Previously, I’ve described working with individuals in a residential treatment facility, the Brown Schools, and how that has influenced much of my thinking about learning and behavior. All my subsequent jobs and freelance projects have, in some way or another built upon my early learning at Brown Schools.
Working with individuals who presented behavioral problems ranging up to and including physical aggression, we took a behavioral treatment approach to intervene and try to retrain the behaviors that had gotten them into trouble, and thus, our treatment facility.
See, most of the people I worked directly with displayed 2 problem behavior sets combined: low frustration tolerance and low impulse control. In short, when anything went wrong, they were likely to get frustrated quickly. And with low impulse control, these guys didn’t stop to say, “I’m so mad I could hit you!” — they just flat-out hit you once they got frustrated.
To try and safely intervene with these people, we used behavior management programs to respond to anticipated problems. Our psychology department worked with us to understand how we could help our residents learn to make better choices, and then, our team would design specific techniques for working with each individual. It was like receiving advanced training in the basics of learning and behavior, complete with daily practice to apply what you’d learned. That shared and co-created team knowledge still guides my professional work.
To explain this background knowledge — and some related insights gained over time — I’ll start with the some of simplest observations and guidelines.
Emotions are not behavior.
This was most often expressed — many times daily, usually — as: “It’s okay to get mad. Everybody gets mad. Getting mad doesn’t get you in trouble. It’s what you do when you get mad that gets you in trouble.” Or more specifically: “It’s okay to get mad — it’s not okay to hit people.”
Behavior consists of choices.
Even when we don’t recognize it, every action we take is a choice. There is always an alternative to that particular choice of action, even it is simply refraining from that action. We use this ability to choose behaviors to gain control over our situation. Within our psychiatric setting, problem behaviors often resulted from a feeling of losing control over one’s circumstances.
We choose behaviors to achieve positive results.
We eat a cookie to taste its sweetness. We go to a movie to enjoy the show. Our behaviors result in consequences, and, when we can, we prefer to choose behaviors that lead to positive consequences. So, we choose pleasure over pain. We choose to work in order to earn a paycheck and buy what we want and need.
We avoid choosing that which might result in an undesirable consequence: we choose not to run the red light in front of the police officer to avoid getting a ticket. We are constantly making these choices, but have turned most of them into behavior patterns, such as following traffic laws, especially in the presence of police.
Behaviors generally follow the A-B-C pattern:
Antecedent -> Behavior -> Consequence
From the above example, the antecedent condition was the combination of the red light and the police. You chose to stop at the light — behavior — resulting in no police intervention in your driving — consequence. Had you run the light — a different behavior choice — you would have gotten a different consequence, or result.
Had the antecedent condition been different, though — no policeman, no oncoming traffic and you’re in a hurry — you very well might have made a different behavior choice.
We can plan external interventions for the antecedent and the consequences to influence the behavior.
These generally consist of reinforcement schemes, including finding the proper reinforcers and an appropriate and effective reinforcement schedule.
To plan a successful behavioral intervention, use a 3-step cycle:
Observe > Plan > Act.
To “observe,” you watch and collect targeted data about the behavior, its antecedents and its consequences. This should be objective, observable data — words and actions, not thoughts or feelings (unless directly expressed in words or actions). The “plan” phase means analysis of the A-B-C behavior chain and coming up with a way (or ways) to change that chain to more acceptable behavior. Once the team makes a decision, it is up to everyone on the team to implement the management plan — the “Do” step.
Then, of course, you observe to see whether the plan is working or if it needs to be adjusted. The cycle of “observe-plan-do” repeats as needed. For us, these decisions were made through vigorous team discussion.
Beyond those basics of behavioral intervention, you get into specifics of aspects such as reinforcement schedules and various intervention techniques.
But this blog post was never really intended as any sort of tutorial. This should serve more as an explainer for some of the foundational knowledge that underlies my interest and work in helping people learn and understand what they want and need to know.