Evidence-based Kernels: Fundamental Units of Behavioral
Dennis D. Embry Æ Æ Anthony Biglan
Published online: 20 August 2008
? The Author(s) 2008. This article is published with open access at Springerlink.com
fundamental units of behavioral influence that appear to
underlie effective prevention and treatment for children,
adults, and families. A kernel is a behavior–influence
procedure shown through experimental analysis to affect a
specific behavior and that is indivisible in the sense that
removing any of its components would render it inert.
Existing evidence shows that a variety of kernels can
influence behavior in context, and some evidence suggests
that frequent use or sufficient use of some kernels may
produce longer lasting behavioral shifts. The analysis of
kernels could contribute to an empirically based theory of
behavioral influence, augment existing prevention or
treatment efforts, facilitate the dissemination of effective
prevention and treatment practices, clarify the active
ingredients in existing interventions, and contribute to
efficiently developing interventions that are more effective.
Kernels involve one or more of the following mechanisms
of behavior influence: reinforcement, altering antecedents,
changing verbal relational responding, or changing physi-
ological states directly. The paper describes 52 of these
kernels, and details practical, theoretical, and research
implications, including calling for a national database of
kernels that influence human behavior.
This paper describes evidence-based kernels,
Public-health benefits ? Prevention ? Treatment
Evidence-based kernels ?
This paper presents an analysis of fundamental units of
behavioral influence that underlie effective prevention and
treatment. We call these units kernels. They have two
researchers have found them to have a reliable effect on
one or more specific behaviors. Second, they are funda-
mental units of behavior influence in the sense that deleting
any component of a kernel would render it inert. Under-
standing kernels could contribute to an empirically based
theory of behavioral influence, facilitate dissemination of
effective prevention and treatment practices, clarify the
active ingredients in existing interventions, and contribute
to developing interventions that are more efficient and
effective. Subsequent sections of this paper expand on the
two essential features of evidence-based kernels, as well as
the origins of the idea and terminology.
The ultimate goals of treatment and prevention research
are a reduction of the prevalence of the most common and
costly problems of behavior and an increase in the preva-
lence of wellbeing. Current thinking about how to
accomplish this assumes that we will identify empirically
supported programs and, to a lesser extent, policies, and
will disseminate them widely and effectively. Although
substantial progress is occurring through this strategy, there
are at least four limitations to it that point to the value of
kernels as a complementary strategy.
First, it is difficult to implement a program’s efficacy
widely with fidelity or effectiveness. Ringwalt et al. (2003)
surveyed a sample of 1,795 school staff members who were
in charge of teaching substance-use prevention programs.
Nearly two-thirds reported teaching content that meta-
analyses showed was effective. However, only 17% used
effective delivery and only 14% used both effective
delivery and content. In a second study, Ringwalt et al.
(2003) found that about one-fifth of teachers of substance-
D. D. Embry (&)
PAXIS Institute, P.O. 31205, Tucson, AZ 85751, USA
Oregon Research Institute, Eugene, OR, USA
Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev (2008) 11:75–113
use prevention curricula did not use a curriculum guide at
all and only 15% reported following one closely. Hallfors
and Godette (2002) studied 104 school districts in 12 states.
They found that many districts selected evidence-based
programs, but only 19% of district coordinators indicated
their schools implemented those programs with fidelity.
They concluded there was inadequate funding and infra-
structural support for implementation. More recently,
prevention programs with long-standing efficacy data from
more controlled conditions and settings, such as Project
Alert or Reconnecting Youth (e.g., Bell et al. 1993;
Ellickson et al. 1993), were tested for effectiveness in real-
world contexts and conditions. Most often, the obtained
effectiveness results do not replicate the efficacy trials
(e.g., Hallfors et al. 2006; Sanchez et al. 2007; St. Pierre
et al. 2005). Research on how to get programs widely
adapted to different conditions is still in its infancy.
However, initial evidence suggests that sole reliance on
program dissemination to affect population outcomes will
have a limited impact, even with restrictive policies (e.g.,
Hallfors et al. 2007).
Second, many problems—or behaviors—that affect
wellbeing do not require lengthy or complex interventions
involving consultations, workshops, training, or support.
Consider a few examples. A teacher might improve
classroom behavior just by using some non-verbal cues
during transitions (Abbott et al. 1998; Krantz and Risley
1977; Rosenkoetter and Fowler 1986) or reduce aggression
and bullying on the playground by cooperative games
(Murphy et al. 1983). A parent might easily improve a
teenager’s cooperation with a mystery motivator (Madaus
et al. 2003). A principal might reduce disturbing or dis-
ruptive behaviors and increase engaged learning with the
principal’s lottery (Thorpe et al. 1978). A college professor
might increase participation of students with response
cards instead of the expensive clicker systems (Shabani and
Carr 2004). In other words, a simple method of behavior
influence might well solve a specific problem, and that was
all that was required. The simple solution might actually
avoid larger, more unpleasant difficulties or have greater
good over time. For example, the response cards used in a
classroom increase academic achievement (Gardner et al.
1994) or the use of organized recess might not only reduce
aggression on the playground, but also improve the aca-
demic performance of children in the classroom with
ADHD (Jarrett et al. 1998). Thus, simple solutions might
just be sufficient in many cases.
Third, program dissemination is unlikely to affect
practices or problems that fall outside the scope of a pro-
gram. Teachers, clinicians, parents, healthcare providers,
coworkers, supervisors, and many others are constantly
trying to have a beneficial influence on others’ behavior.
Existing formal programs address only a small range of
situations and behaviors they seek to influence. For
example, parents may complain to a teacher, principal,
nurse, or doctor how hard it is to get their young child
moving in the morning. Alone, such a complaint does not
merit implementing parenting skills training. However, a
simple behavior change strategy, such as the Beat the
Timer game (Adams and Drabman 1995), in which the
child receives a reward for completing a behavior before
the timer goes off, could solve the problem, and prevent
parent–child conflict. Even in situations where an effective
program exists, the program dissemination strategy will fail
to affect any practices of those who choose not to adopt the
program. A related issue is that that many problems have
no evidence-based programs on published approved lists.
For example, bipolar disorder is increasingly common
among younger children, yet there are no listed programs
for teachers with such children. Thus, given current evi-
dence, it is likely that for now most daily practices that
influence human development will fall outside the scope of
existing programs. Failing to improve those practices is a
Cost is a fourth limitation of depending solely on pro-
gram dissemination to affect public health. The National
Registry of Effective Programs and Practices provides
cost information (see http://modelprograms.samhsa.gov/
template.cfm?page=nrepbutton). Direct costs for program
developers include material production, training, licensing,
ongoing consultation of adopters, results monitoring, and
program improvement. There are also hidden costs, such as
venues, staff training, temporary staff replacement to cover
duties, and administrative costs. For example, a model
universal program that reduced observed aggression on the
playground by about 10% (Grossman et al. 1997) requires
17.5 h of direct instruction per pupil, plus indirect costs for
material and training of teachers. Thus, a school with 25
teachers may spend $12,000–15,000 for materials, training,
staff timing, and (possibly) substitute teachers. A cost of
$500 per teacher per universal program is unexceptional
for listed programs. Therapeutic model programs (e.g.,
Ogden and Halliday-Boykins 2004; Szapocznik and Wil-
liams 2000) can cost between $80,000 and 200,000
depending on the nature of licensing needs, training,
materials, supervision, monitoring, and staffing. If multiple
evidence-based programs are required, costs per problem
(e.g., tobacco, alcohol, violence, bullying, or mental ill-
ness) can bring the total to hundreds of thousands of dollars
in direct and indirect costs per setting. These funds are not
typically available to schools, human service agencies,
groups, and others charged with prevention and treatment.
There is no reason to expect a surge in such funds at a
local, state, or federal level anytime soon. Clearly, if pro-
gram adoption is the only avenue to large population
76Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev (2008) 11:75–113
effects, progress will be slow and costly. It would be very
useful from a public health and safety perspective if there
were low-cost prevention, intervention, and treatment
strategies to deploy easily—reducing the need for more
expensive strategies that might not be possible to field
where money and resources are scarce.
A fifth concern is that existing programs have limited
effectiveness, modest effect sizes, scalability concerns,
weak generalization, difficulty with maintenance or sus-
tainability, and even iatrogenic effects (e.g., Hallfors et al.
2006; St. Pierre et al. 2005; Sanchez et al. 2007). This is
not to diminish the enormous progress of prevention sci-
ence in the past 30 years (Biglan 2004). However,
inspection of recent meta-analyses of interventions (e.g.,
Bledsoe 2003; Derzon et al. 2005, 2006; Ennett et al. 2003;
L} osel and Beelmann 2003; Lipsey et al. 2006; Scheckner
et al. 2004; Tobler et al. 2000) finds plenty of room for
improving the effectiveness of our programs.
A sixth concern is that current evidence-based programs
do not easily meet the diffusion criteria (Rogers 1995). For
instance, individuals who might be early adopters of pro-
ven and tested prevention strategies can often gain access
to these strategies only through institutions such as schools
or state agencies. If a school or agency lags, thousands of
individuals or families in geographic areas cannot avail
themselves of strategies that might prevent school failure,
substance abuse, mental illness, delinquency, or other ills.
Individual teachers also cannot adopt science-based strat-
egies, as almost all evidence-based prevention programs
require school or district adoptions. For example, it is
easier for a parent or teacher to gain access to a prescrip-
tion drug to treat ADHD or depression than to obtain
evidence-based strategies that might similarly affect
behavior (e.g., Ridgway et al. 2003; Schilling et al. 2003;
Larun et al. 2006).
Each limitation points to the value of identifying and
making available kernels of behavior influence. We do not
suggest that kernels replace tested, proven programs; we
propose that kernels supplement or strengthen programs,
help to create new programs more efficiently, or make
effective behavior–influence techniques available in situa-
tions where programs are unavailable, impractical, or just
unnecessary based on the simplicity of the problem
Kernel Definition, Derivation, and Examples
We designate as evidence-based kernels any indivisible
procedure shown through experimental evaluation to pro-
duce reliable effects on behavior (Embry 2004). The
derivation of the term ‘‘kernels’’ arose in Embry’s (2004)
paper describing the active ingredients in evidenced-based
prevention or treatment behavior-change programs, distinct
from the earlier nebulous concepts of ‘‘principles of
effectiveness.’’ The perceived need for a taxonomy and
nomenclature for these active ingredients emerged from a
yearlong series of meetings organized by the second
author, involving some 20 leading prevention, scientific,
and policy leaders. Some of the scientists at the meetings
were Richard Catalano, Harold Holder, Brian Flay, and the
authors of this paper. These scientists had created and
tested many prevention and treatment programs and had
used some common ingredients to make those programs
work. The scientists, however, had never denominated
those ingredients or active components in ways that each
other understood or that others might easily perceive for
new invention or systematic replications.
Other disciplines do have such taxonomies and
nomenclature. For example, medications contain lists of
known ‘‘active ingredients,’’ which have proven effec-
tiveness separate from effects of the compounded product.
For example, aspirin is clearly effective in its own right,
and so are enteric coatings. Joined, they result in a product
such as ‘‘buffered aspirin,’’ composed of two separate
active ingredients. One can look up medications’ active
ingredients in publications like the Physician’s Desk Ref-
erence and look up how to use them in the Merck Manual.
Nothing similar exists in applied behavioral science.
We chose the term ‘‘evidence-based kernel’’ for several
reasons. First, it had the metaphorical resonance of some-
thing organic that influenced life or behavior. Second, the
metaphor was about something very compact, although
obviously in quantity or through blending, it could become
something bigger or more productive. Third, the term was
novel, which would confer the ability to track its use and
make its meaning clear and crisp compared to words or
phrases in past use such as ‘‘principles of effectiveness.’’
The unit of a kernel is indivisible in the sense that it
would be ineffective if one eliminated any of its compo-
nents. Experimental evaluations of kernels may involve
randomized controlled trials (RCTs) or interrupted time-
series experiments (Flay et al. 2004). Examples of kernels
include timeout, written praise notes, self-monitoring,
framing relations among stimuli to affect the value of a
given stimulus, and physiological strategies such as nasal
breathing when upset or increasing omega-3 fatty acids in
the diet in order to influence behavior. The description of a
kernel as an indivisible procedure merits discussion by
metaphor and example.
First, a kernel is like a seed that contains central infor-
mation for growth or change. Second, a kernel also evokes
the idea of an implicit human technology to effect change
from the earliest use of agriculture to the use of core rou-
tines in modern computers. A broken seed will not grow,
and a broken core computer routine (‘‘kernel panic’’) will
Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev (2008) 11:75–11377
cause the machine to be inoperative. One of the oldest
prepared foods by humans, dating to the Neolithic era—
bread, further illustrates the point of indivisibility. Bread
consists of flour and water. Bread may be leavened or
unleavened. Even unleavened, bread can be quite varied:
lavashes, tortilla, chapatis, rotis, naans, etc. Bread is simple
and irreductable: remove the flour or liquid, there is no
bread. The example of bread also illustrates the nearly
infinite ways additions to it can make it sweet, spicy, bitter,
fattening, medicinal, or celebratory. Of course other prep-
arations of meat, legumes, fruits, or vegetables can be
served with bread to form daily meals or diet—a culinary
equivalent of a program.
Second, an evidence-based kernel has core components
that cannot be removed and be effective. Consider some
examples: (1) Timeout must be a brief removal from
whatever is reinforcing the undesirable behavior, followed
by intensive reinforcement for engaging in the desired
behavior upon return; (2) a Home-Note from school must
cue high rates of positive reinforcement from home adults,
not emphasize the bad behavior at school; (3) beat the
timer requires some kind of mechanical device to keep
track of time, set for a brief time, and with a signal that
cues reinforcement for the target behavior when the time
elapses; and (4) nasal breathing must involve breathing
through the nose and not the through the mouth, when
upset, for the physiological and behavior benefits to
Programs, however, are rarely irreductable. Programs
contain many components or kernels, and the loss of a
single one enables the program still to have some effect in
most cases. For example, evidence-based reading programs
like Direct Instruction or Success for All have kernels such
as choral responding or peer-assisted learning among many
other active ingredients. The loss or omission of a single
program component may reduce results but will not oblit-
erate results typically.
Naturally, some may ask about the cultural competence
of evidence-based kernels. Anthropologists or evolutionary
theorists (e.g., Wilson and Wilson 2007) posit human
evolution and advancement are significantly based on our
ability to influence each other for group benefit. We sug-
gest that the idea of evidence-based kernels has deep roots
in anthropology. Humans have a long history of creating
ways to influence each other, and noticing the effects of
their inventions to do so. While we hold fast to the notion
that an evidence-based kernel must have peer-reviewed
publication showing experimentally proven results, we are
not blind to the fact that many kernels listed in this pub-
lication have more than chance analogue in the wisdom
traditions of cultures to influence the behavior of relatives,
mates, and neighbors. Many of the kernels herein are not
just found in evidence-based programs or scientific
journals; they can be found, too, in old culturally selected
practices. For example, choral responding is a scienti-
fically proven practice described herein (e.g., Godfrey
et al. 2003), yet it can be found as a cultural practice from
cultures as environmentally diverse as Polynesians to
Arctic peoples; scientists
Institute of Health have recently experimentally demon-
strated the efficacy of the omega-3 fatty acid on
influencing many types of human behavior (e.g., Freeman
et al. 2006a, b), while grandmothers several hundred years
ago made sure that everybody had their daily dose of cod
liver oil; and while legions of behavioral scientists since
the 1960s may have demonstrated the effects of praise
(e.g., Leblanc et al. 2005), the Yup’ik peoples of Alaska
apparently applied the principle a long time before Euro-
Humans—be they parents, teachers, leaders, business
people, or even scientists—attempt to influence behavior,
which begs the question of what influence might mean.
Thus, a kernel may increase the frequency or duration of a
behavior or may make a behavior less likely. The change in
frequency or duration of behavior is observable in real
time. The mechanism of influence might be a function of
an antecedent to channel behavior, a consequence follow-
ing the behavior, a set of words about the behavior, or
direct manipulation of physiology. These possible mecha-
nisms or pathways of how kernels can influence the
acquisition, rate, or duration of behavior will be discussed
subsequently. Some examples of kernels now merit
funded by the National
The Example of Timeout
Timeout was one of the first kernels of behavior–influence
technology (Wolf et al. 1964). Dicky was a 3-year-old boy
with autism who had undergone surgery for cataracts. He
lived in a psychiatric hospital and had frequent tantrums
resulting in self-injury. In tribute to the late Montrose
Wolf, Risley described this landmark study (Risley 2005):
After having just discovered the power of adult
attention for young children, and realizing that the
staff could not simply ignore temper tantrums, espe-
cially violent ones with mild self-abuse, Wolf
decided to prescribe a response to tantrums that
would minimize any social reinforcing effect of the
necessary attention and counterbalance that rein-
forcement with a period of social isolation. The
prescription for tantrums was to place Dicky, calmly
and without comment, in his room until the tantrum
ceased and at least 10 minutes had passed. When
tantrums were under control and after wearing glasses
had been hand shaped, Dicky began to throw his
78Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev (2008) 11:75–113
glasses occasionally. When the social isolation pre-
scription was applied, glasses throwing decreased
from about twice per day to zero. But the hospital
staff doubted that it was due to the procedure,
because Dicky didn’t seem to mind being taken to his
room; he just rocked in his rocking chair and hum-
med to himself. Because throwing glasses was both
less serious and more reliably measured than tan-
trums, Wolf agreed to discontinue the procedure—
and glasses throwing soon increased to the previous
level. The social isolation procedure was reinstated,
and glasses throwing decreased again to zero.
Thus was born timeout, shown since in hundreds of
studies to reduce the frequency of a vast range of behav-
iors. It is a staple of nearly every evidence-based
prevention program for parenting (e.g., Incredible Years
[Webster-Stratton and Reid 2007]; Triple P [Sanders and
[Forgatch et al. 2005a, b]). It is also part of popular culture.
Shows like Nanny 911 display its use; websites with advice
to parents describe it (e.g., http://www.thelaboroflove.com/
forum/quality/timeout.html). Although there is no popula-
tion-based data on the prevalence of families and schools
using timeout, it seems that in many areas, timeout is the
normative replacement for harsh methods of discipline.
The Example of Nasal Breathing or ‘‘Doing Turtle’’
Humans are amazing at noticing the effects of small
physiological interventions that influence human behavior.
Grandmothers and experienced teachers, for example,
often tell children who are emotionally overwrought and
hyperventilating to close their mouths and breathe through
the nose while exhaling through the mouth. This strategy
is taught formally in such evidence-based prevention
programs as the Incredible Years and PATHS (Positive
Alternative Thinking Skills), and even has a child-friendly
name and story of ‘‘doing turtle’’ (Robin et al. 1976). The
strategy is based in empirical observations of the rela-
measures, behavior, and children’s emotional states
(McDonnell and Bowden 1989; Naveen et al. 1997; Perna
et al. 2002; Pine et al. 1998; Telles et al. 1997; Zaich-
kowsky et al. 1986). This kernel also illustrates how a
simple strategy might be independently discovered and
tested from very different theoretical perspectives (e.g.,
pediatric medical practice, basic research, child psychol-
ogy, prevention, parenting, and even alternative bodywork
such as yoga). Like most kernels, it can be used and
proven on its own, or incorporated in programmatic
Theoretical Taxonomy of Kernels
Although simple enumeration of kernels may support
effective practice, their contribution may be more sub-
stantial if we organize them within a theoretical framework
to delineate the key influences on behavior. Such a frame-
work would facilitate generating new kernels and could
point to overlooked procedures for influencing behavior.
Kernels are understandable in terms of the operant
behavior of biological organisms, viewed within a
behavior—including verbal, cognitive, and emotional
functioning—has developed over time as a function of the
biological capacities of the organism and the consequences
to behavior. Human behavioral tendencies are adaptive
functionsof current situations and a history of consequences
for behaving in similar situations (e.g., Biglan 1995).
Kernels involve one of four primary processes. Many
involve consequation of behavior—the presentation or
removal of reinforcing or aversive consequences (Biglan
1995, Chap. 3). Others involve an antecedent stimulus
affecting motivation to behave due to a history of conse-
standard signals to prompt students to sit down; Jason, Neal,
and Marinakis 1985; Wasserman 1977). A third type pri-
marily involves altering the relations that people derive
among verbal stimuli in ways that affect motivation. For
example, to elicit a public commitment to engage in a
behavior (Chassin et al. 1990), a person feels prompted to
associate a network of consequences (such as others’
approval) with engaging in the behavior and other conse-
quences withnot engaging
disapproval). Each of these three types of kernels involves
ways in which a person’s social environment affects his or
her behavior. In a sense, kernels provide prescriptions for
A fourth type of kernel alters a biological function of the
organisms in ways that affect behavior. An example is sup-
plementation of diets with omega-3 fatty acid (Haag 2003).
Indeed, any pharmacological agent that affects behavior
would fall into this category, although we stress the impor-
tance of distinguishing prescription medications from non-
prescription, scientifically provenkernelsthat individuals or
organizations might choose to use without a prescription.
Table 1 presents a list of kernels organized according to
this theoretical framework. We categorize each kernel in
terms of the primary mechanism by which it affects
behavior, although clearly many kernels involve more than
one process. Space precludes a complete review of the
empirical evidence for each kernel, but we cite all exper-
imental evaluations done for each kernel along with the
types of experimental evaluations that have occurred. In
Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev (2008) 11:75–113 79
Table 1 Example taxonomy of potential kernels
Evidence and experimental designs
Kernels altering consequences for behavior
Kernels increasing frequency of behavior
Person or group receives spoken (or signed)
recognition for engagement in target acts,
which may be descriptive or simple
Cooperation, social competence, academic
engagement/achievement, positive parent–child
interactions or marital relations, better sales;
reduced disruptive or aggressive behavior;reduced DSM-IV symptoms
Leblanc et al. (2005), Lowe and McLaughlin (1974), Marchant
and Young (2001), Marchant et al. (2004), Martens et al.
(1997), Matheson and Shriver (2005), Robinson and
Robinson (1979), Scott et al. (2001) (All TS)
praise: ‘‘Tootle’’ notes, compliments books/praise notes
A pad or display of decorative notes is posted
on a wall, read aloud, or placed in a photo
album where peers praise behaviors
Social competence, academic achievement, work
performance, violence, aggression, physicalhealth, vandalism
Cabello and Terrell (1994), Embry et al. (1996), Farber and
Mayer (1972), Heap and Emerson (1989), Mayer et al.
(1983, 1993), Skinner et al. (2000) (TS plus 1 RCT with
Beat the timer or
beat the buzzer
Reduced time set to complete a task, with
access to reward or recognition if task
successfully completed before time
Parent–child interactions, compliance, physical
abuse, child aggression, ADHD, workcompletion, academic accuracy
Adams and Drabman (1995), Ball and Irwin (1976), Drabman
and Creedon (1979), Hudson et al. (1985), Luiselli and
Greenidge (1982), McGrath et al. (1987), Wolfe et al.
(1981), Wurtele and Drabman (1984) (TS)
grab bag/prize bowl/game of life
Person draws variable prize of higher and
lower values for engaging in targeted
Conduct disorders, oppositional defiance, ADHD,
substance abuse, work performance
DeMartini-Scully et al. (2000), Madaus et al. (2003), Moore
et al. (1994), Petry et al. (2000, 2001a, b, c, 2004, 2005),
Petry and Simcic (2002), Robinson and Sheridan (2000) (TS
with children; RCTs with adults)
(graphing) of feedback of a targeted
Results, products of activity posted for all,
may be scores of individuals, teams, or
display of work product for all to see
Speeding, academic achievement, conservation,
donations, community participation, injury
Parsons (1982, 1992), Jackson and Mathews (1995), Whyte
et al. (1983), Ragnarsson and Bjorgvinsson (1991),
Nordstrom et al. (1990), Van Houten and Nau (1981), Nicol
and Hantula (2001) (TS)
Tokens or symbolic rewards for positive
behavior result in random rewards from
status person (e.g., principal, authority
figures) such as positive phone calls home
Academic achievement, disruptive behavior,
Thorpe et al. (1978, 1979) (All TS)
Tokens or reward tickets given for observed
safety or performance behavior, then
entered into lottery
Safety behaviors, accident reduction, improved
sales or work performance
Geller et al. (1982), Putnam et al. (2003), Roberts and Fanurik
(1986), Saari and Latham (1982) (All TS)
Groups compete on some task, performance,
Improved academic engagement/achievement,
reduced disruptive behavior, increased sales, fund raising, and safety; reduced smoking;
changed brain chemistry favoring attentionand endurance
Beersma et al. (2003); Hoigaard et al. (2006), Kivlighan and
Granger (2006), Koffman et al. (1998), Neave and Wolfson
(2003) (All TS, and one naturalistic study)
80Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev (2008) 11:75–113
Table 1 continued
Evidence and experimental designs
Music played or stopped in real time, based
on observed behavior of the individual orgroup
Increased weight gain of babies, improved baby
development possibly, work performance,
academic achievement, attention and focus
(ADHD symptoms down); reduced aggression
Allen and Bryant (1985), Barmann and Croyle-Barmann
(1980), Barmann et al. (1980), Bellamy and Sontag (1973),
Blumenfeld and Eisenfeld (2006), Cevasco and Grant
(2005), Cook and Freethy (1973), Cotter (1971), Davis et al.
(1980), Dellatan (2003), Deutsch et al. (1976), Eisenstein
(1974), Harding and Ballard (1982), Hill et al. (1989),
Holloway (1980), Hume and Crossman (1992), Jorgenson
(1974), Larson and Ayllon (1990), Madsen (1982), McCarty
et al. (1978), McLaughlin and Helm (1993), Standley (1996,
1999), Wilson (1976), Wolfe (1982) (All TS)
Adult (caregiver or teacher) plays with the
child, but lets the child lead in determining
what games will be played and how
Improved stress physiology, compliance, and
social competence; reduced trauma or
Bratton et al. (2005) (Meta analysis)
Person(s) chant or sign answer to oral or
visual prompt in unison; praise/correction
Compared to hand raising, improved academic
achievement, disruptive symptoms, retention;
reduced behavior problems
Godfrey et al. (2003), Kamps et al. (1994), Taubman et al.
(2001), Wolery et al. (1992) (All TS)
Unknown individuals make ‘‘purchase’’ or
‘‘help request’’, and target receives praise, reinforcement or corrective feedback
Reduced tobacco sales; improved customer
relations; better sales, better compliance by
pharmacists, better service from medicalpersonnel or prevention personnel
Bennett et al. (2003), Borfitz (2001), Krevor et al. (2003),
Lowndes and Dawes (2001), Moore (1984), Norris (2002),
Saunders (2005), Steiner (1986), Sykes and O’Sullivan
(2006) (All TS)
Dyad or triad take turns asking questions,
give praise or points and corrective
Improved academics, reduced ADHD/conduct
problems, and long-term effects on school
engagement decreased special education needs
Allsopp (1997), Delquadri et al. (1983), DuPaul et al. (1998),
Fantuzzo and Ginsburg-Block (1998), Greenwood (1991a,
b), Maheady et al. (1988a, b), Sideridis et al. (1997) (Both
TS and RCT)
Motor response to hit target or get right
answer; visual/auditory feedback forcorrect response, with scoreboard
Increased attention and reduced ADHD like
symptoms, which is associated with release of
dopamine in the brain
Aase and Sagvolden (2006), Ford et al. (1993), Green and
Bavelier (2003), Koepp et al. (1998), Silva (1999) (TS, and
TS mixed with randomized conditions)
Symbolic or live models typically
represented with a language frame; others
elicit what individual says will do and
Increased rates of targeted behaviors such as
academic engagement, disturbing behavior or
Anderson and Merrett (1997), Luciano et al. (2001), Luciano-
Soriano et al. (2000) (TS)
Symbolic or live models typically presented.
Cues for behavior and reports by
individual to others followed by praise/
Increased rates of targeted behaviors such as
academics, self-care or other developmental/
life skill tasks
Merrett and Merrett (1997), Morrison et al. (2002), Roca and
Gross (1996) (TS)
Kernels decreasing frequency of behavior
Using timer, remove from natural
reinforcement for 1 min ? 1 min for each
year of age
Decreases non-compliance, argumentative
behavior and mood outbursts
Fabiano et al. (2004), Kazdin (1980), Wolf et al. (1967) (TS)
Sit and watch,
response lock out
Very brief removal from reinforcement
(2 min or less), with high-densityreinforcement upon reentry for desired
Reduces disruptions in classroom, aggression on
playground or during physical education,
reduces dangerous behavior
Embry (1982, 1984), Murphy et al. (1983), Porterfield et al.
(1976), White and Bailey (1990) (TS)
Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev (2008) 11:75–113 81
Table 1 continued
Evidence and experimental designs
Percent of purchase price of goods
(cigarettes, alcohol, luxury
Increasing taxation on liquor or tobacco reduces
Biglan et al. (2004) (TS)
Positive note home
Adult sends home positive note for inhibition
that results in home reward
Reduces disruptive and aggressive behavior and
problems at home; increases engagement at
Gupta et al. (1990), Hutton (1983), Kelley et al. (1988),
McCain and Kelley (1993), Taylor et al. (1984) (TS)
Timed rewards for
Using fixed or variable interval, person
receives praise and reward for not
engaging in a behavior
Reduces ADHD symptoms, conduct problems,
accidental attention to negative; increases engagement in prosocial activities
Conyers et al. (2003), Conyers et al. (2004), Hegel and
Ferguson (2000) (TS)
The opportunity to engage in a high-
probability behavior is made contingent
engaging in a targeted behavior or on the
inhibition of problematic behavior
Decreases ADHD like behavior, inattention,
disruptive behavior, non-compliance
Agathon and Granjus (1976), Andrews (1970), Browder et al.
(1984), Ghosh and Chattopadhyay (1993), Gonzalez and
Ribes (1975), Harrison and Schaeffer (1975), Homme et al.
(1963), Hosie et al. (1974), Knapp (1976), Leclerc and
Thurston (2003), Mazur (1975), McMorrow et al. (1978),
Van Hevel and Hawkins (1974), Welsh et al. (1992),
Williamson (1984) (TS)
Small symbolic reward removed or debited,
non-emotionally, quickly following
Decreases inattention and disruption; decreases
ADHD like behaviors; may if used as a part of
teams in first grade decrease substance abuse
Conyers et al. (2004), Filcheck et al. (2004), Furr-Holden et al.
(2004), Jason et al. (2005), Jorgensen and Pedersen (2005),
Kellam and Anthony (1998), Kelley and McCain (1995),
McGoey and DuPaul (2000), Storr et al. (2002) (TS and
RCT with other embedded kernels)
Low emotion or
Corrective feedback given without biological
cues of threat or intense emotion; short
rather than long reprimands are typically of
more effective ones
Reduces inattention, disruptions, aggression;
reduces emotional responding by adults,
including attention to negative behavior
Abramowitz et al. (1987, 1988), Acker and O’Leary (1987),
Harris et al. (2003), Houghton et al. (1990), Maglieri et al.
(2000), Merrett and Tang (1994), Ostrower and Ziv (1982),
Pfiffner et al. (1985), Piazza et al. (1999), Rolider and Van
Houten (1984), Scholer et al. (2006), Van Houten et al.
(1982) (All TS)
Clock triggered when students misbehave.
Lower times on the clock result in access
Increased academic engagement and reduced
Cowen et al. (1979) (TS)
fine or citation
Fine or ticket given for relatively minor non-
Reduces tobacco possession, illegal water use,
parking in handicap spots
Agras et al. (1980), de Waard and Rooijers (1994), Fletcher
(1995), Jason et al. (2000, 2005), Jorgensen and Pedersen
(2005), Liberman et al. (1975) (TS and RCT)
Person repeats restorative or correct behavior
Reduces symptoms of developmental delay;
reduces aggression or noncompliance; may reduce accidental attention to negative behavior
Carey and Bucher (1986), Foxx and Jones (1978), Lennox
et al. (1988), Maag et al. (1986), Singh (1987), Singh and
Singh (1988), Sisson et al. (1993), Sumner et al. (1974),
Watson (1993) (All TS)
A buzzer or noxious noise happens upon
some undesired behavior
Reduces non seatbelt use, bedwetting, walking
through unauthorized door or driving on
shoulder of road
Ankjaer-Jensen and Sejr (1994), Collins (1973), Crisp et al.
(1984), Hirasing and Reus (1991), Meadow (1977),
Robertson (1975), Robertson and Haddon (1974) (All TS)
82Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev (2008) 11:75–113
Table 1 continued
Evidence and experimental designs
Kernels affecting behaviors primarily via antecedents
Visual, kinesthetic and/or auditory cues to
single shift attention or task in patterned
way, with praise or occasional rewards
Reduces dawdling, increases time on task or
engaged learning; gives more time for
Abbott et al. (1998), Embry et al. (1996), Krantz and Risley
(1977), Rosenkoetter and Fowler (1986), (TS plus RCT with
other embedded kernels)
Stop lights in school
settings or traffic settings
Traffic light signals when behavior is
appropriate/desirable or inappropriate/
undesirable in real time, and connected to akind of occasional reinforcement
Decreases noise, off task behavior, or increases
stopping in dangerous intersections
Cox et al. (2000), Jason and Liotta (1982), Jason et al. (1985),
Lawshe (1940), Medland and Stachnik (1972), Van Houten
and Malenfant (1992), Van Houten and Retting (2001),
Wasserman (1977) (All TS)
Boundary cues and
These may be lines or other cues such as
ropes or rails that signal where behavior is
safe, acceptable or desired
Decreases dangerous behavior; decreases pushing
and shoving; increases waiting behavior in a
queue; reduces falls
Carlsson and Lundkvist (1992), Erkal and Safak (2006),
Marshall et al. (2005), Nedas et al. (1982), Sorock (1988)
Planned activities during children playtime
and involve rules, turn taking, social competencies, and cooperation with/
without ‘‘soft competition’’
Decreases aggression/increases social
competence; affects BMI, reduces ADHD
symptoms and increases academics after;
reduces social rejection in M.S.
Bay-Hinitz et al. (1994), Leff et al. (2004), Mikami et al.
(2005), Murphy et al. (1983), Ridgway et al. (2003) (TS and
Drawn, photographic, or video model viewer/
listener engaging targeted behavior,
receiving rewards or recognition
Increases academic engagement; increases
attention; increases recall and long term
memory; improves behavior; reduces
dangerous behavior; increases social
competence; improved sports performance;
reduced health problems
Barker and Jones (2006), Ben Shalom (2000), Bray and Kehle
(2001),Buggey(2005),Clareet al.(2000),Clarket al.(1992,
1993), Clement (1986), Davis (1979), Dowrick (1999),
Dowrick et al. (2006), Elegbeleye (1994), Hartley et al.
(1998, 2002), Hitchcock et al. (2004), Houlihan et al. (1995),
Kahn et al. (1990), Kehle et al. (2002), Law and Ste-Marie
(2005), Lonnecker et al. (1994), Meharg and Lipsker (1991),
Meharg and Woltersdorf (1990), Owusu-Bempah and Howitt
(1983, 1985), Possell et al. (1999), Ram and McCullagh
(2003), Reamer et al. (1998), Rickards-Schlichting et al.
(2004), Rickel and Fields (1983), Schunk and Hanson (1989),
Schwartz et al. (1997), Walker and Clement (1992), Wedel
and Fowler (1984), Woltersdorf (1992) (All TS)
Coding target behavior with a relational
frame, which is often charted or graphed for public or semi-public display,
occasioning verbal praise from others
Reductions in alcohol, tobacco use; reductions in
illness symptoms from diabetes; increased
school achievement; changes in other social
competencies or health behaviors; reductions in
ADHD, Tourettes and other DSM-IV disorder;
improvement in brain injured persons
Agran et al. (2005), Blick and Test (1987), Boyle and Hughes
(1994), Brown and Frank (1990), Buggey (1995, 1999),
Burch et al. (1987), Carr and Punzo (1993), Cavalier et al.
(1997), Clare et al. (2000), Clarke et al. (2001), Dalton et al.
(1999), de Haas-Warner (1991), Foxx and Axelroth (1983),
Glasgow et al. (1983a, b), Gray and Shelton (1992), Hall
and Zentall (2000), Harris et al. (2005), Hertz and
McLaughlin (1990), Hitchcock et al. (2004), Hughes et al.
(2002), Kern et al. (1994), Martella et al. (1993), Mathes
and Bender (1997), McCarl et al. (1991), McDougall and
Brady (1995), McLaughlin et al. (1985), Nakano (1990),
O’Reilly et al. (2002), Petscher and Bailey (2006), Possell
et al. (1999), Rock (2005), Selznick and Savage (2000),
Shabani et al. (2001), Shimabukuro et al. (1999), Stecker
et al. (1996), Thomas et al. (1971), Todd et al. (1999),
Trammel et al. (1994), Winn et al. (2004), Wood et al.
(1998, 2002) (TS & RCT, latter most from medical studies)
Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev (2008) 11:75–11383
Table 1 continued
Evidence and experimental designs
After hearing or seeing some content, person
learns to ‘‘shrink’’ meaning to eight to ten
words, full sentence; praise typically
happens for good summaries
Improved reading responses and retention
Bean and Steenwyk (1984), Mathes et al. (1994), Spencer
et al. (2003) (TS)
Stimuli are faded or shaped in such a way
that errors are nearly non-existent
Improved reading, letter recognition and life-task
discriminations; reductions in symptoms of
mental retardation or brain injury
Akhtar et al. (2006), Egeland and Winer (1974), Etzel and
LeBlanc (1979), Fillingham et al. (2003), Hunkin et al.
(1998), Keel and Gast (1992), Lambert (1979), Melchiori
et al. (1992), Plummer et al. (1977), Schilmoeller et al.
(1979), Stawar (1978), Terrace (1969), Walsh and Lamberts
Kernels affecting behaviors primarily via relational frames
Adjectival noun for
belonging to statusgroup
Verbal phrase ‘‘I am/we _____’’ is paired
with status, belonging, protection or safety
Increased rule governed behavior; increases
behavior associated with the named group;decreases aggression within group; may affect physical health
Choenarom et al. (2005), Embry et al. (1996), Gaskell and
Smith (1986), Juarez (2002), Mishima (2003) (RCT)
Individuals sign or pledge self to collective
Voting, contributing money, recycling
Burgess et al. (2000), Chen and Komorita (1994), Wang and
‘‘US’’ and ‘‘THEM’’
Individuals or groups divided into two
groups, with differences framed by
clothing, adornment, language, social
Increase aggression and violence by each group
toward each other
Roos (2005), Sherif (1958, 1968, 1970), Sherif, Hogg and
Abrams (2001), Sherif et al. (1955) (RCT)
A graphic organizer for goal-based behavior,
guided by other status individuals
Increased sobriety and goal completion; increased
Collier et al. (2001), Czuchry and Dansereau (1996, 1999,
2003), Czuchry et al. (1995), Dansereau et al. (1993, 1995),
Dees et al. (1994), Joe et al. (1994, 1997), Melville et al.
(2004), Newbern et al. (1999, 2005), Pitre et al. (1996,
1997, 1998) (RCT)
Oral or written questions by status individual
(or on paper) around major goals of target
person with clarifying questions about
Reduced substance abuse, increased social
competence & related goals; reduced injuries orantisocial behavior; increase in healthy
behaviors, increase achievement
Cohen et al. (2006), Bernstein et al. (2005), Burke et al.
(2003), Monti et al. (1999), Resnicow et al. (2001), Rusch
and Corrigan (2002), Smith (2004), Sobell et al. (2003),
Stein et al. (2006) (RCT)
Media (TV, video, radio) showing behavior
results in social rejection or escape from
Reduces sexually transmitted diseases; reduces
alcohol, tobacco and other drug use
Beyth-Marom et al. (1993), Downs et al. (2004), Pechmann
(2001), Pechmann and Ratneshwar (1994), Pechmann et al.
Kernels affecting behaviors primarily via physiology
Pleasant greeting with
or without positive physical touch
Friendly physical and verbal gestures, on a
Affects donations; social status an perceptions of
safety or harm; affects behavior streams of
aggression, hostility or politeness
Edwards and Johnston (1977), Ferguson (1976), Field (1999),
Fry (1987), Howard (1990), La Greca and Santogrossi
(1980), Schloss et al. (1984) (TS)
Massage, brushing or
Any method of rubbing, stroking and
therapeutic touch applied to the body
Reduces aggression, arousal, cortisol, depressive
symptoms, PTSD symptoms, and pain
Diego et al. (2002), Field et al. (1996a, b, c, d), Field (1998),
Jones et al. (1998), Scafidi and Field (1996) (RCT)
84Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev (2008) 11:75–113
Table 1 continued
Evidence and experimental designs
Using a turtle metaphor, child holds self,
verbal frame, breaths through nose, and
engage in sub-verbal or verbal self-coaching, with peer or adult reinforcement
Reduces arousal and aggression against peers or
Heffner et al. (2003), Robin et al. (1976) (TS plus embedded in
RCT with other kernels)
Omega-3 fatty acid
1–3 g taken orally per day; or fish
consumption several times per week high
Reduces aggression, violence, depression, bipolar
disorder, post-partum depression and borderline personality disorder; early evidence for
reducing symptoms of developmental
disorders; and for reducing CVD and asthma
Fava (2001), Freeman et al. (2006), Gesch et al. (2002),
Hibbeln et al. (2006), Jarvinen et al. (2006), Mickleborough
et al. (2006), Richardson (2006), Stoll et al. (2000), Vaddadi
(2006), Zanarini and Frankenburg (2003) (RCT)
Zinc supplementation or
15 mg/day eaten or supplemented
Evolving evidence finds the addition of zinc to the
diet or by supplementation to increase the
effectiveness of drug treatment and/or may
prevent ADHD symptoms
Akhondzadeh et al. (2004), Arnold et al. (2005), Arnold and
DiSilvestro (2005), Bilici et al. (2004), McGee et al. (1990),
Sandyk (1990) (RCT)
‘‘Rough and tumble’’
free play with higher
Several times per week child or adolescent
engages in rough and tumble play, causing
increased arousal and self-control
mediated by status adult or peer
Reduces aggression, teaches self-control, may
improve status among same-sex peers; changes
c-fos gene expression in lab animals; the
behavior may be especially important to the development of positive behavior among boys
and unique contribution of fathering
Boulton and Smith (1989), Gordon et al. (2002), Hines and
Kaufman (1994), Jacklin et al. (1984), Paquette (2004),
Pellegrini and Smith (1998), Reed and Brown (2001), Scott
and Panksepp (2003) (RCT, TS and ethology studies)
Aerobic play or
Daily or many times per week child or adult
engage running or similar aerobic solitaryactivities, game, or food gathering
Reduces ADHD symptoms, reduces depression;
reduces stress hormones; may increase
cognitive function; decreases PTSD
Antunes et al. (2005), Atlantis et al. (2004), Berlin et al.
(2006), Blue (1979), Blumenthal et al. (2005), Crews et al.
(2004), Doyne et al. (1983), Dunn et al. (2001, 2005),
Dustman et al. (1984), Khatri et al. (2001), Kubesch et al.
(2003), Manger and Motta (2005), Marin and Menza (2005),
Phillips et al. (2003), Stein (2005), Stella et al. (2005) (TS
When aroused, person breaths through nose,
Reduces panic, anxiety and hostility; may
improve cognitive function; changes core temp
of limbic area
Backon (1990), Block et al. (1989) (RCT)
Person tenses and relaxes sequence of
muscles combined with anxiety evoking
Reduces panic, fear, anxiety; decreases negative
attributions; decreases phobic responses with
paired with evoking stimuli
Larsson et al. (2005), Norlander et al. (2005), Pawlow and
Jones (2005), Wencai et al. (2005) (RCT)
TS, time-series; RCT, randomized control trial
Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev (2008) 11:75–11385
each of the following, we describe the empirical evidence
in detail for one kernel.
Designating Example Kernels for This Paper
The 52 kernels presented in Table 1 are not exhaustive; they
are simply examples that meet the definition of a kernel
from the four types. Thatis, the kernel has one or more peer-
reviewed experimental studies showing behavior change.
We are aware of many more kernels; the more kernels we
identified, the more we found others. Because of the year-
long process that gave rise to the need for and idea
denominating the active ingredients of evidence-based
prevention and a book about the science of preventing
problems of adolescence (Biglan et al. 2004), many of the
52 kernels were evident to us at first blush because of our
own published studies and that of our colleagues on par-
enting, violence prevention, substance abuse prevention,
etc.; others we chose deliberately to illustrate the potential
theoretical diversity of kernels—an interesting point in
itself, exemplified by reactions to early drafts of the paper.
Some early readers were delighted to see the inclusion of
examples from behavior analysis, yet chaffed at the physi-
ological kernels such as omega-3 and massage—despite the
scientific evidence available for each. Others objected to
behavioral procedures, arguing that behavioral procedures
were proven to be ineffective—despite studies showing
otherwise. We are aware that any given professional com-
munity might disagree with the theoretical approach of
another professional group, yet a taxonomy of kernels
begins to elucidate how, where, when, for whom, and for
what scientifically proven strategies might be more or less
beneficial in influencing human behavior. We imagine that
a database of kernels will emerge, much like the human
genome project (i.e., http://genomics.energy.gov/) wherein
the breadth, depth, magnitude, and replications of the
effects of any given kernel might be reported by the inter-
national research community in order to build an open-
source molecular technology of behavioral influence. The
arbitrary selection of the 52 kernels in this paper illustrates
the possibility of a rich ‘‘behaviornome’’ type project for
fundamental units of behavioral influence. Subsequent
paragraphs detail examples of four types of kernels for
influencing behavior from Table 1, as a proof of concept
from 52 experimentally demonstrated kernels.
Kernels Altering Consequences for Behavior
Increasing Rate or Probability of Behavior
Many kernels increase behavior by mobilizing reinforce-
ment for the targeted behavior. These include vocal praise,
written praise notes, prize bowls, and public posting of
feedback about the rate of a targeted behavior. Each delivers
positive consequences contingent on a behavior. In the case
of public posting of feedback, it is necessary that the recip-
ients of the post in some sense want to increase the behavior
recorded in the postings. An example of a powerful yet
simple reinforcement kernel involves writing positive notes
to increase behavior. Written praise notes from a supervisor
increase work performance (Nordstrom et al. 1988), notes
written by a teacher to students increase academic success
(Hickey et al. 1979), and notes from students to each other
increase social competence (Skinner et al. 2000).
We also put special play with parents in this category. It
involves adults letting the child lead in free play activities
(Webster-Stratton and Reid 2007). Its purpose is to facili-
tate interactions in which parents do not command,
criticize, or unduly restrict activities of the child and allow
the child to engage in fantasy play with the parent. Such
interactions presumably are reinforcing for parent and
child; the child receives the undivided attention of the
parent contingent on cooperative play, and the parent
experiences cooperative and pleasant interactions with the
child contingent on listening to the child and following the
Decrease Behavior by Altering Consequences
Other procedures alter consequences in order to decrease
the frequency or probability of a behavior. Some involve
ensuring an undesirable behavior does not elicit rein-
forcement. Timeout is one such procedure. Rewarding
behavior incompatible with the undesirable behavior is
A third set (ostensibly designed to decelerate behavior
rates) involves delivering aversive consequences for a
certain behavior—traditionally termed punishment. How-
ever, many so-called punishments (e.g., lengthy grounding,
mandatory minimum sentences) have no beneficial effect
and, in fact, cause harm (Sampson and Laub 1994). Indeed,
a major challenge for many parenting programs is getting
parents to be less punitive. Thus, in developing procedures
to make aversive consequences contingent upon behavior,
we must evaluate them carefully to ensure they are effec-
tive and have few side effects.
Fining is an example of a negative consequence
affecting behavior. Agras et al. (1980) found that receiving
a fine reduced individual, but not business, water wastage.
Fletcher (1995) found that fines for parking in disabled-
reserved spaces notably decreased the behavior.
Kernels Altering Behavior Through Antecedents
Many kernels work by establishing the functions of ante-
cedents to behavior. A common example in schools is
86 Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev (2008) 11:75–113
teachers establishing signals to guide transitions (Marion
and Muza 1998; Rosenkoetter and Fowler 1986; West et al.
1995). For example, many teachers turn lights off and on to
signal students to return to their seats and become quiet and
attentive. Of course, positive consequences (e.g., praise)
are involved in establishing effectiveness of the stimulus,
but once established, the salient feature is the influence of
the light on the behavior.
Assigning students meaningful roles (Rutter 1981),
such as setting up equipment for an assembly, taking roll,
or taking photographs for communicating desirable school
functions, are activities that organize useful behavior.
Antecedents may also include organized playground
activities to reduce aggressive behavior and occasion
various social competencies (Murphy et al. 1983). Rein-
forcement follows naturally from the enactment of the
It would be arbitrary to classify antecedent interventions
based upon whether they increase or decrease behavior.
This is because antecedents that prompt a desired behavior
simultaneously make troublesome behavior less likely.
Kernels Altering Behavior by Influencing Relational
Tradition within psychology suggests it is unfeasible to
deal with cognitive and emotional influences on behavior
within a basic behavioral framework of antecedents and
consequences. However, recent work on relational frame
theory (Hayes et al. 2001) has shown that human cognitive
and verbal behavior can be understood in terms of basic
operant processes, while honoring that humans do appear
to have unique evolutionarily selected brain structures
supporting language. To the extent this is true, it provides a
parsimonious account of complex human functioning
within a contextualist framework focusing on manipulable
influences on behavior (Biglan and Hayes 1996).
Research on Relational Responding
There is growing evidence that a fundamental feature of
human cognitive or verbal processes is the relating of
stimuli (Barnes et al. 2000). Because this analysis is a
recent development and likely to be unfamiliar to most
readers, we will elaborate on it here. Barnes et al. (2000)
present a theoretical analysis of relational responding.
According to them, relating stimuli is the core feature of
verbal behavior. Perhaps the most rudimentary relational
responding involves naming. At the beginning of learning
language, young children learn to say names for objects
and separately learn to orient to objects when they hear
their names. Each response is operant behavior reinforced
by consequences such as attention, praise, and gaining of
an object. After multiple experiences of this sort, however,
a child also learns that if an object has a name, the name
also goes with the object. In other words, they become able
to derive the mutual entailment of name to object and
object to name. Further experiences like this enable chil-
dren to derive relations that are more complex. For
example, learning that a puppy is a kind of dog and that
Buddy is a puppy, a child is able to derive that Buddy is a
dog. We call this ability to derive relations between two
stimuli based on their relations with a third stimulus
The third defining feature of relational responding is the
transformation of function. Humans’ derivation of relations
among stimuli can transform the functions of stimuli that
participate in the relation. For example, discovering that
one coin is worth more than another makes the coin more
reinforcing. Learning that water has bacilli in it may have
no impact on a child, but upon learning that bacilli are
germs, and that germs can you make you sick, a child’s
reaction to the water changes.
A fourth defining feature of relational responding is
arbitrary applicability. Many of the relations we learn arise
from physical relations among stimuli. For example,
smaller than and larger than are terms based on the relative
size of objects. However, humans become able to relate
stimuli in these terms even though the stimuli do not have
physical features involving relative size. If you hear that
one person has a bigger heart than another person does, you
may expect that person to be kinder, even though you
understand that his heart is not literally larger.
For theorists accustomed to the panoply of existing
cognitive constructs, which admittedly do a good job of
predicting much human behavior, the value of this analysis
may be obscure. Its value lies in providing a direct analysis
of the specific procedures that influence relational
responding and thereby transform the functions of stimuli.
Increasing Behavior by Altering Relational Responding
Perhaps the simplest and most important procedures of this
type are those that augment the value of stimuli by influ-
encing people to relate them to stimuli they already value.
If we tell children they can stay up a half hour more if they
get five stickers, we change their valuing of the stickers. In
essence, any procedures influencing people to relate a
stimulus with stimuli they already value make that stimulus
more reinforcing. Prevention and treatment scientists,
unlike marketing professionals, are often unfamiliar with
One example of relational responding involves branding
to influence behavior (Fischer et al. 1991). A recent study
McDonald’s (logos, wrapping papers, etc.), even for
Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev (2008) 11:75–113 87
carrots, which McDonald’s does not sell (Robinson et al.
2007). Another example of branding is the introduction to
the PeaceBuilders program (Embry et al. 1996). It used
kernels like peer-to-peer praise/tootle notes and positive
notes home to establish the word PeaceBuilder as a valued
concept and to make being a PeaceBuilder—and all
behaviors later related to this concept—more reinforcing.
The program improved social competence and reduced
aggression and injuries due to violence (Flannery et al.
2003; Krug et al. 1997). Biglan and colleagues recently
completed a study showing that pairing fun social activities
for middle-schoolers with a non-smoking brand (f2b—for
Freedom to Breathe) reduced smoking among students
even when the program had little overt antitobacco content
(Gordon et al. 2008).
Another example of a kernel using relational responding
involves public commitment. When people publicly com-
mit to engage in a behavior, they are more likely to follow
through on the behavior (e.g., Burn and Oskamp 1986).
The public oath makes behavior inconsistent with that
pledge aversive due to expected disapproval for failing to
follow through with the promise.
In self-modeling, the professional helps to create a story
about a person’s behavior (Hosford 1980); the person typi-
self in a set of relations with desired behaviors and attributes
bring about peaceful behaviors; Embry et al. 1996). A child
video (Hartley et al. 1998), making the child more apt to
relate engaging in the behavior with valued ideas, such as
being a ‘‘PeaceBuilder’’ (Embry et al. 1996).
Motivational interviewing (MI) is a powerful example of
that subdividing it would destroy its effects. In MI, the
interviewer prompts a person to discuss a topic he or she
generally avoids (e.g., one’s drinking patterns and difficul-
ties associated withthem;
McCambridge and Strang 2004; Miller et al. 1988). The
interviewer is warm and accepting as the person talks but
asks questions designed to put the person in psychological
contact with negative consequences of his/her behavior and
the possible benefits of changing the behavior. It is clear this
salientaspectoftheprocessseems tobethatitaltersthe way
people relate their problematic behavior to negative conse-
quences and the possible alternatives to more reinforcing
consequences. In other words, MI changes people’s net-
works of relations in ways that make some behaviors more,
and others less, desirable. Although most treatment profes-
sionals are familiar with complex forms of MI, very brief,
scientifically validated forms do exist (McCambridge and
Strang 2004)—including just 15 min (Cohen et al. 2006).
Bernsteinet al. 2005;
Decreasing Behavior by Altering Relational Responding
Some behavior–influence procedures discourage behavior
by prompting a person to relate the behavior to aversive
stimuli. In general, any procedure that prompts a person to
relate undesirable behavior to negatively valenced stimuli
would qualify as such a procedure—provided there was
experimental evidence of its effect. For example, media
associating drug use with negative outcomes have some-
times been shown to reduce drug use (Palmgreen et al.
1995). Messages suggesting that youth’s peers will reject
them for smoking affects their motivation to use tobacco
(Pechmann and Knight 2002; Pechmann et al. 2003).
Kernels Altering Behavior Through Physiological
Finally, some procedures primarily affect physiological
behavior. For centuries, humans have altered their health
and mood by manipulating physiological states. Anthro-
pological and archeological literatures are replete with
examples (Lalramnghinglova 1999; Rajan et al. 2002;
Rodrigues 2006; Spindler 1995). Hunters and gatherers
often consume plants with stimulant properties, apparently
since they confer an advantage during tasks such as hunt-
ing, which requires sustained effort and attention. Modern
humans have similar reasons for using caffeine.
The impact of omega-3 fatty acid is a particularly
important example of a physiological kernel (Olafsdottir
et al. 2005). We use this example because of its exemplary
laboratory, epidemiological, and randomized control stud-
ies across many domains of prevention, intervention, and
treatment. Aside from epidemiological research on the
relationships of omega-3 fatty acid (n-3) to a wide variety
of causes of morbidity and mortality (Hibbeln 2001),
experimental and quasi-experimental studies find supple-
mentation of omega-3 reduces violent aggression among
men (Gesch et al. 2002). Its use also reduces depression or
bipolar disorder (Mischoulon and Fava 2000; Stoll et al.
1999; Sund et al. 2003) and other health or public health
concerns, such as low birth weight and offspring IQ
(Helland et al. 2003). Although not yet proven, omega-3
may even alleviate some of the problems associated with
poverty, since poorer people have diets lower in omega-3
(Egeland et al. 2001; Liu et al. 2004).
Another intervention affecting behavior through direct
impact on physiology is deep breathing, shown to reduce
anxiety, arousal, and aggression among all ages (Appels
et al. 1997; DiFilippo and Overholser 1999; Peck et al.
2005; Sharma et al. 2005; Suzuki et al. 2000). Zinc sup-
plementation may reduce or moderate ADHD symptoms
(Arnold et al. 2005; Bilici et al. 2004). We include a
variety of strategies that enhance self-regulation in aroused
88Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev (2008) 11:75–113
states such as ‘‘rough and tumble’’ play and related martial
arts training for children, as studies have shown it to reduce
children’s aggressive behavior (Bjorklund and Brown
1998; Paquette 2004; Pellegrini 1992; Shannon et al. 2002)
and the mechanism appears to involve alteration of brain
chemistry (Panksepp et al. 2003; Siviy et al. 1996; Taylor
et al. 1986). The martial arts studies with children show
improved self-regulation, less aggression, and positive
mood along with decreased impulsiveness (Lakes and Hoyt
2004; Palermo et al. 2006; Twemlow and Sacco 1998;
Zivin et al. 2001), though student self-report may show less
change than classroom teacher reports (McDiarmid 2008).
The distinction between biological and environmental
interventions is not certain. Of course, any environmental
manipulation may influence biological functioning. Below
we discuss interventions that directly manipulate biological
processes instead of changing psychological or behavioral
Although many pharmacological agents alter behavior
and meet our definition of a kernel, the substantial litera-
ture on these influences is beyond the scope of this paper.
Moreover, unlike nutritional supplements and nasal
breathing, FDA-approved pharmacological agents require
prescriptions; thus, they would not be available to most
prevention practitioners or consumers directly.
Prevention scientists, oriented toward the implementa-
tion of programs, may overlook physiological interventions.
Publications about these kernels are not in journals devoted
to behavioral science but more likely to appear in medical,
public health, or specialty journals. However, the evidence
for them suggests that treatment and prevention scientists
should pay greater attention to the reciprocal relationships
between physiology and behaviors.
Types of Experimental Evidence Supporting Kernels
We define kernels as procedures shown empirically to
affect a behavior. In keeping with the Society for Preven-
tion Research Standards of Evidence (Flay et al. 2004), our
criteria for empirical support include RCTs and interrupted
time-series designs in which a procedure’s impact is
evaluated on a repeated measure of target behavior. Most
evaluations of kernels have been via interrupted time-series
designs, while some, such as omega-3 impact, have been in
randomized trials. Some have undergone evaluation both
ways. Some studies measured generalizability of results
across time, behaviors, people, or places; others measured
only proximal or immediate effects.
Many kernels result from interplay between basic and
applied research. Variable interval or ratio contingency
management kernels (e.g., Mystery Motivator, Prize Bowl)
have roots in animal (Ferster and Skinner 1957) then human
(Majovski and Clement 1977) research. Researchers next
conducted clinical studies using interrupted time series
(Henderson et al. 1986; Leibowitz 1975; Libb et al. 1973;
Madaus et al. 2003; Moore et al. 1994; Robinson and
Sheridan 2000; Snell and Cole 1976) and formal RCTs
(Petry et al. 2004, 2005).
Physiological kernels have a similar scientific trajectory.
For example, the understanding of omega-3 (n-3) has roots
in early epidemiological or forensic inquiries showing
differences among individuals with diseases or disorders
(Anderson and Connor 1989; Gudbjarnason et al. 1991;
Lieber et al. 1969; Rudin 1981). Initial epidemiological
findings (Hibbeln 1998, 2001, 2002) prompted precision-
oriented laboratory studies (Hibbeln et al. 1998; Hibbeln
and Salem 1995) and larger epidemiological inquiries. All
this work led to clinical trials evaluating omega-3 supple-
mentation (Nemets et al. 2002; Sund et al. 2003; Zanarini
and Frankenburg 2003).
The frequent use of interrupted time-series designs in
developing kernels deserves further comment. It reflects not
simply an arbitrary methodological preference but an
behavior–influence practices. Kernels are of necessity sim-
ple steps targeting a behavior one can easily measure
repeatedly; it is thus easy to implement interrupted time-
series designs. Single-subject studies are quite robust in
terms of reducing threats to validity (Sidman 1960) and in
answering questions of whether a particular medication,
procedure,orprocessisefficaciousinchanging the behavior
of a person or small group of persons (e.g., families, class-
rooms, and organizations; Dadds et al. 1984; Greenwood
and Matyas 1990; Mayer et al. 1983; McGrath et al. 1987;
Reagles and O’Neill 1977). Such interrupted time-series
the choice for evaluating policy impact on large, important
social issues (Briscoe et al. 1975; Hayes and Cone 1977;
Wagenaar et al. 1988). One may summarize interrupted
time-series designs effectively via effect sizes and meta-
analyses (Campbell 2004; Stage and Quiroz 1997).
An important limitation on current understanding of
kernels is that we have relatively little information about
situations in which they will be effective and those in
which they will not be effective. Further research should
explore the range of situations in which given kernels work
and seek to develop a theory of the relationship between
situations and the efficacy of kernels.
The Utility of Kernels
Disseminating Effective Behavior–influence Practices
If our ultimate public health goal is to minimize the
prevalence of behavioral and psychological problems and
Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev (2008) 11:75–11389
improve wellbeing, then increasing the prevalence of
effective behavior–influence practices is essential. Dis-
seminating kernels could be an important supplement to
current reliance on program dissemination for achieving
this outcome. Kernels have most features that Rogers
(1995) identified as important in fostering dissemination.
He observed that people are more likely to adopt and
implement a practice if it is simple and easily tested, its
effects are readily observable, it appears to offer an
advantage over existing practices, it addresses an important
problem, and it is compatible with existing practices.
Most kernels are quite simple and consist of an easily
tested, low-cost activity. Moreover, it is usually possible to
observe their immediate impact on a person’s behavior; it
does not require statistical analysis of groups of individu-
als. As a result, the person who tries a kernel is likely to
observe immediate benefit, which will likely reinforce its
use. Finally, as the list of kernels in Table 1 shows, most
kernels affect behaviors important to change agents.
As noted above, even if empirically supported programs
were widely disseminated, numerous behavior–influence
interactions in society would fall outside the scope of
existing programs. For example, programs may teach social
competencies to avoid aggressive behavior (Taylor et al.
1999) but teachers and youth leaders need ways to structure
interactions among youth so that prompts for aggressive
behavior decrease. Cooperative games (Murphy et al.
1983); peer-to-peer tootle/praise notes (Embry et al. 1996;
Mayer et al. 1983, 1993; Skinner et al. 2000); the princi-
pal’s lottery or preferrals (Thorpe et al. 1978, 1979); and
non-verbal transition cues (Abbott et al. 1998; Embry et al.
1996; Krantz and Risley 1977; Rosenkoetter and Fowler
1986) are easy to build into daily school or afterschool
routines. They can also structure student interactions to
minimize prompts to engage in aggression. If we widely
disseminated kernels to behavior–influence agents (e.g.,
teachers, therapists, youth leaders, human service workers,
and parents), it could result in effective behavior support
practices being more widely used than if we waited for these
agents to generalize good practices from programs that they
were trained to use in specific situations.
Glasgow et al. (1999) proposed the RE-AIM framework
for thinking about the long-term public health effects of
interventions. They argue that the benefit of a practice is a
function of its Reach times its Efficacy. However, even an
efficacious intervention that reaches many people will have
limited impact over time, unless it is Adopted, Imple-
mented, and Maintained. From this standpoint, kernels
supplement program dissemination strategies because their
readily observed benefits (efficacy) make them prone for
adoption and maintenance and because they will increase
the reach of beneficial behavior–influence practices since
there are kernels relevant to so many situations.
A recent RCT of a media version of Triple P (Positive
Parenting Program(s); Sanders et al. 2000) illustrates this
point. Behavioral parenting skills programs consist largely
of kernels (e.g., timeout, praise, and special play). Parents
who go through such programs learn several important
behavior–influence strategies. However, the reach of these
programs is limited, due to administration costs and costs
in time and money to participants. Triple P’s media version
reflects the recognition that a population-based impact may
be greater if specific kernels of effective parenting practice
can reach large numbers of parents. Preliminary data from
this 18-county RCT showed that the promotion of ‘‘kernel-
like’’ parenting practices through media, tip sheets, and
brief, structured interactions reached about 25% of the
population in intervention counties. Multiweek parenting
courses were available for parents who needed support that
was more intensive. The combination of kernels and pro-
grams, where needed, significantly reduced child-abuse
reports, medical injuries, and out-of-home foster placement
(Prinz et al. accepted).
In sum, in addition to empirically supported programs
coming into wider use, we foresee the spread of kernels
into the repertoires of many change agents for situations
without designed programs and those where the problem
does not require a multicomponent program.
Reducing the Cost of Beneficially Influencing Behavior
Making kernels widely available to behavior–influence
agents may reduce the cost of bringing about widespread
use of effective practices. Most of the kernels we identify
are in the public domain, easy to adopt, and useful across
many situations. Their dissemination requires no expensive
materials. Training in their use can be accomplished much
more cheaply (often simply by modeling or defining) than
training in complex programs.
Since kernels are in the public domain, it discourages
certaintypes of profit-motivated
example, despite strong evidence of its efficacy for diverse
problems, omega-3 (fish oil) offers little incentive to
pharmaceutical companies to market it for treatment of
bipolardisorder, post-partum depression, depression,
developmental disabilities, or aggression.
Nevertheless, viable business models exist that would
motivate dissemination of kernels. It is possible to make
access to information about kernels a commodity sold on
the Internet at low cost. Indeed, video modeling of—and
supporting materials for—kernels could be available
through iTunes, amazon.com, or e-bay. Alternatively, some
kernels could be available at drug stores, supermarkets, or
video rental stores. Workplaces, local governments, and
other potential beneficiaries of kernels might well become
bulk purchasers or distributors of kernels that they
90Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev (2008) 11:75–113
calculate will affect health, safety, competitiveness, or
other important outcomes.
Using Kernels Across Developmental Stages
The example kernels in this paper have utility with par-
ticular ages or developmental periods. Table 2 includes
developmental stages, those predicted to be useful for ages
for which they have not undergone testing, and those
without data or clear hypotheses about their utility for
developmental stages except the ones on which they have
been tested. We will show kernels that are effective across
multiple age ranges.
Implications of Kernels for Policy
The evidence on kernels points to the possibility that pol-
icies requiring or promoting the use of some kernels may
be appropriate. For example, peer-to-peer tutoring of Title
1 students in first grade increases long-term academic
success into middle school (Greenwood 1991a, b). Creating
a federal, state, or district policy to use peer-to-peer
tutoring in Title 1 schools or at-risk areas theoretically
could raise academic performance and reduce historical
racial, ethnic, and cultural disparities (Greenwood 1991a,
b)—without adopting a new curriculum. Communities or
school districts with high rates of dropping out in ninth
grade might consider making a policy around using the 15-
min motivational process in seventh grade that improves
grades in ninth grade (Cohen et al. 2006). Another kernel,
taking omega-3 (cod liver oil) during pregnancy increases
the child IQ at age 4 (Helland et al. 2003). The evidence
justifies a policy for providing free omega-3 to pregnant
and post-partum mothers via Women, Infants, and Children
(e.g., Helland et al. 2003; Hibbeln et al. 2006; Richardson
2006). The American Psychiatric Association recently
created a policy recommending at least 1 g/day of omega-3
for all psychiatric patients (Freeman et al. 2006b), which is
an example of a professional organization adopting a
Some Concerns About Kernels
Some argue that kernels are useful only if their effects are
lasting. Numerous kernels do have such effects. For
example, the errorless-compliance training kernel has at
least a 6-month maintenance of effects for parent–child
pairs coming from violent homes (Ducharme et al. 2000)
and for children diagnosed with autism (Ducharme and
Drain 2004). The safe playing kernel (Embry 1984) has
reduceddangerous behavior9 monthsafterparents
Table 2 Kernel utility across age groups
Infants Children Teens Adults
Peer-to-peer written praise—
‘‘tootle’’ notes, compliments
Beat the timer or beat the buzzer****
Mystery motivators/grab bag/prize
bowl/game of life
Public posting (graphing) of
feedback of a targeted behavior
Safety or performance lotteryNA***
Computer action gameP***
Correspondence training, ‘‘Say-
Correspondence training, ‘‘Do-
Sit and watch, contingent
observation, or response lock
Taxation on consumptive
Positive note home for inhibitionNA**
Timed rewards for inhibition
Response-cost (point loss)P***
Low emotion or ‘‘private’’
Law enforcement fine or citationNANA**
Over-correction or positive
Non-verbal transition cues****
Stop lights in school settings or
Boundary cues and railings****
Cooperative, structured peer playP**
Errorless discrimination training****
Adjectival noun for belonging to
Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev (2008) 11:75–11391
implemented the strategy at home. Peer-to-peer tutoring
has effects that last from first-grade intervention through
middle school (Greenwood 1991a, b). Omega-3 supple-
mentation of cod liver oil during pregnancy has effects on
children’s cognitive development at least through age 4.
Emotional writing reduces or prevents medication use,
healthcare visits, or continued unemployments months later
(Richards et al. 2000; Smyth et al. 1999; Spera et al.
1994). Response slates—as opposed to having students
raise their hands—improve performance on academic
measures of retention, recall, and end-of-term tests for that
content (Christle and Schuster 2003; Kellum et al. 2001).
Finally, a 15-min motivational interview on paper has an
18-month lasting effect on the improvement of grades of
high-risk African American students from seventh grade to
ninth grade (Cohen et al. 2006).
Yet even if a kernel does not seem to have a lasting
impact, we should not overlook its value. In numerous
situations, parents, teachers, youth workers, and others
need to influence a behavior. For example, if the only
evidence for response slates was that they increased
classroom participation (Christle and Schuster 2003; Kel-
lum et al. 2001), they would be valuable to teachers who
want to raise classroom participation. In general, providing
people with simple and reliable ways of influencing
behavior is an important benefit for them, even with no
current evidence that the impact is long lasting. Put another
way, if we wish to create a society with high levels of
caring and effective guidance in all areas, the widespread
dissemination of kernels could help in this quest.
Another concern might be that kernels needed daily or
weekly are futile. Yet to exclude from the approved
armamentarium of prevention any strategies that do not
permanently change behavior seems odd both scientifically
and practically. Such a stance would exclude taking a daily
aspirin to prevent strokes and heart attacks; using UV
lotion to prevent skin cancer before going outside; con-
ducting daily physical activity to prevent obesity, health
problems, and depression; using a car seat each trip to
protect an infant, etc. From a contextual standpoint,
behavior is always, to some extent, a function of the
immediate environment (e.g., Biglan 1995). In order to
ensure that the environment promotes prosocial behavior
through kernels is a useful way to improve human
The literature reports two tracks of parenting interventions:
brief solution focused and general parent training, each
with experimental evidence supporting its efficacy. Solu-
tion-focused parenting involves brief interventions that
may be kernels like safe playing or good shopper; others
may be to-the-point recipes for going to restaurants, bed-
wetting, cleaning up, doing homework, getting ready for
bed, etc., showing experimentally controlled results (e.g.,
Dadds et al. 1984; Sanders et al. 1984). The more general
strategies—8-to-12 week courses focusing on general
parenting skills with high-risk populations—also have
positive results (e.g., Hoath and Sanders 2002).
Recently, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control sup-
ported an RCT of a combined solution-focused and
general-parenting skill model to prevent child abuse in 18
South Carolina counties (Prinz et al. accepted). In counties
receiving the multilevel parenting model (e.g., Sanders
et al. 2003), most of the utilization of services was for the
solution-focused kernels or recipes and not for the inten-
sive services, yet the intervention produced significant
reductions in substantiated child maltreatment reports,
child maltreatment-related medical injuries, and out-of-
home placements (Prinz et al. accepted). It may seem
counterintuitive that these simple and narrowly focused
strategies could produce such effects, but many acts of
child maltreatment happen precisely during the types of
activities addressed by the solution-focused interven-
bedtimes, etc. The defusion of the brief kernel-like recipes
to solve these problems for thousands of parents in these
communities makes further sense when one understands
that official reports of child physical maltreatment
Table 2 continued
Infants Children Teens Adults
‘‘US’’ and ‘‘THEM’’ role framingP***
Media associating behavior with
‘‘immediate’’ negative social
Pleasant greeting with or without
positive physical touch
Massage, brushing or stroking ****
Omega-3 fatty acid
supplementation or increased
Zinc supplementation or dietary
‘‘Rough and tumble’’ free play/
martial arts with higher status
Aerobic play or behaviorP***
Progressive muscle relaxationNA***
NA, not applicable; *, experimental evidence; P, predicted utility
92Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev (2008) 11:75–113
underestimate its prevalence by 40 times (Theodore et al.
2007), making logistics and staffing for intensive parenting
courses clearly impractical and improbable for thousands
of families at any given time in a community or county.
The South Carolina experiment suggests that providing
individuals access to self-selected simple preventative
strategies could have large implications for public health
and safety. The study hints that science-based prevention of
behavioral issues could be an individual consumer product.
Currently, individuals cannot access best practice preven-
tion programs, as they can consume products for child
safety, such as car seats, bike helmets, or safety guards for
electric sockets or kitchen cabinets.
Improving the Effectiveness of Prevention
Eddy (2006) has noted that intervention research does not
contribute to the extent it could to improve our under-
standing of basic psychological and social processes that
interventions must target. In most cases, we have no
models of preventive interventions to show which social or
psychological processes they target, the effects of the
intervention on those targets, and the effects of changes in
these targets on outcomes. As a result, we have not
developed a robust and generalizable theory of the key
aspects of human functioning and the ways in which to
affect them. We can therefore say little about how to
construct new interventions in new problem areas and
cannot easily communicate to nonscientists what they
might do for novel problems. All we can say is ‘‘apply this
program.’’ However, often there are no evidence-based
programs to apply.
A theoretical analysis that pinpoints specific procedures
to influence behavior and psychological processes would
stimulate research to refine and improve these component
strategies and encourage creation of new, more effective
programs, and practices. Specifying fundamental units of
behavioral influence could point to components to add to
the existing programs and provide building blocks for
creating new and more powerful programs. We propose
that kernels are candidate building blocks for a generaliz-
able science of intervention and prevention. The next few
paragraphs, therefore, loop back to the conditions that gave
rise to the need for a taxonomy of active ingredients of
science-based prevention and treatment (Embry 2004) and
discussed early in this paper, showing how existing evi-
dence-based programs can be analyzed or strengthened by
In order to illustrate how we created one evidenced-
based program using kernels, we briefly outline the active
ingredients of PeaceBuilders (Embry et al. 1996), con-
structed by using previously validated kernels (Embry
et al. 1996; Embry 1997). Note we did not have the lan-
guage for kernels then, but quite consciously used the
principle of kernels in the program design. There were five
core kernels in PeaceBuilders. First, the children and adults
received a framing language repertoire via a self-modeling
story kernel, which we had tested for its impact on
behavior. Second, children and adults created a vision of
peaceful behavior using a goal/node map kernel. Third,
adults and children adopted an adjectival identity noun
kernel, ‘‘I am a PeaceBuilder.’’ Fourth, adults and children
learned to use praise notes or ‘‘caught-you-being good’’
notes for reinforcing behaviors defined earlier in the self-
modeling stories. At the same time, adults learned to use
the positive-home note kernel to support the reinforcement
of these same peacebuilding behaviors. Fifth, classrooms
and schools received public recognition and posting for
engaging in peacebuilding behaviors or creating peace-
building ‘‘inventions’’ each week. Weekly walk-throughs
of the school allowed monitoring of these active kernels.
This combination of kernels was tested in a randomized
control design over several years, and showed reductions in
actual violent injuries (Krug et al. 1997), increased social
competence and resiliency measures, as well as reduced
aggression and inattention (Flannery et al. 2003). It affec-
ted the high-risk students the most (Vazsonyi et al. 2004).
The selection and use of kernels in PeaceBuilders is an
example of how kernels can both construct an intervention
and clearly specify the putative ingredients.
In order to illustrate how kernels can clarify why pro-
grams work, we examine the Good Behavior Game (GBG),
not created with kernels in mind. The GBG has already
increased cooperative on-task behavior in school signifi-
cantly (Barrish et al. 1969; Medland and Stachnik 1972)
and reduced antisocial behavior and smoking in adoles-
cence and adulthood (Kellam et al. 2008, 1994; Kellam
and Anthony 1998). Its core kernels include a response cost
for negative behavior (e.g., Conyers et al. 2004); team
competition (e.g., Beersma et al. 2003); public posting of
results (e.g., Parsons 1982); and team rotations (deemed
critical but with no supporting study). Additional kernels
include a low emotional response to negative behaviors
(e.g., Abramowitz et al. 1987), playing three games per
day, and using beat the timer (e.g., Adams and Drabman
The GBG also provides an occasion to describe the
utility of kernels in helping disseminate programs. Until
2003, when the first author started collaborating with Johns
Hopkins, there was virtually no diffusion of the GBG based
on Kellam’s work or even earlier behavior analysis studies,
beyond journal articles. Inspection, direct replication, and
systematic replication in different settings of the GBG
(Embry 2002) as implemented by Kellam and colleagues,
pointed to several ways that planned dissemination and
Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev (2008) 11:75–11393
further testing underway at Johns Hopkins could strengthen
it. First, it was necessary to stop edible reinforcers used by
Kellam and colleagues, as social context and validity do
not support this 20 years later. A switch to a kernel of
prizes based on the Premack Principle (Andrews 1970;
Homme et al. 1963; Hosie et al. 1974; Premack 1962; Van
Hevel and Hawkins 1974) proved acceptable and rein-
forcing to children and adults alike.
Second, we added kernels to improve adoption, imple-
mentation, and maintenance of the GBG based on
observations and consumer feedback. These included non-
verbal cues (e.g., Cox et al. 2000; Rosenkoetter and Fowler
1986) to improve generalization and adoption of the Game
and meaningful roles as differential reinforcement of other
behaviors (e.g., Rutter 1981) to reduce accidental negative
attention. Another includes setting generalization recipes
for carrying over the GBG to hallways, restrooms, cafete-
ria, etc. (e.g., Fishbein and Wasik 1981) to improve
generalization by students and acceptability by adults.
Other kernels include symbolic self-modeling (e.g., Embry
et al. 1996) to improve imitation of behavior and school-
home notes (e.g., Kelley et al. 1988) for prompting family
reinforcement and generalization of behavior to home.
Others are peer-to-peer praise notes (e.g., Skinner et al.
2000) to improve social competence and reduce negative
peer attention, and the good behavior lottery (e.g., Putnam
et al. 2003) to increase generalization when not playing the
Game. Inserting these kernels provided a more systematic
approach to address the issues of diffusion of scientific
innovation, raised by Rogers (1995), of relative advantage,
compatibility, ease of use, trialability, and observability.
Kernels may also be useful in strengthening existing
programs. Several investigations have noted problems
replicating the results of Project Alert in community con-
texts (e.g., St. Pierre et al. 2005). In Houston, an agency
requested assistance from the first author for improving
implementation of Project Alert in the context of gym
classes—they had never tested it scientifically but it was
the only slot available in the school day. Attendance was
poor and pre–post assessments did not show that the pro-
gram affected the students. We recommended use of
several kernels in order to make attendance more rein-
forcing and the lessons more participatory, and to create
peer pressure for attendance: prize-bowl, random calling,
peer-to-peer tutoring, tootle notes, response slates, pleasant
greetings to students by program staff in the halls, and
student jobs. In year-to-year comparisons, attendance
doubled, increasing to 90% in most of the schools. More-
over, for the first time, students achieve the target scores
for the post-tests proposed to measure dose and fidelity by
the developers of Project Alert.
The analysis of kernels can also help construct new
interventions by putting together a set of kernels that all
appear relevant and useful for new problems. For example,
methamphetamine addiction is a serious public-health
problem and there is a dearth of evidence-based programs
to reduce it (Embry et al. 2005). Table 3 outlines a
potential community- or state-level response to metham-
phetamine use via evidenced-based kernels. The table
tackles the huge public health problem that arises from
meth-exposed infants or children who enter the medical,
social service, and legal systems as well as intervention,
prevention, and treatment issues associated with teens or
adults using or at risk for using methamphetamine.
Of course, such a constructed program demands experi-
mental evaluation via randomized trials or at least via quasi-
experimental studies. At the same time, however, practitio-
ners and policymakers desperate to deal with the
methamphetamine problem must have a strategy, that,
although not yet evaluated in an RCT, is composed of ele-
interrupted time series to affect its target behaviors. The
bundled kernels to address this public health and safety
problem could face testing in an interrupted time-series
design across neighborhoods, communities, or counties
using naturally occurring archival data on meth-related
The theoretical analysis of kernels also may help to
develop new kernels. In essence, the framework suggests
that, in any instance requiring altered behavior, it will pay
to examine systematically whether it is possible to alter
consequences or antecedents for the behavior, if it is pos-
sible to influence relational responding in ways that change
the value of relevant behaviors, and finally, whether
physiological interventions could alter the probability of
behavior. A thorough understanding of existing kernels
would contribute to the success of this effort.
Prevention science might also gain strength by mapping
kernels onto risk and protective factors. For instance, much
research points to early antisocial behavior, school bond-
ing, and inadequate parental monitoring as predictors of
various adverse outcomes (Arthur et al. 2002; Dekovic
1999; Duncan et al. 2000). Numerous kernels are relevant
to affect these constructs. Examples include the percentage
of students with meaningful roles in a day, the square
footage of student work displayed on the walls, the number
of peer-to-peer positive written notes, the caught-you-being
good notes, or positive notes home (Rutter 1981). Articu-
lating the kernels relevant to each risk or protective factor
would provide practitioners with more precise guidance as
to which kernels are most useful for altering key risk and
Thinking in terms of kernels may also facilitate our
identifying kernel-like practices that occur naturally in
society, as has already happened in some cases. For
example, epidemiological studies show that omega-3
94Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev (2008) 11:75–113
consumption was associated with many important health
and behavior outcomes, such as reduced CVD, depres-
sion, and homicide (Hibbeln 2001, 2002; Hibbeln et al.
2007; McGrath-Hanna et al. 2003; Tanskanen et al.
2001). Then intervention studies showed that changes in
the consumption of omega-3 reduced these types of
adverse conditions (Freeman et al. 2006a; Gesch et al.
2002). In a similar vein, epidemiologists can use existing
evidence about kernels to examine whether kernels occur
naturally in social systems and benefit the population.
Such research would strengthen the link between epide-
miology and intervention research and practice, while
strengthening empirically based theory about human
Table 3 Applying kernel to community-level methamphetamine addiction issues
KernelStrategy and procedureSample citationsQuality of evidence
Prize bowl (contingency
sobriety and recovery
Multiple contracts/grants to organizations
to recruit individuals at jails, ERs,
shelters plus thru existing courts,
clinics, faith-based organizations
w/monitoring of results across settings
Petry and Martin (2002), Petry et al.
(2000, 2001a, b, c, 2004, 2005),
Rawson et al. (2006)
Multiple RCT; 1 with
comparisons to proven
Omega-3 supplements2 g/day to reduce comorbid depression,
bipolar disorder, aggression, plus CVD
symptoms, promoted at jails, clinics,
shelters, public health, and outreach
workers. Policy changed to support
addition to government formularies
Freeman et al. (2006), Gesch et al.
(2002), Stoll et al. (2000)
Cross-national epi; lab studies;
RCT with/without other meds
Kangaroo care for
Infants born to addicted moms or moved
to foster care (Conde-Agudelo et al.
2003; Feldman and Eidelman 2003)
given to reduce developmental
problems; training of caseworkers,
nurses, doctors; added to program
Ferber and Makhoul (2004),
Ludington-Hoe et al. (2004), Priya
Lab studies for mechanisms; case
studies; randomized trials
training for exposed
Toddlers/preschoolers neglected or abused
by drug-using parents receive errorless
compliance training by bio parent,
foster parent, and/or teacher; Policy
implemented via court order
Ducharme (2003), Ducharme et al.
(2000, 2001, 2002, 2003)
Empirical case studies; several
multiple baselines; randomized
Exposed preschoolers and elementary
children under court petition or special
ed receive self-modeling videos or
digitally created storybooks for social
skills and behavior at home, foster care,
or care settings. Academic, social skills
and self-regulatory behaviors taught
related to developmental delays
Clare et al. (2000), Hitchcock et al.
(2003), Kehle et al. (2002),
Lonnecker et al. (1994), Reamer
et al. (1998)
Multiple single subject studies
using interrupted time-series
designs; meta analyses of
single subject studies
positive praise notes
Local governments and school districts
promote community-wide praise notes
from adults to increased protective
factor of reinforcement of social
competence, which protect against
substance abuse and related antisocial
Gupta et al. (1990), Hutton (1983),
Kelley et al. (1988), McCain and
Kelley (1993), Taylor et al. (1984),
Embry et al. (1996)
Multiple interrupted time-series
studies on individual level and
school level; a few RCT with
Red flag training for
exposed children or
teens with serious
Dependency or delinquency court order or
special education plan includes Red
Flag procedure to reduce explosive
anger and aggression among children
exposed to drugs, neglect, or abuse
Ninness et al. (1995), Ninness (1991) Multiple interrupted time-series
MI for at-risk youthJuvenile justice, emergency room, and
school personnel conduct motivational
interviews for youth engaged in
problematic behaviors; supportive
policies and contracts issued
Colby et al. (1998), Diamond et al.
(2002), Monti et al. (1999), Smith
(2004), Spirito et al. (2004), Stein
et al. (2006)
Multiple randomized control
Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev (2008) 11:75–11395
A Database Repository of Kernels
In the interest of fostering the dissemination and further
development of kernels, we propose a database repository
of kernels, analogous to the human genome project, which
might be called the behaviornome. Initially, it would
contain the kernels that Table 1 lists and would enable
people to describe additional kernels and empirical evi-
dence regarding their effects. The database would allow a
user to search for specific kernels or to identify a behavior
and search for kernels relevant to influence the behavior.
We are hopeful that this repository will provide detailed
information about how kernels influence behavior, the
circumstances in which they do or do not work, and any
iatrogenic effects, potential positive or negative combina-
tions of kernels not documented presently, variations of
kernels related to cultures or other establishing conditions,
and proximal and distal behavioral effects. In time, the
database would have hyperlinks to PsychInfo or PubMed.
We expect the repository to help reduce the cost of bene-
ficially influencing behavior and improving the efficacy of
prevention and treatment practice and theory.
Kernels are fundamental units of behavior–influence tech-
nology. They provide a wealth of resources for those trying
to influence human behavior in beneficial ways. The four
primary mechanisms of kernels are providing conse-
quences for behavior, establishing antecedent stimuli for
behavior, altering people’s relational framing about tar-
geted behaviors, and altering physiology that affects
behavior. Understanding the range and effectiveness of
kernels could contribute to the public-health goals of
decreasing the prevalence of problems and increasing
wellbeing. Kernels could provide behavior–influence
agents with a wider array of effective practices. Denomi-
nation of kernels could clarify the active components of
existing programs. It could also lead to the development of
new programs composed entirely of effective kernels.
Finally, it could contribute to the development of an
empirically based theory of behavior influence consistent
with current knowledge of risk and protective factors and
that clarifies the mechanisms through which behavior
conversations over 20 years ago with the late Dr. Donald M. Baer,
one of the founders of applied behavior analysis, and from a pre-
sentation by Dr. Shep Kellam in 1998 who proved that a very simple
behavior analysis protocol could have lifetime effects. The authors
prepared this manuscript under the auspices of the Center on Early
Adolescence in Eugene, Oregon, NIDA Grant Number P30
DA018760. Dr. Biglan is the Director and Principal Investigator and
The inspiration for this paper comes from
Dr. Embry is a co-investigator of the Center. The authors express their
appreciation to co-investigators, Drs. Shawn Boles and Brian Flay, for
their suggestions and insights for improving the manuscript. We also
wish to thank Christine Cody for editorial assistance and for help in
preparing the very complex manuscript.
Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License which per-
mits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any
medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited.
This article is distributed under the terms of the
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