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This is the 17th article in a series on Trauma-Informed Behavior Analysis by Dr. Teresa Camille Kolu, Ph.D., BCBA-D.


What did you do when you saw this picture? Chances are you experienced some additional events beyond just “seeing it”. Did you jump? Experience an increase in your breathing rate? Use some choice verbal behavior? Avert your eyes? (And are you prepared to read on? Fair warning… there’s a snake coming up).

Seeing with fresh eyes

I noticed a couple of things about our culture, and fear responses, this past week.

My young daughter’s love for flap books—the kind where you pull back a piece of paper to reveal something—knows no bounds. So she was instantly drawn to a tattered old library copy (apparently she shares this love with lots of peers) of “Buzz Buzz, Baby”- with poorly rendered babies exploring “bugs”. Around the third page the baby pulls back a web flap to unveil, in the book’s words, “EEK! The itsy bitsy spider!”

Whenever I read the book to her I leave out the “Eek!”.

I think she can come up with that on her own, if she happens to, although chances are she’ll get it from me in a non-mindful moment. (In the 1980’s Cook and Mineka did a classic study in which infant monkeys “acquired” a persistent fear of snakes by watching their scared mothers encounter a snake).

Now that we’ve moved out to the country, we encounter our own “Itsy” (and many for whom that name is woefully inadequate) all the time. (I do recommend this thing called the BugZooka… it does work really well, if you like catch-and-release). Itsy and I go way back, and not necessarily in a good way, although I always appreciate her beauty. But I still want to be warned before you text me her picture, dad.

This summer, one tenacious spider (pictured, top) built a web, over and over, in a windy area outside the kitchen, where we see it numerous times daily. The first few (ok, few hundred) times I nearly jumped out of my skin. When I remembered in time, I was very careful to breathe and compose myself before walking to the sink with my daughter, where I’d point out the spider cheerfully and sing (with all the hand movements) the requisite song. Before long she was signing the song herself. Next I noticed myself no longer jumping when I saw the spider.

THEN… one windy morning Itsy was gone. Gone!

I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief.

I was surprised and curious to feel a strange emotion… like MISSING. I missed her! Was she alright? Would she come back? (She was. She did).

With painful awareness that this is temporary, I often marvel that my daughter’s eyes are not only young… they are unconditioned. They don’t have a lot of pairings with events like scary movies about this deep primate fear, being bitten, or seeing spiders while a parent jumps and screams. They are fresh, curious, hopeful eyes.

Yesterday we chanced upon something rather larger than even the biggest spider. It was this old girl… fat and long, with ring upon ring adorning her useful brown rattle. Depending on my readers, maybe you’ll be happy that instead of grabbing a hoe, I called a guy I read about in my new community’s online forum… apparently this guy LOVES snakes. “ANY snake’s worth my time”, he told me as he jumped in his truck. 35 minutes later he had driven up to our homestead, hooked it and taken it. Now it’s in a quite different rattlesnake heaven than the kind I had sort of planned to send it… blissing out in a protected wilderness area up near Fort Collins, I’m told.


As he removed our snake into a large vented box and curiously counted the rings (while remarking on how huge it was), the guy’s face was composed; he exuded a strange calm excitement. Normally, the fear response to snakes and spiders is part of our biology. Evolutionary biology has several theories why it’s present even in infancy, and why it might have behooved our ancestral mothers to experience more arousal and get out of there to protect their young in the presence of these critters. I can’t help but wonder what this guy’s history is like. Why does he love something that most of us are scared of?

Kids with traumatic histories

If you’re an educator going back to school, many of your kids are coming in with an avoidance response, or a “get out of there!” escape response, ready to go. Some of them will use these responses in the most annoying ways, dropping all their work on the floor or crawling under desks when you announce the quiz. But some of them have a special background you can’t see. For some, they will use these “fear responses” when they encounter “triggers” that you and I do not think of as scary.

Why is that?

Well, the things that were there when they experienced really bad situations are now “paired”, living together in their past, the same way I smelled an old lady yesterday wearing my own granny’s soap and got emotional thinking about my dear departed loved ones. Or the same way you hear a certain song from your high school dance and think about that year, or that person, or that kiss.

And that’s not all. Psychology explains in anxiety journals why, if you’re a person with an intense “fear” or phobia of spiders, not only do you spot them more quickly and tend to see them where your peers might see other things, like mushrooms or flowers faster in the SAME PICTURE—but to you, they also appear BIGGER.

What can we do about it?

How can we help students show up for their education and get all the learning opportunities they can… even when the school, teachers, and peers accidentally give them “fear related” stimuli all day long? (While psychology explains partly WHY these pairings happen, behavior analysis does too, especially if you read some relational frame theory, learn about respondent conditioning, and take a long-term functional analytic approach. Behavior analysis also goes a long way in helping the helpers undo some of the damage, teaching kids to approach adults and “unpair” adult attention from it’s previously bad parts: if I’m a student who has been through neglect abuse, my teacher coming over to me to praise my “good behavior” might not be a welcome stimulus at first… and my teacher’s praise, as well-intentioned as it may be, might not work).

Cusp Emergence University has been hard at work getting the new online training course ready for educators, and behavior analysts who work in education. We hope to help you to start answering these questions for yourself and your students and teams. On Monday, September 30, our course “Education and Trauma-Informed Behavior Analysis” opens to a 7 day sale (use the code EDTIBA10 for 10 percent off this CEU opportunity). We’re providing BCBA’s and BCBA-D’s with 3.5 continuing education credits, and 3 of those are in ethics.


Sign up now!