The Behavior Analyst Promoting Dignity Through Art

In a world that often resorts to punishment and policing, Fatima Zaidi, a behavior analyst, designer and artist, believes in a different approach.

“When we punish—when we police—that doesn’t support the dignity of our communities,” said Zaidi.

Behavior analysts define punishment as a suppression of behavior and take a circumstantial view of behavior that emphasizes the importance of understanding the environment’s impact on how an individual acts.

“We look at the environment and we see what behaviors are appropriate for that environment and what behaviors are considered challenging,” said Zaidi.

She challenges the notion that punishment and coercion are effective methods to control unwanted actions. Instead, she promotes alternative behaviors and champions the improvement of the environment.

“We’ve all heard that phrase ‘You can’t grow a flower in bad soil,’” said Zaidi. “You look at the soil for how to improve and not the flower. It’s the same thing with all beings, all humans, all animals. We look at the soil, the environment, that the individual is placed in.”

According to Zaidi, one alternative to challenging behaviors is engagement with art. By introducing leisure skills and art activities, individuals can find a replacement behavior that fulfills their needs without resorting to actions deemed inappropriate in environments like schools.

For Zaidi, the promotion of dignity extends beyond behavior analysis and into her own artwork. As an Indian-Pakistani, neurodivergent, non-binary, pansexual, gender nonconforming artist, Zaidi seeks to convey the dignity inherent within these identities.

Her piece, “Interdependence,” demonstrates this concept through the depiction of a hug. It represents a need for one another, a need to be civil with one another and unconditional positive regard, said Zaidi. Beyond its function as an alternative behavior, art aids in expression, even when language might fail.

Zaidi also expresses herself through design. She and her cousin, Alia Zaidi, created their clothing line, Zaidi Design Co. as a way to honor their grandmother, who tried to open up her own clothing store.

When founding Motivation Works, a business dedicated to providing innovative tools for learning, Zaidi centered the principles of collaboration and unconditional positive regard.

“All people are deserving of their dignity being promoted regardless of their behavior,” said Zaidi. This includes hair grabbing, biting and hitting, all of which she has experienced. “I’ve dealt with some very scary behaviors and yet, still, I want to provide that dignity for that person,” she added.

Her journey has taken her to schools, hospitals, forensic units and nursing homes across the country. For Zaidi, it all comes down to dignity. “If I want to make a real effect in this world, I need to understand that I need to promote human dignity and that’s the way that’s going to lead to effective behavior change,” she said.


  • Kalyn Epps

    Kalyn Epps graduated from Wake Forest University in 2019 with a double major in Communication and Anthropology. After learning the ins and outs of tech at a public relations agency in San Francisco, she accepted her first Fulbright grant and moved to Santa Cruz de Tenerife. She accepted her second grant and stayed in the islands for another year as the Canarias culture & pedagogy mentor. She loves to read and can usually be found in a library, in a dance class, or outside with her camera.

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