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 Think Better - On How to Think Like a Behavior Analyst

NBC Admin - Friday, January 26, 2018
Think Better
By Megan Miller, PhD, BCBA-D, LBA

The January theme for the 2018 Do Better Movement is Think Better. We started this month with a videoactivity demonstrating how important it is to think like a behavior analyst in the moment when working toward a goal with someone. Often, we are trained to follow a specific plan to 100% integrity. This can lead to issues when things don’t go according to plan and may result in it taking longer to achieve a goal, reinforcement of challenging or interfering behavior, and may result in challenging or interfering behavior that could have otherwise been avoided. To take part in this discussion, check out the earlier posts in our Slack Group #thinkbetter channel and/or the Facebook Live Discussion found here

The professional development activity for this month was a 2-hour webinar covering the topic of Discrepancy Analysis for problem solving barriers to learning. The webinar focused on how behavior analysts can Think Better when it comes to being more analytical when addressing skill acquisition programming. Frequently, we focus too much on the assessment we are using, the program we have implemented, or the data we are collecting and we don’t pinpoint the actual reasons why someone is not making progress. This webinar is available for FREE until Feb 9th, 2018 and can be accessed in our Slack Group #thinkbetter channel and/or on Navigation Behavioral Consulting’s Facebook page found here. After the 9th, the Webinar will be available on our website:

This is our first Do Better Blog Post! This blog will discuss Bailey and Burch’s book How to Think Like a Behavior Analyst. This is a MUST READ book for anyone in the field of behavior analysis, especially students and recently certified individuals. The book provides answers to 50 different questions relating to behavior analysis and covers topics from the very basic “what is behavior analysis” to the more advanced. Each chapter has activities at the end that people can do to help practice their “thinking like a behavior analyst” skill set. Remember what they say, “practice makes perfect”! The book is especially helpful for formulating answers to those tricky topics that arise when defending the science of behavior analysis such as “I’m not using reinforcement, that’s bribery!” Keep reading to discover some of my favorite quotes and/or discussion points from the book. We hope you share yours in the comments, on Slack, or on the Navigation Facebook page.
“The analysis part of behavior analysis refers to our search for maintaining variables that prompt a behavior and for those that keep it going”
YES YES YES! This quote should be repeated and memorized by every behavior analyst out there! The number one thing we should be doing when we are working in any setting is assessing and analyzing what is prompting and maintaining this response. We discussed this at length in the Discrepancy Analysis webinar but this is especially important to do with skill acquisition. If a learner is continuing to respond in a certain way, something in the environment is controlling that response, and it is our job to figure out what that is! It is not our job to flip through every assessment book out there to see what other skill to work on. It is not our job to memorize every research article ever published and try to figure out what applies to this specific situation (though applying the research is A part of the process). It is our job to have an eagle eye and carefully observe what the learner is doing and critically think about why that is happening. This holds true for a learner with autism in a 1-1 setting, a teacher in a classroom of 25 children, a new behavior technician that we have just hired, and the list goes on and on. Anytime we are trying to change a response, we should be analyzing, analyzing, analyzing!
Questions: How were you trained to engage in the analysis part of behavior analysis? How do you manage your own responding to ensure the analysis doesn’t die?

“In our field we have two levels of empirical validation. The first is internal, where the behavior analyst designs the treatment in such a way that effects can be seen directly by examining the graphs of the data. The second method, called social validation, involves including the consumer in the process to make a judgement about the importance of the treatment effect.”
One thing that struck me when reading this was, “do we teach people to rely too much on graphs” I know blasphemous! We can never rely too much on graphs. Unfortunately, I have seen far too many situations where teams are reviewing graphs and when a learner is not acquiring the skill, changes are made to the program but without any actual analysis of the learner and why progress is not being made. Instead, there is some protocol that the agency follows and when progress is not being made they go to the next step in the protocol. This is not behavior analysis! The graphs should help us identify when further analysis is needed to make a change for a learner but we can’t skip that analysis step. I could write a whole blog post on the 2nd part of this quote but I will save it for our Parent Training month in March and just post some questions for you all instead.
Questions: Do you think we rely too much on graphs to inform treatment sometimes? Are we spending the proper amount of time including the consumer for social validation?

The section after this provides a nice description of behavior analysis applying in all aspects of life…when we get fed up with a parent, coworker, teacher, etc. We will be incorporating a lot of discussion around this topic when we discuss Train Better in March. Highly recommend paying close attention to this section in the book if you read it though!

"As a behavior analyst, changing one’s own problem behaviors will result in a greater understanding of what clients are experiencing”
How many of you have incorporated self-management programs or written a plan for yourself to have someone else implement? It can be really eye opening! Having your own children, pets, spouses, etc can also help one understand what a client might experience. This is especially true if you see any specialists or behavior analysts because you get a first-hand account of the situation. There was an article recently on Facebook about a Doctor who almost died whilst pregnant with her daughter. Until the doctor became the patient, she never realized how crappy her and the other medical staff interacted with their own patients. The article focuses on how she often was focused on the medical issue and not the fact that there was an actual human being in front of her. Far too often, we do the same thing. We zero in well on the behavior, on the problems to be solved, and forget that we have humans we are interacting with as well.
Questions: What do you do to train yourself and/or others on “soft skills” necessary to being an effective behavior analyst?

For those who are newer to the field or who have hunkered down in one specific area within behavior analysis, Chapter 2 is just for you! It provides a wonderful overview of different applications of behavior analysis as well as references if you would like to learn more about those applications.

There is a section on the difference between research and treatment that I found fascinating. Bailey and Burch indicate that individuals conducting research must use well accepted and thoroughly tested protocols and then go on to say that consultants working in large organizations may use research protocols and designs to demonstrate intervention effects. This got me to thinking….is this part of our problem? Is this part of how behavior analysis has lost its analytical ways? Nothing drove me more crazy in graduate school than conducting research. I could write a whole separate blog post on this as well and just might for our Evidence-based practice month in May! Point being though that the protocol I was using as written clearly wasn’t working for 1 of my participants. I knew exactly what I could do to modify the protocol and have success for this individual but because I was conducting research I wasn’t able to do that until the study was done or it would have confounded the results. To me, much more discussion needs to be had about the where we draw the line? How do we balance, having proper data to demonstrate that what we are doing is controlling the changes we see but that we don’t require SO much control and SO much focus on using “research” level protocols that our clients fail to make progress or make less progress than they would have if we just used what we know about the science, thought critically, and created an individualized plan.
Question: Is there enough training being done in our programs to differentiate “researcher behavior analyst” from “practitioner behavior analyst”?

“The act of choosing is an operant behavior just like any other behavior. The extent to which we, as behavior analysts, can contribute to strengthening this key behavior is the extent to which we can expand the freedoms that will make life worthwhile for everyone.”

THIS….ALL. DAY. LONG. When someone asks you what you do for a living, say this is or something like it. We help individuals expand the freedoms that make life worthwhile! But then you have to actually do it! Often, at least in 1-1 intensive intervention, we punish or extinguish choice making behavior. There will be MUCH more on this in future months, especially when we talk about challenging behavior in September. For now, just reflect on how the work you currently do is contributing to strengthening choosing as an operant behavior.
Question: What do you do for yourself or the people you train to develop choosing as an operant behavior?

This whole section has great explanations of some common myths and suggestions for how to start a career in behavior analysis. Some of you may have just heard about behavior analysis or work with behavior analysts. This part of the book is for you!

“Behavior analysts are first and foremost problem solvers, so you have to be comfortable in this role; you have to be able to think outside the box because you will almost constantly be troubleshooting some aspect of behavior programming and looking for new, creative solutions.”
You all, this book is pure gold for quotes! This is something I train supervisees on very early in the process and of course what spurred the Do Better movement. We are never going to be perfect and we are always going to be problem solving and troubleshooting. Some people tend to question themselves and not have the confidence that they should because they are constantly troubleshooting. This can lead to thoughts of “am I not good enough, none of my programs ever go smoothly” when they aren’t warranted! I would rather have someone working in this field who is constantly problem solving and troubleshooting than who thinks everything is just fine and dandy and doesn’t see the need to figure out the best way. That’s not to say, skill deficits aren’t present if someone’s plans never go the way they should…there very well could be but it is important to not let the troubleshooting, problem solving that is so crucial for being an effective behavior analyst bring you down. I would also argue that behavior analysts need to be good at thinking on their feet, because people will ask you all sorts of questions all the time and if you take offense to them or react nervously, it will make it difficult to have a positive relationship with others. And we need to be willing to change our position in light of data and/or critical, logical points. What you learned in graduate school, or at your training site, is not the only way to do something and it may not even be the right or the best way to do it. And as we continue to practice and get better and learn more, even better techniques and strategies will be available to us and we need to be ready to adapt and change how we do things when appropriate. This doesn’t mean jump on every new resource or technique you see! We will discuss that more in our EBP month too in May!
Question: How do you train people to be comfortable with the necessity of problem solving inherent in our field and to recognize when they really do have a skill deficit and need help?

“Behavior analysts must be able to think analytically, that is, they must be able to think in terms of a logical series of steps and options confronted each day….It keeps you on your toes and keeps your mind busy thinking up new ways to train, to modify contingencies, and to apply what you know about human behavior.”
I could probably just end the blog post right there. Point Made. But I want to ask all of you to dig deep and reflect on whether or not you are really doing this? When you are in the day to day grind or you encounter a new issue, do you first think analytically, in logical steps, using the science that you love so much? Or do you let the day to day just go by?

If it is an issue you haven’t encountered before, do you freak out and go “eek I don’t know what that is or how to do anything about it”? Do you immediately take to Facebook and post desperately for resources or even worse someone to do the work for you and just tell you what to do? Do you scurry to JABA or Google Scholar and search frantically for an answer to an issue that is so idiosyncratic there really is no possible way there is a journal article on it but you check just in case because AHH you’ve never dealt with something like this before? If you do, I hope you will modify your own behavior and consider doing something like this:

  • Stop. Breathe. Observe. Ask at least these questions:
    a. What is happening that could be promoting this response
    b. What is happening that could be maintaining this response
    c. What skill deficits are contributing to this response
    d. What medical issues could be related to this response
    e. Is this even an issue of concern --> is it socially valid?
    f. What I have experienced like this before or what behavior analytic techniques and principles would apply to an issue like this. *This doesn’t mean that you must have experience with this exact issue…maybe you have encountered something similar such as a response that needs to be reduced, what do you know about behavior reduction that could be applied in this situation? Etc
  • If you aren’t satisfied with what you come with, reach out to a mentor or colleague to walk through what you are encountering so you can have at least 1 other person brainstorming with you. *Maintain confidentiality, do it via 1-1 correspondence not social media
  • Take to the literature (not just JABA) and search based on your brainstorming session if you still don’t have a plan. Keep the search broad when necessary
  • If you still can’t figure it out, and it is something minor that you think you really just haven’t encountered the right resource, maybe ask about RESOURCES with no identifying information on social media to make sure you didn’t miss anything
  • If you still can’t figure it out, recognize your limits and find someone to guide you or refer the family to someone who has expertise to address what you are encountering. *This is a necessity but in the grand scheme of things should happen rarely as you should be equipped with the skills to handle most issues you encounter. If you are not, then you may want to get a different job or ask for more training and supervision at your current job. I am serious about this one….far too often people are getting placed in positions that they weren’t competent yet to be in the first place and it is important to recognize when that has happened because this is a powerful science we have and these are real people’s lives you are affecting.

And on that lovely note, that’s where this blog entry will end. Make sure to check out the end of the How to Think Like a Behavior Analyst for resources, reading recommendations, list of different behavior analytic journals, and a glossary of terms! As you probably noticed, questions for you all were interspersed throughout. Go forth and discuss!

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