Monday, September 22, 2014

Behavior Detectives

The behaviorist was observing the student when the teacher said “We’ve tried everything, nothing works with him.” The behaviorist response was “There is something, we haven’t found it yet.”

B. F. Skinner (1904- 1990) is considered the father of Behavior Analysis, the environmental approach that revolutionized the understanding and treatment of behaviors. Throughout the years I’ve been gathering some of his assertions regarding the field of behaviorism. Here are some jewels, in my opinion.

“One can picture a good life by analyzing one’s feelings, but one can achieve it only by arranging environment contingencies.” 1

“The subject is always right.” 2

“Control the environment and you will see order in behavior.” 3

“Responses in relation to environments were precisely the objects of study for those psychologists who called themselves behaviorists, and Skinner counted himself among them. For Skinner, behavior was worthy of study in its own right, not as a symptom to be used as a window on physiological processes.” 4

“The task of a behavior analyst is to discover all the variables of which probability of response is a function. It is not an easy assignment, but it is at least an explicit one.” 5

This is what the behaviorist meant when she said “We haven’t found it yet.” A good behaviorist does not rest on the assumption that there is nothing to do because the child is “broken” or “there is something wrong with him.”

It’s detective work. Understanding the variables that elicit the behaviors involves searching the environment for evidence: tight routines and structure, or lack of; physical setting, such as furniture, lighting, ventilation, space, big or small groups, etc.; and last but not least the behaviors of the people who interact with that child. How is the parent/teacher giving directions? Are caregivers frustrated and reacting violently to the child (yelling, threatening, punishing)? Are the curriculum, materials and demands appropriate for this child? Are the tasks the child is expected to complete too difficult, long and/or boring?

I worked with this family a few years ago. We eventually discovered the main problem was homework. It used to take hours for this child to complete his work, and a great deal of nagging and yelling from his mom. When I asked him why he did not want to do homework, he responded without hesitation “Because it’s boring.” And it was. Basically, it was “paper-pencil” work. After consulting with the teacher the student was allowed to do homework using the computer, a preferred activity of his. The problem was reduced by about 75% overnight.

Of course it is not always overnight, but oftentimes simple environmental changes suffice. For more information, see our blog “Behaviors and Environment” at

Ask the detectives, become one yourself. And stay away from the excuse “nothing works.” Something works. You just haven’t found it yet. Your child and your family will thank you.


Daniel Adatto, BCBA


1.     Skinner, Notebooks, p.127 1983

2.     Skinner, 1948, p 240

3.     Skinner, 1967, p. 399


5.      J.E.A.B.- VOLUME 9, MAY, 1966- B. F. SKINNER


Monday, September 8, 2014

The challenge of raising a child with special needs

Raising a developmentally different child is a challenge for parents. The challenge begins when parents first learn that their child is not “normal”, something has gone wrong. When this happens there is a natural period of mourning and sadness in them and their family members. This is important because the people who are their support system are affected too, they are dealing with their own pain. Therefore, they have a difficult time responding to the grieving parents.

In other cases parents have a “typical” baby for several months before suddenly problems begin to occur- the child does not respond to situations in a typical manner, has developed unusual mannerisms and/or has lost previously acquired language- these are some of the losses of functioning that commonly occur in autism.  

In any case, there may be some issues that interfere in their ability to cope with the unexpected reality. Some of these issues include the loss of the “perfect child” they fantasized about and all the expectations from “I wanted my daughter to be a ballerina,” or “I hoped my child would be a doctor” to college, marriage and procreation. Suddenly parents are faced with the possibility that their child may be dependent on them for their entire life.

Parents are overwhelmed with having to learn about a disability they had only vaguely heard of and how to navigate the cumbersome route of doctors, diagnoses, school systems, therapies, and funding sources of services. All of these while they are grieving.     
Therefore, it is important for parents to deal with their own emotions, a frequently overlooked side of the situation. The burden of having a child with special needs involves a level of stress that often affects relationships and health, adding wood to the fire. So my advice is first TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. As the flight attendants instruct us before a flight, place the mask on you before helping others. Because if you can’t breathe, how can you help? Remind yourself that it is not your fault and seek professional help if necessary.

My next advice is take the time to observe your child. It is important to remind yourself that although your child is not responding in the “normal” way, she still is responding. Be a detective to get clues and solutions to the problems that parents of typically developed children don’t have to deal with. Your child will “tell” you the answers. What gives her pleasure? How to adapt to her changing moods? What turns your child off? How to deal with her challenging behaviors? How to set the environment to avoid problems and trigger the desired responses?  Your child have special needs and is different from other children, but he is also special in his own way, and it is your job to figure out how. Capitalize on opportunities to let him experience his special-ness. For example, if he loves numbers, engage in activities where he can be the “smart” one. If he can’t stay still and jumps all the time rather than telling him to stop get a trampoline, a bouncing ball, and other equipment that will help him express himself. 
Be ready to change your priorities. A dad in one of my classes once said to me “I understood that I’m here to help my son, not the other way around.” There will be sacrifices, accept them. One of the most difficult things you may have to learn to do is to keep a check on your expectations and learn when to push for more and when to place your child’s self-esteem in the first place.  

And know that you are not alone. You are surrounded by professionals and specialist that devoted their careers to understand children like yours. Use them as much as you can, and FOLLOW THEIR ADVICE. It is not enough to ask for help, be ready to do the work.

Daniel Adatto, BCBA