The well-known adage of, “power to those who define” captures an essential truth when it comes to behavioral change. How we define “the problem”, and “success” influences how we conceptualize, define and therefore approach change efforts. The crux of this issue is seen across behavioral change efforts be it self-improvement, in families, schools, businesses, or larger community efforts: too often success is defined as the absence of a behavior, rather than the promotion of valued behavior.
When we only define success as the reduction or absence of some behavior we are more likely to fail to teach, nurture and support the development of what we do want.
The common error many make is erroneously equating success as the absence of undesired behavior. A teacher may want her students to stop talking out, a parent may want his child to stop tantrumming in the store (or his teenager to stop over sleeping for that matter). A manager may want her receptionist to stop doing nothing when seated at his desk without any customers to attend to. By simply focusing on reducing the occurrence of what we don't want, we fail to employ much of what science tells us about behavioral change. When we only define success as the reduction or absence of some behavior we are more likely to fail to teach, nurture and support the development of what we do want. So what does the teacher really want? She wants children to raise their hand and wait to be called upon before talking, to complete their work, not be distracted by others, or be the distraction. That parent who is struggling with his child at the supermarket wants to be able to walk in to a store have the child be calm, well- behaved (we could define as using an, “inside-voice”, hands to self , and stays within 3 feet of him) and quite frankly the parent doesn’t want to be embarrassed. The parent of the teenager who oversleeps needs to figure out what they want their child to be doing instead of sleeping. The manager wants her employee to show initiative by using his time wisely by completing ongoing tasks when he has a chance to. These are all worthwhile definitions of, “success”, so how can we increase the likelihood of attaining them?
The 5-step model (Smith, 2001) ensures users spend adequate time considering and developing plan components to promote any targeted replacement behaviors, and the general expectations that, if they were being followed, would reduce the occurrence of undesired behavior.
Science tells us to focus on what we want first, do it well, and there will be less of a need to work on reducing what we don't want. This is why the 5-Step Competing Schedules model (Smith, 2001) ensures change efforts DEFINE/TEACH, PROMPT and REINFORCE the specific desired behavior(s) that are expected while targeting specific replacement behaviors to take the place of undesired behavior. As O’Neill, et al. (1997) discuss we always want to replace a behavior we do not want with one that serves the same function of the individual yet is more acceptable to those around the person and leads to valued outcomes. The 5-step model (Smith, 2001) ensures users spend adequate time considering and developing plan components to promote any targeted replacement behaviors, and the general expectations that, if they were being followed, would reduce the occurrence of undesired behavior. The model encourages users to consider and outline these plan components before they develop the preventative and response measures to reduce the occurrences of the undesired behavior (readers should not infer though that once a plan of change is completed we don’t employ preventative measures first). This programming of promotion portions of a plan prior to outlining prevention and responses components ensures we (a) know the specific behavior we want, (b) have not assumed knowledge and mastery of these skills by ourselves, children, students, employees, and (c) addresses the tendency to rely on reactive and punitive-based interventions as a result of defining issues as what we don’t want.
…when the shift is focused on what we want, rather than what we don’t, there is deeper understanding of what it is we truly want, and this understanding better informs what to communicate to our employees or students in terms of expectations.
If we spend our time focusing on what we DO want, we are more likely to take an instructional and supportive approach to promoting behaviors we value. And we are more likely to have durable change. Consider the 5 Situations below. Notice how when the shift is focused on what we want, rather than what we don’t, there is deeper understanding of what it is we truly want, and this understanding better informs us on what to communicate to our employees or students in terms of expectations. We take the guess work and reliance on prior knowledge out of the equation.
Situation 1: Individual who not happy about their appearance/physical health
Problematic definition of “success”: Individual wants to lose weight
A better definition of “success": Engage in healthier lifestyle of eating nutritious food, maintain weight within ideal range, exercise, proper sleep and stress management
Situation 2: Frustrated parent of toddler who increasingly cries at checkout counter until Dad allows child to have preferred candy
Problematic definition of “success”: How to stop my child from crying and tantrumming
A better definition of "success“: Child needs to know and maintain good behavior when at store
Situation 3: Child care provider having difficulty with children during outside play time
Problematic definition of “success”: How to reduce aggressive disagreements over the swings on the playground
A better definition of “success“: Children should know and practice good play skills on the playground
Situation 4: Teacher frustrated at children “talking out”
Problematic definition of “success”: How to get children to stop talking out
A better definition of “success“: How do I get kids to, “Raise hand and wait” to be called upon, and participate in small group work
Situation 5: Business manager frustrated that her receptionist shows no initiative
Problematic definition of “success”: How to get employee to stop being so lazy
A better definition of “success “: Receptionist need a better understanding of possible things to do when not interacting on phone/in-person with incoming clients
By embracing the responsibility that comes from defining, “success” our role is redefined from “managing” others to building success with what we value for others.
When we embrace this mindset shift, we move away from a passive role of only getting involved when things go wrong, to one of empowerment. Behavioral "management" moves from waiting for failure and then trying to correct it, to a “supportive” process that requires thoughtful planning, active involvement, and ongoing nurturing. Our role is not “fixing” ourselves, a child, a student, a colleague or employee, but rather to more deeply understand what behaviors we want, and how to make the necessary contextual changes to promote them. We ensure we have done our job as principal, teacher, manager, parent, or coach of explicitly defining, teaching, prompting, and reinforcing what it is that we want. To define, “success” as what it looks and sounds like, rather than what it is not, we align ourselves to the science of behavior change, and we are more likely to be successful. By embracing the responsibility that comes from defining, “success” our role is redefined from “managing” others to building success with what we value for others.
[Readers should read other posts that discuss, in detail, the 5- Step Model (including specifics as to how it was used to make lasting change in each of the above examples) & readers can sign up in the SERVICES section of the website for online learning opportunities focused on understanding and using the model]
Behavioral Big Ideas
(check out the Behavioral Primer Section for definitions and information about these key behavioral change concepts)
*5-Step Competing Schedules model
O’Neill, R. E., Horner, R. H., Albin, R. W., Sprague, J. R., Storey, K., & Newton, J. S. (1997). Functional assessment and program development for problem behavior: A practical handbook. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Smith, B. (2001) Using a 5-step competing schedules model to operationally define Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS). Unpublished manuscript.