WHAT EXACTLY IS BEHAVIOR, ANYWAY?
A lot of people hear the word and immediately think of “bad behavior” or “behavior problems.”
Actually, behavior isn’t bad or good, it’s just stuff we do. Walking is an observable behavior; we can see someone doing it. Talking is a verbal behavior. (Even thinking is considered private behavior, but we won’t be going into that here.) People doing stuff (behaving) is neither good nor bad in itself, but we all know there are times when our behaviors can get us into trouble.
When behaviors become problematic it’s due to either behavior excesses or behavior deficits.
Behavior excesses happen when people do something too much, so that it gets in the way of their daily life or functioning. For example, walking is just a behavior, but when a person walks out of the classroom in the middle of a lesson, or walks into the street without looking for cars, or repetitively paces back and forth for hours and wears a rut in the carpet, that’s excessive. Talking is just behavior, and of course we want our children to learn how to talk, but when someone talks incessantly on the same subject for hours, or blurts out answers in class without waiting to be called on, or shouts obscenities at a police officer, we’re talking about a problem of behavior excess.
Behavior deficits, on the other hand, occur when people are not doing things, usually things that their parents, teachers or society believe they “should” be doing. For instance, if a person doesn’t brush their teeth or take a shower with any regularity, it may not seem problematic to that person, but eventually it will be noticed and can take its toll on relationships at school, work and home. If a person fails to respond in any visible way when a parent says, “Stop,” or a teacher says, “Sit down,” or a police officer says, “Take your hands out of your pockets so I can see them,” that behavior deficit can be a serious problem.
Why do we do (or not do) the things we do (or don’t) do, anyway? Well, there may be any number of reasons. It’s worth the time and effort to figure out what the intention is behind the behavior. BEHAVIOR IS COMMUNICATION. A person might not have the words to tell you what they want or need, and may use behaviors to try to get you to understand. On the other hand, maybe they can talk just fine most of the time, but when they are under stress the words just won’t come out.
Let’s take a look at a behavior (screaming) from a couple of different angles, and see what we can learn from a child’s behavior.
For example, maybe a child is screaming in the classroom because she is frustrated by a difficult task and needs help, but she can’t seem to control her vocalization enough to ask politely for someone to come over and explain the assignment to her.
On the other hand, maybe she is screaming because people are just too close to her; she is experiencing sensory overload, and she wants everyone to stay away and leave her alone.
You see the dilemma, don’t you? Whether we rush over to offer help, or pull away and give her extra space, if we guessed wrong about the function (the WHY) of her screaming, we might make it worse.
But, never fear, we have tools in our behavior tool kit to help us figure out and address these very problems. I’ll go into detail about a variety of tools for behavior change in future blogs, but for now, looking at the basics, let’s review the A-B-C’s of behavior:
A = ANTECEDENTS, or what happened BEFORE the behavior. It’s important to look closely at what preceded the behavior, and may have triggered it or encouraged it. In the case of the screaming child, what was happening right before she started screaming? If she was looking at her work paper alone at her desk and suddenly started screaming, maybe the screaming was a cry for help with a difficult task. If she was working in a group and another student scooted over closer to her or an aide leaned over to check her work, maybe the screaming was her way of keeping other people away.
B = BEHAVIOR, or WHAT HAPPENED. We need to have a very good idea of what exactly we mean when we talk about a behavior, so that everyone is on the same page. Describe it clearly, including what it is and also what it is not. For example, maybe we describe “screaming” as a loud, high-pitched, open-vowel, non-word vocalization which can be easily heard across the room; calling someone’s name or calling out the answer to a question is not considered screaming.
C = CONSEQUENCE, or what happened AFTER the behavior. If we guessed that the student was screaming to get help on a difficult assignment, and the consequence of screaming was that a staff member rushed to her side to ask her to be quiet and then helped her, then the consequence may be reinforcing. Screaming was effective in meeting her needs, so she is more likelyto scream again the next time she needs help. On the other hand, if she screamed because people were too close, and after she screamed people moved away from her and covered their ears, well, that worked for her, too. Next time people get too close, she is more likely to scream as a way of asking them to leave her alone. You can see how important it is to have a good idea ofwhy she was screaming before we can know how to address it.
SO, WHAT SHOULD WE DO?
Once we have an idea of why she is screaming, we have a better idea of what to do…and what NOT to do.
If she was screaming due to frustration with a difficult task, we can teach her how to ask for help in a more appropriate way. Depending on her development and functioning, maybe she could learn to raise her hand, use a PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) icon to ask for help, or another verbal or nonverbal way to ask for help without screaming. While she is learning, everyone who works with her should ALWAYS respond very quickly when she uses the new way of asking for help, and NEVER come to her desk, talk to her, or help her when she screams.
If she was screaming to get people to leave her alone, we need to teach her how to say, “Please go away,” or “I need my space,” or to give a PECS icon, or other means of communicating her need. While she is learning, the person who is close to her when she screams should ideally not leave the area when she is screaming, but prompt her to use the more appropriate way of communicating, and then immediately leave as soon as she hands over the icon or uses her words if she is able.
A GOOD START…
…and often effective immediately, but of course there is a lot more involved in behavior change when a behavior is particularly strong, dangerous, or has been in place for a long time, especially if the behavior continues to be reinforced in some settings or with some people. I’ll be posting more blogs About Behavior in the coming weeks. If you would like to make an appointment for behavior assessment, behavior analysis, or consultation, please fill out the contact information below, or you may call or text Dr. Marsh for an appointment at (503) 850-2361.