There are many reasons why some behavioral programs don’t work: poor design, inadequate reinforcers, irrelevant back up reinforcers, goals are too high, etc. From all the possible reasons for the failure of a behavior program, the one I have encountered most frequently is lack of contingency. Behavior is maintained by its consequences. In order to learn a new behavior or to change parameters around an existent behavior, one needs to create a new behavior-consequence relationship. That relationship is formed through the use of contingency. .
A contingency establishes an if-then rule, such that if a behavior occurs a particular consequence follows. This happens naturally in our day to day (you say “hi”, then someone greets you in response; you eat, the sensation of hunger is gone; you open a door, and you gain access to the other side), but in a behavior modification program, contingencies need to be created in order to provide opportunities for new behavior to emerge. For a behavior contingency to be effective, the probability of the consequence following the target behavior needs to be greater than the probability of the consequence in the absence of the target behavior. In other words, when the target behavior occurs it should produce the desired consequence more times than not. Herein lies the problem.
In most clinical settings, getting staff to adhere to the recommendations of a behavior program can be challenging, and it poses a threat to the contingencies. Behavior does not happen in a vacuum, instead, we’re immersed in a web of behaviors, where the behavior of staff is also influenced by the behavior of the client. When designing a behavior program, it is important to consider the behavior web—will the staff be able to carry the plan through? How do the steps of the plan affect the workflow? Are the staff trained in the techniques suggested in the plan? What is the staff buy in? What is the payoff for the staff? What is the required effort? A successful behavioral program considers the contingencies for all those involved, the individuals under treatment, and those delivering it.
Many times, that will require shaping—both of staff’s and client’s behavior, and at the times, the behavior analyst’s behavior too.