Behavior, and all its components, is an integral part of education for students with autism and other disabilities. Many of our students have behaviors that, though may serve a short-term need, are self-defeating and problematic for them. A tool that is employed throughout Wildwood School is Applied Behavioral Analysis.

     Applied behavior analysis requires a precise study of students’ actions  and developing a detailed understanding of what they like and dislike.

     “We all find different things rewarding or reinforcing. The key is to use what a student finds reinforcing in the most effective way possible. It isn’t always as simple as it appears,” Alex Keefer says. Alex is on the behavior team at Wildwood School.

     “Reinforcement is most effective when it is immediate and based on what the individual wants and likes,” Keefer says. “To say, for instance, ‘If you do A, B and C you can have computer time at noon.’ is really inefficient because it isn’t immediate and it isn’t specific to the individual.”

     For some individuals an immediate snack that they like, praise, or even a short walk can be an effective reinforcer if it is paired with the desired behavior. When giving a tangible reinforcer isn’t practical, a secondary reinforcer that leads to a primary reinforcer can be effective.

     Keefer explains: “We sometimes use a system of tokens when an individual exhibits a desired behavior. When those tokens add up, they can be traded in for something they find really rewarding whether that be an experience or something they want like a treat.

     The token is a secondary reinforcer and the treat is the primary reinforcer.”

     It is important to understand that we all do things all the time because of the reinforcers we get. We go to work for a paycheck, we watch TV to distract us or we take a warm bath for relaxation. 

     How can we explain behaviors that are upsetting to witness or that are even hurtful. It may not be as complicated as it first seems.

     “Take for instance, when someone bangs their head. We find it very difficult to understand and it is obviously very disturbing to watch,” Keefer says. “But if we break it down it makes more sense. Someone may have a head ache and the pressure and stimulation may initially cause some relief. The stimulation may be relieving boredom or it may illicit the reaction from others that the individual is looking for, be that attention, comforting or nurturing.”

     Analyzing the behavior can help us understand what the motivation for upsetting behavior is and then alternative, more functional behavior can be substituted. It takes careful observation and communication with people, especially when their verbal skills are limited, to find out what is going on and why a person is choosing the behaviors they do.

     “The key is finding what need they are trying to satisfy and then give them other choices that work better,” Keefer says. “It takes time to figure it for some people.”

     In the past, behavior modification was inappropriately used with people with disabilities. Physical punishment or the withholding of basic human needs were employed to change behavior. These actions put behavior modification techniques in a dim light.

     “We use only positive behavior modification. That means rewarding desired behavior that the student wants to increase,” Alex Keefer says. “Unfortunately, because of an ugly past behavior modification sometimes gets a bad reputation. When positive interventions are the focus,  we can move forward to a brighter chapter of behavior analysis “

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