Social work has long regarded behaviour modification with considerable suspicion as a form of social engineering based on an instrumental view of human nature at odds with the emphasis which the profession places on the whole person, the quality of relationships and client self-determination.
This suspicion is not unfounded. Much of the work on learning theory early in this century which provided the theoretical basis for the behavioural approach seems in retrospect a dangerous abridgement of how people learn behaviours. Early attempts at treatment were cold and detached: a paper from the 1940s entitled ‘Operant conditioning of a vegetative human organism’ captures the harsh language behaviourists routinely employed (Fuller 1949, cited by Remington 1991). The token economy programmes of the 1950s and 1960s cast psychiatric nurses as behavioural engineers; crude implementation of reward and punishment schemes often had to do more with control over a resident population than individual treatment. Further, the pronounced antagonism from some behaviourists toward homosexuality revealed a rigid attitude toward sexual identity.
But that is not the whole picture. In the last ten years a more pragmatic behavioural approach has begun to emerge, one more sensitive to user choice and partnership. Learning theory has continued to evolve; it now takes account of mind and language as important shapers of behaviour and is more frequently found integrated with systems and interactional theory.
There are four broad characteristics of the behavioural approach. First, behaviour is viewed as functional for the individual, including behaviour which is excessive, challenging or poorly adapted to the social environment. The approach therefore rejects a disease model in which behaviour is seen as a symptom of a deeper disturbance. Second, it concentrates on specific and observable behaviour of the present rather than looking for psychological roots in the past. Third, intervention is aimed at change and must provide opportunities to learn other behaviours. Undesirable behaviours are part of a continuum; they are learned and therefore can be unlearned. Fourth, the approach is held accountable through a strong commitment to evaluating the