How is a plate like a hat?

Teachers and staff working with children and adults with developmental disabilities frequently participate in inservice and preservice trainings focused on agency policies and procedures. Wouldn’t it be cool if such trainings could focus on the private, covert experiences of staff and teachers? In last week’s blog I shared some startling statistics on the stress levels experienced by frontline staff working with individuals with developmental disorders. I also shared research by Singh and colleagues suggesting that if we address the covert behaviors of staff, we may actually change how staff interact with those for whom they are caregivers – something that should ethically be at the top of our priority list as behavior analysts.

J. T. Blackledge (2007) provides an elegant description of how relational learning might give rise to the sort of anxiety and avoidance repertoires people develop. His analysis can be easily extended to the interactions between agency staff and individuals with severe challenging behaviors. Often times one bad experience, even many years ago, is brought to the present via complex networks of derived relations between stimuli. All that a caregiver need do is hear a name or come into perceptual contact with stimuli associated with a challenging incident to experience an anxiety or stress response. As a result, the caregiver may then minimize interactions with the setting, individual, or certain situations at work — or avoid them altogether.

Cognitive defusion techniques in ACT attempt to “alter the undesirable functions of thoughts and other private events, rather than trying to alter their form, frequency or situational sensitivity,” thus changing “the way one interacts with or relates to thoughts by creating contexts in which their unhelpful functions are diminished.” (see The process of defusion may be helpful for caregivers who interact with such complex relational networks regarding the individuals for whom they care. This is exactly the goal of those individuals using ACT in the workplace. Bond and colleagues, for example, have used ACT to combat stress and burn-out in organizational settings.

Behavior analysts might consider how components of Acceptance and Commitment Training can be incorporated in human service settings and schools. Not only does a fair amount of research suggest that a number of organizational problems may be improved as a result, but research by Singh and colleagues suggest that clients’ well-being may be enhanced when staff acquire mindfulness skills.

Although it may not be immediately apparent how a plate is like a hat, RFT may provide the framework for addressing the private experiences of those delivering important services.