A Behaviorist’s Back to School Advice

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I always think of this B.F. Skinner quote when I’m making my classroom behavior plans. As we begin this new year, we all know that connecting with students and getting them to perform takes reinforcement. But what we sometimes forget is, kids care less about the “thing” they get than how that thing was given. It’s the little things you do every day to show you care that make the biggest difference.

Here’s to a great school year!

Eric

Hit the Trail, Barefoot Style!

I love discovering new places to run. This morning I did a quick trail run in a new location, Crystal Canyon Trail in Arlington, Texas. It’s nice little, semi-paved trail that is perfect for walking, running or hiking. The trail itself is about a half mile loop; great for beginners.

Only 3 years ago, I was working with a specialist to help with lower back pain. I discovered I have not one but TWO degenerative discs, bone on bone. While in those “I’ve tried everything and nothing works” phases, I learned about “barefoot” or minimalist running. It was a long and sometimes painful process, but over the course of a year, I slowly made the transition to minimalist running in Vibram Fivefingers. Starting with half a mile walks, then soon mile jogs, until eventually I was consistently running 3-4 miles every other day. Nowadays, whenever I begin to feel stiffness or pain in my lower back I know it’s a signal to get moving. The relief I feel running minimalist style is almost immediate. That’s what works for me. So my doctor now tells me “keep doing what you’re doing!” (Click here to see my behaviorist take on why I love running.

Now it’s your turn, get moving people! It doesn’t matter if you walk, run, hike, or wander in circles. It might be 4 miles, or to the end of the driveway and back. It might just be doing a few stretches. The only thing worse than little exercise is no exercise. Even a few minutes of daily exercise has benefits and your body will reap the rewards.

A Curse and A Gift

About a month ago, I presented an inservice for crisis support teams. Throughout the presentation I incorporated many examples from my own life. During a break an administrator approached me and said that I seem like the kind of person that “can’t turn it off”, as if I’m always analyzing events and their contingencies. I had to agree, sometimes it seems that I can’t.

As I study to sit for the BCBA exam, I find myself questioning my own sanity. This journey I’ve taken has at times been a gift and a curse:
My curse: Having to find time to read up on research literature, take classes, attend workshops, complete modules, or watch training videos to learn the ins and outs of the field.
My gift: Being able to use the knowledge and skills I’ve learned to help others (and myself) change their behavior in meaningful, socially significant ways.

For all you BCBAs, BCABAs, B.A.I.T.s (Behavior Analyst in Training) and anyone else in the field, what is one curse and gift you’ve experienced?

Pigeonholed, Tearing Off Some Labels

Thinking back on a recent social skills lesson from Why Try? (www.whytry.org), I talked with a group of students about “tearing off your labels”. We all are identified by others by how they view us, their perceptions of who we are. For many reasons, be they right or wrong, those perceptions also indicate to them how they think we should behave and interact with others, basically what we can and cannot do. Basically you can end up being pigeonholed into serving only function in the opinion of others. People then treat you in accordance the label they associate with you. During our lesson we created posters of ourselves, artistically writing down the labels people use to identify us. We then wrote how we want people to learn more about us so they might then identify us with new labels. This was one of my ways, to blog about it. Hopefully this would clarify one, what I do and can do, and two, to show I’m more than what I do as a professional.

For many years now, most people at work have referred to me as a “behavior guy”, as if all I can and am able to do is work with behavior. But what exactly does that mean? According to my training, everything we do is behavior. Think about it, outside of death, is there a time that our bodies are not doing anything? (But that is really a topic for another blog post)

Most people associate the word behavior with misbehavior. I don’t usually get contacted if things are going well, I get contacted when things aren’t going well at all. Yet, I see myself as a person who can use behavior analytic principles to not just work with treating misbehavior, but as someone who can use the same principles to make improvements in all aspects of life. It’s not just about making the bad good, but also about making the good even better, and easier, sort of like an efficiency specialist. That being said, although that is much of what I do, it isn’t ALL that I do.

So although much of what I end up discussing on this blog is behavior, there is so much more to me than the ABC’s of behavior. I also enjoy spending time with my family, running trails, brewing beer, admiring art, reading history articles and shows, endlessly pursuing my perfect backyard, blogging, tweeting, drawing, graphic design, meditating, watching movies, composting, playing mindless games on my phone or iPad, getting hooked into a game of tennis ball fetch with my Matilda (my Yorkie), training my fish to do stupid tricks (okay, bad example), providing silly third party commentary during old Star Trek Next Generation episodes just to name a few.

What are some labels people use to refer to you? Do you like your labels? Do you feel pigeonholed by them? What have you done to overcome those labels?

The CAMI Tests: Reinforcement in the Classroom

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We need to be aware that too much or too little of a good thing can make reinforcement more or less effective.

After seeing some trends over the past year in regards to reinforcement, I presented a quick reinforcement segment during a recent in-service specifically to address some common mistakes made by teachers (and support staff who help them). Some common issues I’ve seen include continuing reinforcement procedures long after they had been shown to not increase behavior, choosing rewards that were excessive in cost (effort, time, and money), or choosing rewards that are not easily accessible and therefore not appropriate, and finally recommending rewards that teachers and parents did not agree were appropriate.

Here is a quick summary that I handed out to attendees. Recently this was updated in order to be more consistent with behavior analytic principles. Please feel free to give me feedback.

The CAMI Tests

In a school setting, we use prizes and other positive events in an attempt to reinforce the behaviors we would like to improve. However, these consequences for behavior will most likely not be successful as reinforcers unless they pass the four-part CAMI tests:

Conveniency Test. Is the reinforcer typically available in a school setting? If not, can it be obtained with little inconvenience and at a cost affordable to staff or parents? A reward system is less likely to be maintained if the cost of obtaining items creates too much of a strain of time, effort, or funds.

Acceptability Test. Do the teachers approve of using the consequences with this child? Do the parents approve the use of the reinforcer with their child? Philosophical differences can create disagreement and therefore inconsistency between implementors.

Example: Janie loves sugary foods and will do just about anything to get them. However, Janie’s parents are using a low sugar diet with Janie. Therefore using food, especially those with high sugar content, might be unacceptable to use. Also, the school has now implemented minimal nutritional value standards. The teacher checks school policy and seeks approval from administrators and the general education teachers before proposing the use of edibles.

Motivation Test. How much access does the student have to the reward? Too much or too little access to a reward will affect the child’s motivation for it. A child who gets too much will have little desire to earn more. A child who gets too little can have strong desire to earn more or give up because he feels he will never get any. When it comes to motivation, be aware of the following 4 conditions that influence reinforcer effectiveness.

1. Deprivation/Satiation: Often referred to as not getting enough or getting too much of a good thing.

Deprivation: Not having access to something that is highly desirable (hungry, thirsty, tired, etc.). This is often used to make an item or activity more valuable or desirable to someone

Example: Joey hasn’t played with his favorite stuffed animal since last yesterday. Because he hasn’t played with his stuffed animal today, he is deprived, therefore, he wants to play with his favorite toy.

Satiation: Satiation refers to having too much (like the full feeling from eating too much pizza). If the same reinforcer is used over and over again, it will lose its reinforcing value.

Example: If Joey played with his stuffed animal when he got to school today, then again before and after lunch and now his teacher offers playing with his stuffed animal to get him to work he may say, “No!” Because his is satiated with stuffed animal play. (it’s a stretch I know, but work with me here)

2. Immediacy: A reinforcer must be delivered as quickly as possible following the target behavior that we are looking to increase, especially on newly targeted skills. The longer the amount of time that lapses between the behavior we want to see increase and the time the reinforcer is delivered, the less valuable the reinforcer will be, and the less likely that a connection between the behavior and its resulting consequence is made.
Example: We’re trying to teach Shaley to raise her hand to get the teacher’s attention. She spontaneously raises her hand to get the teacher’s attention in class, but we don’t respond to this until 5 minutes later, we’ve most likely lost the reinforcing value of whatever we’re delivering for that target behavior. We are now reinforcing whatever Shaley is doing, 5 minutes after hand raising.
3. Size: This refers to how much of the reinforcer you get/are giving.

Example: If Shawn reads 1 sight word card, and he earns a cup of popcorn, we will quickly satiate him and have to look for new reinforcers. A better way to reinforce might be a small cup of popcorn after reading 15 to 20 sight word cards, or completing all his reading work.

4. Contingency: Reinforcement delivery must be contingent, meaning, access to a reinforcer only occurs after the target behavior has been demonstrated.

Example: Brandon’s mother tells him he can read his book after he finishes his chores, Brandon proceeds to get out his book and read on the couch. Although the contingency is stated, it is not being enforced. Until the mother can limit and then provide access to the book provided that chores are complete

Improvement Test. Does the behavior improve or increase as a result of obtaining the “reinforcer”? Just because we think an item, activity, or praise is positive does not mean it works as a reinforcer. What makes an event a reinforcer is that it is successful helping to increase the frequency of the behavior. So if it is consistently not working, it’s time to change.

Example: Thomas rarely completes his multiplication quizzes. You decided to let him play a math game on an iPad when he finishes his multipication quiz. You follow this procedure and you see an increase in how often he completes his multiplication quizzes. Due to the improvement in desired behavior, you might be able to assume that playing math games on the iPad is indeed a reinforcer for quiz completion.

Please note that this is only a guide for implementing reinforcement procedures in the classroom or at home. It is not intended nor shall it be misconstrued as specific advice. Before engaging in any major behavior change program you should consult an expert or highly trained professional such as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.