Saturday, February 13, 2016

A Simple Thing Like Behavior

A BCBA, Adam Ventura, wonders about the future of applied behavior analysis, and whether something like  a singularity might one day arrive, with technology displacing real therapists.  But whether it will or not, a more immediate question is how to raise awareness about the field in the context of decades of (my words) deliberate skepticism.

Since learning about ABA 3 years ago, getting my BCBA last October, and to this day, I've been fascinated by this question of mainstream acceptance of our field.  Or, rather, why there isn't more of it.

I have always been fascinated my human behavior. 

One of my first jobs was delivering meals to people with AIDS all over the city of San Francisco, from luxury penthouse apartments to squalid projects.  At the time I was also attending college and taking social sciences courses, learning about political history, economics, philosophy, psychology, etc.  I was thinking very deeply about the injustice that I saw all around me, and wanted to understand both how it had come to be, as well as what could be done about it.  One of the ways I passed the long drives in my delivery van was to listen to political talk radio.  I was struck, over and over, by the emphasis on the right - personalities like Rush Limbaugh - on the behavior of the poor.  Welfare abuse, laziness, criminality, poor parenting, failure to clean up their neighborhoods, were a constant refrain. 

How could we, as a society, be expected to help these people (who were so often minorities) if they seemingly refused to help themselves?  I was disgusted by the generalizations, the smugness, the lack of empathy.  But what they described was often quite true.  I saw up close so many of the same behaviors.  Not by everyone in the neighborhoods, of course, but by too many.

On the left, the emphasis was on structural problems - racism by banks and employers, school teachers with low expectations, a history of oppression and disenfranchisement that left generations of families with few resources and psychopathologies like physical abuse or addiction that were a function of growing up in wretched conditions.

So I thought deeply about how these narratives conflicted, and yet were at the root of political disagreement in the country.  This was back in the 1990's, but little has changed.  The history of conservative and progressive thought can almost be defined by this conflict: why do people do what they do?  Is it because they freely make different choices, or because their choices are constrained by larger social structures?  If they are free, then do we simply blame them for their lot in life because it is one they choose?  Or do we help them out of an obligation because their choices are a function of the environment in which they have lived – an environment we tacitly support as fellow Americans?  It seemed all to come down to free will: do we have it or not?

This was a HARD problem.  The more I read, the more difficult I understood the problem to be.  For centuries people had been struggling with it.  I, however, felt like the problem was relatively simple.  From what I saw around me, people increasingly seemed entirely a product of their genes and environment.  I was by this time working with schizophrenics and people with traumatic brain injuries in different group homes.  I saw just how fragile the brain is, and how we take for granted the role it plays in our emotional and cognitive abilities.

I obtained an undergraduate degree in social science and a Master’s in Elementary Education.  I wanted to help children maximize their potential.  Yet from the beginning I could see how trapped kids were.  Even at the poor school where I did my internship, I could see the stratification beginning: regardless of income, what seemed to matter most was the support the children were receiving at home.  The teachers were doing their best – I saw greatness and I saw frustration.  But in a class of 30 students there was only so much a teacher could do.  No matter, I would find a way.

I read Maslow and Bandura, Piaget and Vygotsky.  Skinner - I was terrified to find out much, much, later – was entirely absent.  We learned about “schema” and “multiple intelligences”.  We learned that what mattered was making lessons “fun”, and that through high expectations and diligence, all of our kids could go to college.  (My social sciences background was skeptical that we were ignoring larger structural forces – who, for example, would clean the bathrooms and wash the dishes when everyone was attending college?  But no matter.  I pressed on.)

My first experiences were as a substitute teacher in Reading, PA, a post-industrial, post-white flight city in which poor, misbehaved children were the norm.  Gunshots at night and drug deals translated with palpable immediacy into children dropped of at school too tired to work, angry, frustrated, resentful, mistrustful of authority and with a deep need for attention.  As a substitute, I struggled.  But I assumed when I had my own classroom, I would be able to reach all of them and give them what they needed.

When I finally did, a smaller Kindergarten class of around 22, I had a vindicating year.  Despite the 5 to 6 year-old children coming to school with extremely low academic readiness, I was able to get them all to basic grade-level standards before the year was done.  Many of them could barely recognize letters, shapes or numbers.  Many had never been read to.  Many couldn’t hold a pencil properly as they had been given few opportunities to use them.  I gave out homework to try and make up for this lack.  I told silly stories to engage them. I danced.  I illustrated letter sounds with fanciful cartoons.  I brought in books by the cartful form the local library to stimulate their curiosity. 

The parents were for the most part loving, caring, and devoted.  Yet many simply did not have an academic mindset.  Many had not thought to read books to their children, much less provide a cognitively enriched environment.  They showed their love with hugs, food, and kisses and freedom – one parent told me her daughter (beautiful baby-teeth smile filled with metal caps, however highly inattentive and at the bottom of her class academically) would not do her homework because as soon as she got home from school would strip to her underpants and run outside for the rest of the day.  Some struggled to get their children to school on time.  One child missed 2 months of school because of a gunshot wound from a careless cousin.  More than a few children spoke of the horror movies they loved to watch – one dressed as Chucky for Halloween.  Their world was rough and unkempt.  Parents were struggling.  There were stories of incarceration, parents unfit because of drugs so grandparents took over.  Most parents worked low-pay jobs – gardeners, clerks, maids.  One child spoke very little English but excelled academically.  His Mexican immigrant parents had been professionals in Mexico.

But the next year was worse.  For financial reasons I had to teach a double-class, and was now responsible for juggling both a kindergarten and first-grade curriculum.  I struggled with classroom management in my attempt to provide differentiated instruction to children with a functional grade-level range of 3-4 years.  Mid-year, I was asked by the principle to leave my classroom and fill-in for the high school science teacher that had quit.  It was a K-12 school, and I was felt to be the only of the elementary teachers to be a good fit for the older kids. 

But these weren’t just older kids.  Ours was a charter school.  It had originally been established as an alternative homeschool site for a group of largely white, Christian parents in the majority poor, Hispanic neighborhood.  But over the years it expanded enrollment and the local demographic (poor, minority) began to edge in.  In my time there, I saw the last few families – better off, organized, involved – pull their children out.  To make up decreasing enrollment, younger classes were consolidated, and high school students were recruited by accepting more and more students who had dropped out of regular education schools – even continuation schools.  This meant a host of behavioral problems. 

These kids hated school.  The most successful teachers seemed the meanest.  One teacher told me “what these kids understand best is meanness, so don’t be nice to them.”  I was horrified.  I tried to make learning fun.  I had little success.  These kids weren’t interested in success.  What they were interested in was fighting, getting high and having unprotected sex.  I met my first teen mothers.  One of them, at the age of 17, had a 2-year-old son, and appeared mainly interested in gossiping and surreptitiously painting her nails or trying to plug in her curling iron.  It dawned on me that her child would soon be in kindergarten.  Some desperate teacher would be trying to make up for this young girl’s complete lack of parenting skills. 

What the hell was going on?  I dug deeper.  I read Hart and Risley’s Meaningful Differences, a watershed study that was one of the first attempts to collect data on parent-child interactions within different socio-economic classes.  (Interesting, Todd Risley, I was to discover later, was to be a founding contributor to The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis’ landmark paper, “Seven Dimensions of AppliedBehavior Analysis, in 1968.)  The story was gripping.  It explained everything that I saw happening.  It described stressed-out families interacting with their children in ways that were mostly loving, yet lacking in cognitive elements that provided opportunities for expanded verbal development.  Looking at the 17-year-old mom in my class, I was not surprised in the least.  This was generational poverty at work.

I kept on.  Enrollment eventually dropped even further and the school could no longer afford to keep me on as a science teacher.  By this time I had gotten credentials in Earth and Biological Science.  I took a job myself at a continuation high school.  Here was a population in exponentially more need of intervention.  Kids got high in the bathroom.  Many were foster children or lived in group-homes.  Any work at all was regularly refused, no matter how much support was given.  Instead, students shared stories of horrific abuse, rape, and violence.  Outside my classroom door each morning the lunch counter opened early for the teen mother program.  When done with their work, I allowed some of my male students to leave and go spend time with their children.  But teen fathers usually wanted nothing to do with their children.  Students regularly only showed up for the first few months or weeks of class, often only enough to satisfy a court mandate.  Fights broke out in my room.  Hair was pulled.  Extensions were pulled off.  Children fled out the back door, security chasing after them.  I would hear stories later about parents getting involved and searching the streets to facilitate their children’s revenge.  One student came to class flying high on what seemed likely to be methamphetamines.  He lived in a local group home and I never saw him again.

I poured myself into my blog.  I wrote more than a thousand pages, combining philosophy, psychology, cognitive science, economics – everything I read that helped me better understand just what in our system had broken.  I studied school performance maps and their relationship to demographics and geographic housing patterns.  I looked at average incomes and crime rates, education levels and quality of libraries by zip code.  I began thinking about the concept of financial capital leverage, how it takes money to make money.  I thought about this concept in a global sense: what about human capital?  Social capital?  Education, safety, parenting, sanitation, peers, parks, transportation, infrastructure – all forms of capital at one’s disposal.  All of these were determinate of one’s self-efficacy.  Forget about the income gap.  The reality of human growth involves something greater.  I needed a better term so I began referring to this as “societal capital”: everything that a society provides to a person that s/he is able to leverage into the exponential attainment of more capital.  There was negative capital as well.  Drug abuse, mental illness, and discrimination were all negative forms of capital that had the opposite effect: they decreased one’s capital exponentially.  I doubted many people were reading.  But I had to write.  I needed an outlet.  What I was writing about wasn’t commonly found on either the right or the left.  It was either all the kids’ fault, or it was the teachers’ fault.  The conversation wasn’t advanced enough to look deeper.

At school, my principal, in his infinite wisdom, was convinced what was needed was to adhere to strict curricular standards and test preparation.  These kids needed to learn.  No matter that many were being beaten and abused at home, suffering PTSD from secret tragedies, or only coming to school because it was the one relatively safe place in their lives where they could sit quietly or engage a peer in friendly conversation.  The old continuation model, where students were given hands-on, therapeutic course work like sculpting, art, or poetry – a recognition of their broken state, was long gone.  Now we were all about state test performance.  The principal, I once remember, confessed to his staff his love of “data”.  Data was going to drive our teaching.  Data was going to drive performance.

When yearly testing came around, my students drew patterns in the bubbles.

I then moved on again, this time to teach in general education in Yucca Valley, named after the beautiful, somehow alien-looking cactus trees.  I hoped the students would at least be in something more than survival mode.  At this point, 5 years into my career, I know I was.  I had two small children and a wife at home to support.  I was used now to laying my head down at night on a pillow of guilt, doubt, anger, and fear.  But he next year was hardly better.  In some ways it was worse.  These kids – mostly low-SES or with various troubles – were satisfied with D’s, something they were used to acquiring by the skin of their teeth at the end of the year after doing little work and pleading with their teachers.  Towards the end of the first semester, 2/3 were failing, despite every possible prompt I could have given them.  The 4-5 daily calls home I made were of little use.  The parents had long since given up hope on shaping the behavior of their children.  The assistant principal, however, pulled me aside one day and explained that I couldn’t fail this many kids.  There simply wasn’t enough capacity in the summer school program. 

I was slowly going mad.  During my long commute up into the wretched dust of the high desert, I fantasized about driving my car into the divider.  Some nights I cried.  I couldn’t take it any more.  Now not only did my students hate me.  I hated them.

So this was it, I thought.  As the end of the year came I packed my things, fully expecting to never teach again.  I thought about going into special education, where I hoped (naively) at least I might have the support to meet my students’ needs.   I soon learned that the burnout rate in special ed was actually higher than anywhere else in education.  But I was determined.  Maybe I could make it work.

On my blog, I was realizing I had said most of what I needed to say about our broken system of education – that in reality what we had was a broken economic system built upon a broken, flawed philosophical system that didn’t understand human behavior.  In a special education course I learned about the history of disability rights in the US in the latter half of the 20th century.  After a procession of legal victories, a social conception of rights had formed to agree that people with special needs deserved larger society’s active effort in providing them the support they needed to be as successful as possible.  No longer shoved away into the corner, out of sight and out of mind, society now had a responsibility to these individuals.  In 1975 the Individuals with Disabilities Act guaranteed that children with special needs had a right to a "free and appropriate education".  Schools were now required by law to address students’ needs and make accommodations for them. 

It occurred to me that what we had come to realize was morally correct with regard to physical disabilities we had not yet come to realize for the merely “disadvantaged”.  Sure, we offer the bare minimum through a patchwork of programs such as free/reduced lunch or title 1 funds for special tutoring.  But it can't possibly make up for the problems these kids live with.  And it is nothing like the large-scale, sustained, legally binding law we have for students with disabilities.

Why not?  Is not a child with numerous risk factors deserving of special assistance in a comprehensive, cohesive fashion?  When you look at all of the factors that go into a child’s emotional, physical and academic success, the very concept of disadvantage defines an unequal future.  Is this, to use the language of the 1975 law, “appropriate”?

I realize providing an comprehensive, individualized education to disadvantaged students is a radical notion.  What it implies is a complete restructuring of our entire educational system, as well as a rather invasive and powerful legal intrusion into the family.  Yet the larger problem is philosophical: kids are born with disabilities.  There is little we can do to change that.  But kids are not born disadvantaged; they are born into an environment of disadvantage.  We can change this, but it requires a reshaping of our economic and social institutions.

Let’s look at a real-world example of what I mean.  Take the 2 year-old child of the 17-year-old mother.  If this child was taken and place in an upper-SES family, it’s risk factors removed, it would likely go on to college and stand a high chance of success.  Of course, this would be entirely immoral, aside from impractical.  This child might be fine, but what about the structure within which the parent exists.  She will continue the rest of her life working for low wages, providing society with cheap labor.  But in this scenario society has not changed.  The sector of the economy that requires an underclass to operate will continue.  And who is to say the parent won’t simply have another child?  She likely will.  She will be living in poverty, in a neighborhood with similar property values as she can afford, inhabited by people of similar means.  They will all send their children to the same school, to exponentially de-leverage each other, while on the other side, the upper-SES property value families will be leveraging away between rounds of tennis and political caucusing.

We’re not going to take children away from their families.  That’s barbaric.  But is the current neo-liberal agenda, to “fix the schools”, much better?  

It sounds good, and has a bipartisan ring.  But in the past decades we’ve tried: charters, school closings, hiring “the best and brightest”, union-busting... we’ve made next to zero progress.  After a sober analysis of the functional relationships in poor communities, children and education, is it any surprise?  At best, schools are an extra leg-up for those unlucky enough to have low levels of “societal capital”.  At worse they are a continued excuse for a society that wants to pretend it is helping those that get left behind by the system, all-the-while depending on classes of poor people for its cheap labor.   Given that most of our political eggs are in such a hopeless basket, this alternative seems pretty barbaric too.

So what to do?  Well, we can start by understanding the problem.  And to understand it, we must return to Skinner.  As I mentioned previously, what is broken in society is our philosophy of human behavior.  In 2016, enormous numbers of people still believe in the magical concept of “free will”.  What this means is that they believe that all people, once they reach a certain age, are “free” to make their own decisions, regardless of life experience.  If, at this point, they make poor choices, the responsibility begins and ends with them.  It is not society’s fault.  Therefore, society is not responsible either for investing in special programs to help them, or to alter its institutions so as to stop creating the environments which produce individuals who would make such decisions.  This is the raw core of disagreement between right and left, democrat and republican, “big government” versus “small government”.  You can have policy debates about the efficacy of different policy responses, but less government necessarily means leaving people on their own to suffer whatever contingencies naturally arise in any given environment.  For some, this may work fine.  But for many, this will mean a life shaped by a lack of resources.  And just like financial resources, Rent will develop in which those with capital will be in a better position to profit off of those with less.   Humans are selfish by nature, and without strong contingencies keeping us in check, we are very good at living with inequality.  We are very good at building walls, both literally and figuratively.

So to continue the metaphor, the first wall that must come down is the notion of free will.  Skinner’s work, along with countless others in the natural science of behaviorism, has devastated it once and for all.  Radical behaviorism the most rigorous, empirical, and parsimonious account available of human behavior - both verbal (including private thoughts) and non-verbal.  Its laws are irrefutable. 

The political history of behaviorism versus cognitive science is long and not well enough understood.  But it is apparent that those who decades ago began proclaiming its death were ignorant of the science.  Not only is it flourishing today, with practical applications that show results in certain populations - namely those with autism - that would be almost unthinkable in any other field of psychology, but offers great promise in a great many other areas as well, from business to politics, mental health to urban planning.  (And of course we can't forget education.)

A common critique of behaviorism is that it is too simple, too reductionist.  Sure, it is said, it describes well the behavior of simple animals, or some simple human behaviors, but doesn’t come close to explaining the complexity of human thought.  This is both true and false.  True, many human thoughts are the product of incalculable functional relations between an individual’s genetic make-up and the schedules of punishment and reinforcement that have acted upon them in a process of unfolding, never-ending contingencies.  We cannot account for specific instances at such levels of resolution.  But this would be like asking how one molecule of H2O got to be just where it is in the middle of a hurricane, or of a molecule of pigment in a Rembrandt. 

At the same time, it would be false to say we don’t a have a clear explanation for the principles from which molecules of water or paint operate.  They are part of highly complex systems, yes, but systems that obey fundamental laws.  The same can be said of behavior.  We know the principles of respondent and operant conditioning are responsible for every measurable human behavior, no matter how complex.  As a system, the human “mind” is entirely behavioral, and operates according to the same principles and laws that all other organisms do.  I can’t possible tell you whether or not you are going to drink coffee tomorrow morning, or why you didn’t today.  But I can explain the principles involved that will, over time have come to create your coffee-drinking behavior.

But why, people would always say, does it just FEEL like we are in control of our actions?  There must be something more.  Maybe some emergent property, quantum entanglement, or some yet to be discovered phenomenon that allowed for us - the most sophisticated thing in the known universe - to be acting free from the constraints of determinism.

I’ve only been studying behaviorism for close to three years now, and a certified behavior analyst for less than one year.  But I'm still struck by the gap between behaviorism's vast scientific body of knowledge and popular discussions of psychology and philosophy -  not to mention its implication for every other realm of human endeavor.  I still love to read non-behaviorist writing on the subject, but I find it increasingly difficult to take anyone seriously who doesn’t at least understand the basic principles of behaviorism.  It would be like reading book on geology by someone who has never heard of radiometric dating.  To be honest, the discussions of the “mind” one often hears from non-behaviorists bears striking resemblance to evolution skeptics discussing intelligent design.  One of the first things I do now when picking up any book dealing with a related subject is check the index for references to Skinner.  There usually are none.

I’m now a BCBA, with a successful practice and doing work I love each day with beautiful families and their children with autism.  I am deeply gratified by the constant miraculousness of the work – the principles of “verbal behavior” that Skinner developed and others built on to provide effective treatments I get to deliver are literally teaching the behavior of thought in children and allowing them to more fully meet their potential as individuals.

But while the work I do makes a profound difference in the lives of children with special needs, I can’t help but think of the larger world, with so much sadness, suffering and inequality.  I can’t help but think of the impact we could have – not just with the practical application of the principles of behaviorism, but the philosophical implications its science has for how we structure and organize our society.  With a behavioral lens, so many old mythologies that have kept us from real political and social progress slip away, exposed as illusions.  In their place, a vast humility takes form that sees each individual as unique, yet inseparably tied to everything else in the universe, shaped by the contingencies of day to day life, interacting through his breath, blood, organs and nerve endings in complete harmony.

It is through our objective philosophy of science that we reach out across four thousand millennia and gaze upon ourselves, both in all we could be and what we may one day yet become.  This reaching is our “will”, though it is anything but free.  It provides the reinforcement.  It provides the punishment.  All we can ever do is go along for the ride, from these words to your history of associated memories.  What will be will be, however in this humble endeavor, I try my best to be light from that gaze, into darkness of the unknown.