Applied behavior analysis and school psychology: A research guide to principles and procedures

This book offers a guide on bridging the gap between research and practice

Authors: Ninness, H. A., and Glenn, S. S.
Reviewd by Rhonda N. T. Nese, MEd, University of Oregon

Many individuals within the field of education often propose that a gap exists between research and practice. Techniques and procedures that are proven effective in experimental or quasi-experimental research are frequently not used in the environments they were intended for. As a result, there is a level of knowledge that exists within the field that too often remains distant from those who would benefit most from the information. Explicit instruction, opportunities to respond, flexible grouping, contingency contracting, and token economies are demonstrated to be effective but are seldom used in the classroom. Researchers and practitioners are then posed with the question, how do we bridge this gap between research and practice?

It is a question that delivers few simple answers. Loaded with systemic implications for policy changes and educational practice, scholars and researchers alike realize the amazing feat that surrounds joining the separate worlds of research and practice together. While more processes that are developed in research are being designed for the schools (i.e. Schoolwide Reading Model, and Positive Behavior Support), most practices developed in research are not developed to change the structural dynamics of school systems. What is left to bridge the research to practice gap are professional conferences, practitioner oriented journals, professional development opportunities, educational newsletters, and books.

Although books have the potential to communicate a wealth of information, often little attention is given to them. Factors like time, schedule constraints, and various school activities can keep practitioners from reading books that would benefit their practice. It is for these reasons that Ninness and Glenn’s (1988) Applied Behavior Analysis and School Psychology: A Research Guide to Principles and Procedures is recommended for the practicing school psychologist. Written with the goal of combining research techniques with practical goals, this book discusses effective behavioral procedures that are supported by research in an efficient manner. Each chapter is written concisely, aiming to first describe the utility of the subject being discussed and second to include research that has been conducted on the relevant topic. What results is a happy marriage of research and practice.

To provide a rationale for the book, Ninness and Glenn (1988) devote the beginning pages to illustrating the difficulties that teachers experience because of behavior management problems. An overemphasis on discipline, increases in school security, and a lack of knowledge of effective techniques are described as problems that teachers experience in the schools. The authors argue that the role of the school psychologist is to facilitate learning and implementation of behavioral interventions to remediate and prevent more problems from occurring. Encouraged to move away from the test and place model (which results in what Forness, 1970 labels a “paralysis of analysis”), school psychologists should come equipped with the knowledge to implement behavior management principles.

What is needed is not only a thorough understanding of the principles of behavior, but also an awareness of how to apply these principles to the complex skills involved in behavior management. The authors continue the introduction by explaining the behavioral processes and procedures that guide and shape behavior. They review processes like reinforcement, extinction, and generalization, and procedures like differential reinforcement, shaping, and instructional training. Unfortunately, the discussion stops there. Few examples and “real life” classroom situations are provided to illustrate how to facilitate the procedures. Little room is devoted to highlighting the benefits and pitfalls of each procedure. Additionally, no diagrams are provided to demonstrate how the procedure would interrupt the behavioral chain. Ninness and Glenn (1988) do a fine job of explaining the conceptual underpinnings of behavior analysis but do little to demonstrate these ideas through examples and visual models.

Following the first two chapters, each successive chapter falls into one of three main categories:

  • behavioral intervention, behavioral difficulty, or behavioral characteristics of classrooms.

  • Behavioral intervention chapters include topics like behavioral contracting and selfmanagement.

Behavioral difficulties attend to discussions of hyperactivity and withdrawal, depression, and suicide. Finally, behavioral characteristics of classrooms describe the importance of time on task and group-oriented contingencies. While this model is appreciated for its comprehensiveness and attention to detail, it is limited by its goal in attempting to cover what the authors deem as all of the relevant topics in behavioral analysis and intervention. Limiting the book to discussions of either behavioral interventions and classroom characteristics or the display and course of behavioral difficulties over time might be more effective. While the authors incorporate effective interventions into all of the chapters, it appears as though they fell short by attempting to cover too much behavioral ground.

The importance of incorporating multiple behavioral interventions cannot be ignored however. What is appreciated about the solutions described in the book is that all the interventions have two things in common. One, they are presented as effective only if they have been tested by the scientific method and found replicable. Two, they were derived through an understanding of the basic principles of the science of behavior. What results is a presentation of studies that found significant results when testing the effects of behavioral interventions. The advantage of this combination is that readers are exposed to research that illustrates the behavioral principles behind the recommended practices.

For example, Ninness and Glenn (1988) describe studies conducted using token economies to highlight the benefits of generalized conditioned reinforcers. Results from the studies demonstrate the relationship between the implementation of a token system and a reduction in inappropriate behavior.

Readers are exposed to the specifics of the methods, the resulting data, and the behavioral principles utilized in the intervention.

Interestingly enough, many of the studies cited throughout the book are dated as being published in the 1960’s and 1970’s. This is understandable considering some of the seminal work in behaviorism was conducted during this time period. The authors make the claim that they are citing research that demonstrates significant results, regardless of when it was conducted and whether or not it coincides with their own views on behaviorism. This point is well taken because influential studies with significant results transcend time periods. However, a responsibility that comes with writing a book is examining current research and incorporating it to demonstrate the contemporary relevance of the topic to the field. This practice allows others to build on recent research and extend the practices to elaborate on what has already been done. To their credit, this book was published in 1988 and the authors do include research that was conducted in the 1980’s. However, it appears that more recent research, even those published in the late 80’s, would further the goal of linking behavioral studies to practical procedures in the schools.

Considering the year of publication, it is impressive that Ninness and Glenn (1988) realized the importance of changing the role of the school psychologist. Throughout the book they emphasize the utility of the interventions and how, when these are coupled with knowledge of behavioral principles, the likelihood of behavioral success increases. This is of critical importance for school psychologists, as more people are being trained to incorporate similar methods into their practice.

With the most recent reauthorization of IDEA and the ongoing nationwide shift in the roles of school psychologists, this book can provide a guideline for professionals hoping to utilize methodologically sound behavioral principles. Armed with this information, school psychologists can work effectively and efficiently to create lasting behavior change in students.

What is interesting about this book is that the theoretical model and conceptual ideas presented are not new. The authors discuss the main principles and procedures of behaviorism as they have existed since their conception in the early 1950’s. Little or no attention is devoted to more recent developments in the field like functional assessment, functional analysis and school-wide models of behavior support. Yet, their application of behavioral principles to the classroom environment is appropriate and relevant. Readers walk away with a greater understanding of how rule governed and contingency governed behaviors can be modified by the use of behavioral interventions.

The book is impressive in its attempt to address the relevant research areas in behaviorism and apply them to the school setting. However, a few recommendations can be made. First, it would be helpful to limit the discussion to behavioral strategies, rather than including them with a discussion of behavioral disorders. To single out hyperactivity and withdrawal, depression, and suicide as the relevant disorders that can be impacted by behavioral strategies seems presumptuous and limiting.

Second, it would be beneficial to provide more specific examples to highlight the recommended procedures so readers walk away with concrete skills, rather than just an idea of how to implement these procedures. Finally, including recent studies on the use of behaviorism in the classroom would help to illustrate that these ideas are not outdated but are continuing to develop.

What Ninness and Glenn (1988) offer is a practical method for using behavioral procedures that are supported by research. This marriage of research and practice advances the field of behaviorism by illustrating that these principles are not just appropriate for laboratory experiments, but are essential for student success in the classroom. By combining research and practical strategies, the authors achieve their goal in creating a book that provides knowledge about behavioral interventions and their origins. In demonstrating that these methods can be used in schools, the authors begin to bridge the gap between research and practice and allow readers to see behaviorism as not just a technical science. Behaviorism also can function as an applied science, that when used appropriately, can help school personnel achieve the goal of ensuring success for all students.


Forness, S. (1970). Educational prescription for the school psychologist. Journal of School Psychology, 8, 96-98.

Ninness, H. A., & Glenn, S. S. (1988). Applied behavior analysis and school psychology: A research guide to principles and procedures. New York: Greenwood Press.

About the Author

Rhonda N. T. Nese is a doctoral candidate in the School Psychology program at the University of Oregon.