant to be a mainstay. These should be faded so that eventually behaviours come under the control of more naturally occurring reinforcers. The other issue to consider is the introduction of these external rewards for behaviours/skills already in a learner’s repertoire. If the student is demonstrating the behaviour/skill then there is already a source of reinforcement. Adding that external reward after the behaviour may shift control from the reinforcer to the thing we’re using as a reward. I have to point out however, that ABA professionals are generally not in the business of handing out external rewards for everything behaviour we want to see. We acknowledge that behaviour occurring within acceptable limits and contexts doesn’t require intervention. However we might help a student struggling to learn by first recognizing that they are not meeting up with the naturally occurring reinforcer for whatever skill we are trying to teach and then adding an additional “in the meantime” reinforcer to get them started. Once they become more successful then we can fade the “in the meantime” reinforcer and allow them to experience the more naturally occurring reinforcer. Sometimes that reinforcer is the discovery of new information, or a feeling of mastery or control over your environment and sometimes it is getting a new pair of shoes or a snack from the vending machine.
So, while I can agree that yes, we want kids to learn by accessing more suitable, less contrived reinforcers or that we want kids to have in their repertoire activities that they enjoy doing (i.e., they are themselves reinforcing), I think it is a false dichotomy to pit extrinsic motivation against intrinsic motivation.
Are there any other things educators could learn from ABA?
I can’t leave without mentioning data collection and ABA relies on the use of continuous measurements of behaviour for individual learners in order to inform practice and next steps. Continuous single-person data is an alternative to testing and gathering of group data because it shows an individual’s progress over time which may be more appealing to some educators. Behaviour analysts love data so we’re always happy to show others the tools in our toolbox!
Thanks so much, Tricia. I hope you have a great school year.
Thanks for picking my brain and giving me an opportunity to reflect upon my work. I hope this last week gears us up for a great year ahead!