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  • Writer's pictureAlley Dezenhouse Kelner

A child is more than the sum of his/her behaviours

I can already hear the behaviourist cringe...but hear me out.

It’s been nearly ten years now that I have been knee-deep in behavioural intervention and post graduate training; believe me when I say, I have found the experience enlightening and immensely valuable. The client progress, the personal growth, and the mutual understanding that results from sound behavioural analysis is astounding and has been life changing for many of the clients I have supported—and the therapists I have coached.

This post is not meant to take away from a field which I am deeply rooted in, and significantly invested in—but rather meant to highlight the importance of not considering a behaviour in isolation; which I am sure any seasoned behavioural therapist will agree with.

Behavioural analysis is a pivotal aspect of special education and early intervention, providing insight into the function of behaviour as a means of communication; beyond the clinical world, it has allowed me to better understand my family members, my friends, my colleagues—behaviour is universal and therefore principles are universally applicable across populations. Behaviour analysis, is not however, the only piece of the puzzle when it comes to gaining true insight and understanding. Behaviour analysis concerns itself with the observable, the measurable, and the “operationally definable”; in short, if it can be qualified, it probably fits snugly into the scope of behaviourism (I admit, I find comfort in this). Behaviour analysis does not, on the other hand, account for the less observable aspects of child development and well being.

When a science is reduced to what is observable it requires clinicians to pay close attention to what is external (the way a behaviour looks, the frequency with which is occurs, the intensity of its occurrence); it focuses less on aspects which exist internally (the way a context makes me feel, my perception of events, my raw emotions, and my internal dialogue). Until an emotion exists externally in something I can qualify (stomping feet, rosy cheeks, heavy breathing or grinding my teeth) it doesn’t count for much on the behavioural side of things.

I would argue that the above description is a very surface level understanding, albeit a traditional one, and that many behaviourists do in fact extend their analysis beyond what is classically ‘behavioural’. I can speak for myself, and say that I certainly do—but this may be attributed to my training in counselling psychology which—to be frank, at first glance felt like the polar opposite of behaviourism. So much so, that I found myself wondering “how the heck do I merge these two schools of thought; one which focuses solely on the external factors (behaviourism) and a second which focuses solely on internal factors (counselling psychology)?"

Turns out my understanding of both fields needed to grow (beyond merely surface level) in order to truly understand how they fit together—it took a lot of introspection and analysis! When you get beyond a superficial understanding of a philosophy or school of thought, you can begin to understand the nuances, the history of the perspective and the value it brings; additionally, you can begin to draw ties between seemingly opposite schools of thought and marry the two philosophies in a way which provides a more holistic interpretation of child behaviour patterns.

In a conversation with my Masters supervisor, I recall a similar conversation; he told me that when building a child's confidence (as any good therapist aims to do), I should "kind of" forget what I know about behavioural reinforcement and focus on internal factors.

At first I was confused, so he qualified.

Generally, it accepted that a behavioural therapist will provide specific and concrete feedback about behaviour (so far, I was following). You may have heard your child's therapist say (or you may have been trained to say yourself...)

“Alley, nice looking at me; nice quiet sitting, Alley; such neat printing; excellent job raising your hand; way to go! Amazing work!”

On the other hand, my supervisor was suggesting I take a different (but still similar), approach which marries the two schools of thought discussed today.

He said try something like: “Alley, I really like how you’re taking your time to print each letter, it shows me you really care and are trying your best; Alley, I really like how you’re showing me your eyes and letting me know you are really hearing me”.

He was asking me to praise the child for something that reflects his/her character and otherwise internal factors, rather than something external (like his/her printing, art project, behaviour).

In one breath, he had articulated exactly what needed to be done with the behavioural and counselling psychology perspective—bring them together. Use the theories of reinforcement to praise the child for something internal—brilliant, right? In short, a child is more than the sum of his/her behaviours; he/she is the product of past learning history, of perceptions of self and the world, of circumstance, of context, of genetic predisposition, of so many factors which only when assessed as a unit—yield holistic understanding.

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