Learning How to Label Emotions

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Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D & Zachary H. Morford, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

Brett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA

Brett DiNovi & Associates

The private experience of emotions has been a difficult topic for behavior analysts. Though radical behaviorists don’t deny the existence of emotions and other private events, behavior analysts have had a harder time figuring out exactly where emotions fit in a science that emphasizes the observable and the measureable. Some behavior analysts talk about emotions as indicators of contingencies, while others talk about them them as by-products of motivating operations.

Regardless of your theoretical approach to emotions, learning to identify how others are feeling is a critical skill in navigating social situations, and it’s a skill that many individuals on the autism spectrum don’t have. In a recent video, Heather Nunziato (BCBA) with Brett DiNovi & Associates discussed a video clip from the television show “Parenthood,” in which a character on the autism spectrum, Max, was required to apologize to another student. Unfortunately, Max didn’t know how to apologize. In the clip he learned from his cousin Amber how to identify when someone is sad, and how to effectively deliver an apology.

Heather pointed out the effective behavior analytic techniques that Amber used to teach Max how to apologize. Amber first used tact training. She showed Max a video of someone apologizing and prompted Max to tact what that person might have be feeling and the observable behaviors that made him say that. Next, Max practiced his apology in front of Amber by imitating the apology in the video. Amber reinforced approximations to the video model (shaping) using praise and an edible, and prompted Max to change his voice tone, loudness, and eye gaze. Throughout the clip Amber demonstrated fantastic behavior analytic skill—not only by using video modeling, tact training, shaping, and reinforcement, but also by taking advantage of a natural opportunity for Max to say, “Thank you.” After Max had successfully imitated the apology, Amber required him to say “thank you” in order to receive the edible reinforcer.

Towards the end of the video, Heather made an excellent point that once a terminal response has been taught using shaping, it is important to maintain reinforcement for that response so that the response maintains. In this case, the primary reinforcer for Max was the edible. Though it might have been effective for teaching the apology, it is important that the social consequences provided by others for apologizing start to reinforce the delivery of the apology.

In a recently published article, Deric Toney and Linda Hayes explored the intricacies of apologies and forgiveness from a behavior analytic perspective. They provided a functional account of the contingencies that operate in a situation when one person offends another. In their account, the forgiving response ultimately serves as the reinforce for the apology. Accounts like this one might be useful when working with clients like Max—where a behavior analyst has to explicitly teach someone how to identify emotions and interact with others.

Be sure to check out the full video, and to subscribe to Brett DiNovi’s YouTube channel and let him know what you would like to see in future videos.  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which owns the top behavior analytic media outlet in the world, bSci21.org.  bSci21Media aims to disseminate behavior analysis to the world and to support ABA companies around the globe through the Behavioral Science in the 21st Century blog and its subsidiaries, bSciEntrepreneurial, bSciWebDesign, bSciWriting, and the ABA Outside the Box CEU series.  Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar.  He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues.  Dr. Ward has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Dr. Ward is passionate about disseminating behavior analysis to the world and growing the field through entrepreneurship. Todd can be reached at todd.ward@bsci21.org

Zach Morford, PhD, BCBA-D, has been in the field of behavior analysis for 10 years. In that time, he has worked in varied areas of behavior analysis, including autism, animal training, OBM, education, and instructional design. Dr. Morford has also taught undergraduate and graduate behavior analysis courses at three different universities, presented internationally, trained behavior analysts in Italy and Saudi Arabia, and published peer-reviewed papers in multiple behavior analytic outlets regarding applied, experimental, and theoretical issues. His primary interest in the field is the large-scale application of behavioral principles to issues of social importance. Currently, Dr. Morford serves as the Executive Director of the Texas Association for Behavior Analysis (TxABA), and is the co-owner and founder of Zuce Technologies, LLC, a small-business consulting and instructional design company. You can contact him at zachm@zucetech.com.

Brett DinoviBrett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA has the unique and distinguished experience of studying the principles of applied behavior analysis under the rigorous scrutiny of both Dr. Julie S. Vargas (formerly Skinner) and Dr. E.A. Vargas at West Virginia University’s internationally recognized program. For the past 26 years, Brett has used behavior analytic principles to create large scale change across school districts, Fortune 500 companies using principles of Organizational Behavior Management (OBM), and across individual learners. Brett has been a OBM consultant in Morgantown WV, an instructor at West Virginia University, a guest lecturer at numerous universities, a speaker on multiple Comcast Newsmakers TV programs, an expert witness in due process hearings, has publications in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, and has been in in executive leadership positions across schools and residential programs nationwide. In addition to an award from South Jersey Biz Magazine for “Best Places to Work,” an award for “Best of Families” in Suburban Magazine, and the distinguished “Top Ranked U.S. Executives” award, Brett’s proudest accomplishment is being a role model and father for his daughter and two stepchildren (one of which has autism). Brett can be reached at brett@brettdassociates.com

*Paid content by Brett DiNovi & Associates.

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