© David Sponder, L.E.P., BCBA, Floortime C3c
Executive Director Sponderworks Children’s Services

Goals and Objectives: Targets for Behavior Change v. Targets for Learning

Once we’ve done our initial assessment, it is time to develop “goals” for what your child/Student will learn.  Specifically (this is kind of technical – but important), “goals” are statements predicting what kind of improvement we expect teaching to accomplish.  Goals can be to learn a set of skills, or for a behavior to increase or decrease (such as – “…will have less tantrums; will communicate better, etc.).

“Objectives” have to be more specific. Objectives are statements about specific skills your child/Student must demonstrate. So for instance, in order to arrive at the “goal” of less tantrums, we might write objectives to help the child/Student learn to share or express their wants, needs or feelings. Learning these skills should affect this reduction in tantrums. In order to reach a goal of “communicating better,” we’d have to be more specific and write objectives such as, “…will demonstrate the ability to ask for help when needed…” or, “…will be able to relate events that took place…”

To reach a goal, an individual may not have to learn anything or demonstrate a new skill. According to the rules of Applied Behavior Analysis, a person can only demonstrate actions or behavior. This is different (for good reasons that I will not go into here), than goals or objectives we have for other things. In behavioral science, there must be a connection between the objective and the actual observable change in behavior. For instance, a person could go on a diet (a set of observable actions), but it may not result in any weight loss. And conversely, a person can lose weight without changing their behavior (perhaps their metabolism changes).

In ABA, this is a distinction with a difference – it is not a mere technicality – it is important.  That is because we can achieve a goal simply by changing the person’s environment.  For instance, we can get two brothers to stop fighting over the TV by simply removing the TV.

For the same reason, we cannot write objectives for someone to stop doing something or to do less of something.  What did the brothers learn?  Nothing.  If we put the TV back, they would probably start fighting all over again, because they haven’t learned how to share the TV.

Objectives have to pass what they jokingly refer to in ABA as the “dead man’s test.”  In other words, ‘if a dead person can do it – than it is not a skill.’  Dead people don’t fight over TVs either.  Living people can learn to share, compromise and solve problems.  So while the goal might be to “not fight or to ‘fight less’ over the TV,” the objectives for teaching could be that the brothers would demonstrate skills related to the opposite: sharing, compromising, working things out, etc.  So what you will see in our plans are goal statements, with objectives listed underneath them that demonstrate the learning and skills your child/Student will achieve.

Goals and Objectives are Based on Initial Referral Concerns and Functional and Developmental Assessment

When we first meet, we will ask you what you would like the outcomes of intervention to be.   These are what we refer to as the “Initial Referral Concerns.”  Why “initial?”  Well, the short answer is that once we get to assessing and discussing the area(s) of concern, we might decide that there are different pathways to the same thing.  Also, we might learn something from a thorough assessment and analysis that would cause us to look at the picture differently than either one of us first thought.

A very common referral concern has to do with communicating.  Parents, especially of children with autism spectrum or related disorders, when asked, “What change would you most like to see in your child’s behavior (or development)?” often respond immediately with, “I would like my son/daughter to be able to talk.”  “I would like to have a conversation with my child.”

We would never have any disagreement with that goal – we want the same thing if that is the concern.  But on closer examination, we often find that (in particular with autism spectrum), that the person does not know how to share experience in any form.  If we start with teaching talking – which we can do with a parrot, the talking that emerges tends to be limited, robotic sounding, and occurs only when prompted.  This is because the actual problem is the lack of skills for sharing experience.

Long before infants and young toddlers talk, they have learned to share their experiences in many ways other than talking.  In fact, it is their tremendous emotional desire to share their experience that drives them to continue to improve their communication skills – for a lifetime.  So instead of working on talking, we might agree that what we really want is a change of emotion and emotional skills.  We want to teach a child to love people and to love sharing their experience.  If we accomplish that, there is a much higher probability that the child with be motivated to improve their communication skills far beyond what we could teach.  They would learn from people who are not trying to teach them.  They would learn by correcting their own miscommunication voluntarily – because they really want others to know what’s on their mind.  The point here is – along with speaking skills, or perhaps in place of them, what we really want is to build a set of skills that lead to increased sharing of experience.  We might find, upon closer examination, that speaking would be the most frustrating route at the moment, and actually result in less motivation to relate.  Therefore, we might focus our objectives on other ways of relating that commonly lead to speaking.

Two Main Types of Referral Concerns

In general, we intervene to improve behaviors (and/or reduce or eliminate problematic behaviors) and/or, for “accelerating development.”  In both cases, we seek to understand why the behavior occurs, and to help Parents/Teachers understand that.  That is always the first step, and the process of understanding evolves throughout the intervention as we continue to learn and collaborate.

Improving Behavior

When the concerns involve improving behavior or resolving behavior problems, we want to know not only, “what for?” (the so-called “why?” of functional assessment), but also Why?  An example of the simple., linear “what for?” of functional assessment could be that we determine a behavior produces a consequence of “attention.”  So the answer a professional might give is that the behavior is for the purpose of getting attention?  From this conclusion, we might be able to develop objectives for: teaching skills of seeking attention appropriately; learning to wait for and defer gratification; learning to occupy one’s time; learning to express one’s needs and learning to negotiate attention sharing among others, etc.

It is fairly typical for professionals to take a “plug in” approach to such situations.  For instance, they are taught alogorithmic means of developing teaching objectives for a problem such as this: “If the problem is inappropriate attention seeking, then teach the following things, A; B; C; etc. as outlined above.

It’s pretty easy to see the problem with such an approach.  Sure, the behaviors of concern “produce the consequences of attention” and are therefore (according to the standards of typical functional assessment),  for the purpose of getting another person’s attention.  In many cases, this a real “Duh” moment for the consumer.  Most Parents and Teachers would already know that, and then might wonder why money is wasted on a professional to come to this obvious conclusion.  Further, the question of “why?” really hasn’t been answered.

Let’s look at some reasons that may also be part of why a person seeks attention inappropriately…

First of all, there is nothing inherently wrong with seeking attention.  We all need social contact, occasional help, and attention for a variety of valid reasons.  You can’t after all, want to increase the sociability and relatedness in people with autism spectrum and related disorders or emotionally withdrawn persons, without also wanting them to want attention.

But let’s look deeper, the way we do, and look at some other possibilities that we would probably “run past you” in our process of collaboration on the way to developing goals…

  • the person may not be able to see the patterns and the points of reference in the context of a situation that would let her know when is a good time and what would be a good reason for seeking attention.  The clues are usually all around us.  In the absence of this ability, we would have to take a very concrete approach of teaching a person specific times and specific ways of seeking attnetion, that may not, no, that will not work in every type of situation.  The missing skill set is this poor ability to judge from context, when and how and why one should seek attention;
  • the person may have a personal context, such as longstanding and abiding loneliness, or fears and insecurities that lead them to need more attention than others.  We’re not talking about asking for help when needed.  We’re talking about emotional insecurities that trigger when the Parent or Teacher is no longer in proximity, or, when there is a signal to that person that their availability has changed (such as when they talk to another person, get started working on something, answer the phone, etc.).  The missing skill sets may have to do with learning how to determine how long someone is likely to be busy or unavailable; having some ability to engage in self-soothing or management of anxiety and uncertainty, etc.  (I’m using a lot of etc.s here because this list could be very long indeed).  Determining the real “why? and then going from there to figuring out what the right skills to teach are a matter of more than simply determining the “what for?” or behavior.
  • the person may actually seek attention in an appropriate frequency and in typical contexts, when that person’s developmental sense of time; that person’s ability to find contextual references points so they can know when and for what reasons attention seeking is appropriate (as described above) and to think of alternatives – is actually expected for that person’s cognitive or emotional age.   Here, the problem to address is not only one of improving the person’s ability to recognize contextual reference points or to think of and choose alternatives that will help them wait, it is one of helping them manage their anxiety.  Anxious people may know the deal, the rules… but they break them anyway because they cannot handle the accompanying feelings.  So here, there is yet another set of skills that may be more appropriate to address than simply learning better ways of seeking attention or knowing static timetables in which attention is available.

So as you can see, we want to look several layers deep – including into layers of thinking and personal perspective of the individual that are not allowed under less so[sophisticated systems of analysis. 

Finally, once we collaborate and then form reasonable and collective hypotheses, we then have rich information that helps us know what to do without having a static behavior plan.  The real goals and objectives lie within the guides – you – the Parent, Teacher, Therapist, to teach you how to understand what is really going on

People don’t respond to reality.  They respond to their perceptions of reality.  The individual responds to what they perceive is going on, and we, as guides and helpers, react to what we think is the reason why the individual responds in one way or another.

Therefore, we intervene at the level of thinking, not just behavior.  We will write objectives for ways a person can demonstrate changes in their thinking.  We will write such objectives not only for the child/Student, but also for your ability to look at your child’s situation in a manner that will help you to understand the behavior and know what to do for long after we leave.

Accelerating Development

When the concerns involve accelerating your child/Student’s development goal and objective development should reflect a cohesive, coordinated, and sequential curriculum for the unique needs of one particular child.  One of the main reasons we feel the need to draw from more than one therapeutic approach is that the curricula provided by a single therapy can never be comprehensive or flexible enough for every child.  We do not feel that any therapy “stands alone” in this way.

Since we draw from a variety of techniques, there is a need for an organizing principle that guides the selection of goals – in order to avoid a haphazard approach to curriculum development.

The leadership of Sponderworks has extensive background in behavioral and developmental psychology and special education.  Therefore, the guiding principles we use come from a discipline of psychology called “Developmental Psychopathology.”  The focus of this approach is to understand mechanisms of development and change.  Central to the developmental psychopathology approach is the belief that the study of atypical development can inform our understanding of normal development and, conversely, the methods and approaches used in normative developmental science define the course and the interventions needed for atypical development.  By definition, developmental psychopathology requires broad, interdisciplinary training.  Therefore, to develop a child’s individual goals and objectives, we use scales based on neurotypical progressions of development.  We then use methodologies whose strengths are best suited to the type of skill we’re teaching.

 How We Develop Goals: Accelerating Development