By Clelia Sigaud, M.S.
bSci21 Contributing Writer
I have a question for myself and other professionals who use Applied Behavior Analysis in their work. When did it become okay to use the term “behavior” only to refer to unwanted clinical situations? (I suspect that many direct care staff will have no difficulty in recognizing what I am talking about; namely, things we say on a day-to-day basis that imply that behavior is always bad, such as “Johnny’s having a behavior again.”)
As we know in theory, the definition of behavior is actually vastly broader than what individuals receiving services might display in a maladaptive way. Broadly speaking, behavior is, as is often humorously pointed out, anything that a dead man can’t do. That is a lot of observable phenomena! Nevertheless, across settings, it is not uncommon to hear staff members at all levels contextually misusing the term, to the point that many of our schools have “behavior classrooms.” (Question: If we’re not teaching behavior, then what are we teaching? Every classroom is a behavior classroom by definition!)
I think this might be partly our own fault as ABA professionals. ABA services, at least in the child and adolescent settings where I have been fortunate to work in various capacities, tend to place a heavy emphasis on tracking interfering behavior rather than adaptive skills. There are excellent reasons for this, and a good case could be made that it doesn’t necessarily need to change, but that’s a whole other article. The fact remains that when staff members look at a tracking sheet, they could be said to be witnessing evidence that “behavior” and “interfering behavior” are in fact one and the same.
Here’s why I think this needs to be addressed. First, using “behavior” only when we mean “interfering behavior” is simply inaccurate and misleading. Behavioral science, like any science, relies on its practitioners having a common vocabulary in order to be able to discuss, disseminate, and advance the field of knowledge. At a practical level, this means that we should only be stating that an individual has “no behaviors” if that person is deceased.
Second, and I think most importantly, an inaccurate use of language in the context I’ve described can blind us to the skill-building aspect of ABA practice. We tend to see ABA programming correlated with individuals who have interfering behavior that is significantly disruptive to their lives and that of others, and naturally we are motivated to eliminate those behaviors. There is no denying that ABA interventions are a great way to address such situations; however, it would be a shame to stop there! We can use the principles of ABA to teach an unthinkably wide array of adaptive behaviors, from helping supervisors improve employee performance to increasing safe driving behaviors.
So let’s use modifiers to describe the kind of behavior we mean – whether it is risky or cooperative, disruptive or adaptive. We can and should use the power of language to, as accurately as possible, represent the plethora of observable phenomena that is human behavior. It is our right and our obligation to the field and to the broader community.
Have you encountered similar uses of “behavior” in your practice? Tell us about them in the comments below! Also, don’t forget to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!
Clelia Sigaud, M.S. is a teacher to children with developmental disabilities in urban Maine (to the extent that “urban” and “Maine” can be used in the same sentence). She has several years of experience working with special needs individuals, from preschool through age 20, in a variety of settings. Outside of work, she is earning her doctorate in School Psychology from the University of Southern Maine. Her interests include functional communication training, interventions for sexualized aggression/sexually problematic behavior, treatment of self injury, paraprofessional training, and ethical practice within the field of ABA. In her spare time, she enjoys authoring her own social stories.