By Chelsea Wilhite, M.A., BCBA
Note: This article was originally published in the July 2016 issue of Behavior Analysis Quarterly, Vol. 2, (3).
The “Live It!” column began simply enough. Two years ago, I proposed an article to the new Behavior Analysis Digest International editor, Dr. Benjamin Witts, focusing on behavior scientists who applied the principles and technologies of behavior analysis outside of their paid (or student) occupations. As the concept grew into a multi-part piece and then a column in the revamped Behavior Analysis Quarterly, I enjoyed learning how many of my colleagues—friends and new acquaintances—incorporated the science into their lives. Throughout the process one person, the main inspiration behind my interest in the “Live It!” topic, continued to impress and amaze me with her insatiable desire to learn and uncanny ability to successfully apply concepts and techniques in her personal and professional lives. I have been hesitant to describe her ability in the “Live It!” column for one simple reason: she is my mother. However, since moving back to my home community and sharing a university office with her for a semester, I feel now is the time.
Criss Wilhite was raised during the Civil Rights movement and came of age as Hippies made headlines across the country. An exciting time to be alive, for sure, but some specific components of her upbringing led Wilhite to a life in behavior science.
“As a child in Catholic school, I found discussions about theologians such as Thomas Aquinas and Pascal, who used logic in arguments, fascinating,” she told me. “I kept that fascination as I left other aspects of my Catholic culture, started studying Spinoza at fourteen, and majored in philosophy as an undergraduate.” By the time she left college with her Bachelor’s degree, her approach to the world was solidly founded in reason, logic, and evidence. Beyond that, she had an increasing interest in social welfare, environmental stewardship, and life-long education.
“I was part of the back-to-the-land, small-is-beautiful, Hippie, environmental movement, and I did not take up science formally until I returned to university for graduate work,” she explained. In this simple description of her life in the 1970s and early ‘80s you can see that when Wilhite considers something important, she pursues it aggressively. For her, “back-to-the-land” meant living on 25 acres of remote mountain forest, growing and raising her own food, making clothes, and trading for many other essentials. For her, “small-is-beautiful” meant raising two children in a, roughly, 800-square-foot house built from reused materials—only the floor was new wood. For her, “Hippie” meant no makeup, long and un-tinted hair, flowing skirts, lots of paisley, and artistic expression. For her, “environmental” meant re-using instead of buying new, re-purposing instead of throwing away, and what we now call up-cycling when items broke. You can see how, once she discovered behavior analysis, she would quickly incorporate it into all aspects of her life.
“I ended up in the Psychology Department at my alma mater, Fresno State,” Wilhite said of her eventual return to academia. “My first semester on campus, I took research methods from an old-school operant conditioning researcher, Gene Steinhauer. He assigned Selection by Consequences by B.F. Skinner early in the semester.” She told me she was “hooked immediately.” By this time, I was in second grade and still recall my mother studying at the kitchen table before dinner each night. Unaccustomed to “Mom” focusing on textbooks instead of me, I interrupted her… a lot. I distinctly remember her teaching me the technical difference between positive and negative reinforcement and punishment and giving me “assignments” involving teaching the family dog new tricks using positive reinforcement. But bringing behavior analysis home was only the beginning of her new-found passion.
“Skinner’s approach fit well with my views of how to look at the world and solve problems, only he was talking about using science on ourselves, not our biology, not our technology, but our very being. I loved that this science could be applied to societal problems.” For Wilhite, this first inspiration—that behavior analysis could, essentially, save the world—would have lasting impact. However, as many of us do, she had a few detours along the way.
“My personal journey in behavior analysis veered from that initial impact when I was hired by the department upon graduation. I taught whatever was thrown at me. After 12 years, I started an ABA [Applied Behavior Analysis] program and was involved in training students for the high-demand jobs available. I spent another 11 years in developmental disabilities, autism, and parent training.” While very important and fulfilling, she was not yet doing the work most of us consider “saving the world.” During this time in Wilhite’s career, she also extended application of behavior analysis beyond her paid employment. First, she incorporated behavior analytic tools into her personal life, addressing organizational skills, increasing healthy eating and exercising habits, and improving personal relationships. Second, starting the first ABA program was not in her job description. She did the initial grunt work for getting that project off the ground as a part-time lecturer. Furthermore, she helped expand the initial program into a Master’s program then an interdisciplinary program. Since then, Fresno State has created the Behavioral Sciences Institute, an out-growth of the ABA programs. Every year at ABAI’s Annual Convention, she keeps a list of all the Fresno State students, and now students-of-students, and attempts to get a photograph of them all together. The number has increased exponentially in recent years. These accomplishments are not to be taken lightly, but she wanted more.
“Throughout those two decades, though, I yearned to do the big work described by Skinner… to reduce pollution and war, and to improve education and health,” Wilhite said enthusiastically. As the ABA programs gained more faculty members and stabilized, Wilhite had the opportunity to devote more time to her early passions, those she maintained from her “Hippie” days in the mountains.
“Using the science of behavior, I have been able to tackle my early environmental interests in a meaningful way. I studied the work of Sigrid Glenn, Maria Malott, Tony Biglan, and Ramona Houmanfar and jumped into saving the world, in a literal way, with behavior analysis.” Wilhite seized an opportunity to address these issues as leadership at Fresno State directed attention to resource distribution and water conservation. “I have taught the models of cultural change developed by these heroes to administrators, plant operations leaders, students, and faculty. This team has now seen the development of the Sustainability Institute at Fresno State. The program has caught the attention of the highest offices on campus and at the California State University Chancellor’s Office. They want the collaborative, no-silos approach we used to be a norm on all 23 campuses.”
There was more—conferences, colloquia, community work—that Wilhite rattled off, but it comes down to this, “My words of wisdom to budding behavior analysts? Do what you must… using the science is always fun and rewarding. Eventually you will be able to fulfill your dreams as well.”
Recently, I witnessed Wilhite telling a colleague she sometimes considers returning to teach a parent-training class she helped found… then she shook her head and said, “Then I remember, nooo… I want to focus on sustainability.” And in the word “sustainability” what I heard was “save the world.”
By taking a behavior analytic approach to her life course, Wilhite is making use of several of the seven dimensions of applied behavior analysis: 1) she is applying what she knows of behavior analysis to a topic about which she is passionate, 2) she is looking at measures of specific, measureable behaviors, and 3) she uses tools and procedures that have been analyzed and shown to be effective, 4) she is disseminating those tools and procedures in such a way that they are effectively implemented by others hence technological, 5) the interventions she employs are based in behavior analytic theory and related conceptual systems, 6) her efforts have produced effective, strong, and socially important outcomes, and 7) even though she is fading from her previous, major roles in the programs she started, those entities continue and many students she taught are now teaching and mentoring students of their own, so her work has generality. By all accounts, Criss Wilhite is living it.