Beyond Behaviorism: A New Lens for Assessing Behavior

Today’s guest author is Connie Persike, M.S., CCC/SLP.

Connie is a highly experienced Speech Language Pathologist and Educational Consultant. As founder of CP Consulting, she brings 20+ years of experience in educational settings to provide insight, guidance, coaching, and support to school districts, agencies, and families across Wisconsin — and throughout the country — who need expert direction in working with children. Put simply: she helps students succeed by working with school systems, parents and/or agencies who have yet to identify the underlying “why” behind unsolved behavioral challenges. She helps identify paths forward that benefit both the student and the staff. No two children are alike – she collaborates with all parties to find an individualized solution that helps everyone thrive. CP Consulting works from the guiding mission that Connection + Collaboration = Endless Possibilities.

Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Now is the time to do better. It is time for those of us in the field who conduct Functional Behavioral Assessments to move beyond behaviorism and to incorporate new learnings that welcome neurodiversity and focus on trauma-sensitive practices.

For almost 100 years, we’ve been using the same practices and approaches of behaviorism — including Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and Functional Behavioral Assessments (FBA) — to understand our students’ behaviors.

While these practices were regarded as effective 50 years ago, they no longer meet the needs of our students today, nor have they evolved to incorporate our expanded understanding of the field. In fact, for the past two years in a row, the United States Government has reported that approaches based on ABA don’t work. As a result, we must challenge the status quo, and incorporate our new knowledge as we work to adequately and properly assess behavioral issues today.

Looking Backward To Look Forward

Functional behavioral assessments, based in the field of applied behavior analysis, can be traced back to the works of B.F. Skinner in the 1930s. Along with studies conducted in the 40s and 50s, they laid the foundation for behaviorism. These studies proposed that we should be concerned with observable behavior versus sensations and view all behaviors as being based on simple stimulus-response reactions.

This line of thought continued to be built through the 1980s, growing to include the functions of challenging behaviors. Updates to the field included an understanding of the role of positive and negative reinforcement, autonomic reinforcement, as well as tangible reinforcement and a need for control.

Today, FBAs are still a necessary part of an educator’s toolbox. In fact, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), all students with disabilities must have an evaluation that includes all areas related to a disability including behavior. Best practices tell us that FBAs should still be conducted when a team is trying to better understand a student’s behavior.

You would think that since the FBA is such a prevalent part of understanding student behavior that our field would have evolved to incorporate such new knowledge and practices. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Instead, FBAs today largely mirror the knowledge and practices established decades ago. It’s time to accept that there’s a paradigm shift occurring in our understanding of behavior, and update our FBAs for the students of today accordingly!

The Paradigm Shift: Moving Beyond Behaviorism

Leaders in the field of behavioral study are consistently moving away from behaviorism and ABA to more relational approaches that welcome neurodiversity, placing an emphasis on trauma-sensitive practices.

These new approaches are able to find success where behaviorism fails due to their incorporation of both external and internal elements of behavior, up-to-date insights on what causes behavior, and a better understanding of how to influence behavior in sustainable ways.

We know that to understand behavior, we must go deeper than issues readily identifiable on the surface. Behavior is not just based on what we can see – it’s based on the sensations our students are feeling, their emotions, and their thoughts. If we change our idea of behavior to include internal factors, we also increase our options for influencing undesirable behaviors.

Our learnings also provide us with revelations about behavior that should be incorporated into today’s FBAs. For example, we now know that there may be many reasons for avoidance behaviors. These can include lagging skills, developmental differences, perfectionistic tendencies, and executive functioning deficits.

Neuroscience has also taught us that often our behaviors can be autonomic behaviors that are responses to the nervous system’s perception of threat. When our nervous system perceives a threat, our fight, flight, or freeze mode is activated to keep us safe. This may be especially relevant for students who have experienced trauma, have anxiety, or have sensory processing disorders. These students may be in a constant state of alert and as a result, are at the whim of subconscious systems that influence their behavior.

Furthermore, we now understand that dangling “carrots” and threatening “sticks” are no longer acceptable for influencing behavior. The dichotomy of rewards and punishments does not help students learn how to regulate their emotions or bodily states and control their behaviors in the long term.

Similarly, withholding attention from students when things get rough will likely do more harm than good. Our brains are social organs that require connection. Our students need to share our calm to learn how to regulate their own behavior. If we ignore them, we make this impossible and betray a relationship of trust that is necessary for influencing future behavioral patterns.

Finally, we must also consider how we communicate with our students and pay attention to the environments we are creating. Communication must be adaptable to the diverse needs of our students. If a student has limited verbal abilities, alternative forms of communication may be the key to influencing behavior. Similarly, if the environment in which a student learns does not meet the needs of their developmental levels and neurodiverse characteristics, this may also negatively impact their ability to regulate their behaviors.

Turning Philosophy Into Practice

This all serves to lead us to the big question – how can we incorporate these learnings into our FBAs?

To this question, I propose three points of consideration. First, we must redefine behavior. Second, we must ask ourselves what experiences – not consequences – will influence behavior. And third, we must understand our role in responding to behavior.

By redefining behavior to include both external and internal stimuli, we can expand our options for supporting students and learning about their behaviors. We can use our relationships with students to better understand their thoughts and feelings, understand their neurodiversity and welcome individual differences, as well as determine lagging skills that may exist. By understanding that behaviors are often a stress response, we can clearly identify what a child looks like as they move through their cycle of distress and offer calming support and co-regulation strategies that meet their actual needs.

Next, we must ask ourselves what experiences will influence behavior for the long term – not what consequences will stop the behavior right now. We need to understand the students’ perspective of their experiences within their communities, schools, and their homes.

As Dr. Tina-Payne Bryson says, “The difference between adversity making us fragile vs. making us resilient is having someone show up for us and walk with us through it.”

We need to show up for our students and create experiences that allow them to co-regulate and eventually self-regulate.

Finally, when we show up, we need to remember that our response to behavior is a connected experience between us and our students. This means understanding our behavior and sensations as much as we seek to understand a student’s. Our emotions and actions are contagious. We need to be conscious of all the factors that affect the experiences we create, from how we present ourselves to the language we use.

As it stands, our FBAs are more of a detriment to our students’ behavioral development than they are a help – but we know that this does not have to be the case.

Together in understanding the flaws in ABA and FBAs and incorporating new learnings and evolved best practices into our field, we can make better FBAs that help us to better help our students.

We know better now and we can do better now – and when we do better, our students will too.

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