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“a cusp is a special instance of behavior change, a change crucial to what can come next”

~ Rosales-Ruiz and Baer, 1997

Behavior analysts define behavioral cusps as changes that have special features and special effects. Experiencing a behavioral cusp (examples to follow) exposes the learner to new reinforcers, new reinforcing environments and relationships, and gives rise to “generativeness”. In other words, after a learner has experienced a behavioral cusp, she may have access to richer experiences that may become enjoyable themselves or simply make it possible to access even more experiences and environments.

Learner example: A child experiences a behavior cusp

Timmy is a learner with communication delay and limited gross motor skills. He was two years old before he could use purposeful movements with his hands; it was frustrating for him to wave and gesture without others understanding “what he meant”. His mother often wore a desperate expression as she wondered what he needed or wanted, and as he screamed for hours on end she often exhausted her ideas and ended up holding him tightly and rocking him, still unable to understand but too tired to work on it anymore that day. One day, Timmy was able to extend his finger to point, and his mother understood exactly what he pointed at! She provided it immediately, and Timmy relaxed and smiled. They went around the apartment together, his mother joyfully exclaiming to name the things Timmy pointed at. A barrier was broken! A behavioral cusp, pointing at objects, had occurred and Timmy was now able to communicate with much less frustration. From there, he progressed within months to being able to point at different pictures on the same page. Timmy’s mother is thrilled to understand what he needs, and Timmy’s inconsolable screaming for hours at a time no longer occurs on a daily basis.

Learner example: An adult provider experiences a behavior cusp

Jean is a daycare provider. She has struggled with behavior management in her private daycare classroom, as children hit and bite each other at least weekly and often daily. Her management team has a no tolerance policy for these behaviors, but Jean and her co-workers in the classroom still wonder how to stop the behavior without constantly reprimanding the children. One weekend, Jean attended a seminar on positive parenting. She had planned to use the techniques with her teenage son, and was surprised when she listened to the instructor describe that the “attention pivot” technique was also useful in the classroom when children were motivated to acquire the attention of teachers. Jean implemented the technique in her daycare the next day, and by changing just one thing- the timing of when she began talking and turning toward a child – the everyday behaviors of pushing, whining, climbing on tables, and throwing toys diminished. Even more exciting to Jean, they diminished in less than an hour, and Jean’s classroom helpers easily saw what had changed in Jean’s technique. When she saw a child looking at another student who had a toy, Jean used to observe and wait until she needed to intervene (or stop the student from yanking it away). She used to say “stop!” or “No! We need to SHARE!” multiple times per day. After Jean changed her timing, she now turns to a child BEFORE “misbehavior” and she catches the child doing the right thing. When the other teachers noticed what had changed, they began trying it themselves, and soon the number of hitting and biting episodes had decreased to a rare few times per month, instead of daily.

The point of the story:

Sometimes behavior cusps occur on their own, during development. Other times, it becomes important for someone to assist a learner experience a cusp. In Timmy’s example, the cusp was engineered by providing many, many opportunities to practice the steps needed before pointing, and the behavior analyst used fluency training and shaping to provide this practice and make it enjoyable for Timmy.

DISCLAIMER: The preceding stories, and others on this site, are simply examples or vignettes; they do not constitute training, supervision, or a behavior plan. The resources on this site are not developed for a specific individual. It is recommended that before implementing any technique described here or in resources available on this site, a reader consult a qualified behavior analyst with experience related to the appropriate field and population.

RESOURCE: Check Imagine!’s calendar often for upcoming trainings.
Dr. Jeff Kupfer, Ph.D., BCBA-D, provides “Building Cooperative Behavior” class free to the Boulder and Broomfield communities on a monthly basis. Locations, times and contact information can be found on the Imagine! calendar (search for “Building Cooperative Behavior”).