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No magic in changing behaviours

Updated: Mar 30, 2020

Did you hear the one about the behaviour analyst was really a magician under a cloak of magic, sprinkling behaviour changes wherever they went? No, me either. However, it is not uncommon when someone hears the words behaviour analyst, assumptions are made about how easy it can be to change behaviour, with a few words, quick advice, a long term behaviour, a challenging behaviour, disappears into the unknown. In the search for changing behaviours, socially significant behaviours, there are many services in areas where they are offering behaviour support. The challenge for individuals & families is finding a service appropriate to their needs from the wide selection of professionals offering 'behaviour support'. At times the need may be court ordered, needed to address a problematic behaviour impacting on others.

In the AIHW (Australian Institute of Health & Welfare) 2017 - 2018 report on child protection, at least 72% of families reported to child protection in one year are the same families the following year, that nearly 3/4 of the children & families subject to investigation were from the previous year's data. Despite engaging with a number of services, behaviours continue & if there is to be a change in the trajectory, surely ABA must be included as the most effective scientific, evidence-based approach to behaviour change, currently available. Of course it is this data that became a catalyst for my continued passion & interest in conducting research, the pursuit of further studies.

The term 'socially significant' is critical to the principles of ABA. It may not have the same relevance or priority in programs, particularly where there is no requirement to ensure a theoretical foundation or evidenced-based approach, however many programs can offer a variety of services & outcomes. I am passionate about ABA because it is effective (when the 7 Dimensions of Applied Behaviour Analysis is applied) for individuals when it comes to changing behaviours. so while there is a shopping list of programs to choose from, I like nothing more than see people replicate behaviour change across environments, data supporting intervention & evaluation, clear, concise assessments by those who appreciate the importance of evidence-based approaches.


Functional analysis of behaviours can provide valuable insight into reinforcement. Sometimes I hear 'I tried reinforcement it doesn't work'; well then, it wasn't reinforcement. Reinforcement increases a behaviour. So if you have taken that car off the offender & crushed it, he or she has served their time, gone right back out there & done the same thing, your punishment was more likely negative reinforcement - something was removed & the behaviour increased & it continued.


This isn't to suggest it was intentional of policy or procedures to increase a behaviour, a great deal of what occurs is through ignorance, unintentional, yet well meaning approaches...if we try this or this...maybe it will have a positive impact. A applied behaviour analyst however, should never 'wing it', they must support their intervention, analysis, approach to changing behaviour with data, with evidence, with a professional, technological & analytical approach which will ensure an effective outcome. There are no guesstimates in ABA or should be. I am passionate about improving outcomes for those with behaviours which are having a socially significant impact on their life, where their behaviours contribute to suffering, trauma, outcomes which diminish the opportunities an individual may have if it were not for their socially significant behaviour.

ABA works when the 7 dimensions are applied, otherwise it's not ABA. Sure there are many professionals out there, working in the space of changing behaviours. There are many fabulous, incredibly dedicated individuals creating change, improving lives. I am supportive of ABA taking a seat at every table where behaviour needs to change, every meeting that discusses changing behaviour. Let's work in collaboration to improve outcomes, to change the statistics, for the funding bodies to have a far better result on their investment in services which are producing the return currently documented. We do not need more of the same. What is needed is a thorough evaluation of programs & outcomes. Long term outcomes.


As a behaviour analyst my role is to ensure 'effective' & 'systematic', 'technological' 'analytic', 'applied' 'behavioural' outcomes which are demonstrated across contexts - this is 'generality'. I may analyse, seek to understand a behaviour, gather all the data necessary to have a clear picture of the target behaviour, to plan interventions. I would keep assessing, reviewing, documenting until there is an effective outcome. Limited interventions may increase behaviours rather decrease without appropriate planning & evidenced analysis of why the behaviour is occurring in the first place. This is about change, changing behaviours, no band-aids here. ABA's strength as a method of changing behaviour is it's effectiveness, absence of guesstimates, without random ideas from the air or copying & pasting ideas into plans. To be ABA, it must include all 7 dimensions;

* Applied - socially significant behaviours are selected * Behavioural - Observable and measurable behaviours are targeted * Analytic - data demonstrates a causal relation * Technological - techniques for behaviour change are completed identified & described * Conceptually systematic - Descriptions of procedures strive for relevant to principle

* Effective - Procedures improve the target behaviour * Generality - The improvement carries over into other environments (not just looks good & sounds good during therapeutic intervention) Socially significant is one of the most important of the 7 principles. This means when considering if a behaviour needs to be changed, we must ask the question, is this behaviour socially significant. If behaviour is to be changed, then first it must be understood.

If society is to really take a reflective, critical examination of the data & statistics on outcomes for individuals across our communities, to evaluate the investment into services over decades in changing behaviours or creating a long term co-dependency on services, the significant concerning outcomes of those exposed to violence, the rising statistics of children in care; at the time of the Bringing them Home report the removal of Aboriginal children from their family home was far lower than it is today. In 2007-2008 x7 higher than non-Aboriginal, in 2017-2018 x8 times higher. It would suggest whatever is being done is not working or changing very few behaviours as effectively as society would benefit from & most importantly the individual & families.


It was Albert Einstein who once said insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If you are seeking to change behaviours, not looking for a quick fix, really wanting to change a behaviour, change the trajectory for individual's, empower, provide choices, build socially significant skills which enhance lives, improve outcomes, then it's time to critically examine what isn't working & start using what will work; a scientifically proven method of intervention, when applied appropriately by a professional trained, skilled & qualified in specialising in understanding the function of behaviour, planning interventions to support behaviour change.


I've learned a thing or two about cars over the year, I've owned a number of vehicles, my Dad worked on cars in his spare time & we never had to worry about things not working, he could fix anything. I never once thought it was magic or would ever assume or I could take the role of either my Dad or a mechanic, highly qualified, skilled & experienced in their profession. Just in the same way, I have an advanced first-aid qualification, I spent a great deal of my early parenting days at one of the best children's hospitals in the country, while my son battled cancer, gave injections, cleaned dressings, learned the medical lingo I needed. However, I would never once assume I could take over the role of a skilled paramedic, nurse or doctor, that a weekend course could replace years of University training, experience & adherence to professional standards. Working collaboratively & letting go of the egos & short cuts, evaluating what is working & what is not, being reflective about current approaches with the openness that is needed from thorough evaluations, is what is essentially required to change socially significant behaviours. As a society, changing behaviours needs to be reconsidered. It needs to begin with respect for each & every single individual with socially significant behaviours. To provide individuals & families with the best possible approach available. It needs to be understood changing behaviours is a skill, evidenced & understood by those who are trained in ABA, to plan for effective, sustainable outcomes.


Let's start there, for a change.




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