Recently I visited the home of one of my clients. I asked the RBT working there if our client was still throwing materials. She said he hadn’t thrown anything all week. I was excited to hear this news, until I heard her next sentence. “I realized he always throws the materials when he asks to be all done and I say ‘not yet.’ So now, whenever he says he’s all done, we just clean it up.”
While it is true that behavior analysts make changes to the environment to improve behaviors, that doesn’t mean we change the environment at the expense of teaching new skills. Our ultimate goal for any client is that they lead as independent a life as possible. For this particular client, I hope that one day he will be employed. This means that we need to start teaching him now that sometimes he will have to complete a task, even when he doesn’t feel like it.
So how do you know when you’re being realistic about changing the environment? Here are a few questions you should ask yourself:
Is the environmental change I’m suggesting something that will be implemented in the natural environment? If no, then you should think about how to shape appropriate behaviors rather than simply avoid the problematic behavior. For this client, refusing to work further would not be acceptable in a school or in future work environments. It could also potentially result in more restrictive learning environments for the client.
In what future circumstances might this behavior cause problems for my client? If you can envision scenarios in employment, social situations, or in public, then you need to focus on teaching an appropriate behavior rather than simply avoiding the problematic behavior. Furthermore, thinking about these circumstances may help you identify potential replacement behaviors that you can teach.
How can I shape an appropriate behavior? Think about the steps you can plan for shaping a replacement behavior. For instance, with the example of my client, we could start by requiring him to complete one more simple instruction before putting the activity away (such as placing one more puzzle piece, responding to one more question, or imitating one more action.) After he’s mastered that step, we could increase the requirement to completing two more simple instructions, then to working for one more minute, then two more minutes, etc. We can implement a systematic plan for teaching an appropriate response and completing the work even if he doesn’t want to anymore.
Is what I’m asking reasonable? In another case, one of my clients’ goals was to pull her hair back into a ponytail independently. The intention behind this goal was to do it in situ, when she would naturally be pulling her hair back. However, the implementation of the goal resulted in her practicing pulling her hair back and taking it down multiple times. Her hair would often tangle and she would feel pain while taking her hair out of the ponytail. It’s fair to say that asking a client to put up and take down her hair several times is an unreasonable request. If your request isn’t reasonable, think about how to change it so the client still learns the skill without it becoming aversive.
Ultimately, we should not change the environment in order to avoid behaviors, unless there is something unreasonable or unnecessary about what we are requesting the client to do. It is our job to teach the client how to communicate effectively, as well as to teach and reinforce appropriate behaviors to promote independence.
Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-15 in NYC. Working in education for twelve years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam utilizes strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. She is also an assistant professor in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.