Behavior modification programs eliminate maladaptive behaviors and replace them with adaptive ones. In the study of behavior, a maladaptive behavior is one that prevents a person from adapting to an environment or stimulus. Replacing these behaviors with adaptive ones allows a person to function in circumstances that would otherwise cause an emotional breakdown. Behavior modification programs are often used as part of ongoing treatment for people with behavioral or emotional disorders, such as autism.
Most behavior modification programs are goal oriented. The patient and, in most cases, the patient’s caretakers, are asked to consider what the maladaptive behavior is and what the target replacement behavior, or the goal, will be. Once the goal had been determined, the team assisting the patient determines how to achieve the goal and how to measure success. Measuring success is an integral part of behavior modification programs because it allows the patient to see improvement.
Positive reinforcement is the primary vehicle through which lasting change is affected in most behavior modification programs. The person undergoing treatment receives positive reinforcement, such as a reward, privilege, or praise, when the target behavior is performed. There is also a negative component to behavior modification programs. In modern programs, the negative condition is a lack of a positive reinforcement. Punishment for performing a maladaptive behavior is rarely used in modern behavior modification programs.
Though many behavior modification programs are designed and implemented for individuals, there are also some programs that treat people in groups. Group programs are commonly used to treat teens with maladaptive behaviors that parents may feel overwhelmed by. Rigid structure, clear consequences, and rewards are used to help teens reach target behaviors. These types of programs are not appropriate for children with severe impairments who require one-on-one interaction in order to modify behavior.
One variation on a traditional behavior modification program is known as cognitive-behavioral therapy. This practice combines the cognitive therapy proposition that the source of maladaptive behavior is an incorrect thought pattern, with the behavior modification idea that these maladaptive patterns can be replaced with those than benefit the patient. This type of therapy is done under the supervision of a psychiatrist and may not be appropriate for all types of patients. It is commonly used to treat anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression, usually in adults who are more able to analyze their own thought patterns.