Friday, November 2, 2012

Behaviors and the Environment

One of the core principles of Applied Behavior Analysis is that behaviors are related to the environment in which they occur. And no, we are not talking about global warming nor are we going to tell you to “go green”. When we talk about the environment, we are referring to (a) the physical setting in which a behavior occurs and (b) the behaviors of the people who interact with the child.

a.     Physical Setting: This means the places where he/she spends the most time, home, school etc.  Lack or abundance of sensory stimuli such as lighting, temperature, noises, clutter, activities, curriculum, demanding routines (or lack thereof) are some examples.

b.     But behaviors are also affected by other factors in the environment such as the people and how they behave. “You change child behaviors by changing the behaviors of the adults who deal with that child. Pure and simple” (Cipani and Schock- 2011)

When attempting to change a behavior, a behaviorist’s first step is to assess environmental factors that trigger behaviors. Something either IS in the environment or IS NOT in the environment, which is causing the occurrence of the behavior.  One example (discussed in a previous blog, “Tantrums in Public”) of this is meltdowns that commonly occur at large retail stores like Target or supermarkets.

Another example is when parents tell us that their child behaves well at school but not at home or vice versa. When analyzing the situation one easily concludes that since the child is capable of handling himself at school, there must be something in the environment or something missing from the environment at home (or vice versa) that is causing the problematic behaviors. 

If you are experiencing problems with your child’s behaviors, take a look at some of the environmental factors that could be contributing to the problem. A few examples include:

-        Lack of structure and consistency, or too demanding routines, which can increase anxiety and/or boredom, some of the top causes of acting out in children.

-        Physical environments that don’t fit the child’s sensory needs (like the one described at Target).

-        Lack of opportunities to release energy appropriately, such as when a child is expected to sit still for too long at the dinner table or restaurant.

-        Unrealistic expectations: too many “No’s” and “Must Do’s”.

-        Lack of following through with instructions, giving in to challenging behaviors.

-        Others’ undesired behaviors that the child imitates.

-        Adults’ stress.  

If parents pay attention to the environmental factors and become aware of the cues that a meltdown is about to occur, it can go a long way in prevention.


Daniel Adatto, Board Certified Behavior Analyst

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