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Generalizing Behavior Change

Article: Creating Lasting Behavioral Change Through the Generalization Analysis Worksheet. By Brady and Kotkin, in Contemporary School Psychology, 2011, v15.

"I tried that and it didn't work," is quite possibly the most common response I hear from my clients to my behavior modification recommendations. The authors suggest that part of the public's skepticism about behavior modification and behavior intervention is due to the fact that professionals do not spend enough time working on "generalization" of a behavior, or the application of learned behaviors in multiple environments. Indeed, it is one of the most challenging aspects of my job as a Behaviorist: how do I get this kid to do this behavior outside my office?

This article is very simple and very practical and I highly recommend it for everyone working to create behavior change in children, and especially school personnel. There is a copyable worksheet on the last page that you can take with you to an IEP meeting or a staff meeting when discussing how to teach new behaviors to individual children.

Behaviorism and behavioral interventions really work, so I spend a lot of time thinking about why people don't want to use them, why they're skeptical, why they decide it is against their philosophy or not worth their time. The answers to these questions, after all, will likely make me a better clinician. I used to joke that I spend about 90% of my time with clients convincing clients I'm right about things, and only 10% doing interventions.

I'm happy to report that as the father of a growing and willful child, I have finally had a chance to perform a behavior plan in my own home. It has put evidence to thoughts I had had in the past about the behavior modification process as I, too, succumbed to many of the pitfalls parents and other professionals have reported. In no particular order, here's what was hard for me.

1. It seemed too hard. To do an effective behavior plan, I had to be consistent. For the first couple days I was struggling to work it into my schedule and thus the plan just did not work because I would fall behind in my tracking by days and have to start all over. After about 4 or 5 false starts I was able to get some traction and now the behavior plan is part of my routine.

2. I underestimated the positive impact of the behavior modification. As humans we get used to things. It's part of our DNA to adapt and see our current situation as normal, so I really had to protect myself against "getting used to" my child's improved behavior. I reflect on the past and how mornings used to run, my relative ineffectiveness at yelling at my child to get a problem behavior to stop, and the like. Things are MUCH better now in the areas we have targeted for behavior change.

3. The target behavior and/or the reward/consequence was poorly defined and too fluid. I had to adjust several times which behaviors I was looking at, experiment with making the definition more broad or more specific, and really isolate the reward for positive behavior so I wasn't watering down the strength of the reward or (God forbid) rewarding negative behaviors. Eventually I came to a compromise where the definition and implementation fit nicely into the realities of our lives. There is a way I could likely intensify the behavior plan and get to the desired behaviors faster, but that really cannot happen in the context of our current lives.

4. I didn't want my kid to feel bad. This is where I had to remind myself what compassion really was. Some of the consequences (losing a star for a negative behavior) really angered my child. When she punched me because she was mad, she then lost another one and really went down in flames of frustration. That did not feel good because I feel like I'm doing a good job when my child is smiling. The reality is that the new behaviors she is learning, and the old behaviors that are dying away are going to make her life so much better. I needed to get over myself and realize I was trading in some short-term good feelings about myself for her long-term prosperity.

5. I needed to be completely unified with my co-parent before things got going. This is one I am still on the fence about. Since I'm not the main home-based parent, much of behavior plan, I thought, would fall on the parent who was around my kid the most. For that reason I deferred any action for longer than I needed to. The reality is, the behavior plan works for whoever sets it up. The "failure to generalize" can actually be a signal to other parties that they need to get on board with the behavior plan to get the same results. I have actually seen this happen in schools when the teacher doing the behavior plan has amazing success with a child, and the same child is a disaster in another class. More often than not, the "other teacher" becomes a believer.

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