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Concerned About Your Child's Behavior? Proven strategies that work

May 14, 2021
By: Heather Gilmore, MSW, BCBA

You love your child unconditionally, but parenting can be challenging especially when you just can’t seem to figure out how best to manage some of your child’s difficult behavior issues. In this article, we’ll help you with that.

One of the best ways that you can get your child to stop or at least to minimize how often they engage in challenging behaviors is to implement certain strategies right after your child displays that behavior.

When your child experiences something right after they act a certain way, that experience will either make it more likely or less likely that they will engage in that behavior again in the future.

In behavior science or applied behavior analysis (ABA), the things that happen after a behavior are referred to as consequences.

We will be exploring different ways that parents can realistically use consequences to reduce maladaptive (challenging or disruptive) behaviors or increase adaptive (more acceptable) behaviors in their children.

What is a Consequence?

The term “consequences” often has a negative connotation to it in the general population, but in behavioral science, consequences aren’t good or bad. This is simply a term to describe what happens after a behavior or action.

Consequences contrast with antecedents which happen right before the behavior. No matter what behavior you’d like your child to stop doing or that you would like them to start doing, learning about consequences can help.

Function of Behavior

Before we talk more about the idea of using consequences to change your child’s behavior, let’s explore the function of behavior.

One of the most important factors related to whether implementing certain consequences will be successful, is determining the function of a behavior.

There are four functions of behavior which include:

  • AUTOMATIC REINFORCEMENT: which may include a behavior that addresses sensory experiences
  • ESCAPE: escaping from something
  • ATTENTION: gaining attention from another person
  • ACCESS: gaining access to a tangible item

Knowing the function of your child’s behavior can help you understand more about why your child is acting the way they do. If you know why the behavior is happening, then you can come up with an effective plan to resolve it or change it.

You can decide to use a consequence to reinforce an appropriate behavior that serves the same function as the one that is maintaining your child’s challenging behavior. So, if your child lays on the floor and refuses to do his homework, you might guess that this challenging behavior is maintained by the function of escape. You could reinforce a different behavior, such as your child politely asking for a 15 minute break, by allowing your child to take that break which still allows him to escape homework but in a more acceptable way.

A behavior analyst can help you with identifying the function of your child’s behavior and how to come up with an effective plan to address the behavior, as well. Contact Behavioral Innovations to see if our ABA therapy plans for kids with autism can help your child: [Call (855) 782-7822]

Consequences vs. Punishment

From a behavioral science perspective and contrary to what most people believe, consequences and punishments are not the same.

Punishment generally might be viewed as how parents discipline their children or how they attempt to get their child to stop doing something. In ABA therapy, punishment is considered a type of consequence. More specifically, it is a consequence that has a goal of getting rid of or reducing how often a certain behavior happens.

Although sometimes parents may need to use punishment to get their child to stop doing something, in the long run, it is important to really consider how you will teach your child an alternative behavior or how you will teach them what they should be doing instead of the challenging or problem behavior. To help your child do more of something, you will use reinforcement.

Categories of Consequences- What are They?

There are four basic categories of consequences which include:

  • Positive reinforcement
  • Negative reinforcement
  • Positive punishment
  • Negative punishment

Positive Reinforcement

It’s important to identify what you want your child to do instead of simply what you don’t want them to do! This is the key to managing your child’s difficult behavior. They need to know and learn what to do instead.

When thinking about consequences as a means to strengthen a behavior or increase the chances of it happening again, the consequence is known as reinforcement.

When a consequence strengthens the behavior it follows, the consequence is referred to as a positive reinforcer (Schwartz & Watling). It can be unclear if a consequence is a positive reinforcer until you see if your child’s behavior has actually changed - if you notice they show the behavior you’re trying to reinforce more often, then the consequence is actually a reinforcer.

To use positive reinforcement with your child, following these steps:

  1. Identify the target behavior (how you want your child to behave)
  2. Identify what good thing (a potential reinforcer) will happen after your child does that behavior (ex: reward of something they like, praise from you, or a natural consequence such as getting to go outside after putting shoes on)
  3. Observe your child often
  4. Recognize when your child does the target behavior
  5. Make sure your child experiences the potential reinforcer (“the good thing”) right after engaging in the target behavior
  6. Continue observing your child and using the potential reinforcer to see if your child is using the target behavior more often

Tips for Making Positive Reinforcement Work

To make positive reinforcement more effective, do the following:

  • Don’t allow too much free access to the reinforcer that you will use in your attempt to teach your child a new behavior. This makes it less effective.
  • Provide lots of reinforcement for the new replacement behavior, especially at first, and then once your child is doing well with it, you can give the reinforcement less often.
  • Praise your child for what they do well and for acting in the way that you would prefer. Praise is an easy and often effective way to reinforce your child.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is when a behavior happens more often due to the behavior being followed by the removal, termination, reduction, or postponement of a stimulus (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2014).

This means that, when negative reinforcement is effective for changing your child’s behavior, you’ll notice that they act a certain way more often because they had the experience of getting out of something or avoiding something - usually something they don’t really like - contingent upon having acted that way. This might be something you taught them intentionally or something they picked up based on different experiences.

Example of Negative Reinforcement

Parents can use negative reinforcement as a consequence to change their child’s behavior during situations where the child may prefer not to experience something unpleasant.

Let’s look at an example. If your child really doesn’t like to complete household chores, you could implement negative reinforcement by saying your child can get out of doing the dishes (your child’s regular chore) if they do another task, such as babysit or play with their younger sibling for a certain period of time - given that the child is capable of doing that, of course.

Tips for Making Negative Reinforcement Work

To make negative reinforcement more effective, do the following:

  • Provide the negative reinforcer, the consequence that is being used to increase a specific behavior, as close in time to the specific behavior as possible.
  • Don’t overuse negative reinforcement. Use positive reinforcement more often. Negative reinforcement can create some negative feelings in kids if not used correctly or if used too much.
  • Be sure to manage your child’s ability to experience the “negative reinforcer.” For example, in the homework example above, don’t allow your child to be done with or get out of the rest of his homework unless he completes the stated 5 math problems.

Punishment

When something happens after a behavior that reduces the chances of that behavior occurring in the future, this is known as punishment. Punishment is typically a method in behavior analysis for getting rid of a nonpreferred or undesirable behavior, but punishment might occur in everyday life for appropriate behaviors if not used properly.

When a child experiences punishment, something is either added, as in positive punishment, like being yelled at by a parent, or something is taken away, like their cell phone, and these experiences lead to the target behavior happening LESS often.

Reinforcement and Punishment

You can distinguish reinforcement from punishment because, when you use punishment, the behavior happens LESS often in the future whereas, in reinforcement, in both negative and positive reinforcement, the behavior happens MORE often in the future.

What Should Your Child do Instead?

One thing about punishment is that you are not teaching your child what you would rather them do instead of the “problem behavior.” You are only focusing on the unwanted behavior. This may work for some children and, as most parents know, punishments are a normal part of growing up, however, it is important that parents help support their child learn other, more appropriate skills and behaviors to help support their child’s development.

Types of Punishment

There are two different types of punishments. They are positive and negative punishment. Like, reinforcement these two types of punishments also act as consequences for behavior.

Positive Punishment

With positive punishment, something happens after a behavior to reduce the chances that the behavior will happen again.

One example of positive punishment is when a child uses their cell phone at the dinner table (and the parent doesn’t want them to). The parent may verbally scold the child for not leaving his phone in his room during dinner. In this example, the consequence is the parent scolding the child for having his phone at dinner. If this use of positive punishment is effective, the result will be that the child won’t bring his phone to dinner anymore (or at least not as often).

Negative Punishment

With negative punishment, something good is typically taken away or removed in order to reduce a specified behavior from happening. This type of punishment is sometimes called punishment by removal (Cherry, 2020).

An example of negative punishment could be if a child throws his toys at his sister and the parent removes the toys and then the child doesn’t throw his toys at his sister when he is playing with toys in the future. In this example, something is removed - the toys - to decrease a behavior - throwing the toys at his sister.

Drawbacks and Considerations of Punishment

There are some drawbacks to punishment that make it less effective as compared to reinforcement. These are important to consider.

It’s also imperative to use positive reinforcement as much as possible and to only use punishment sparingly or for serious issues or if reinforcements didn’t work.

A few things to remember about using punishment:

  • It’s important to give the punishment immediately. The longer it is from the time your child shows a certain behavior to the time you give the “punisher,” the less effective your efforts will be.
  • When you stop using the punishment strategy, it’s likely your child could go back to doing whatever it was you were trying to get them to stop doing.
  • Some children may experience negative long-term effects of punishment, especially when punishment is used too much or used ineffectively. For instance, a child whose parents yell at them a lot may learn that yelling is the way to make people do what they want them to do.
  • Be aware that a child who experiences punishment may react with intense emotions or even aggressively.
  • A child may start to avoid the person who uses punishment with them.
  • Behavioral contrast may occur which means that the child may act in an inappropriate way, by displaying the behavior that you’re trying to get rid of, more often in other places.

Be sure to focus on what you want your child to do instead of the behavior you are trying to get them to stop doing.

Using Consequences to Change a Child’s Behavior

As we discussed, there are four basic categories of consequences. These are positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment.

Determining which type of consequence to use to change a child’s behavior will depend on the outcome a parent is trying to achieve as well as what the behavior is. It is also important to consider the function of the behavior you are trying to change when deciding exactly what consequence to use.

Parents are influencing their child’s behavior even when they don’t realize it. To get more help with being intentional about what consequences you use to help your child, contact Behavioral Innovations.

To Contact Behavioral Innovations and inquire about ABA therapy services for kids with autism, call (855) 782-7822

References

Cherry, K., & Gans, S. (2019, July 17). This Is Why Negative Reinforcement Is Effective. Retrieved October 31, 2020, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-negative-reinforcement-2795410

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2008). Applied behavior analysis. Upper Saddle River, NJ, NJ: Pearson/Merrill-Prentice Hall.

Fettig, A., & Ostrosky, M. M. (2011). Collaborating with Parents in Reducing Children's Challenging Behaviors: Linking Functional Assessment to Intervention. Child Development Research, 2011, 1-10.

Johnson, C. R., Handen, B. L., Butter, E., Wagner, A., Mulick, J., Sukhodolsky, D. G., . . . Smith, T. (2007). Development of a parent training program for children with pervasive developmental disorders. Behavioral Interventions, 22, 201-221. doi:10.1002/bin

Tiger, J. H., Hanley, G. P., & Bruzek, J. (2008). Functional communication training: a review and practical guide. Behavior analysis in practice, 1(1), 16–23. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03391716

McConachie, H., & Diggle, T. (2007). Parent implemented early intervention for young children with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 13, 120-129.

Rincón, P., Cova, F., Saldivia, S., Bustos, C., Grandón, P., Inostroza, C., Streiner, D., Bühring, V., & King, M. (2018). Effectiveness of a Positive Parental Practices Training Program for Chilean Preschoolers' Families: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 1751. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01751

Strain, P. S., Lambert, D. L., Kerr, M. M., Stagg, V., & Lenkner, D. A. (1983). Naturalistic Assessment of Children's Compliance to Teachers' Requests and Consequences for Compliance. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 16(2), summer, 243-249.

Watling, R., & Schwartz, L. S. (2004). Understanding and Implementing Positive Reinforcement as an Intervention Strategy for Children with Disabilities. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 58(1), 113-116.

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