KU professor remembered for innovative child research

Disadvantaged children lost one of their most progressive advocates Friday when former Kansas University professor Montrose Wolf died at the age of 68 in Lawrence.

Wolf was one of the pioneers of applied behavioral analysis, a method in psychology that looks at the effects of the environment on learning. The theory behind the method is that environmental factors affect learning. Altering those factors can change how children learn behaviors. It is used today with children who have autism or exhibit delinquent tendencies.

When Wolf began work in this field in the early 1960s, theories of behavioral analysis were documented in animal testing but had not been tried on humans.

“Many people were talking about how to use behavioral principles,” said James Sherman, professor in the KU department of human development and family life and Wolf’s colleague since 1961. “Mont was one of the people who took it from talk to ‘Let’s do it.'”

Wolf and Sherman were two of several professors whom KU recruited in the early 1960s to begin the department of human development and family life.

“First of all, he studied the effect of adult attention on children,” said his wife, Sandra Wolf. “The importance of that hadn’t been understood before.”

Wolf was involved in one of the first studies to examine the effect of prolonged behavioral work, known as the Dickey study. Wolf and his colleagues worked with a boy with autism for 20 to 30 hours a week for several years, trying to change individual behaviors. His wife said this was one of the first places that “time-out” was used as a behavior modifying tool.

Sherman said the child who received this treatment eventually graduated from high school and entered the work force, which was almost unheard of at the time.

Wolf applied his autism research to delinquent children by establishing and analyzing the results of Achievement Places in Lawrence. The homes used a family teaching method in which small groups of boys were taught by a couple who served as parents and teachers, called teaching families. The homes used this method for nearly 20 years between the late ’60s and early ’80s while Wolf tried different techniques in the home to find what types of behavior-modification techniques worked best.

This model has been adopted all over the country, including by Girls and Boys Town, a national organization based in Nebraska that helps neglected, abandoned and abused children. The organization awarded Wolf with its Father Flanagan Award of Service to Youth on Aug. 14, 1996.

“What he was interested in was making a difference in human problems so that someone else could do it, too,” Sherman said. “He went a step further. He built a system to help foster that replication. He had a vision about what was needed to make it work and what could make it work for future generations.”