Performance Problem vs. Skill Deficit


Performance Problem or Skill Deficit?

What makes a professional golfer great? How does this relate to applied behavior analysis? The answer lies in one simple question: is it a performance problem or a skill deficit? Those who win at the highest level in golf, a sport all about the individual, are said to perform better than their competitors when it counts. Many times, the losers actually have more skill than the winners, but they couldn’t perform when it counted. Make no mistake, if you are on the PGA tour, there aren’t many skills you lack. They have a performance problem. 

Our clients and students face the same dillema. There are times where we know our client possesses a skill, let’s say having a conversation, but they are unable to perform that skill in certain situations. This might apply to you if you suffer from test anxiety. You know you studied, you feel prepared, and then on test day you completely bomb. You aren’t suffering from a skill deficit, but rather a performance problem. 

How Do We Distinguish Between the Two?

The easiest way to determine whether there is a performance problem or a skill deficit is to offer the biggest reward or reinforcer you can think of for the client successfully demonstrating a skill. For example, you tell the client if they count to 10 then their parents will buy them a new video game. For the sake of the argument, let’s say this new video game is what the client wants more than anything in the world. If the client is still unable to count to 10 even when the magnitude of the reward is significant then you can start to assume there is a skill deficit. However, if the client counts to 10 without an issue at that moment, but then an hour later refuses to count to 10, or can no longer count to 10, then you might start to assume it’s a performance problem. Put another way: if I were to offer you a million dollars to play a five-minute guitar solo, and you don’t know how to play guitar, then no matter how hard you tried you would never be able to earn that million dollars. You have a skill deficit.

How Do We Apply This in Practice?

Identifying whether a client or student has a skill deficit or a performance problem is essential to behavior management and curriculum/treatment plan development in applied behavior analysis and in the classroom. I have seen countless scenarios where a child is flat-out unable to perform a skill, but everyone around them is convinced they can. This leads to arguments, maladaptive behaviors, and a feeling of failure for everyone involved. Do not let yourself fall into this trap! No matter how convinced you are that a child can perform a skill, make certain first before applying too much pressure. Find the best reinforcer you can think of and offer it in exchange for performing the skill. Odds are, if the client is able to perform the skill, they will earn that reward. If they can’t, then you now have a place to start in treatment development. 

Bottom Line

As an RBT, BCBA, teacher, or practitioner, you should always be asking yourself: Is this a performance problem or a skill deficit? Once you have the answer to that question, planning your interventions become a whole lot easier.

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