In Memory of Beth Sulzer-Azaroff from Trustee Kent Johnson

Beth Sulzer-Azaroff, PhD

Beth Sulzer-Azaroff, PhD

The Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies is sad to report that we lost this distinguished member of our community.
Dr. Beth Sulzer-Azaroff was an ardent supporter of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies through spirit, volunteer work and financial contributions. She has held several positions since her appointment to Trustee in 1991 including Chair of the Board of Directors. Read about the legacy of Dr. Sulzer-Azaroff in her chapter, “The Journey of a Pioneer Woman Applied Behavior Analyst” contributed to our “Behavioral Science: Tales of Inspiration, Discovery, and Service – Omnibus Edition” publication. A gift to you in tribute to Beth.

Note: Sloan Publishing recently published the Behavior Analysis for Lasting Change, Fifth Edition written by G. Roy Mayer, Beth Sulzer-Azaroff, and Michele Wallace.

A memorial from Trustee Dr. Kent Johnson
Founder and Executive Director, Morningside Academy, Seattle

I am very sad that my fantastic mentor, friend, teacher and second-mother, Beth Sulzer-Azaroff, died this past Saturday, February 26th. She was 91. I spent a very sad but richly reflective day, Sunday, thinking about all my wonderful times with her. I went to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst for my doctorate in 1973 just to work with her. Behavior analysis in schools was my destination. She already had such a good reputation in the budding field of Applied Behavior Analysis, with a background as a first-grade teacher to boot.

After working with her for a short time, I realized what a lucky choice I made. Beth taught me so many repertoires! She fed my big interests in PSI and college teaching, allowing me to set up a behavioral system for running her large Educational Psychology course. We did so many research studies in that system, publishing 10 papers before earning my PhD. In that system I learned so much from her about staff development. Two repertoires stand out. I learned how to shape typical adult behaviors, going with staff members existing relevant repertoires and building from there. Our PSI proctors were anything but blank slates! Beth was also so good at giving direct, frank and positive feedback. She also taught me all about applied behavior analysis with children and youth, populations I had not yet served but was eager to help. I have applied so many of these repertoires while working in my own elementary and middle school, Morningside Academy.

I also learned so much about how to critically evaluate research. When Beth served as an Associate Editor for JABA, I had many opportunities to play shadow editor, reviewing papers in graduate seminar exercises and making predictions about the content of the “official” incoming reviews. She also taught me how to write. We wrote so many study guides and essay tests, as well as articles and chapters. She also recruited me to help her write her textbook revisions. Finally, Beth taught me how to do and love public speaking, one of my most favorite professional activities.

At an ABAI awards ceremony honoring her accomplishments—in 2003 I think?—I presented a slideshow that I called, A Confluence of Beth-Influence. It contained a list of 7 of my favorite “Beth-adjectives,” I can’t think of anything better to share with you than these, so here you go:

My 7 favorite Beth-adjectives:

  • nurturing
  • tenacious
  • frank
  • pragmatic
  • accomplished
  • systematic, and
  • personal

Fortunately I visited Beth for a few days at her home in Naples, Florida, in 2017. We had such a fun and exhilarating time together, picking up right where we had left off. These 7 Beth-adjectives still rang true.

I’m really looking forward to reading her new and final chapter on women in behavior analysis for a book that ABAI will soon publish. Stay tuned for that one!

Kent Johnson
Founder and Executive Director
Morningside Academy, Seattle

Beth Sulzer-Azaroff – A personal glimpse
As originally published in The Current Repertoire, Fall 2009 (Conducted by Rebekah Pavlik)

During the ABAI 35th Annual Convention, the Edward L. Anderson Award for Excellence in Education was presented to Beth Sulzer-Azaroff, Ph.D. for past and continuing work serving the educational community through behavioral science.  Congratulations Beth!

After working long-distance with Beth over the past seven years here at the Center, I had the pleasure to meet her in person for the first time to learn how she came to the science and how she envisions its future progress.  Much can be read about Beth’s professional accomplishments online, but here is a personal glimpse into the person.

Her early professional years

Her mother’s support, her intellect, and her love of learning, coupled with a love of children and early desire to teach led Beth to graduate City College of New York (CCNY) with a teaching degree in 1950.  With her pioneer spirit, she was one of the first women to attend that newly co-ed establishment. At 21, Beth became a teacher at a nearby elementary school in Harlem and “and thought it was going to be great.”

During her own early education, children were always well-behaved and the worst offense was to whisper – “which I did lots of as a result of boredom.” Beth’s nature and her training left her ill-prepared for her new teaching job. “I found kids just didn’t behave, and I didn’t know what to do about it.  It was a terrible problem for me. They would be out of their seats, running around, not listening, and fighting with each other.”  Trying to teach, while attempting to discipline, was a big struggle. Yelling worked, but its effects were short lived. “I shouted a whole lot and came home from school very dissatisfied and upset. I didn’t like that, but didn’t know what else to do.”

Frustrated, Beth began emulating apparently more successful teachers and her style improved. “I got better at doing what I was doing, by organizing the classroom differently and a few other tactics; but it was never anything I could put my finger on.”

While continuing to teach, and pursuing work towards a Master’s at CCNY, Beth met Ed Sulzer, her late husband, who was instrumental in her discovery of the science of human behavior.  Both then continued their education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Ed pursued Clinical Psychology full time, hoping to apply what he learned to his work as a producer of film documentaries, while Beth, still teaching, enrolled as a part-time student in the school administration program. “I absolutely hated it.  Not my thing.  Too amorphous…it just did not appeal.”  Meanwhile, Ed’s love of science directed him to Learning, a course taught by Nat Schoenfeld and Fred Keller. Always sharing knowledge with each other, he recommended a paper from that course to Beth.  “Why we need teaching machines,” by B.F. Skinner made a lot of sense to her and she was hooked.

Small steps, active response requirements, reinforcers by means of systematic feedback made sense. “…the basic concept was that you could actually program teaching in a way that emphasized positive consequences for learning in small steps. The point was that you need to provide positive reinforcement for progress.  Also, I could take those principles and put them into the classroom. I think that helped me to be a much better teacher.  I’m not saying I was a behavioral psychologist at that point, I wasn’t. But I found the whole concept, method, approach extremely appealing.  I fell in love with the notion of looking at learning and human behavior scientifically. I got there and stayed there.”

Following Ed first to Syracuse, then, with their two little boys to Minnesota, Beth took a course in Child Clinical Psychology and the professor invited her to enroll in the graduate psychology program at the University of Minnesota — known then as “the bed-rock of Skinnerian empiricism.”  Gradually both Beth and Ed transitioned fully to a behavioral perspective and Beth began applying behavioral methods with children with autism at the Child Development Clinic. “I took several courses that were behaviorally oriented and it just felt right. When we took data, we could see the effects of what we were doing.  That is one of the real beauties of a behavior analysis– that the data you take allows you too see if things are getting better or worse, or staying the same; and you know whether you want to keep going with your methods or to change what you’re doing. Maybe that’s the most powerful part of it.”  A dissertation on match-to-sample responding earned Beth a doctorate at University of Minnesota.

The next stop for Beth and the boys was Southern Illinois University where Ed was coordinating the “Behavior Modification” program, the pre-curser term for Applied Behavior Analysis. Meanwhile, the Educational Psychology Department at SIU courted Beth to teach and, in order to allow her sufficient time to spend with their new little girl, Lenore, she accepted a part-time appointment.  “It probably was one of the first behaviorally-oriented educational psychology courses taught anywhere, nor had there been any such thing as a formal behavior analysis program in the SIU School of Education.”

The leap from education/child psychology to behavioral safety…

“I see practically every interaction between human beings from the perspective of the analysis of behavior.” This view guided Beth to use the science and principles of behavior to improve occupational safety.

Two years after Ed Sulzer’s untimely death, in 1970, Beth met and married Leonid Azaroff, Professor and Director of the Institute of Materials Science (IMS) at the University of Connecticut.  Soon afterwards, Beth joined the Psychology Department at the University of Massachusetts, where she and colleague, Greg Olley, established a behavior analytically oriented doctoral training program, the Developmental Disabilities Training Program in Psychology. One day Lee came home and reported that one of the physics graduate students had suffered a preventable eye injury – had he only worn his protective goggles.  Beth saw an opportunity to help by applying the same principles of behavior she had used in her educational and clinical work to promote workplace safety.  Basically the approach consisted of monitoring labs and reinforcing performance improvement.  Though the program was and continues to be successful, she was unsure at the time of the generality the results, since her husband was, after all, “the boss”. That could have influenced the behavior of the Institute’s personnel. Fortunately, one of Beth’s students at the University of Massachusetts, Consuela de Santamaria, undertook to replicate the procedures at a local plastics fabricating plant and achieved essentially the same results.  It was the beginning of yet another highly successful journey, applying science for the benefit of another problem of broader society: workplace safety.

Where do you see Science?  The Center?

“Technology has been able to advance in such huge steps, over the past, let’s say, 250 years or so. By understanding the laws of physics, of chemistry, of biology, all kinds of wonders have been achieved.  We have marvelous materials, the automobile, the television, the Internet; improved medical treatments; all the great discoveries that have happened are a result of our understanding of science.

And in the same way, our understanding of the behavior of organisms has promoted the emergence of a technology of behavior.  Over the past 50 years, the growth in the technological applications of scientific discoveries that we have seen evolving from other sciences has begun to emerge in the area of behavioral science.  This has opened the way to engineering socially important behavior.

But as in those other analogous situations, that knowledge could be used for good or evil.  People can take and apply it in ways advantageous to themselves and disadvantageous to others.  Or it can be applied for the common good, as specified in the mission statement of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies.

The well-established and potential applications for the common good constitute an extensive array. We’re talking about hundreds of different areas.  Physical and psychological health, safety, education, leadership, management…the list goes on and on.   As human beings I think we would be foolish not to take advantage of what we have learned and what we continue to learn about behavior.  Not that we know everything there is to know– hardly.  But as the discoveries continue, let’s hope they are used to the benefit of humankind.

That’s why the Cambridge Center exists. Because a great deal of knowledge is already out there and more continues to be generated.  People could use it for selfish purposes or we can give it away, distribute it to the world and say ‘Here, these are the principles of behavior.  We hope you use them wisely toward the betterment of society.’  And that’s what we’re all about here at the Center.  Our aim is to help people use the science of behavior to enhance the human condition at a general and at an individual level.

At conventions like ABA, we’re talking to other behavior analysts.  If we go to a school convention, safety conference, or public health conference, any of the other areas where behavior analysis has been used, we’re talking to that particular segment. But the Cambridge Center is about serving the people in general; assisting them to use the information wisely; to do good things.  The Cambridge Center is not intended to be a political force.  It really is designed to be an information source.  It tells what is and what can be.  It aims to inform the public about current behavior analytic knowledge and practices of potential benefit to them, and where one can go to get the needed help.  It does not supply actual behavior change services.  That work is done by providers within the particular professions.”

The products of Beth’s individual and collaborative efforts have included over a dozen books and monographs, and about a hundred published papers. She has presented extensively at regional, national and international conferences, and has received substantial research and training grant funding. Currently, in addition to consulting in education, human services plus other forms of performance management, she continues to conduct research, teach and write.

Two of her publications are available at the Center’s Store: Who Killed My Daddy? A Behavioral Safety Fable and Applying Behavior Analysis across the Autism Spectrum: A Field Guide for Practitioners.  She has been actively involved in the Center for 20 years and is currently a trustee and benefactor directly supporting the publication of The Current Repertoire.


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