Bah, Humbug! Why Behavior Analysts Hate the Holidays:  And 4 Quick Ways to Survive Them

By Adam Ventura, M.S., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Happy Thanksgiving? Merry Christmas? Happy Hanukah? I think not. There is nothing “merry” or “happy” about any of the holidays. Well, at least not for behavior analysts.

As a society, our collective behavior has been conditioned, for most of our lives, to show outward signs of joy—or at least what most people label as “joy”—whenever the holidays roll around. Food, family, and fun, right? Wrong. No one ever stops to think about the behavioral contingencies that were put into place what seems like forever ago and maintained at the same time every year for these ridiculous holidays. Moreover, no one takes the time to consider how these impact the brave souls who have to prepare for this dreaded time of the year and clean up the mess left in the wake of the typhoon of festivals that barrels down on us every winter: the behavior analysts. Bah, humbug!

  1. Preferred items for all the wrong reasons
    1. The Problem:
      1. Each and every year, families engage in a very deceptively harmful practice: holiday gift giving. Whether it’s a mass of gifts piled up under a large tree that is slowly dying in the middle of a living room or whether you light a candle and hand out one present one day at a time, problems are sure to follow. We behavior analysts spend most of the year teaching children that if they engage in appropriate behavior, it will be reinforced (on some reasonable schedule), and if they engage in inappropriate behavior, it will be placed on extinction. But, when the holidays roll around, inappropriate behavior is often reinforced, and the process is excused by calling it “tradition.” Think for a minute about all of the inappropriate topographies that have been placed on extinction for 11 months but have now reared their ugly “spontaneous recovery-ish” heads during the holidays:
        1. Running around the house screaming until the parents wake up, which is immediately followed by gift giving.
        2. Making a mess while opening boxes, which is immediately followed by the presentation of some sort of über-cool toy.
    2. The Solution:
      1. Make sure to run through appropriate gift-giving and gift-opening exercises with your families before the holidays. Talk to them about the importance of incidental teaching and the opportunity that they have to teach their children important communication and skills on the day they receive gifts.
      2. Make sure to provide lots of praise to families before the holidays for any effective implementation of behavior program procedures; high probability request sequences matter.
      3. Take some time to review the data with families before the holidays start.
        • Show them all of the successes they have had throughout the year, and talk to them about the importance of continuing that progress.
        • Identify and show families where gaps in service have been possible contributors to spikes in inappropriate behavior, and warn them of the potential for the holidays to have similar effects.
  2. Canceled sessions
    1. The Problem:
      1. Whenever the holidays roll around, our schedules—like so many gift boxes, wrapping paper, and old toys—get thrown to the dumpster. Planned holidays or last minute cancelations make a mess of our professional and, ultimately, our private lives. “That’s OK, I am happy to conduct a session on Christmas Eve; I don’t have a family of my own to spend time with. Catering to your schedule is much more fun for me.” Whether we are trying to make plans for much-deserved time off or get in billable hours by the end of a time period (authorization, month, year, etc.), things can get difficult.
    2. The Solution(s)
      1. Agreements
        1. Make sure to create a contract with your families and have stipulations about canceled or missed sessions. And, make sure to be consistent with it. Having the families re-sign the agreement with any changes once a year is a good practice, and the end of the year (right before the holidays) is as good a time as ever to prompt them to comply with the terms to which they’ve agreed.
      2. Get ahead on billable hours
        1. Most funding sources provide behavior analysts with a bank of units to utilize during a specified amount of time. This is beneficial, because it is allows the behavior analyst to use their hours as they see fit—within reasonable parameters. Program updates, parent training, and re-auth reports are all good uses of your time right before the holidays and can help you avoid missing any billable time.
  3. Gift Pushing
    1. The Problem:
      1. Is there any worse time of the year for behavior analysts to have to adhere to the “no gifts” rule? There you are. It’s two days before Christmas. You are about to leave the client’s house, and the child that you have been working with for the last 10 months stands in front of you perfectly behaved, extends his arms with a poorly wrapped gift, and uses the absolute best articulated verbal behavior you have ever seen him exhibit, saying, “This is for you, happy Christmas!” I don’t know if it is the fact that your client just strung together the longest sentence of the year, or the fact that he so adorably said “happy” instead of “merry”; you are now stuck with reinforcing unethical behavior or placing appropriate verbal behavior on extinction. Bah, humbug!
    2. The Solution
      1. Speak to the parents, speak to the parents, speak to the parents! They are probably the ones that put little Jimmy up to that anyway. Talk to the families before the holidays arrive about your ethical responsibilities and talk to them about the agreement that you both (hopefully) signed before services began that (again, hopefully) stipulates “a no gift-giving” policy.
    3. Eating programs destroyed
      1. The Problem:
        1. Well, grandmas (abuelitas as we call them in Miami) are the problem. They cook too well and have spent most of their adult lives becoming fluent in a particular set of grand-mothering skills that, unfortunately, begins with food pushing. At this point, she doesn’t care whether or not little Jimmy uses utensils or whether or not you spent the last six months shaping appropriate dinner time behavior. Nope. She is just concerned with food intake and how she can increase it.
      2. The Solution:
        1. There aren’t a lot of solutions for this one; “effective grand-mothering” is usually equivalent to “effective behavior-analyzing.” After all, we didn’t name our Grandma’s Law intervention after them for nothing. So, whichever intervention you end up using, it will probably be met with some sort of clever counter-conditioning. Having said that, grandmothers are organisms just like the rest of us and, as such, their behavior is susceptible to reinforcement. So, teaching your kiddos to reinforce grandma’s behavior of tolerating food denial from her grandchildren with hugs and kisses to distract them long enough to maintain their eating schedules just may be a viable option. Or, what will probably end up happening is grandma will see through this ruse and undo whatever progress you have made with eating skills. Bah, humbug!

So, if you are a behavior analyst and hate the holidays, remember: they only come around once a year, and you have the whole year to either prepare your clients for their arrival or undo the mess from the previous year.


AVV_MG_9885Adam Ventura, M.S., BCBA is a graduate of Florida International University and has been a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) since 2008. Adam is the founder and CEO of World Evolve, Inc., a behavioral organization located in south Florida. Adam has been working in the field of applied behavior analysis for over 10 years and has experience working with children and adults with varying disabilities. Adam was a member of the local review committee in Miami, Florida for over three years and is currently a member of the behavior analysis and practice committee (BAPC) for the state of Florida. Adam also currently serves an adjunct professor in the psychology department at Florida International University where he has been teaching undergraduate courses in behavior analysis since 2009. Adam is also the co-founder of two public benefit corporations, namely, The Code Of Ethics for Behavioral Organizations (COEBO) and the Miami Association for Behavior Analysis (MiABA). Adam’s experience has extended beyond the clinical realm and into the business world as he has been responsible for creating several new businesses with and without partners in various industries. Adam’s current focus is on business ethics and technological applications of Behavior Analysis.  You can contact him at [email protected].

4 Comments on "Bah, Humbug! Why Behavior Analysts Hate the Holidays:  And 4 Quick Ways to Survive Them"

  1. Loved this! Shared it with our followers on Twitter!

  2. Alex Delange, BCaBA | December 13, 2016 at 3:34 pm | Reply

    Hilarious! Loved the reference to Grandma’s Rule, and agreed that hugs and kisses from the little ones is a much more effective reinforcer, certainly more so than praise from the behavior analyst! Perhaps we may do well in working on the grandma contingencies as they are powerful agents of change. Complimenting their cooking, after you have graciously declined their offer for a plateful, of course, is likely a reinforcer too!

  3. Thanks Sidra, much appreciated!

  4. Good ideas Alex, working on gramma’s contingencies can be difficult. Long histories of conditioning.

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