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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Lunsford

Social Work and Behavior Analysis: Combining Two 'Opposing' Fields

When one thinks of social work, one typically envisions individuals assisting with things such as connecting low income individual to resources and other social services. When one thinks of behavior analysis, the first image that comes to mind is a Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) working with a young child with autism. While these conceptualizations are stereotypical of both fields, both are far more nuanced.

Clinical social work makes use of what's called the person-in-environment appraoch to conceptualize mental illness and other issues that a patient might be experiencing (remember, you don't have to have mental illness to seek help for life's challenges). As the name implies, this approach looks at all possible variables that might be affecting the individual, such as school, teachers, their financial situation, etc. Clinical behavior analysis takes a slightly differnet, yet complementary approach.

In behavior analysis, we view the environment as directly impacting behavior through what is known as the three-term contingency. I've discussed this in the blog before, but I'll review it here before moving on. The three-term contingency views behavior as following a natural pattern:

Antecedent --> Behavior --> Consequence

For the sake of simplicity, let's say that you're leaving for a vacation and you forget to feed your child. Clearly, your child is going to be hungry. In younger children, this often manifests as being "cranky." Now, let's say you pass a McDonald's and your child becomes upset and starts screaming for food. Already, we have the antecedent (the child is hungry) and a problem behavior (throwing a fit). If you "give in" to your child and pull over for McDonald's, you've just reinforced the behavior, so it's more likely to increase in the future. One solution here would be an antecedent intervention in which you make sure your child has food before leaving so there will won't be a desire for breakfast when you drive past that McDonald's.

I see the fields of clinical social work and clinical behavior analysis as complementary. We can accomplish many life goals if we can examine human behavior through both lenses.

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