As behavior analysts we are in the business of changing behavior. Usually we are hired to train a particular individual (e.g. a person with mental illness, a child with developmental disabilities, a leader who needs coaching) or a group of people (e.g. staff members, teachers), and we concentrate our efforts on that client’s target behaviors—what he is doing too much of, what she is doing too little of, what they need to learn.
We then, start thinking of all the contingencies that affect the target behaviors. What kind of reinforcement schedule would work best? Perhaps we need to put an escape maintained behavior on extinction, or maybe we need to
come up with a shaping procedure; the options are endless. But who are we really training when we come up with a behavior program? While we may think we are training the client, I’ll say we are training the environment.
Behavior is a function of its interaction with the environment. Any behavior present in anybody’s repertoire exists in an environment that supports its presence, or, in other words, reinforces it. We know that it is impossible to change behavior without changing the environment. Yet, many times we consider the behavior of the client and what needs to happen in the environment in order to support the client’s behavior change, and forget to consider the impact of that change in the environment as a whole.
When we ask a manager to praise behaviors that lead to target outcomes, and that manager says “I don’t have time to go around talking to people”, we may be quick to think “Well, then you really don’t want to achieve the results.” Did we really take a look at the demands faced by this manager? Is there any other way that we could shape his praising behavior and gradually increase its frequency, rather than starting at that level that is ideal, and we know is going to offer the fastest most noticeable results?
When teachers and parents refuse to collect data, do we look at the contingencies surrounding the behavior change we are asking of the parent or teacher, before labeling them as “uninterested or non-committing”? When we
are faced with a though case, for which we have “tried everything and nothing works”, have we looked at the web of interrelated behaviors we are trying to change?
We teach the environment.
If a behavior change program—at an organization, at private practice, at school, at home—is to be successful, we need to plan how to support environmental changes that will in turn support target behavior change. By considering the environment your real client, you will be able to shape behavior change that is long lasting, sustainable and successful.