Thought Leaders 024 | Dr. Kent Johnson | Part 2

This month on Thought Leaders, we are joined by Dr. Kent Johnson as he answers the questions, "Where do you see the field going?" and "Where would you like to see the field go?"


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Shauna Costello (00:01):

You're listening to Operant Innovations, a podcast brought to you by ABA Technologies. This month, on Thought Leaders, we're back with Dr. Kent Johnson as he answers the questions: Where do you see the field going and where would you like to see the field go?

Dr. Kent Johnson (00:18):

A lot of people come to see what we're doing, who are working with children with Autism and developmental disabilities, and that's cool. I always say, "Don't ask me about those topics," because I don't really know much and I don't want to pretend that just because I know about what I know about that. I know about something else too. I just try to be humble. Otherwise, they say there are things that they learn how to do. Probably, for the most part, two things about the people in our field who are working with children with Autism and/or developmental disabilities, is they don't know how to design instruction. They tend not to get very much into school learning. They don't know how to teach reading, for example. What happens to a lot of them is they get lost in managing behavior problems and you could spend your whole existence managing behavior problems. When they learn how to read, these are the behavioral cusps. I'm preaching to the choir, I can tell, but here's a whole world of new reinforcement out there, available that these kids didn't have and these behavior problems. I'm not naive enough to say, "Oh, they just disappear when they learn how to read." It's not true, but a lot of it is managed away easily when the alternative reinforcers are available to these kids. It's another problem sometimes I see. By reinforcement I don't necessarily mean only the goodies that they get after after saying the word correctly. It's very artificial. I'm talking about the reinforcement from reading is the reactivity of listeners when you tell them what you read about and they're like, "Oh, I didn't know that," or "Oh, I read this." It's a natural reinforcement trail and that's where you can go with these kids you couldn't go before. You want to not just have a box of goodies to deliver and think you're doing the job that reinforcement requires. There's more [Laughing] to the story than that stuff by far. As if reinforcement was equated with the pleasure principle or something, and [Laughing] that's just not how I see it. Those are the kinds of things I find people in that community shy away from academics because no one taught them about reading and writing and math and instruction and the methods and what material to use. They just haven't learned that and so that's where I feel there are things I can help bring to the field. Not just me, there are a whole crop of us who know about instructional design and curriculum. Curriculum instruction and the notions of reinforcement and arbitrary natural reinforcement and just how you're balancing those in your work life. If those are parts of the behavior analysis programs, I think we'd provide better service. One thing I'll say, where the field could go, is not clear to me, is going there. The other thing is that there are other areas, other people who could benefit from behavior analysis. I love some of the new work. There's this new book that I just love. It's by Traci Cihon and Mark Mattaini and it's called "Behavior Science Perspectives on Culture and Community." There are all kinds of cool stuff going on in our field. A lot of people don't know about what Traci and Mark have collected together in this book, but they have climate change in public health and social justice, these areas. I used to say these things to students and they're like, "Well, that sounds great, but how do you go there?" I wouldn't necessarily know, but now there's this book and people are doing research and there’s a lot of stuff going on, but there's gerontology too. There's the other end of the lifespan. There is a lot more work to OBM. Talk about social justice... Social justice work cries out for OBM work and when I say that you're in OBM about social justice, I'm not in social justice. I'm in OBM and OBM and social justice goes together. Here's something you could really run with. I like to see our newbies see the full range of what's possible out there. I know some of them have come to the field through working with children with Autism and that's what they want to do. They've made that their business and so I'm not talking about that crowd, but there's a whole other crowd who's fallen into Autism, developmental disability, because they study behavior analysis and I like to help them see all the alternatives. I would like to see us do a lot more work in those kinds of areas too. I think our field needs some more instructional design, which is where we start with program instruction and then we need to look at other areas and this new book will make, I think, a world of difference. There are a lot of us old timers who have written our stories, the reason why you asked me to tell my story and I wrote about it. It's easier for those of us in this book to tell their stories because we had to sit down.

Shauna Costello (07:29):

I also have that book. It's sitting over there. It's in a box though, because it's getting packed up, but I do have that book as well.

Dr. Kent Johnson (07:38):

I really encourage people to read it, because there are a lot of different areas described in this book. I know there were some other people they didn't capture for the first edition. There was a second, smaller paperback, and they combined them into one omnibus book that has a white cover.

Shauna Costello (08:05):

That's the one I have. I have the omnibus book.

Dr. Kent Johnson (08:09):

Yeah. You got 'em, all of those. These two books I think are hugely important for people if you want to see what's going on outside the smaller vision of behavior analysis and Autism. We've gotten so well known for our work in behavior analysis. We're particularly good at the comorbid work of Autism combined with developmental disabilities at a young age. It stems from all of us and how much more sophisticated we've become about that stuff. That's really where we shine and in Autism. We don't shine in all areas of Autism. There is a lot of work we stumble around with, particularly with older and higher functioning people with Autism and developmental disabilities, but we're really good at these other populations. If we learn some more about what I've been talking about, we will probably do a better job working with some more higher functioning children and just bring all this kind of work to these other groups. What about climate change? We're all going to [Laughing] fry here, go back to the days when the average temperature was 112 and it's just not what world we want to live in. I think we can do a lot to build community around working in climate change. There's a lot of facilitating behavior analysis can do to movements forward.

Shauna Costello (10:05):

I can completely agree with you that there are so many other places our field can go. I'm in all of these social media groups, mostly for work reasons, to do some research, to see what people are talking about and what they have questions about. One of the biggest questions I see is: What can I do other than clinical work? I'm like, "Literally anything."

Dr. Kent Johnson (10:37):

Yes. You can turn him onto Traci in Mark's book. Here's a bunch of stuff you can do. Tony Biglan has his values to action study groups formed out of his organization. Read the articles about climate change in our literature. Where were they? Maybe they were in the Behavior Analyst, when it was called the Behavior Analyst. The community approaches to dealing with climate change up in upper New England were described in those articles and now I'm being very vague. Sorry. [Laughing]

Shauna Costello (11:33):

That's okay.

Dr. Kent Johnson (11:33):

I can't remember who those folks were. Oh dear, but you don't have to think corporately about this stuff. You can start small and start basic and develop communities as Tony's trying to do with values to action. I think that's really what I'm talking about. Getting involved in a specific problem in the culture and getting together with others who have something to say about that or put some of their time in on it so you don't end up trying to fit 20 hours a week into your family and your job, to try to make a difference in some other way. We can all spend a few hours a week doing something and I think Tony's trying to make that possible for everyone.

Shauna Costello (12:34):

Are you familiar with Scott Geller's "Actively caring for People"?

Dr. Kent Johnson (12:37):

Oh, that's another person who's got this very community minded approach to our work. I like Scott's work too. He's even gotten into the police teaching reinforcement theory. It's very interesting.

Shauna Costello (12:59):

There are so much we can do and I think one thing that might be hard for people is I came from a program where you live the science. It just becomes your life.

Dr. Kent Johnson (13:19):

That was my training too.

Shauna Costello (13:23):

One thing I've noticed too is seeing less and less people living the science. This is just the thing they do.

Dr. Kent Johnson (13:34):

You can bring it to your life, in all areas of your life. Jack Michael used to say... when I was a grad student, he was teaching at Western. He used to say experimental analysis is a way of life and he and Dick Malott just saw it as your life and they really convinced a whole string of students in the seventies and the eighties, that was the case. It sounds like you still catch a wave of all that and I think the department still has that lingering tradition too. When the Western students applied for our summer institute, they always felt like they're coming from a grad program that has some substance to it. They're not just, "I'm doing this over here as a part-time thing and I'm going to school." [Laughing]

Shauna Costello (14:53):

It is a way of life. It is a family. That is what you are immersed in. You fully are immersed in it.

Dr. Kent Johnson (15:01):

Yeah and I think that's a great way to learn all this work.

Shauna Costello (15:06):

Yep and is there anything else that you wanna specifically say about this?

Dr. Kent Johnson (15:11):

You make this very easy even though you're in your home [Laughing] transition now. You're very natural and you make the interviewees at ease and you make a conversation just evolve.You're doing good work.

Shauna Costello (15:40):

Thank you so much. Thank you for listening to this episode of Thought Leaders. And as always, if you have questions, comments, feedback or suggestions, please feel free to reach out to us at


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