Teaching clients to express emotions as a part of social skills training

Photo by Gem & Lauris RK on Unsplash

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

Brett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA

Brett DiNovi & Associates

In a recent video by Brett DiNovi & Associates, Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) Heather Nunziato presents an example of how behavior analytic principles can be used to train social skills related to emotional expression. Heather describes a scene from the popular television show ‘Parenthood’ where a character named “Max” is being taught to apologize in a socially appropriate manner. In the scene, Max’s cousin, Amber, teaches Max to apologize using behavior analytic consistent methods. Max is described in this television series as ‘having Asperger’s.’ The character is more high functioning than most clients BCBA’s work with on a daily basis; however, the example is useful due to its brevity and relative accuracy in demonstrating social skills training.

In the film segment, Max has had a fight with another student at school. The principle of Max’s school has asked Max to apologize and his cousin is now working with him to shape socially appropriate apology behaviors. Max’s cousin begins the scene by showing Max a video segment where he views a model apologizing. She then prompts Max with “What do you think he [the model] was feeling?” Max tacts, or describes, an appropriate response ‘sad.’ Max’s cousin then praises him for his response and provides additional prompts as a part of tact training. She asks Max to describe how he knows that the model feels ‘sad.’ Max then appropriately tacts a few aspects of the video model’s appearance and voice tone while apologizing: “his face is turned down,” “his voice is low,” and “he’s looking down.” Max’s cousin follows all these tacts with social praise and then immediately prompts Max to practice the behaviors he has just described.

In the video segment, Max is then shown rapidly progressing through a shaping session towards a terminal behavior of a socially appropriate apology. In this progression, Max’s cousin prompts the apology several times and each time provides additional feedback and praise to Max in order to shape the behavior. This includes providing feedback on where his eye-gaze faces, the tone of his voice, and other aspects of his demeanor. When Max displays the terminal behavior she then provides him with both social reinforcement, praise, and a highly favored edible treat to reinforce his progress.

This video segment of Parenthood is a prime example of how behavior analytic principles may be used to shape socially appropriate behavior in individuals with social skills deficits.  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, bSciEntrepreneurialbSciWebDesignbSciWriting, 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 [email protected]

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 [email protected]

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