Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral Therapy


Behavioral therapists identify and address environmental patterns that contribute to undesirable or maladaptive behaviors. Behavior analysts study what people do and propose changes in different environmental stimuli to facilitate more socially acceptable behavioral outcomes (Miller,2006). It is a method that is heavily observation and data driven in practice. Data is recorded and environmental interventions determined using ethically approved resources. Behavior analysis and, subsequently, behavior therapists are more modern forms of behaviorism, the science that studies how environmental factors affect behavior (Miller,2006).

Goals of Behaviorial Therapy

The primary focus of behavioral therapy is to solve human conflicts using a behavioral definition of problems and theorize that enacting a change in the environment will alter undesirable behaviors into a more desirable behaviors (Miller,2006). It operates under an idea that a behavior model can be applied to everything you do. Observing the environment that fosters an undesirable behavior, behavior therapists will make a recommendation for environmental change and put it into practice to elicit a more desirable behavior. When human interaction is flowing without undesirable behaviors,interpersonal relationships can proceed with less conflict.

When is Behavioral Therapy Used?

Because behavioral therapy is based on the observations of everything we do, behavioral therapy has a wide reaching scope for application. It is used more effectively in disorders such as addiction, anxiety, and phobias. It is being studied clinically for it’s effectiveness in a number of other undesirable behaviors that can be troubling to individuals or families like anorexia or delinquency. While it is quite effective exacting change in behavior, behavioral therapy is not meant to treat mental illnesses. It can however, be quite effective in conjunction with other therapies to reduce certain behaviors that may exacerbate mental stress or illness.

Recently behavioral therapy has been primarily associated with treating disorders like Autism Spectrum and Down’s Syndrome. Additionally, this therapy is helpful in parenting, providing parents the opportunity to evaluate and look at how they are responding and reacting to their children. Through the change in these responses (behaviors), parents begin to see the coinciding change in how their children then act, providing growth opportunities for the family. Using the behavior theory, therapists will introduce practices that eliminate or greatly reduce behaviors that would inhibit an individual from engaging in their environment more effectively. For young children it can alter approaches to education that increases their personal potential for lifetime learning and for adults this approach can teach skills that lead to a more independent life including job training and life skills.

How Does Behavioral Therapy Work?

Behavioral therapy operates on the philosophy of behaviorism, a theory that attempts to explain why we act the way we do (Skinner). It is a data driven practice in applied behavior analysis, a method of record and analysis of both the environment and factors that contribute to the things we do. The practice began as a way of treating mental patients with such severe illness that all other forms of therapy had been applied without success. These patients began learning how to talk, care for themselves, and, in cases of self injury, to stop hitting themselves. Drawing from these triumphs, behavioral therapy evolved to encompass more moderate behaviors like phobias and stuttering,and eventually voluntary behaviors, like addiction, smoking, and sleep habits (Skinner,1974).

The application of behavior interventions works from a Skinner’s law of reinforcement, that when a behavior is followed by a reinforcer the behavior is more likely to occur in the future. He also coined the term operant behavior and set voluntary behavior apart from reflexive behavior (Miller,2006). Based on this theory one could observe the antecedent or a stimulus, a behavior, and a consequence and make determinations on how to alter the stimulus and/or the consequence to change the behavior.

Criticisms of Behavioral Therapy

Over the years data had proven that behavioral therapy is an effective and viable therapeutic practice. One criticism is it sterile or mechanical approach to human interaction, it can be disconcerting for many to have much of social-emotional interactions reduced to a mathematical type equation of antecedents, behaviors, and consequences. This approach can become very performance centered and many critics feel it that much of the ‘human element’ of interaction is removed. Internal growth and personal emotional development is not something that is addressed in this therapy model and should be paired with other, more psycho-emotional approaches to treatment.

Treatments to behavioral therapy are so vaguely defined, there is much room for interpretation in regards to intervention practices.Therapists have a wide range of options when applying behavior practices and have a huge responsibility to offer current, data driven techniques that are ethical in practice, scope, and outcome. Many practices are continuing to be regulated by national associations like the Behavior Analyst Certification Board who regulate nationwide certification requirements and examinations to maintain the integrity of the practice as a whole


Miller, Keith M.Principles of Everyday Behavior Analysis 4th Edition(2006). University of Kansas: Thomson & Wadsworth.

Skinner, B.F.About Behaviorism (1974).Alfred A. Knopf: New York.

Help Us Improve This Article

Did you find an inaccuracy? We work hard to provide accurate and scientifically reliable information. If you have found an error of any kind, please let us know by sending an email to, please reference the article title and the issue you found.

Share Therapedia With Others