Throwing the ABA out with the bathwater

Great Start Educational Services:

Really interesting piece.

Originally posted on Nic Hooper, PhD:

In the past few years I have worked at three Universities and in each of them I managed to squeeze in an introductory lecture to Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). In the first university I taught it on a module called ‘Clinical Psychology’, in the second university I taught it on a module called ‘Persuasion and Influence’ and in the third university I taught it on a module called ‘Atypical Development’.

aba-1

Each time I teach ABA the same two things happen. Firstly, undergraduate psychology students in the final year of their degree do not really know anything about ABA. A long time ago, following the development of cognitive psychology, it seems that psychology departments throughout the world (not just those that I have worked at, which are great places by the way!) dismissed the utility of behavioural thinking in managing problematic behaviour. But in doing so…

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Throwing the ABA out with the bathwater

How do we get from A to B?

Just a short blog post, but this is something I have been having many discussions with lots of different people – both colleagues, and families – over the past few weeks.

I recently delivered a workshop on reading assessment, so that sparked my thoughts on the matter, but in general, this is something that I believe is absolutely essential in any program.

Assessment. In general, not specific assessments, or Naplan testing, or those “bigger picture” thoughts about assessment, but just the idea of assessing where you are at, before beginning a program.

It seems like common sense, you need to do some sort of assessment before knowing where to begin, or what you are going to do, but more often than not, I come across professionals, in different areas, who have no done no assessment (either at the beginning of a service, or throughout), or sometimes cannot even clearly share goals that they are working towards.

I often wonder why some professionals who are involved with families I am working with do not have any form of initial assessment, goals, or review assessment.

As I said, it seems fairly straight forward to think a) you need to know the current level of skills of the individual and b) you need to know where you are planning to get to and create goals. It helps guide what you are doing, it gives you direction. (Perhaps B is forgotten because there are no goals… again, happens more often that I would hope.)

Why is this the case?

Are these professionals not informed about assessment and how to use it effectively in their study? Is it not part of their ongoing professional development?

I have come across some professionals who have extensive experience in assessment, but don’t seem to do much with it. I also have come across some professionals who don’t seem to think it is essential to assess, and rather just get straight in and start implementing…

Both those points confuse me. I don’t see the point in just doing an assessment for the sake of it. It needs to have more purpose (planning, overview of skills, comparison etc), otherwise, why spend time doing it? And then just not doing it at all… how are you meant to know if what you are doing is working? Helping? Effective?

For me, when working with different people in different capacities, I ensure I always have a timeline for the program or service. Starting with an initial assessment, goal setting/skills teaching, and a review component with a report, after a certain period of time.

Up until that period of time, there is ongoing data collection and monitoring (daily/weekly), because the time between the initial assessment and report, and the review, could be up to ten weeks, and you don’t want to be doing something that isn’t working, for ten weeks.

I like to share this concept, with not only the family I am working with, but other professionals too. I have had one person say that it was helpful for her to see how I collected data, created goals and planned using my assessment. I’m not sure if she took on board some of the things I shared, for other clients of hers, but she was interested when we were working together.

I also find sharing this idea of assessment, planning, ongoing monitoring and reviewing, with families, is beneficial. Particularly in early intervention. A lot of parents sign up for services because other parents suggested it, or they were advised (as part of a generic list) during the assessment to try particular services. I try to stress the importance to parents to ask specific questions, ask for reviews, ask for reports. Hopefully they take the information with them and are slightly more critical when accessing services.

I’m not sure if this is restricted to services and professionals in Australia, and not necessarily the case in other parts of the world, but it would be interesting to hear people’s thoughts.

How do we get from A to B?

Book Review: What Shamu Taught Me About Love, Life and Marriage – Amy Sutherland

This book was something I figured I would get around to reading eventually. It was on my list, it was about behaviour, but within a different application than the one I am used to, and I think I have just been on a roll with reading books this year, so, I read it :)

The author is a journalist who was writing about animal training methods at aquatic parks and the like. She became quite invested in what she was learning and attempted to apply it to her life and relationships, with quite good success!

The book discusses various techniques she learned while observing the training, and while they have different names, it was clear to see how it linked in to what I know and do.

It was also interesting to see how she started to think about the world and her interactions with others. Thinking about everyone around her’s behaviour, as well as her own, and what could she do to try and prevent the undesirable/challenging/frustrating behaviour from occurring.

It made me think about how I do try to think about that in my daily interactions, however for slightly different reasons. It did make me think about how I could try and think about the ways in which I could implement more antecedent strategies with some people in my life, and think I may have come to a reasonable understanding about that (for myself).

In regards to the animal part of the book, she has two lovely dogs, who you can tell her, and her husband, love dearly. She discusses the training aspect and how she implemented some strategies with her puppies, even though they were older. Spoiler alert (highlight the text)if you love dogs, just be warned there is a little bit of a sad bit towards the end (sorry!)

It also reminded me of when I visited Universal Studios a few years ago and saw the Animal Training show. I felt that it all made a lot of sense then, and it was very interesting reading this book and getting to know more about the process and different strategies they use when training lions, elephants, dolphins, birds… etc

I also was a little bit concerned that there was going to be no mention of behaviourism or Skinner, but about halfway through the book, there was a nice link to Skinner and his contributions to what the animal trainers were teaching.

Again, one of those books that I think as a behaviour analyst, you probably want to read, but I think I know a few people I could recommend it to, as an interesting read. It is quite an easy and short read, and provides a good understanding of the general principles, and use, of ABA.


References

Sutherland, A. (2009). What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage.

Universal’s Animal Actors

Book Review: What Shamu Taught Me About Love, Life and Marriage – Amy Sutherland

The Scientist.

That’s me. Really, truly, I am a scientist. 

Well, OK, I may not be fully there, and do everything as scientifically as a real scientist, but Applied Behaviour Analysis is a science. I almost don’t think about it in this way, because I think of myself as a teacher, first and foremost. Plus, I have actual scientist friends, and I don’t know or understand as much about the scientific process as them, but I do get what they are talking about… sometimes :) 

I also figured this was a timely blog post to upload because I recently listened to a very interesting blog post which I initially was all defensive about, however after re-reading this post, I feel I can rationally think about what I listened to, and help me understand what I do, even more so.

Anyway, in ‘the bible’ / the white book / seriously, one of my most referred to books ever – Applied Behaviour Analysis Second Edition, the Attitudes of Science is the first thing, in the first chapter – even before the characteristics of ABA! 

 Attitudes of Science – particularly according to Behaviour Analysts :)

  1. Determinism
  2. Empiricism
  3. Experimentation
  4. Replication
  5. Parsimony
  6. Philosophic Doubt

Similar to my blog about the 7 Dimensions of ABA, I figured this could be a little review/study session for me :) 

1. Determinism 

 “The assumption that the universe is a lawful and orderly place in which phenomena occur in relation to other events and not in a willy-nilly, accidental fashion.” Cooper, J., Heron, E., & Heward, W. (2007). 

I like this because it fits well with my personality, and how I like things ordered and structured. It also helps make understanding the A,B,C’s of behaviour, and the ideas behind reinforcement, easier :) (Although, I don’t really know how scientific ‘willy-nilly’ is, but the white book hasn’t steered me wrong yet :P

2. Empiricism 

“The objective observation of the phenomena of interest; objective observations are ‘independent of the individual prejudices, tastes and private opinions of the scientist… Results of empirical methods are objective in that they are open to anyone’s observation and do not depend on the subjective belief of the individual scientist. (Zuriff, 1985.)'” Cooper, J., Heron, E., & Heward, W. (2007). 

I don’t know if I am being naive, or I am really only sticking to good sources, but I feel that most of the research I read and come across is very objective, and people’s personal beliefs are set aside. I wonder if I am not seeing it completely though, in particular, a lot of the anti-ABA people, or anti-Phonics people, but I understand the basics of reading and interpreting research, and I can see the overwhelming evidence for both ABA and phonics. I think sometimes some people (myself included) can just get very worked up when people ignore the evidence. I get it can be extremely frustrating! 

3. Experimentation 

“The process of a carefully controlled comparison of some measure of the phenomenon of interest (the dependent variable) under two or more different conditions in which only one factor at a time (the independent variable) differs from one condition to another.” Cooper, J., Heron, E., & Heward, W. (2007). 

When I first started doing much further study into ABA, I realised this was definitely a weakness of mine. I am not in a lab, and therefore have no strict ability to conduct experiments – ABAB, ABA, BAB… and all the other experimental designs ;)

While I still feel this is a weakness, and there is a whole other blog post in here about the translation of science to practice, I realised I was inadvertently ‘conducting’ experiments in actual sessions with kids, just not in the strictly scientific method. I would take baseline data on a behaviour, implement a plan (including antecedent changes, replacement behaviour, reinforcement and response strategies) and monitor through data collection, to see if there was a change in behaviour. It wasn’t as tightly controlled as it could be, but I feel I use a variation of this process all the time, to ensure that I am on track with programs and behaviour change. 

 4. Replication

“Repeating whole experiments to determine the generality of findings of previous experiments to other subjects.” Cooper, J., Heron, E., & Heward, W. (2007). 

I like this part of the attitudes of science. I like to think that if there are multiple people out there, in all different parts of the world, able to replicate the same thing, and end up with the same results, the better chance it is of being successful. 

5. Parsimony 

“The practice of ruling out simple, logical explanations, experimentally or conceptually, before considering more complex or abstract explanations.” Cooper, J., Heron, E., & Heward, W. (2007). 

I love this attitude. I think I need to be a bit more methodical about this process. It needs a bit more practice, and I think will tie in nicely with my “think before you speak” part. 

6. Philosophic Doubt 

“An attitude that the truthfulness and validity of all scientific knowledge should be continually questioned.” Cooper, J., Heron, E., & Heward, W. (2007). 

This is probably my favourite attitude of science. I think it is extremely important as it is making us continually question that what we are doing is working. I think it is extremely important to continually question, read more, speak to different people, experience different things, and avoid resting on your laurels. I hope I always have this inquisitive mind, and I know I am actively trying to ensure I keep this up, by surrounding myself with good people who will encourage this, and motivate me, and being open to new experiences and learning new things. 

I really should try and remember these explicitly (I’m sure they will come up on the BACB exam… eventually… when I get around to it!) but I feel, overall, I tend to consider these throughout my work and life, inadvertently. I think a do a lot of things inadvertently! 

I also stumbled across this awesome resource on twitter – How to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists by Jennifer Raff. I think this would be helpful for teachers who are just starting out, or teachers who may have forgotten all the research reading they did at uni… or anyone interested in thinking more critically.


References

Cooper, J., Heron, E., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis 2nd Edition. 

How to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists by Jennifer Raff.

The Scientist.

Book Review: The Verbal Behavior Approach – Mary Lynch Barbera

 I finally got around to reading this book in 2015 :) I’ve had it for about 4 years, but just never picked it up!

While trying to gain inspiration for a journal club I am completing on verbal behaviour (and having no luck with!) I thought, why not read this – it might give me a few more answers!

I have always had an interest in verbal behaviour. I didn’t quite know what it was about, or how it was different from ABA, all I knew was it had something to with creating a ‘voice’ for people (not necessarily a speaking voice – more to do with communication) and it seemed to be presented in a much more ‘fun’ light than the traditional ABA programs I worked on in Australia.

Well, the way the traditional ABA programs were supposed to go, because I always feel I tried to make sessions as fun as possible… most of the time anyway.

What I got from reading this book was, I feel like I was inadvertently (there’s that word again) implementing techniques from a verbal behaviour program when I was working as a young, junior ABA therapist, and then when I progressed and moved into different roles, using the principles and science of ABA.

So basically, I was very impressed with this book, because it resonated well with me, it aligned very much with my beliefs about the work that I do. But mostly, I was impressed with the straight forward-ness of the book. I almost felt like passing it onto a few families I am working with and asking them to read it, but that would probably be quite overwhelming, despite the everyday language used, and practical examples.

The book is written by Dr. Mary Lynch Barbera, a BCBA, who is also the mother of a son with Autism. She became a BCBA after her son was diagnosed and was heavily involved in his program, moving him from a typical, Lovaas style ABA program, to a verbal behaviour program.I like her determinism, and her thoughts about how the differences in each program had their benefits.

The book worked through how you could go about setting up a verbal behaviour program (and got me motivated to create a mind map – using a very cool online mind map program – Popplet) and provided a very straight forward way to teach the different components of a verbal behaviour program.

I found a really clear explanation of the differences between an ABA and a verbal behaviour program. There was also a very clear, and initial description of conducting a functional assessment of behaviour, right at the beginning of the book – very important, you want to know what behaviour you want to replace, so you can know where to start :)

I also liked the focus on reinforcement and motivation, and how as a therapist, you basically wanted the child to be running to the table to do ‘therapy’. This is something that really struck a chord with me.

I have had some kids who didn’t care either way, but I have also had some kids who would do anything to avoid coming to the table :( I know it wasn’t me, because when I was playing around and being silly, we would have the time of our lives :) but as soon as a demand was put in place, I was seen as something very aversive.

My personal experience with intensive ABA programs in Australia finished around 5 years ago, but I really don’t think things have changed that much. When I was working on those intensive programs, this was definitely not an aim of the program. I wasn’t given much of an opportunity to pair myself with reinforcement, I was basically having to go in and teach.

As a teacher, I completely believe you need to show respect for your students, and gain their trust, and then you can begin to teach – a very similar process to the rapport building and pairing with reinforcement discussed in this book, and as a cornerstone of a verbal behaviour program.

I believe I do this fairly well. Particularly as some of my more recent work involved me going into families homes and doing this within a 2 hour session, in a couple of weeks… very tricky, particularly when you are trying to explain your program, collect baseline data, and gain the parents (and siblings) trust and respect as well. It’s not easy, but it is definitely worth it.

I also took some things immediately away from the book – from teaching different and known item mands to a very beginning 4 year old learner, to how to use echoics and intraverbals, and transfer procedures (which was also one of those things I was already doing without even realising) with a 12 year old with some language, just not a lot of motivation to communicate ;)

I also then went a step further and found this extremely detailed, yet interesting, relevant, and clear explanation of verbal behaviour article, which was much more technically oriented, but consolidated the book. The Verbal Behavior Approach to ABA by Robert Schramm and Regina G. Claypool-Frey.

I recommend the book to anyone who is working within an ABA program already, and definitely anyone interested in applying verbal behavior techniques within a program. I really wish I had read it earlier – it is an easy, and quick read, and it has given me a lot of ideas. I feel a lot more confident with my programming going forward, with this information.


References

Barbera, M. &Rasmussen, T. (2007). The Verbal Behavior Approach: How to Teach Children with Autism and Related Disorders.

Popplet – a website for creating mind-maps

The Verbal Behavior Approach to ABA by Robert Schramm and Regina G. Claypool-Frey.

Book Review: The Verbal Behavior Approach – Mary Lynch Barbera

How did I get here?

Occasionally, I stop and think on how I got to what I am doing, and why. I sort of know the origins of my interest in behaviour and ABA, but it really hasn’t been something I can recall from a young age.

I remember doing Ed Psych at uni, (EDUC105!) and learning about all the different developmental theories out there. Skinner’s theory resonated well with me. I am not exactly sure why. I think I liked the positive reinforcement aspect, and I definitely didn’t understand it in its purest, behavioural form just then, but I knew I liked it.

A friend of mine started doing Intensive ABA therapy, and she said she could really see me doing it. I then went on exchange to North Carolina and did an early intervention subject and a literacy in elementary education subject. I actually used my exchange period to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

Anyway, as I said, the two subjects helped me realise what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to do primary teaching, I wanted to do early childhood, but it was too late to change. I remember having a conversation with my Mum on the phone one afternoon saying I didn’t know which path I wanted to take! Literacy or Autism? (/ABA). And this was before I had any experience in either! I have always said, I should have picked one over the other, and while I don’t regret continuing down both paths, it definitely has made things a little more difficult, and perhaps slower than if I had focused on one or the other. But I honestly couldn’t pick one over the other now!

When I got home from my exchange period, I found a family who needed an ABA therapist / school shadow and it was a perfect position for me. I got to be in the classroom with his two teachers, who were amazing at what they did! And I got to practice ABA. This family is one of my families I am still in touch with today :) I am so grateful to have been given that opportunity.

I then also started working on the literacy side of things at the same time, tutoring using specific programs.

Its all funny how it works out. An aside memory I have, which has nothing to do with my choices of study or work, but it was interesting as it was said to me, was when I was working at BBQ Galore (one of my many, many, casual jobs!) A man who was buying a BBQ asked what I was doing (other than working there!) I told him I was studying primary teaching. He sort of laughed it off and said I should do special education. Not necessarily at Macquarie, but anywhere, as there is always a need for more special ed teachers. Obviously, it was a passing comment, and from a teacher, who knew what it was like, but I think its funny that I ended up in this field.

I’m so glad that I did end up in this area. I think innately, I have skills that are beneficial, but I know I have had to develop skills that are crucial for my work. And I’m not even talking technical skills. These are personal skills that allow me to do this work. Empathy, understanding, concern, persistence, perseverance. There is a fine line between being completely empathetic and understanding of a family’s concerns, and being too empathetic which can lead into being condescending. I feel as if I do a good job of “being on the family’s side” without losing professional (ABA) integrity, and being too empathetic. It is difficult to juggle.

I still know I have a lot more to learn. I know I continually will be learning. I am trying to read as much as possible, connect with different people around the world, and definitely continue to study. I am very motivated to work towards my BCBA for 2016. I think it will make things so much more concrete for me, and even now, re-reading things on verbal behaviour, or learning about different applications of ABA, or revisiting operant conditioning, or transfer procedures, or CMO-T’s … :P it is all making more sense.

I’m so glad I have figured out what I want to do, and am able to do it. There have been some ups and downs (some pretty down downs), but I am very content where I am now, and where I am headed. I know I am lucky to work in a job I love, and in particular at a place of work that I really enjoy. Not everyone can do that.

It is a very rewarding job, and I know my friends can take it lightly when I tell them I went to the beach for the afternoon with one of my kids, but I know they know how hard I work and that when things are bad, they can be pretty bad. And in that situation, as a family member, its hard to put aside emotion and deal with it. Its hard enough for me to do so, but I know how to work through it. And that comes with experience and practice, and is what I am there to do!

Anyway, I had this originally titled as “Blast from the past” because I was going through old uni folders. I am very embarrased by some of my earlier essays. And astounded at my dedication to study! I used to write up notes for each week’s lectures! And even scan in parts of my textbook! Ahh the early days of uni! Behaviourism – in its earliest form, via me.

I also now have a much clearer purpose of what I want to achieve. Some of it is within Australia, some of it is outside of Australia. I definitely want people to understand what I do, and how what I do can be applied – ABA is not just for kids who have Autism! It’s not even just for educational purposes! I know that there is a big push from a lot of behaviourists who want to do this, and make it more understood. There have been a few social media campaigns recently that have helped with this, in particular, The Skybound Therapy video on a very successful ABA program. But that is all for another blog post another day :)

I always like hearing how people ended up in this field. It never seems to be a straight forward, “Oh I wanted to be a behaviour analyst when I was a little kid…”

How did I get here?

Book Review: Walden Two – B.F. Skinner

The week between Christmas and New Years, I had a “staycation”. Which basically means, because I have done so much travelling this year, I wanted to stay home over the Christmas period, and do nothing. Well, lie on the beach, read, and watch cricket and movies. Which I did! (And I didn’t even get that burnt!)

I had about 6 books to read, and I read 5 over the week, which is pretty good. A whole mix of things – non-fiction (Murder in Mississippi by John Safran), fiction (The Escape by David Baldacci), one of my faves (High Society by Ben Elton), a random (Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk), and one that was recommended to me by someone who is as big a fan of ABA as me :) (Walden Two by B.F. Skinner.)

I feel like it is one of those books you just have to read if you want to call yourself a behaviourist. I actually didn’t mind it, it was quite dry, and basically a conversation about the application of the principles of ABA to a real world setting, but a conversation between a few people, over the span of a few days, including discussions, arguments and realisations.

Throughout the book, I felt like different characters at different times. I feel like Skinner was trying to do that, trying to cover all possible angles and points that people might have, and addressing them with a solution.I felt I most related to the character narrating the story, but I don’t think I would have ended up in the same position as him.

Basically Walden Two is a community where people live and work, and it is completely structured and created around applying the principles of ABA to any situation, to make things easier and “better” for everyone involved. A place where like-minded people can live and everything is sorted and easy.

There are six visitors to the Walden Two community, and it is their experience of the place that we observe through the narration. They visit for about a week, and make up their own minds about whether or not it is the life for them.

There were some interesting points, and some things that seemed a bit far fetched. I felt as though sometimes the ‘creator’ of Walden Two, who was accompanying the visitors on most of their trip, seemed to have an answer for everything. I find that hard to believe, particularly as one of the attitudes of science is philosophic doubt […to continually question the truthfulness of what is regarded as fact. Cooper, J., Heron, E., & Heward, W. (2007).] And yes, while he seemed to have been experimenting with a range of things over a few years, and yes, he seemed to share this viewpoint, it just seems a hard concept to grasp.

I may be ignorant to say this, particularly as I am an avid believer of being able to apply the principles of applied behaviour analysis to any situation where there is observable behaviour, and it is of social significance or importance to the individual/s concerned, and be able to come up with a solution. Also, particularly as this is what I do, and what I believe. But I just found it hard to see this working so harmoniously and perfectly.

I know, I know, it is a work of fiction (and an old work at that – they were discussing the idea of negative reinforcement being punishment, and, based on a 1975 paper I read recently, they were confused about that initially until they conducted more experiments and realised negative reinforcement strengthened behaviour), but it started to get annoying! Every query, seemed to have an answer. I may just be a hugely cynical person (I don’t think I am!) but it all just seemed “too good to be true” – which I guess is the case with any utopian society.

It made me think about a few things. The first being, how much I apply the principles of ABA to my everyday life. I am always looking at every situation and figuring out what the function of a behaviour is at any given time. What is reinforcing me to do this again and again? I think I could be a bit more analytical about this in 2015. And really begin to live and breathe ABA :D (As a side note, there is a very good hashtag on twitter for this now – #everdayABA :D )

I also thought about the whole dissemination of ABA and how much this has not necessarily been done too well. I don’t think the book could be used as a way to promote the ideas of applying ABA to society’s issues necessarily, but in the way that I know ABA has many applications and uses, and could be beneficial in many areas of society – government, health, judicial systems… it did get me thinking about ways to share information without coming across as too judgy or ‘full on’ (which I do have a tendency to do!)

I guess I shouldn’t jump the gun and worry about how to make the whole world want to get on board the ABA train, particularly when the people I am working with (teachers, support staff – even some parents) find it hard to implement, but hey, dream big.

On the whole, I think if you work within a behavioural framework, it would be worth a read, at least to see the applications of ABA in everyday life. I also think people who are interested in socialism and ‘living off the earth’ (i.e. my Dad) would find it interesting, but it is quite a droll read (seriously, it is basically a transcript of their conversations over the week!) Any other suggested readings for behaviour analysts?


B.F. Skinner, (1948). Walden Two.

Cooper, J., Heron, E., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behaviour Analysis Second Edition

Michael, J. (2004)Positive and Negative Reinforcement, A Distinction That Is No Longer Necessary; Or a Better Way to Talk About Bad Things. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 24:1-2, 207-222.

Book Review: Walden Two – B.F. Skinner