Updated: May 12, 2021
Behavioral intervention uses the well-established principles of learning that describe how skills (behaviors) can be increased or decreased depending upon what happens right before and after the behavior. Using these rules of learning is also called behavior modification or operant conditioning. Behavioral principles are important tools for teaching any skill.
When we use naturalistic teaching in daily interactions, it’s important to use these principles of learning. This helps learning go faster and avoids accidentally teaching unwanted skills (like running away).
You may have heard of the ABCs of behavior. This term describes the sequence of events that control behavioral learning.
A B C
Antecedent Behavior Consequent
happens right happens right
before the behavior after the behavior
People might sometimes say, “He has a lot of behaviors.” They actually mean negative behaviors. That’s not the technical definition of behavior. Behavior means any observable act that a person (or animal) performs.
The goal of behavioral intervention is to increase desired behaviors and decrease undesired behaviors. We use the term target behavior to mean the behavior we want to increase or decrease.
Antecedents occur right before the target behavior. Antecedents can be something in the environment or something that we do. When we observe in natural settings carefully, we can see which antecedents are related to which behaviors.
Antecedents can be things like noise or temperature, which make it likely for a person to respond in a certain way. I get cranky when it’s humid.
Antecedents can also be things a person has learned to respond to in a certain way. When I see a police car parked in the highway median, I take my foot off the gas pedal even if I'm not speeding. That antecedent is a lot more effective than another environmental antecedent--the speed limit sign.
When teaching children a skill, we teach them the expected response to antecedents. When I say your name, you turn and look. When I clap my hands, you clap your hands. When I say, “Get the ball,” you go pick up the ball.
We can’t just present antecedents and expect the child to get better at giving the expected response. That’s where consequents come in.
People talk about consequences to our actions, meaning something (usually bad) that happens as a result of what we did. Consequent is a more specific, technical term. Consequents are things that happen right after the behavior. In behavioral intervention, we use consequents on purpose and use them with a prescribed frequency.
Reinforcement is any consequent that will increase the use of the target behavior. It could be a toy, food, hug, or activity. For example, when a toddler names an object, he receives something he wants. This type of positive reinforcement is the most commonly used consequent in behavioral intervention.
Extinction is another term that has a specific meaning In behavioral therapy. We extinguish a behavior by not presenting any reinforcement after that behavior. Over time, the behavior fades away because it has no useful purpose. This plan requires extreme consistency. If the behavior sometimes gets the desired result, a child will persist in trying harder with the behavior (think whining or tantrums).
Punishment is any consequent that decreases a behavior. This is typically something the person does not like, so it varies from person to person. A punishment might present something the person doesn’t like, such as hearing a certain sound. Punishment might also be taking away something the person wants to keep.
Aversive punishment is the term for presenting something negative right after the behavior. For example, a dog’s collar that gives a mild shock when the dog barks is designed to decrease the behavior of barking. Aversive punishment is used with caution in behavioral intervention, and is strictly regulated.
Overall, reinforcement techniques have been shown to have the most long-lasting effects. These techniques also avoid some of the side-effects that appear with punishment (e.g., avoidance, refusal, anger).
Naturalistic Developmental Behavioral Interventions (NDBI) teach parents to use reinforcement techniques during their daily interactions with their child.
ABCS OF BEHAVIOR IN REAL LIFE
ABCs of behavior happen in every interaction with others, whether we notice them or not.
We need to be careful observers of our own and children’s behaviors. When we are consistent with our antecedents and consequents, children learn a new skill faster. When we monitor how we respond to behaviors, we can avoid teaching an undesired behavior.
A strategy called respond to gestures or sounds as if they have meaning uses positive reinforcement. When a toddler moves his arms toward you, stop and pick him up while you say “Up.” When a little one looks at a drink and says, “Aaah,” hand him the drink and say, “Milk.”
Children’s movements and sounds are reinforced when they get what they want. That means they're more likely to try that behavior again in the future. Over time they get more consistent with that behavior, and learn to use it on purpose.
By adding a word he could use (up, milk), you are also demonstrating the next step in development. As they get consistent with the movement or sound, they are also learning the meaning of the word. When they've mastered that step, they’ll know what the next step is—saying the word.
On the other hand, if adults don’t respond much to children’s gestures and sounds, children are less likely to use them. The gestures and sounds are extinguished because they don’t gain anything for the child.
Children who have difficulty learning communication skills need an enriched learning environment. Getting the typical amount of reinforcement for communication behaviors isn’t enough to help them develop as fast as typical.
That’s why Naturalistic Developmental Behavioral Interventions coach parents to use behavioral principles consistently. Parents can practice with their child throughout the day, to provide more opportunities for learning. Children get consistent reinforcement, which helps the child learn faster.