Monday, September 22, 2014

Behavior Detectives

The behaviorist was observing the student when the teacher said “We’ve tried everything, nothing works with him.” The behaviorist response was “There is something, we haven’t found it yet.”

B. F. Skinner (1904- 1990) is considered the father of Behavior Analysis, the environmental approach that revolutionized the understanding and treatment of behaviors. Throughout the years I’ve been gathering some of his assertions regarding the field of behaviorism. Here are some jewels, in my opinion.

“One can picture a good life by analyzing one’s feelings, but one can achieve it only by arranging environment contingencies.” 1

“The subject is always right.” 2

“Control the environment and you will see order in behavior.” 3

“Responses in relation to environments were precisely the objects of study for those psychologists who called themselves behaviorists, and Skinner counted himself among them. For Skinner, behavior was worthy of study in its own right, not as a symptom to be used as a window on physiological processes.” 4

“The task of a behavior analyst is to discover all the variables of which probability of response is a function. It is not an easy assignment, but it is at least an explicit one.” 5

This is what the behaviorist meant when she said “We haven’t found it yet.” A good behaviorist does not rest on the assumption that there is nothing to do because the child is “broken” or “there is something wrong with him.”

It’s detective work. Understanding the variables that elicit the behaviors involves searching the environment for evidence: tight routines and structure, or lack of; physical setting, such as furniture, lighting, ventilation, space, big or small groups, etc.; and last but not least the behaviors of the people who interact with that child. How is the parent/teacher giving directions? Are caregivers frustrated and reacting violently to the child (yelling, threatening, punishing)? Are the curriculum, materials and demands appropriate for this child? Are the tasks the child is expected to complete too difficult, long and/or boring?

I worked with this family a few years ago. We eventually discovered the main problem was homework. It used to take hours for this child to complete his work, and a great deal of nagging and yelling from his mom. When I asked him why he did not want to do homework, he responded without hesitation “Because it’s boring.” And it was. Basically, it was “paper-pencil” work. After consulting with the teacher the student was allowed to do homework using the computer, a preferred activity of his. The problem was reduced by about 75% overnight.

Of course it is not always overnight, but oftentimes simple environmental changes suffice. For more information, see our blog “Behaviors and Environment” at

Ask the detectives, become one yourself. And stay away from the excuse “nothing works.” Something works. You just haven’t found it yet. Your child and your family will thank you.


Daniel Adatto, BCBA


1.     Skinner, Notebooks, p.127 1983

2.     Skinner, 1948, p 240

3.     Skinner, 1967, p. 399


5.      J.E.A.B.- VOLUME 9, MAY, 1966- B. F. SKINNER


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