A Deeper Look Into Tantrums

This past Monday morning, when I arrived at the office I came across an email link to a segment that had just aired on NPR’s Morning Edition program.  In the sement, NPR’s Shankar Vedantam discussed a recent study co-authored by Dr. Potegal of the University of Minnesota on the subject of tantrums.  I suspect that throwing a tantrum isn’t a recent scientific finding, or is it? Well, as the NPR article stated, “…until recently, they had not been considered a legitimate subject for science.”  As I read on, I began to wonder:  “Hmm… Then what happened to all of the studies based on applied behavior analysis (ABA)?  Are we choosing to skip over previous empirical studies on the subject, or could it be due to the assumption that behavior analysts may not be properly disseminating researched information?” Perhaps, a little of both!

For over forty years, behavior analysts have meticulously studied various elements of child behavior and their environments in order to better understand tantrums and their symptoms.  There are too many studies to list here, but if you are interested, page through the contents of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/journals/309/ ) to see for yourself.

In the NPR article, Dr. Potegal claims his study to be “the most quantitative theory of tantrums that has been developed in the history of mankind.” However, after some contextual redundancy, he then proceeds to the anticipated conclusion that parents should ignore the child when they tantrum and that “the trick is getting a tantrum to end as soon as possible.” It’s quite fascinating to learn that Dr. Potegal’s recommendation has actually been published in scientific journals for decades; it is referred to as “extinction.”  One of the simplest examples of the ABA framework is, in fact, effectively managing tantrums. Behavior analysts observe patterns of behavior in relation to the environment to better understand which actions serve to maintain the undesired behavior. This helps them to find ways to replace the undesired behavior with healthier actions.

My hope is to draw your attention to Dr. Potegal’s recent claim that a tantrum may be a new scientific concept. Are we really clueless as to what tantrums are or should we continue to focus on such studies? The response is beyond this post, but it might serve to encourage behavior analysts to better disseminate ABA and its science, which has existed for close to 50 years.

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