School, Skittles, & B.F. Skinner

I now realize this blog is likely to be a weird mix of really technical stuff about educational technology interspersed with intense diatribes on the nature of education. This falls into that latter category.

Let me begin by saying that I love the staff I work with. Even though I don’t always agree with their methods, I never question their devotion to the often challenging needs of the student’s in the world’s largest special needs district. Gladly special educators are amongst the first to innovate and differentiate as it’s a necessity. That said, there are certain behaviors that have become ingrained in special education that aren’t best in all moments for our students. The extrinsic rewards systems are limited in their effectiveness at best and can have long-term negative impacts at their worst. Was that diplomatic enough?

SKINNER (A History of ABA)

B. F. Skinner at Harvard, circa 1960

So the standard therapy method for working with students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or any other developmental disorder (PDD-NOS) is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Forgive me all of those acronyms, but…

in the realm of special education, we swim deep into this alphabet soup.

I’ve overheard conversations between special educators where nearly every other word was an acronym (ex. John exhibits ADHD and EBD, so manage his FBA and BIP on the IEP on SESIS and check the PLOP ASAP, OK.) Mind you I actually understood that sentence, but it makes me want to go AWOL (I’m sorry for that terrible joke).  The NYCDOE (another acronym) even has an acronym reference guide which I have admittedly needed on a few occasions.

As a side note, if you’re looking to learn more about ASD, I suggest reading about and listening to Dr. Temple Grandin who talks about her Autistic Brain.

All of this is to say that most autism advocacy organizations, special education university programs, the surgeon general, and the NY Department of Health advocate using ABA in nearly all instances. In fact, if parents want another therapy they’ll probably have to pay out of pocket. I even had a college professor and ABA certified therapist (a wonderful woman and Facebook friend) who, due to her love of operant conditioning, claimed to have pictures of B.F. Skinner in her locker in middle school.

You probably have heard of Pavlov’s bell ringing and dog salivating experiments. Watson took it further by scaring a poor little boy named Albert with rats and loud noises which, as a side note, seems like a perfectly normal thing for a person to do (sarcastic over-simplification). Skinner went further still with animals in a box receiving reinforcements, punishments, and neutral triggers to affect their behavior. Welcome operant conditioning and the basis of ABA. Congratulations, You are now a C+ basic psychology student.  Note 1 to psych nerds: yes both my professor and I  are aware that ABA started in the 60s with Bijou & the Baer, but it was based on the behaviorism of Watson & Skinner.

So the message was clear, if you teach kids with autism, you better be using ABA

Increase_in_autism_diagnosisAnd I get it. For one thing, the rates of children being diagnosed with autism have risen dramatically to 1 in 88 children and 1 in 54 boys. Now some of that increase may be due to increased awareness and a changing definition of what autism is according to The Scientific American. As they note, autism was only put in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1980 and the definition has been modified multiple times since. Even so, it felt like a major new challenge for parents, educators, and the system as a whole. ABA procedures can be quickly effective in altering a child’s behavior. A number of studies demonstrate that students engaged in ABA have shown improvements in communication, socialization, and academic competence. Psych Nerd Note 2: I know it’s not an immediate process and that extinction bursts may make the behavior worse before it gets better, but give me some slack…geez

I’ve taken a number of ABA courses, attended ABA workshops, and read scholarly articles on the subject. I even wrote my Master’s thesis on using ABA procedures and music therapy to decrease negative stimming behaviors. It was effective, but, trust me, you don’t want to read it. So, boom. We had a problem. We’ve found a worthwhile solution. What’s next, except…

NOT SKINNER (Is ABA the Answer?)

Recently ABA has begun to be questioned by an increasingly vocal group of adults with autism who say they were forced to endure the cruelty of ABA procedures as children. They say the cruelty lies both in treating humans like animals to be trained, in blurring the line between abuse and intervention, and also in the premise that people with autism need to be ‘normalized’. I will say that, though I do believe deeply in incentivizing positive behaviors but using base triggers (cheese to a mouse) deeply oversimplifies human nature. Also, as a socially unusual introvert who views those traits as strengths in a culture that doesn’t, I am inclined to push against any effort to ‘convert’ people to societal norms. Despite those objections, I will leave those challenges to the those more directly impacted by it. There’s a good book called Look Me In the Eye that I recommend which takes a more middle ground look at ABA.


My challenge to ABA comes in its uses in education rather than as a behavioral tool. In that arena, I do have experience. I will say I have seen teachers using ABA being almost immediately effective in positively impacting, and I have also seen a reason to question ABA’s humanity. It’s possible though in either case some of that was due less to the therapy than the skilled or unskilled educator utilizing it. Even so, it may be my anti-authoritarian streak or simply watching Gattaca too many times, a system, like ABA that so highly esteems control and compliance, puts me ill at ease.ABA Box of sweets

ABA procedures

So what does ABA look like in class? It should start with data collected about a problem behavior like hand flapping. Then students will be instructed in an appropriate behavior like keeping their hands on the desk. The behavior will be modeled or shown in a social story and reinforced using some object like Skittles that the student deeply likes. Then after the initial success, you work on generalizing the positive behavior. It sounds fine, and, even though seeing a teacher with a plastic dispenser with goldfish, broken Oreos, fruit snacks, and Skittles may seem odd, it isn’t inherently disconcerting except maybe to dentists. Psych nerds note 3: I know this is simplified.

Here’s where I struggle with the procedure. Why couldn’t we just determine the child’s motivation and engross those hands in a worthwhile engaging educational behavior instead grasping at Skittles? What happens when we run out of Skittles or he gets a hold of some free range Skittles and doesn’t want any more of yours. The child has no reason to stop flapping. I know, I know. You find another powerful motivator to which the student and the behavior will also be beholden. So now that kid is locked into the Skittles regime. He’s a Skittles junkie (too strong?) looking for his next fix. Maybe he doesn’t need as many to keep him content, but how do we plan to teach a child to function outside of an environment that constantly doles treats like pellets to a hamster? Also at what point did we address the meaning behind the original behavior? Granted some good ABA therapists do, but it’s not inherent to the therapy.  ABA is about rewards and punishments, not reasons. Maybe the boy was flapping his hands because he was scared of another classmate, annoyed by the fan, excited about a toy, or just bored. That should matter in how we address the issue. Giving the Skittle doesn’t address that even if the flapping stops. The student isn’t now, via the benefit of the Skittle, alleviated of whatever their behavior was communicating. They aren’t suddenly focused (except on getting more Skittles).

Skittles aren’t gonna solve the world’s problems.

Those kinds of external motivators will never be enough let alone their lack of impact on instruction. How about instead of You may be willing to come to a teacher training because they served free coffee and bagels. Your showing up was reinforced via an ABA-like extrinsic motivator. But if I’m boring and uninformative, you may not come to the next training even if the coffee comes with Irish Cream (okay, maybe 1 more). I however while at the meeting you learned some valuable information and were made to feel like a wonderful and innovative educator on the cusp of some wonderful teaching revolution, you’ll probably keep coming. Why? The initial extrinsic motivator has now been replaced by an intrinsic motivation. That doesn’t mean you should stop serving coffee. Seriously, we’re not animals (except technically we are).

There’s a mountain of scholarly research showing why intrinsic motivation (stuff you love) is more powerful than extrinsic motivators (stuff you’re encouraged to do).

Carrots and sticks serve their purpose, but love is the true motivator

love greater than carrot


That’s why teachers who have learned know that badges, stickers, points, and other incentives are great, but they’re all external. Giving a student clear goals, social connections, challenges, mastery, and a sense of purpose through engaging and important learning will always win the day. That’s why instruction that includes elements like quality iterations of project-based learning, game-based learning, and gamification is so powerful because they take those external motivations and internalize them. See how I finally brought that back around from the diatribe on special education to educational technology. Ultimately my point is that if your day is spent extinguishing what you determine are abnormal behaviors and then casually engaging in an all-day morning meeting because you think your students can’t handle anything more challenging, STOP. Stop selling yourself and those students short. Stop engaging in, what Michael Gerson called, the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and expect more. Expect more of those kids. Expect more of you. I know it’s exhausting, but I’ll tell you a secret…

When your students are excited about learning, you start to get excited too. And then you’re not so tired any more.excited about learning

10 thoughts on “School, Skittles, & B.F. Skinner

  1. Thanks for the passion and the food for thought as I navigate having my 7 year old screened for neurodivergence, and try to understand and engage with her myself.

    I have a connection with the family of B.F. Skinner and recommend this article, which addresses attributing ABA’s application of reinforcement and other techniques, too closely with B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism.

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