The Seven Deadly Sins of Behavior Analysts

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By Emaley McCulloch, M.Ed., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

As the field of Behavior Analysis grows and becomes more recognized in mainstream healthcare, we must overcome some of our past “sins” in order to be good ambassadors for our science. A good ambassador brings people together while remaining loyal to what he or she represents. In looking back at my own failures, past attitudes and what I have learned, I have listed “seven deadly sins” to overcome or avoid as we strive to build bridges in healthcare and education.

Sin #1: Arrogance.

It’s one thing to be proud of the science of applied behavior analysis, it’s another thing to set yourself up as the one with all the answers. In my experience working in a company with many different health professionals including doctors, nurses, social workers, speech and language pathologists, psychologists etc., many of these professionals view the field of behavior analysis as people who think they are above it all and have the answer to every problem. We all have experienced a manager or consultant observe a few hours of our work, and then tell us what we are all doing wrong. Even if they are right, we often get turned off by their message because of the way it’s delivered. True ambassadors of the science show respect for others’ contributions and gain the confidence of the team through listening to them, getting into the trenches with them, and effectively communicating the strategies in a way they can understand.

Sin #2: Dismissive of medical issues.

Let’s just get this out there—physical wellness affects behavior. When a person is in pain, they will engage in behavior that will lessen the pain. When they are fatigued, they will engage in behavior that will allow them to access rest. Many of the clients we serve are not able to communicate their pain or discomfort. I had an experience with a client who would knuckle bite until he bled. In our Functional Analysis, the data indicated the function was clearly escape of demands. The parents didn’t agree with our analysis because all behavioral interventions for escape they had tried in the past had not reduced his knuckle biting. They took him to a doctor who told them he had acid reflux and that his knuckle biting was a result of the pain. The doctor recommended a very restricted diet until his stomach healed. I grudgingly went along with the parents’ wishes but was frustrated that this already underweight boy could not access any treats as reinforcers for the next few months. Well, soon after this diet was implemented, his knuckle biting faded away. We had not changed the behavior plan, so the most obvious explanation was his new diet. I had to swallow my pride and be open to considering/ruling out medical issues before deciding on a course of action. I also learned to be less judgmental of medical interventions that parents want to try as long as they are safe.

Sin #3: Too high to get in the trenches.

I heard a highly respected behavior analyst once say, “When working in a team with a client, the person in the room who is being paid the highest, should be the one in the chair.” The best mentors are the ones that are not afraid to “walk the walk”. It will also keep your skills in check and allow you to put yourself in your staffs’ shoes.

Sin #4: Unrelatable.

“…When writing the BIP, I conducted an FBA and FA in order to determine the MOs, SDs and ABCs of the Behavior…” Just like most health care fields, ours has no shortage of acronyms and scientific terms. Other fields have been more successful in relating their science in acceptable ways to the general public. There are ways to make our science accessible to others by the way we explain it. Use words that a lay-person would understand, such as motivation, trigger, rewards and praise. You are not disrespecting or watering-down the science when you speak in a way that others can relate to and understand. To read more about this topic, read the article by Paul Gavoni, Fighting Words in ABA?

Sin #5: Internal competition.

There is a popular saying that we need to remember in this field: “Supporting another’s success won’t ever dampen yours.” We are all in this together and there are plenty of problems in the world to go around for us to solve. When someone accomplishes something, especially a fellow behavior analyst, lift them up and provide support by praising them, sharing their accomplishment with others and participating in what they have created or have to say.  Remember that true success isn’t about what you accomplish, but what you inspire others to do.

Sin #6: Ignoring the contributions of other sciences.

In the article, Why Behavior Analysis Needs to Keep with Other Sciences, Chelsea Wilhite outlines two reasons why our field would benefit from knowledge and strategies from other sciences. “One, behavioral science is not as effective as it can be if we are ignorant of scientific developments in other fields. Two, we are at risk of doing to other specialists exactly what bothers us about outside perceptions of behavior analysis: that the field is antiquated and inaccurate.” The country’s healthcare system is moving more and more into integrated care, and as physical health professions start to integrate into mental health professions, we need to be able to work together and acknowledge what we can contribute and what other sciences can contribute to healthcare as a whole.

Sin #7: Staying in our bubble.

With all that said, we are good at one thing.  We are good at gaining acceptance and buy-in with what we do within our own field. We create beautiful solutions to problems and present them at Behavior Analysis conferences and publish them in Behavior Analysis journals. This needs to change! We need to reach out of our comfort zones, away from our professional circles and share our research and ideas with broader audiences. Dare to publish a book for a broad audience using relatable terms. Go to another industry conference, not to make mental judgements, but to learn. Co-publish books or research with other professionals in adjacent sciences. Publish these books and research articles in non-behavioral journals.

I truly believe that the field of behavior analysis is approaching our moment to shine. Let’s make sure that we are so good, they can’t ignore us!

What are some other deadly sins of behavior analysts that you think we need to overcome? 

Emaley McCulloch, M.Ed, BCBA co-founded Autism Training Solutions, LLC in  2008, and is currently the Vice President of Relias Institute at Relias Learning. Relias Learning is the premier provider of online health care training for Health and Human Services, Senior Care and Public Safety. Emaley is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and holds an MA in Special Education. She has served in the field of ABA for over 18 years and has provided and overseen services to individuals between the ages of 18 months to 24 years in homes, schools and clinical settings. For eight years she served as a consultant and supervisor at agencies based in Hawaii and Japan where she trained groups of professionals and parents. Emaley’s passion is elearning, staff training, dissemination of evidenced-based interventions, research, film and videography and using technology in the field of behavior analysis and special education.  You can contact her at emcculloch@reliaslearning.com.

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4 Comments

  1. Well written article n well said stephanie. Even autism speaks fails to fully address the same issue when posed the question of whether ABA therapy can be generalized to other populations. Ironically in the history of ABA, developmentally disabled populations were first recipients of ABA therapy with most of the evidence based research being where it is now. Of course other populations n areas have been explored. Insurance n legislative milestones pushed for ABA therapy in the field of autism 10-15 years ago but as practicing clinicians we should not forget our history n scope of our evidenced based clinical research.

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