Why are they acting that way? “They’re just tired.”. It’s one of those cliches that never goes away. It’s just so easy to use. You can use it for any situation at all to explain away patterns of maladaptive or cranky behavior. Screaming? Tired. Throwing things? Tired. Hitting their siblings? Tired. It’s the explanation that’s got it all-… Except that it’s not exactly true all the time. Exhaustion does exist, sleeping poorly does affect behavior, but there’s a risk in assuming a cause without looking at the exact conditions surrounding the behavior. It’s more work to do so, but it’s worth it.
In Behavior Analysis, we call that kind of thing an “explanatory fiction”. It’s not directly untruthful, but it avoids reality through ease and circular reasoning. Why do they do that thing we don’t like? Oh! They’re tired. It’s not hard to see the practical ease in that either. Everyone in their life has been cranky or acted miserably when they’ve been stretched too thin. The problem comes from the assumption. That assumption takes away all the curiosity and the need to dig for a more sophisticated answer, and it also leads us to a bias of expectation. We’ll ask around post hoc to confirm the broad theory. Did they sleep well last night? Oh! Well, there was that one time when ____. Anything we get that conforms to our “theory of tiredness” will close the book. Open and shut case. We miss the real reason. We miss the real point. There’s risk in that. We miss out on catching the patterns that become habits that hurt further down the line. We blind ourselves to teachable moments.
The way to avoid all of these pitfalls and to explore the real reason behind these target behaviors is to begin the search right when we spot it. It would be even better if we could give context to what happened before the behaviors occur. A great psychologist named B.F Skinner called this the Three-Term Contingency, and it is a great way to actually get an idea on the triggers, causes, and/or maintaining factors for behaviors that ought not to happen. These are broken down into three things to study: the Antecedent which occurs before the behavior (“What exactly set this off?”), the Behavior which is the exact thing we are looking at, and the Consequence which happens after the behavior occurs (“What did this behavior get or what did it let them escape?”). Now it’s not just enough to ask the questions. We should probably document it too. Write it down. Take notes. Get numbers. How many times are you seeing this specific behavior? We call that Frequency. How long does that behavior last? We call that Duration. We can use this information to inform our conceptualization on what the behavior’s function is. By finding the function, it can lead to us adapting not only the environment to aid in decreasing the behavior but also aid in helping the learner find a better way to engage for what it is they are after. Even if it is a nap.
Let’s talk Functions of behavior. In Behavior Analysis, there are 4 common categories that make it a simple framework to work with: Attention, Access (to something/someone), Escape (to get away from or avoid), or Automatic Reinforcement (which is internal/invisible and mediated by the self). A pattern of behavior that occurs again and again, regardless of how they slept the night before, might lead us in the direction of one of these. Or more than one. A behavior can also be “multiply maintained”. We can either see this as a complication or as a better truth than a simple off-hand answer. Assuming that fatigue and tiredness are the leading factors only gives us the solution of a nap. That may delay the behavior’s reoccurrence, but if you see, again and again, it’s time to take the step and look deeper. The nap is not the answer, only a temporary respite from the behavior. The contingency and history of reinforcement haven’t gone anywhere. Bottom line: It’s more complicated than that, and probably isn’t going away that easily.
Trade the Nap for some Differential Reinforcement
Now it’s time to get serious. If we’ve gotten this far, and tracked behavior observably as possible, and ruled out our original assumption of an internal factor like “tiredness”, then we need an answer we can use in the world of the awake. Thankfully, behavior is like dinosaurs, it can undergo extinction (that means go away), or it can get stronger if you feed it (reinforce it). The “bad behaviors”, the maladaptive ones that are not a help to the learner or their situation, can be extinguished by simply avoiding the thing that reinforces it. What is it after? Don’t let it get that. What is it avoiding? Don’t let it avoid that either.
Hard work, right?
But that’s not the end of it. You can’t just take away a behavior and leave a void. You need to replace it. So, when it comes to a maladaptive behavior that aims to get something, and it’s adapted to get that thing, you find a better behavior to replace it. The “bad behavior”? Doesn’t get it. The “good behavior”? That gets it. That’s differential reinforcement; reinforcing the good useful stuff and not reinforcing the other stuff that isn’t helpful or good. Here’s a handful of techniques that follow that principle:
The ol’ DRO (Differential Reinforcement of Other Behaviors): This technique is where you reinforce the “other” behaviors. Everything except the thing you want to go away. If you’re targeting a tantrum, you reinforce every other behavior that is not tantrum related. Some people even fold in some timed intervals (preplanned periods of time) and reward gaps of “other” behaviors so long as the target behavior does not occur. Can they go 5 minutes without a tantrum? Great. How about 10? Progress.
“Not that, this instead!” DRI (Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviors): This isn’t a large net like the DRO procedure. This one is where a set of behaviors are picked because they make the target “bad behavior” impossible. Let’s say our learner plays the bagpipes too loudly and is losing friends fast. What’s a good DRI for that? Anything that makes playing the bagpipes impossible. Try the flute. Or jump rope. Or fly a kite. Hold a microphone and sing. It’s all the same just so long as it’s physically impossible to do both the replacement and the original target (bagpipes, etc) that we aim to decrease.
“The right choice” DRA (Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior): This is the laser targeted, surgical precision, version of the DRI. It follows a similar principle: Get a behavior reinforced that is NOT the maladaptive one. Except for DRA, this behavior is a single target, and it’s most often one that is more effective and socially appropriate. DRI doesn’t care if the new behavior and old target behavior share a function or purpose. DRA would, in most cases. You aim an alternative better behavior to take the place of the old maladaptive one.
The research on all three are varied, but they are tried and true ways to get one behavior to go away while getting other better ones in their place. Some are easier to use in some situations than others. I invite you to explore the research. It’s fascinating stuff. It’s also a lot more effective long-term than assuming the explanatory fiction and hoping it goes away. Why not take action? Why not take control of real factors that could be used for real good and change?
But not right now. You should take a nap. You look tired.
Cooper, John O. Heron, Timothy E. Heward, William L. (2007) Applied Behavior Analysis. Upper Saddle River, N.J. Pearson/Merrill-Prentice Hall.