Pink elephant

Pink elephants on parade: constructing behavior

People are always behaving. That is, they are always doing something that has an impact on the environment and can be observed…and if necessary, changed.

Think about sitting in a coffee shop or a shopping center. You could describe a variety of behaviors that you see around you. Even if someone is sitting perfectly still or sleeping, that is also a behavior. They are doing something.

The importance of building behavior

It’s a simple, but important, understanding because what we are trying to learn is how to create the desired behavior in our children.

A common mistake is to think that if you get your child to stop the things that you don’t want them to do, you’ve won the battle.

Imagine if you were to enter a room and sit down and I immediately began giving you instructions about what NOT to do in a stern voice. “Don’t hold your hands like that! Don’t cross your legs that way. Don’t sit in that chair!”

You might try to comply with my instructions, but eventually, you would get frustrated with me and shout back, “What can I do?”

The Pink Elephant Paradox is a common psychology 101 example. What if I said to you, “Don’t think about pink elephants! Whatever you do, do not think about a giant pink elephant parading through the living room with pink feathers coming out of the top of its head wearing shiny pink pajamas. Stop it right now! You must not think about a pink elephant!”

Without question, your brain made an image of a pink elephant during that example, even though I was telling you not to do it. What if instead I had said, “Imagine a forest full of blue bears. Giant blue bears lumbering from one tree to the next rolling giant blue polka-dotted balls between them. Think about the blue bears!”

With that example, I’ve told you exactly what I want you to see and made it easy for you to do so.

In ABA and other learning environments, we consider it our focus to construct behavior, or build up the behavior that we want to see. It’s not enough just to tell kids what we don’t want them to do. We want to tell children with our actions what we want them to do and make it likely that they will do that again and again in the future.


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