Gregory A. Fabiano and Rebecca Vujnovic posted interesting results in improving special-education classroom behavior in children diagnosed with AD/HD and ODD. Teachers rated the kids’ behavior on daily report cards tailored to each child, based on their individualized educational plan.These cards went home to the parents, who were asked to reinforce good reports with privileges. End results? These rapid feedback-and-reinforcement loops moved the kids up their percentile ranks by an average of 14%.
Daily report cards have been used since the late 1990s, and this particular study dates to 2010. If it’s not new, it’s still exciting, because of what it says about behaviorism.
People forget how much operant conditioning was once feared. As this story from The Atlantic tells, the excitable claimed B.F. Skinner was an Orwellian fascist pushing Clockwork Orange-style mind control. In my mid-1990s grad school program, the professors snubbed behaviorism as a three-legged dog of a modality; respectable, certainly not useless, but limited. We got the message it was the playground of cranks – real therapists did CBT. Today, operant conditioning is the central axis in integrative therapies such as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and Acceptance & Commitment Therapy. A short tour of the Apple store will show it’s the algorithm behind a hundred apps for weight loss, reducing wasteful spending, and the like.
New theories tend to be viewed as cure-alls, and behaviorism is receiving the buzz of a rousingly new idea. Given parent’s reluctance to medicate children with AD/HD, there’s considerable push for behavioral interventions in place of meds. Fabiano, et al’s findings hint where behaviorism’s limits may lie.
Despite the improvements in the children’s behavior (including the rate at which they completed homework), their grades stayed largely the same. Early behaviorists like John B. Watson defined behavior solely in terms of what an organism does that can be observed. B.F. Skinner expanded that definition to include thoughts and feelings – anything an organism does. Given that the kids’ behavior improved but grades didn’t, “anything” may not include neurological processes, such as absorbing, retaining and recovering information.
Follow-up please – does ‘staying on task longer’ correlate to ‘paying attention more’, or just ‘elongated staring at the paper’?
Fabiano, G.A., Vujnovic, R., Pelham, W.E., Waschbusch, D.A., Massetti, G.M., Yu, J., Pariseau, M.E., Naylor, J., Robins, M.L., Carnefix, T., Greiner, A.R., Volker, M. (2010). Enhancing the effectiveness of special education programming for children with ADHD using a daily report card. School Psychology Review, 39,219-239.
@ 2012 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved
One response to “New love, limits for behaviorism”
Now if we can just get teachers to stop giving children candy as a reward in the classroom.
Also, there are so many things that we used to do that seemed crazy. Once there was a doctor who came up with the phenomenon that washing hands was necessary between each patient! Now it seems so absurd to imagine that they didn’t.