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Issues for the consulting behavior analyst: EO's, SD's, and promoting business versus promoting the science of behavior analysis.

Recently there has been an increased interest in Skinner's (1957) Verbal Behavior, most notably among parents of children with autism seeking to reverse and correct the devastation of the condition. The current commentary suggests that with the "new" popularity of Skinner's analysis and the subsequent application in clinical treatment that behavior analyst's have a responsibility to properly educate the community about the history of the analysis of verbal behavior and to adequately train people who conduct behavior protocols using Skinner's analysis or suffer the lessons of the past.


Recently there has been an increased interest in Skinner's 1957 Verbal Behavior. This is a long awaited change among those of us who have studied Skinner's work and have long believed in the validity of his analysis. Much of the new interest in this body of work has come about due to the application of Skinner's analysis by Sundberg and Partington with children who have autism. This work is outlined in the 1998 book Teaching Language to Children With Autism or Other Developmental Disabilities and formalized through the publication of their assessment manual The ABLLS Protocol (Partington & Sundberg, 1998). This protocol in the hands of someone familiar with the functional analysis of verbal behavior is a powerful tool not only in assessing deficits and strengths in verbal behavior, but in creating an intervention program for children with deficit verbal behavior repertoires. Note that I have not specifically stated "children with autism" because truth be known when the assessment is used appropriately with children with "other developmental disabilities" it is just as powerful in assisting to determine deficit repertoires. Although, the sudden popularity given rise to Skinner's analysis is due mainly to it's application in the autism community, it seems important to remember that this is indeed verbal behavior. The analysis applies to all organisms when learning to become members of their verbal community and the operants are apparent in every verbal community.

Perhaps the most important statement that must be made at this point is that along with this rise in "popularity" among behavior analysts comes a large responsibility. The most important thing that Behavior Analysts could do for behavior analysis, and more focally the analysis of verbal behavior is to properly educate people about the history of behavior analysis, basic and applied taking this opportunity to promote our science, and not just businesses. Behavior Analysts should not commit the same sins that linguist, psychodynamic researchers and clinicians of the past have committed. In an article by John Eshelman and Ernest Vargas (1988) the pair speaks of promoting the behaviorological analysis of verbal behavior. They note several issues of commission and omission that they account for the general malaise surrounding the radical behaviorist analysis of verbal behavior.

Do we not commit the same wrong when we allow the public, for whatever reason, to call the analysis of verbal behavior "the new method of ABA" or to say that "discrete trial training, direct instruction, precision teaching and milieu language training doesn't take into account the analysis of verbal behavior" a few comments I recently read on an parent internet list for children with disabilities. Additionally again and again I have heard of clinicians in the field and their new approach to verbal behavior. In the meantime I see little about the history of the analysis or the current work in this area of behavior. This does little justice to work of Vargas, Michael, Catania, Sidmund, Sundberg and the countless less famous, but equally capable others who have contributed to our knowledge in the analysis of verbal behavior. It seems to me to be no different when current behavior analysts omit the history upon which they base their current work to the public and the omission that Eshelman and Vargas speak about.

What are the Effects on the Community: Where are the Real Issues?

Perhaps one of the most confused aspects, in terms of the general community, is the SD versus EO "controversy". Parents, educators and unfortunately some "behavior specialists" speak of discriminative stimulus and establishing operations as competing terms, as if one exists and the other does not. Recently in an Internet chat forum a parent from Maryland was "flamed" for using SD's with her child. She was told that SD's were "old news" and recent development in ABA had determined that her child would never learn "real" language unless she used EO training alone to teach language. Effectively one parent told another that she was harming her child conducting treatment designed by a local behavior analyst. The advising parent had apparently learned this at a local training she recently attended. Obviously we would all agree that discriminative stimulus has a role in evoking verbal responses and that this parent, although enlightened to the power of using EO's to teach verbal behavior had only acquired a minimal education and was and is now spreading misinformation that could have long-lasting negative effects on the acceptance of our science.

Only a few weeks ago while conducting an in-service for Behavior Specialists I was surprised when one of the participants asked me to explain how to manipulate EO's to evoke intraverbal responding. After some probing I discovered that the clinician had attended a workshop where he learned that EO's evoked all verbal operants as opposed to other stimuli. After some discussion we resolved that using an EO as a stimulus prompt to train intraverbal responding may be helpful but that ultimately an intraverbal response had to come under the control of a speaker's "words". The frightening aspects of this is that, uncorrected, as a Behavior Specialist this individual would ultimately train teams of individuals to work with children and replicate this incorrect information many times over and use this incorrect information to develop prompt dependency in the children he treated.

Finally, and perhaps the most frightening experience occurred only several days ago when I was told that a person whom I was considering hiring for a direct care position at our organization was independently consulting as an AVB (Applied Verbal Behavior) consultant for families having children with autism. We were considering this individual as a front line 1:1 staff person to work under the direction of a Senior Support Specialist (BCABA) and a Consultant (BCBA), she had a high school diploma and was working on obtaining her bachelors degree in speech. When questioned as to her credentials as an "AVB consultant" she explained that she had attended two workshops on AVB and had certificates to indicate her expertise.

I have attended some of the workshops offered by the major presenters in the field and have been impressed by the professionalism, thoroughness and the cautionary statements offered about not taking these protocols lightly. Yet, despite these best efforts we are plagued with numerous examples like those offered previously and a general misunderstanding of the of the most important and basic elements of verbal behavior.

Discriminative Stimulus ([S.sup.D]) or Establishing Operation (EO)?SD & EO?

An Establishing Operations (EO) is "an environmental event ... that affects an organism by momentarily altering (a) the reinforcing effectiveness of other events and (b) the frequency of occurrence of that part of the organism's repertoire relevant to those events as consequences" (Michael, p. 192). Establishing Operations can be utilized to teach many verbal responses by making a previously neutral stimulus function as a reinforcer. It can also be invaluable in the analysis of problem or aberrant behavior.

Both Establishing Operations (EO) and Discriminative Stimuli ([S.sup.D]'s) evoke behavioral responses (often identical), it is difficult at times to identify which is at work. It takes careful training and practice to accurately identify these differences and apply the use of each appropriately in the field.

The differences between EO and [S.sup.D]'s relate mostly to the process of bringing specific responses under functional control of specific stimuli. The control of an [S.sup.D] is established because the stimulus ([S.sup.D]) is correlated with a frequency (availability) of reinforcement. An EO does not make reinforcement more available; it makes it more valuable to the individual at a particular time and this change in value affects the motivational variables that increase the likelihood of an individual emitting a behavioral response at a particular time. Responses under the control of EO occur due to environmental events or operations, not specific instructions. EO evokes behavior as it changes the value of what functions as reinforcement for the response. When I am thirsty, I am more likely to say "coffee". The briefest of rules would specify [S.sup.D] = availability and EO = value, a simplification, but one that can assist in beginning to increase the skills in looking for the differences between [S.sup.D]'s and EO's.

Unconditioned Establishing Operations (UEO's) such as hunger, thirst, or even access to frequently manipulated or perhaps perseverative toys or activities are easily captured, as the passage of time will increase the momentary effectiveness as a reinforcer. A simple deprivation schedule applied to the child in treatment will increase the opportunities to train the child under the control of a captured EO. As noted by Hart & Risley (1975) and expanded upon by Sundberg (1987), There are many opportunities and means to contrive such EO's in training. To evoke the most tacted; feeding a child salty foods is likely to contrive the EO (or increase the value) for liquids.

Michael (1981) also identifies several Conditioned Establishing Operations (CEO's) that can be used in training. Michael identifies three CEO's, transitive, reflexive, and surrogate that should be captured and contrived in an intensive intervention. Transitive conditioned Establishing Operations (TCEO's) as Sundberg notes (1993) are brought about by the occurrence of one stimulus in the environment that alters the reinforcing value of a second stimulus and that second stimulus cannot be obtained without the emission of behavior. For example a barefoot child seeing his siblings and peers going outside to play might emit "Where are my shoes?" or a trainer might place a favored item in a clear (closed) container to contrive the TCEO for "open". Specifically, Michael (1988) identifies the importance of using CEO's to establish the mand. Hart and Risley (1975) used incidental teaching incorporating the effectiveness EO training in the model.

Michael defines the Reflexive Conditioned Establishing Operation ([sup.R]CEO) as "any stimulus condition whose presence or absence has been positively correlated with the presence or absence of any form of worsening will function as a CEO in establishing it's own termination as effective reinforcement and in evoking any behavior that has been so reinforced" (p. 203). In intensive programs where children are "drilled" repetitiously, with minimum variance in reinforcers the term "Good Job", typically deployed as a generalized reinforcer, can for example come to function as the [sup.R]CEO in evoking "tantrums" that in the past caused trainers to stop or pause the "drilling" process. The [sup.R]CEO appears to have practical applications in the analysis of "lying" or the side effects of incorrectly applied punishment procedures. Perhaps these will be explored in greater detail in future papers.

Finally, the Surrogate Conditioned Establishing Operation ([sup.S]CEO) where stimulus correlated with stimulus evokes behavior as a CEO rather than an [S.sup.D] increasing the value of terminating the former stimulus as opposed to the availability of termination. In many intensive home programs problems arise when the child tantrums on the way to the "training room" that has been previously paired with punishing stimuli, although the particular trainer may have never worked with the child before or have any aversive history with the child. The stimulus of the room evokes the behavior of tantrums. Sundberg (1993) points out that the [sup.S]CEO could be essential in the analysis and treatment of shyness or self-injurious behaviors. It appears that the [sup.S]CEO may have possible implications for the effective analysis and treatment of unrealistic fears or "unexplained" sudden "emotional mood" shifts.

What about responses that are evoked by EO's and SD's? Currently the consumer public of applied behavior analysis has an overwhelming either or understanding of EO's and SD's. This is especially noticeable in the intensive interventions using discrete trial training exclusively and those using natural training methods exclusively. It seems that both behaviors evoked by [S.sup.D]'s and EO's are a necessary part of the "normal" behavioral repertoire. The child who learns to spontaneously ask for juice when thirsty learns a behavior that will be very important to their future, but is responding to the teacher "I want juice please", when asked "What do you want to drink?" and not asking in class unless offered any less important. Certainly, I have attended several meetings where I did not enter the room and ask for coffee, but once posed the question "Can I get you something to drink?" I promptly replied, "I would like some coffee, black please".

[S.sup.D]'s indicating the availability of reinforcers after emitting a certain behavior, and EO's altering the value of certain stimulus would appear to share similar circumstances in the area of verbal behavior as both may evoke a verbal response.

What can we do?

The proper use of EO's in analyzing and treating problem behavior as well as training new behavior is a powerful tool for applied behavior analysts. With these powerful tools comes an awesome responsibility to properly train and supervise those who use these techniques, both about the rich history of our science, origins of these technologies and about the proper and responsible application of these technologies in the field. Behavior Analysis is powerful and more and more it is becoming the treatment of choice for a number of issues effecting people. It is my hope that we as a profession will not fall victim to our own popularity. Perhaps, most importantly we should caution those who attend trainings and workshop that applying these techniques in training or analysis is a difficult task that requires something beyond a basic knowledge. Reminding individuals that proper supervision by someone who is fluent in the use of such techniques is not only advisable but also necessary. Perhaps we can distribute an outline of the credentials that someone should have to direct and supervise treatment in the field at workshops as a subtle reminder to those who participate that it is not a license to practice.

There is little doubt of the importance verbal behavior plays in the day to day of the average human. Indeed, verbal behavior may be the most important of human behaviors. As Sundberg has pointed out it seems curious that such a large, as well as important, repertoire of human behavior has received such little attention. Now that the focus is turning more towards behavior analysis and the radical behaviorist analysis of verbal behavior (for whatever reason), we should use this opportunity to educate the communities about this important science.

Hopefully the increased popularity born through clinical treatment of children with autism and other developmental disabilities will finally lead the field to empirical study based on and building on Skinner's analysis. Ultimately, his own words will ring true that this book would prove to be his most important work. This will only occur if behavior analysts assume the responsibility to place the same standards to the treatment and study of this behavior as we have to every other behavior studied in the human organism as well as those who apply it in the field. Given time behavior analysts will prove beyond a shadow of doubt that we understand words best once we realize that they have no inherent meaning.


Brady, N.C,, Saunders, K.J., Spradlin J.E. (1994). A conceptual analysis of request teaching procedures for individuals with severely limited verbal repertoire. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 12, 43-52.

Catania, A.C. (1993). Coming to terms with establishing operations. The Behavior Analyst 16, 219-124.

Cherpas, C. (1993). Do establishing operations alter reinforcement effectiveness? The Behavior Analyst 16, 347-349.

Hall, G., & Sundlberg, M. (1987). Teaching mands by manipulating conditioned establishing operations. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior. 5, 41-53.

Lamarre, J. & Holland J.G. (1985). The functional independence of mands and tacts. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. 43, 5-19.

McDevitt, M.A., & Fantino, E. (1993). Establishing operations and the discriminative stimulus. The Behavior Analyst 16, 225-227.

Michael, J. (1988). Establishing operations and the mand. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 6, 3-9.

Michael, J. (1993). Establishing operations. The Behavior Analyst 16, 191-206.

Schafer, E. (1994). A review of interventions to teach mand repertoires, The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 12, 53-66.

Schlinger, H.D. (1993). Establishing operations: Another step toward a functional taxonomy of environmental events. The Behavior Analyst 16, 207-209.

Skinner, B.F. (1953). Science and human behavior. NY:Macmillan Company.

Skinner, B.F. (1957). Verbal behavior. MA:Copley publ.

C. A. Thomas

The Childhood Learning Center, Reading, PA
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Author:Thomas, C.A.
Publication:The Behavior Analyst Today
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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