Mother Jones Slams “The Skinner Method” in Schools

By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor,

Mother Jones recently published a provocative critique of “the Skinner Method” as it pertains to school behavior programs.  The article noted that the so-called method is a “philosophy…that bad behavior must be punished” and that “Pavlov figured it out first, with dogs.”  Moreover, the article attributed the approach to facilitating the “school-to-prison pipeline” by exacerbating behavior problems through the use of punishment.

Aside from the fact that Pavlov’s work involved the pairing of antecedent stimuli — not consequences — to elicit reflexive responses, one thing is clear: Skinner is somehow equated exclusively with punishment.  Any Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) will be the first to tell you that the primary goal of any behavior program is to reinforce and build up — not punish — adaptive social, communication, and daily living skills in children and adults.  Moreover, anyone familiar with the field of Organizational Behavior Management will tell you that the overwhelming emphasis is on incentivizing workplace performance and providing positive feedback to employees.  In fact, one would be hard pressed to find an example of punishing consequences in the pages of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management.

The proposed solution to the “method” is known as Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS) developed by Dr. Ross Greene, author of books such as The Explosive Child and Lost at School.  The CPS approach is based on school staff building “strong relationships” with kids, with a heavy emphasis on problem-solving problematic situations.  Then one must “identify each student’s challenges…and tackle them one at a time.”

The article alleges the program to have reduced disciplinary incidents by as much as 80 percent across an unspecified number of schools, and you know what?  I’m not surprised.  The CPS program is doing what behavior analysts have been doing for years: building adaptive skills through positive social interactions.  The interested reader can check out several other bSci21 articles related to the use of behavior analysis in schools, pertaining to Positive Behavioral Supports, Functional Analyses in Schools, Managing Classroom Behavior, and Inappropriate Sexual Behavior in Schools.

Be sure to check out the full article, as it discusses many more details not included here.  I would also encourage you to do your part to stand up to the misrepresentation of behavior analysis by contacting Mother Jones directly.

Let us know what you think of this article in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns and  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at [email protected].

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10 Comments on "Mother Jones Slams “The Skinner Method” in Schools"

  1. That Mother Jones article made me cringe.

  2. From my perspective, the importance of this article is to be understood in terms of its emphasis on the interrelatedness of life events. The operant/respondent glitch was just that – a glitch. A three-term contingency of reinforcement or an instance of contingent punishment does not exist in isolation of everything else about the person and his/her environment. In that regard, the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science was formed to expand a functional behavior analysis to include consideration of a person’s history of reinforcement and the interrelatedness of life events – past, present, and future. The approaches exemplified in the article lend themselves to a contextual functional behavior analysis. Knowing the phrase “contingency of reinforcement” does not provide the wisdom to know what behavior(s) should be reinforced (“nurtured”) and to specify an ongoing process of behavior change for the long-term benefit of the person and of society. An interdisciplinary perspective might be invaluable in achieving that outcome.

  3. I posted a comment on MJ’s article defending Skinner (who they clearly haven’t read). Thanks for the heads-up BSci21!

  4. I addressed the author directly on Twitter, see the link below.

  5. Carin Shearer | April 26, 2018 at 9:54 pm | Reply

    Thanks for sharing this information . As a BCBA and Director of Special Education in public schools I am more than irritated at the misrespresentations contained in this article . I will let Mother Jones know of my discontent and share with other professionals as well!

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