Some of us grew up in households, and even schools, where punishments were the norm. They may have come in the form of time outs, revoked privileges, vocal reprimands, or spankings. We may look back on these occurrences and accept them as a norm in that day and age, but suppose you were to reflect on how you may have felt as a child when you were on the receiving end of a punishment by a parent, caregiver, or teacher. What feelings did those punishments evoke? Perhaps fear, embarrassment, frustration, anger, sadness, anxiety, or depression. Now think about how your child or student may feel if they are being threatened with a punishment, whether it’s vocal or otherwise.
As parents, educators, and caregivers, it’s our job to teach our children positive ways to navigate their environment, communicate their wants and needs, learn from their mistakes, and interact with others in appropriate manners. But sometimes when our children or students act out, it’s our instinct to dole out a punishment because it can be the easiest option in that moment. You as the caregiver are understandably frustrated and want your child to behave appropriately. And the truth is that those punishment-based strategies are typically effective in the short term. That is, they function as a scare tactic to get our children to behave appropriately right then and there. So, when your child is having a meltdown and you respond, “Stop yelling or I’ll take away your iPad,” they are very likely to comply.
However, the catch is that while those behaviors may cease in the moment, you will probably see those behaviors recur in the future. Research has shown that punishments essentially serve as a band aid to quell a behavior in the moment but do not lead to long-term positive behavior change. Furthermore, punishments may even promote more defiance as children get older, modeling of those behaviors towards peers and other adults, as well as possible indicators of trauma.
The Alternative: Teach Your Child Reinforcement Strategies
But what’s the alternative? How are we supposed to teach our children if we don’t show them the consequences of their bad behavior? The mindset to have is that in order to teach your child how to behave in appropriate ways, you can utilize reinforcement-based strategies, which will motivate your child to work towards earning something for appropriate behaviors, rather than punishment-based strategies, which teaches them to work towards not losing something.
The key for reinforcement strategies is that the behavioral expectations are provided proactively rather than reactively. For example, you can tell your child, “If you wait patiently at the grocery store you can get some gum when we leave,” instead of providing gum after they engage in a problem behavior to get them to stop, which can be akin to bribery. The goal is to teach your child what behaviors we do want them to engage in, rather than what we don’t want them to do.
For example, instead of saying, “Stop yelling or you’ll lose your iPad,” you can phrase this as, “If you have a calm voice today, you can earn some screen time.” This will not only explicitly label what behaviors we want them to engage in, but will also let them know what incentive is available if they model those appropriate behaviors.
We also want to teach them to respect the instructions of their parents and teachers without resorting to challenging or oppositional behaviors. This is when proactive, reinforcement strategies come into play by outlining your expectations of them in advance, prior to any problem behaviors occurring, rather than purely reactively after a challenging behavior occurs. For example, you can tell them, “Today, if you put your toys away, keep your hands to yourself, play a game with your brother, and brush your teeth, you can earn some screen time.” You can then use this as a rubric to redirect them if they do escalate by saying something like, “Remember if you want to earn your screen time, you need to put your toys away.”
This will essentially “flip the script” and provide your child with the agency to choose for themselves about whether they’d rather earn their reward, as well as vocal praise from their parents, or avoid putting their toys away and not earn their reward. This also avoids any need to engage in negotiations about what privileges they can earn since you already outlined your expectations for your child in advance, leaving the choice up to them. It should also be noted that any structured reinforcement systems are meant to be temporary and used to help teach skills before fading to more natural reinforcers such as social praise.
Reinforcement versus Punishment Strategies
The debate of reinforcement versus punishment strategies isn’t only limited to teaching children but can be applied to other contexts. For example, a study out of New Zealand several years ago sought to experiment with a reinforcement strategy, rather than punishment, with respect to traffic violations. In short, if a driver went for a period of time without any traffic stops, they would earn a tax credit, rather than the default consequence of citations. The results of that study found that traffic violations decreased dramatically as a result of this policy. In contrast, another study in the U.S. found that drivers who receive speeding citations are at increased risk of receiving subsequent speeding citations, suggesting that speeding citations have limited effects on long term reduction in the violation of traffic laws.
In the job setting, we typically work towards earning a paycheck on a regular basis which motivates us to continue to work each and every day. But how much longer would you work for an employer who deducts money out of your paycheck if you didn’t respond to an email on time?
Many of us have had a boss who we would only hear from if we did something that was below their standards. We’ve been called into their office, gotten a passive aggressive email, or an ominous phone call, to tell us what we’ve done something wrong. In contrast, many of us have had the fortune to have a boss who recognizes our accomplishments on a regular basis, whether it’s through a company-wide email, a text message, or a bonus. It’s safe to assume which boss you’d rather work for.
Positive Behavior Change
In summary, while it is frustrating to see your child or student not performing to the best of their abilities, it’s our job as parents, caregivers, and educators to motivate them to engage in desired behaviors using reinforcement techniques. We want to avoid punishment techniques which do not teach our children functional behaviors, don’t lead to long term positive behavior change, and can even lead to more severe behaviors and trauma in the future. Whenever you see your child engaging in a problem behavior, see this as a learning opportunity both for you and your child, and ask yourself, “What does my child want right now and what do I want to teach them in this moment?”
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Pasha Bahsoun, MA, BCBA, Director of Family and Clinical Services
Pasha Bahsoun developed a passion for implementing various approaches to educating individuals with special needs as a result of his work at UCLA and Columbia, including through social skills training and the use of educational media, as well as developing a passion for supporting parents and caregivers in the implementation of treatment plans. Pasha has worked with a variety of individuals across age groups, diagnoses, modalities, and settings for the past decade and a half, and collaborated with other educators and service providers. He has developed a social skills curriculum and had the opportunity to present his research at two international ABA conferences in 2019, titled, “The Value of Curriculum-Based Social Skills Training.” He has worked in the realm of education and mentorship in some form for all his life including as a martial arts instructor, personal trainer, camp counselor, drum major, trumpet section leader, and behavior therapist. He also has a passion for writing and has had the opportunity to write articles on the topic of education and developmental disabilities for various organizations as well as for leisure.