© David Sponder, Licensed Educational Psychologist; BCBA; RDI CC; DIR Floortime C2

  • The philosophy is Interdisciplinary: We feel strongly about preserving the integrity of the traditional process of Functional Analysis of Behavior, but at the same time, we also think it is equally important to look at facts typically unavailable or ignored by Applied Behavior Analysis protocols.  Ultimately, evidence-based practices from the science of Applied Behavioral Analysis provide the structure and “bottom-line” principles we use to observe, measure, and determine the functions of specific behaviors.
    • Traditional Applied behavior analytic techniques generally avoid consideration of a person’s internal, subjective experience.  Applied Behavior Analysis recognizes fully that subjective experience not only exists but is importantly involved in behavior.  In line with well-established principles of behavioral psychology however, Behavior Analysts recommend extreme caution when dealing with “covert mental events.”   That is because “covert events” such as thinking are not readily available for objective measurement or analysis.B.F. Skinner, the most influential and foundational thinker in the Philosophy of Behaviorism, objected to behaviors referred to by “what they are not (Skinner, B.F. 1968).”  Indeed, as Skinner maintained, covert behavior is too often described in terms of what it is not, such as in “non-verbal behavior.”  Superficially, “nonverbal behavior” means the behavior can be anything as long as it is not verbal.  That doesn’t help much and ignores the very importance of nonverbal behavior in social interaction.   The example of “non”verbal behavior should then be defined by what it is- which can be accomplished easily enough.  We can readily observe and measure nonverbal behaviors such as changes in tone of voice; changes in posture, facial expression, gestures and; the regularity and organizational flow of their behaviors that implies one’s underlying (covert) intention.But there are problems with considering only covert events for analysis.   It is in respect to the attempt to understand the individual’s and other stakeholders’  internal, subjective experience of reality that we differ most from older forms of ABA.

First, people do not behave in response to realityThey behave in response to their perceptions of reality.

Our perceptions of reality determine our experience of what happens, and predispose our responses to that experience.

Other scientific disciplines help us understand how an individual’s behavior is affected by how he or she “processes” information available to them.  This provides insights necessary to begin to understand the relationship between internal, covert mental operations and the operation of the environment on the behavior of the individual.

The methods of assessment and treatment we use draw also from diverse fields that include, but are not limited to Attachment and Self-psychology, typical and atypical neurobiological development (Developmental Psychopathology); the fields of evolution and Evolutionary Psychology, educational theories, communication and linguistics, sociobiology, primatology and anthropology, and; general systems theory, among others.  Our method of functional analysis is very similar and compatible with Daniel Siegel’s theory of Interpersonal Neurobiology.[1]

  • We look at the whole Personnot just the behavior:  A person’s experience in the world shapes their behavior in complex and ever-changing ways.  It is important to learn as much as possible about how a person’s behavior functions in relationship to the environment.   But the environment within the individual is no less important. We want to see how the person’s means of perceiving and making meaning of reality influences their experience and how his or her experience of what happens affects their behavior.
    • It is impossible to understand a person’s behavior without an understanding of their relationships with themselves and others.  People’s perceptions of themselves and their experiences and perceptions of others have a lot to do with the way they respond to the world.  We look at how specific behaviors and overall behavior patterns and traits contribute to or detract from their Quality of Life (for further information about the concept of Quality of Life in relation to understanding development and behavior, please refer to our article: Citizenship as a Measure of a Person’s Quality of Life)”

We also want to take a close and serious look at how our perceptions of the person’s behavior affect how we experience it and how that perspective shapes the ways in which we respond to it.

  • Once we know more about a person and how they experience the world, our responses to their behavior tend to become more positive and attuned.
    • Assessment should inform what we do from now on in the best way possible.  It’s good to know, but it’s ultimately what we do that makes the difference.
    • Once our understanding of the behavior is more clear, considerate of the subjective experience and world views of all involved, etc., we tend to make the right moves, without necessarily having to remember a lot of “techniques.

Regardless of the findings of assessment, any treatment that we recommend would start with fostering attuned and reciprocal communicating – no matter what forms it may take or at what what “level.Insights that we gain from assessment should help us attune and empathize with all involved.  We end up knowing more about how we tend to understand the behaviors of concern.  This can be essential when trying to respond in an attuned, sensitive, empathic and bottom line: effective manner to behavior.We can look past the unpleasant forms of a behavior and focus instead on the intentions behavior serves.  Applied Behavior Analysis will help us make statistical comparisons between events of behavior and the “consequences” the behavior tends to produce in the environment or context.The relative strength of hypotheses we form about the person’s intentions is first seen in the correlations that become clear with systematic observation and measurement procedures.  We also have to consider how truly intentional or “mindful” the behavior is anyway.  We all do things for reasons that we don’t completely understand.  We tend to do certain things when were interested and alert, and others when we are unaware of, or otherwise detached from the here and now.We know from neuroscience that the quality of a person’s attention depends a great deal on emotional processes deeper down in the brain and not fully available for conscious inspection.  We currently have reliable ways of observing the quality and focus of people’s attention, and a subsequently  better idea of the mental processes that shape how we experience the world.  We can then compare that to our hypotheses about the intentions a given behavior serves, and look for agreement or, confounds that may require further examination.

  • We see behavior as part of a complex, dynamic system: We investigate behavior thoroughly and avoid simplistic, linear explanations of behavioral cause and effect.  We recognize that vital aspects the world are constantly changing, spontaneous and always generating something new.  We take for granted how many elements and layered patterns of information we appraise rapidly, and how we  are capable of engaging in ongoing, spontaneous social interaction and managing uncertainty without descending into chaos.  We avoid chaos by keeping track of our surroundings and the data points that help us know what is happening and what we could or should do or not do based on the way that events unfold.A person’s ability to find relevant information available in the environment, including the so-called “between the lines” information or the implied but “unwritten rules,” determines in large part how flexible and adaptable their behavior will be.Slow or distorted mental [neurobiological] processing, and a subsequent difficulty to rapidly appraise the meanings of changes can lead to anxiety and behavioral inflexibility, and otherwise poorly adaptive behaviors.  We therefore look at a person’s inflexibility or withdrawal in response to dynamic systems of social interaction and changing realities as likely manifestations of the discrepancy between 1. the demands for monitoring and tracking change in a dynamic world, and 2; the ability to “see where things are going” by inferring patterns from the blooming and buzzing confusion of information available to us at any given moment.  The quicker that we can form an organized and coherent appraisal of what goes on, the more power we have to anticipate and formulate our responses.  This may make us appear to be quicker thinkers than we really are.  We can state with clarity that emotional circuits in the brain process information much faster than our conscious thinking can.  Emotional or limbic brain circuitry is designed to rapidly appraise the meaning of nonverbal behavior and to monitor changes in the environment that represent threat or opportunity.  It is always doing this, even though we are unaware of most of it’s workings.Atypical information processing of some degree is frequently associated with maladaptive behavior patterns and disorders of development and emotional health.  At the extreme ends, those least equipped to cope successfully with dynamic systems involved with conversation, play or social interaction for instance – would be represented by individuals with Autism Spectrum and other severe disorders of social thinking, relating and communicating.   Individuals that experienced trauma, abuse or deprivation of emotional care can be equally impaired in the ability to think, relate and communicate well enough to learn and develop properly.At the other end of the spectrum, the most common manifestations of slower, less efficient social thinking have to do with difficulties with self-regulation of attention, arousal, alertness and impulse control; abilities to tolerate and recover from failure; to be flexible and tolerant of an age-expected amount of ambiguity and uncertainty, etc.
    • We also recognize that we have different capacities for understanding and using reference points in the environment that influence our behavior.  A lot of the frustrations and miscommunications associated with the behavioral excess is due to underdeveloped abilities to understand layers of context, complexity, ambiguity or uncertainty. We can certainly see how this develops as children typically develop.  They learn how to learn.  They find patterns in the environment that reliably inform their responses, and their capacity to understand complex interactions is a matter of the reliability and ongoing refinement of their perceptions over time.   Increasing capacity to form and coordinate stepwise and mindful responses is a matter of life experience and emotional and behavioral maturity.
    • Using Developmental Psychopathology as a means of understanding behavior helps us with what we feel is the most important thing to understand about behavior…

The discrepancies between what the world demands of a person and what capacities people bring to bear to respond successfully is the source of behavioral maladaptation.

This is a cardinal rule in our methods of assessment and treatment.

Functional Assessment of Behavior looks at how behaviors represent the person’s way of dealing with the discrepancy.   It looks at the person’s likely means of understanding the demands of a given situation, and the responses the person has learned so far.   It looks at the obstacles a person faces in finding more successfully.

A person’s ability to appreciate the demands of the environment depends a great deal on how they understand them and why they exist.  How people understand and experience the world has a lot to do with how they respond. 

Therefore, it is essential to understand the specific ‘thinking and responding’ demands of the environment in relationship to the person’s capacities to understand them and adapt successfully. 

It is equally important to observe how, when behavior is not successful, the person goes about dealing with the problem.

    • When things arent working for the stakeholders, how do they each go about recognizing the problem and responding in a better way?   On any end of a behavioral excess (behavior problem), there can be a discrepancy between what the world demands, and the ways in which they know how (i.e. their developmental capacities) to understand and respond to those demands.
  • We seek to establish understanding and cooperation, not control: Our approach towards intervention is thorough assessment, so that we can help increase Teacher’s knowledge and possibly change their attributions of the Student’s behavior.  We believe that once the Teacher understands the world from their Student’s perspective, they will automatically change their behavior in effective ways.

A person’s developmental capacities affect how he or she perceives the world, and how he or she perceives the world drives and shapes behavior.  We typically intervene by helping people understand their world better.  Importantly, this includes each stakeholder’s capacities not only to understand, but to also be able to use the information to form mutually satisfying responses.

The Analyst’s role in the intervention is to help stakeholders: 1. Understand their Student’s perspective, and 2. to teach them, through relationships and carefully calibrated challenges that afford chances for discovering better ways.

Because of the above two tenets of our philosophy, we rarely need to use coercive measures to “control” Student’s behavior.

We use the term “coercive” in the manner described by Alfred Adler.  According to Adler, coercion includes rewarding as well as punishing when used by one person to change another person’s behavior.  It is not our goal to help Guides become better manipulators of their children.

While we occasionally use behavior modification[2] as a tool, the technology of behavior modification is essentially coercive and has a distancing effect in relationships.  Behavior to a modification is not a first or a last resort for us — it is indicated in very specific situations that have nothing to do with the severity or difficulty of the behavior.

Study Questions for Assessment Manual Part 1A: Basic Tenets of Our Philosophy of the Functional Analysis of Behavior

  1. Describe how behavioral excesses or deficits are the result of a discrepancy between what the environment or context requires in terms of important social thinking skills and abilities, and what skills and capacities the individual currently possesses.
  2. Give two examples of behavioral excesses that you’ve seen that resulted between a mismatch (discrepancy) between the requirements of the environment or context, and the skills the individual did or did not possess.
  3. Why do we think of behavioral adaptation in terms of the demands of “dynamic systems” in the environment.
  4. Provide a brief summary of John Stewart’s Criticism of current ABA practices in Functional Assessment of Behavior


[1]     Siegel, D., Hartzell, M.; 2003; Parenting from the Inside Out; Penguin/Putnam.  In this book (as well as others by Dr. Siegel), the authors provide one of the most elegant models for integrating the diverse fields mentioned above.

[2]     The term, “Behavior Modification” as used here involves the use of rewards and punishers to change behavior.  We distinguish “Behavior Modification” from Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which we endorse.  ABA involves the analysis of the contingencies that affect behavior, which can be used to analyze any behavior or behavioral transaction – as long as all of the elements contributing to the behavior are subject to consideration.  All of the elements include not just overt behaviors, but covert behaviors such as thoughts and information processing (perception and meaning-making of stimuli), as well as phenomenological material – the person’s subjective view of the world, either by the Student’s own report, or by processes of induction of known facts.