Self-awareness through Data

Author: Ryan O'Donnell, MS, BCBA

Author: Ryan O'Donnell, MS, BCBA


Self-awareness returns back this definition on Google:

Noun: Conscious knowledge of one's own character, feelings, motives, and desires.

Being a noun it implies that it is a thing that you can have, hold, touch, etc. I’m not so sure about that in from a behavior analytic sense, but I can say that through the use of language we can pinpoint, prompt, analyze ways in which we can increase our “self-awareness.”

Where I Began

I first became interested in self-awareness when I was learning to take data on my implementation of behavioral procedures in the classroom. I had tracked various different things previously, but I wasn’t CONSUMED with the process until about 3 years into behavior analysis. I’m not sure exactly why this was, but I think that it had to do with starting to have a good understanding of the conceptual systems and terminology in behavior analysis coupled with an idea of where I wanted to start exploring and learning more about myself.

I had about 60 to 70 separate charts that I ran for 9 children that I worked with as a teacher’s aide. At the time I was exploring various different graphical displays in-depth, so I charted data on both a stretch-to-fill excel graph, as well as a Standard Celeration Chart (SCC). I chose these two as I was really diving into a few different books that explained the differences that one would see when using the SCC and I wanted to test it for myself. (What I learned from that is a whole different story, but let’s just say that the SCC has been and will continue to be a part of my life until the next best thing comes out. Oh, and there are sometimes when it’s not the best tool to select, but those have been few and far between.)

Concurrent with a 15-credit graduate school load I also managed the Florida Tech Fish Lab, worked a full-time job, worked through additional readings and projects through the lab, and (kind of) managed to keep in contact with loved ones. It wasn’t easy, and it likely didn’t contribute much to the longevity of my lifespan (typical days were around 18-21 hours). However, it did create the conditions for me to better understand my behavior and how to be more efficient. I began tracking anything that was of interest to me, for anywhere from a few days to a few years. A few targets over these years:

  1. Flashcards that I was learning in my graduate school program
  2. Emails sent/read
  3. Book pages read
  4. Complete books read
  5. Articles read
  6. Trainings completed in the Fish Lab
  7. Phone usage
  8. Sleep training (managed to get this down to under 2 minutes from bed to sleep)
  9. Number of miles biked/driven/ran
  10. Fruit and vegetable consumption
  11. Caloric consumption and exertion

Let’s go back to that self-awareness definition again:

Noun: Conscious knowledge of one's own character, feelings, motives, and desires.

Imagine exploring another 200-300 self-management targets related to “character,” “feelings,” “motives,” and “desires,” and all of a sudden you find yourself starting to have a bit of “conscious knowledge” about yourself. Now, it took me about 5 years to get that many self-exploration charts completed and there was a cool byproduct as a result of the process. 


A standard refers to something that is accepted and regularly used. In the case of looking at data, there can be a lot of different standards. There are various rules such as the three standard ways to look at and interpret data visually are through level, trend, and variability. Another is the use of standard ratios in which we create our graphic displays. But throughout my readings and exploring various areas of the literature I ran across the three documents below that most “sold” me on the reason we should explore standardization in graphical displays. Again this is not to preach the SCC – in fact, I use it less than I do other charts at this moment of time across all of the services and projects I'm involve with, but it is used for the most important measures. (Clicking on them will lead you to pages where you can purchase them.)

What happens when you have standardization in viewing graphical data is pretty simple – you can know have a shared understanding of where behavior “lives” on the chart, and you can develop a shared language to talk about data. This hasn’t been demonstrated thoroughly in the literature, but there are some further areas of reading in the resources I shared above if you’re interested.

A Snapshot into a Few Areas of My Life

Below is an SCC that encompasses a few different targets of self-management that I targeted in 2013 during a 1-month span. Each color represents where the data fell for that target. 

Ryan O'Donnell, MS, BCBA - Institute of Meaningful Instruction, LLC

Why’s this matter? After a lot of practicing, I can “see” these rates of responding as they occurring in the natural world more easily. So when someone is strumming their guitar at a concert I can say “that’s about as fast as people reading rates." When I see a client that is being criticized for being on his phone too much I can say “hmm, he isn’t on it as much as I am, I wonder why it’s considered ‘too much?’” Now, I may not say that out loud, but it is at least something that I can identify that is of interest to further explore (and that’s kind of the idea of self-awareness right?).

The world has sort of started to transformed into these various rates of behavior that I can see in the absent of seeing the actual graphic display – a sort of “mind’s eye” if you will. Does that mean that I’m saying don’t worry about taking data?  Hell no. There’s a lot of reasons to take data, and I still take data on things (although it’s typically things that I’m not sure what the rate really is), especially in the areas of analysis of treatment outcomes, business development, instructional technology refinement, and compliance.

So I’d like to spin this back to you. Are there times that you’ve experienced “seeing data in the absence of the chart” – perhaps you could tact the level, trend or variability of the data prior to charting it? Let me know below!

Here’s a nice follow-up resource (Episode 002) to learn a little more about this concept from Rick Kubina and Owen White, greats in the Precision Teaching world that you really should add to your list of listens this week.

And another of a recent interview on the Behavioral Observations Podcast. 

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