Respond vs. React

Photo source:

*Recommended Post- The Basics: Operant Conditioning

Much of what I do does not involve teaching complicated, advanced level behavior analytic concepts to families/caregivers or educators. No, most of what I spend my time doing is simply explaining "basic" concepts over and over again. I say these concepts are "basic", because if they really were so basic would so many people not know them??? Hmmm, I think not.

One of these basic concepts is the idea of RESPONDING vs. REACTING.
Most of the common errors I see across clients, happen when a teacher or a parent quickly react to something my client is doing instead of going into robot-mode to properly respond.

What's robot-mode? I'll tell you: it's that moment where time seems to freeze and outwardly the ABA practitioner goes stone faced, stops talking, quiets their body language, gets near or away from the client (depending on what is happening), and appears to be not a tiny ounce affected by what the client is doing. The pros make it look easy, don't they?

Well, inwardly, that practitioner is thinking hard and fast. They are scanning the room to weigh potential dangers, they are automatically thinking of what they will do if the behavior escalates, they are reminding themselves what the last demand was (so they can return to it as soon as feasible), they are doing a mini-FBA to think about what led to this behavior, etc. And watching the practitioner work, it probably looks like none of this is happening. I've actually had parents comment on that before, something close to "I can't do what you all do, I can't just SIT THERE while my child is tantrumming". Oh believe me, we are not just "sitting there".

That's why I call it robot-mode....the outside is objective and mechanical and the inside is a  computer clicking along at high speed. It took me time+ time+ time to get to the point where I could do this as quickly as those amazing supervisors who were teaching me to do this. Especially if the client has a good handful of your hair, or skin, or clothes.

To put it simply, when we react to something we are usually going in emotions-first. When we respond to something we are usually going in logic- first. I have tested this theory out a bit by asking parents in the moment "Ok, now why did you just do that?" and they usually say something like "...I don't know/I wanted him/her to stop". *see note on this below
 If you ask the ABA practitioner (which I recommend) why they are doing what they are doing, there is a technique or strategy they can describe to you, with the overall goal always being to teach. This could be teaching replacement behaviors, teaching communication, teaching the child problem behavior does not = escape, etc. Responding is a thoughtful process where you generate ideas, evaluate your idea, consider the consequence of your idea, and then act.

*Note: I explained this in my Punishment post, but when people tend to emotionally react to problem behavior it is often in a highly punitive manner, or with the goal to just stop the behavior. Little thought may be given to teaching new behavior. Just another reason it is so important to be intentional about behavior change, and manage your own behavior before you try to intervene on your child's behavior. If your child gets frustrated and yells, so then YOU get frustrated and yell....what did they just learn?


  1. So, how do we teach our students/ clients to use "robot-mode" to properly respond? This is my biggest challenge with high-functioning students who have ASD. They react rather than respond, especially to authority figures with whom they haven't established a relationship or "new" adults who present demands or questions that seem intrusive or illogical to them. The cause of the behavior is usually deficits in language pragmatics, but what procedures or applications do you use to replace the reactions with thoughtful responses? I've used self-regulation models, self-control techniques, and some language programs to explicitly teach pragmatics and perspective taking skills; however, when those situations arise, it doesn't matter what lessons we've done, they always react in an explosive manner. Is it lack of generalization?

    1. It's going to vary, there is no "one way" to teach this skill to your clients.
      You would need to break down the specific behaviors being exhibited (backtalk? arguing? name calling? physical intimidation? raised voice?), and conduct functional analyses to determine what is maintaining the behavior.

      Several years ago I had 2 separate cases of older children with similar explosive behaviors, and it turned out in one case the defiant behavior was being reinforced/shaped up by the parents, yet with the other client it ended up being a true skill deficit where he lacked empathy and perspective taking skills. So those two interventions looked extremely different.


Copyright T. Meadows 2011. All original content on this blog is protected by copyright. Powered by Blogger.
Back to Top