Spare the rod, and the child!

*This post does not promote the use of punishment. Use of reinforcement procedures must always be used prior to incorporating any punishment-based strategies. There must always be a parallel component of positive reinforcement when using punishment-based strategy. *

The following episode is from a Kindergarten classroom.

The teacher walks into the class, announcing that they will be playing with the train set today. She unboxes the toys over the play mat. David, a student, upon reaching the toys ,picks up a piece and tosses it across the room. The teacher gets up, picks up the piece and returns to the play area. David repeats the act. To this , the teacher says, “You are in time-out”, pointing David to the thinking chair in the classroom.

There are two possible aspects to David’s behaviour. First that David was engaging in disruptive behaviour to get out of play time (escape). Second where he was enjoying the attention of the teacher and peers when he threw a toy across the room. We are going to assume, for this post, that it was the latter. And his behaviour plan outlined the use of time-out when he engages in this behaviour. Taking him out of play time is expected to act as an aversive consequence and in turn David’s behaviour should see a decrease in the future. 

I recently encountered a video on behaviour modification posted online where the ‘therapist’ spoke about punishment by giving an example of using tiny pieces of chili peppers given to the child as a consequence for undesired behaviour. So, when a child misbehaves, he is given a tiny piece of chili pepper (aversive). She claimed the child’s ‘misbehaviour’ decreases in the future. 

Punishment must not be extreme or intrusive. In various societies, there is extensive use of punitive measures. They believe nothing good can come without a little spanking. Such punitive measures can have long lasting effects on a child’s mental health, affecting the way he or she responds to the environment- fear, defiance, non-compliance. 

Let’s look at some less intrusive methods to decrease behaviour-

  1. Time-out: Children, as young as 3 years of age understand time-out and it is seen to be pretty effective. Some things to keep in mind while using Time-out

  • It is effective only when the current scenario is reinforcing to the child. 
  • When implementing time-out, only say it once and guide the child to the respective thinking chair/ time-out room. Do not use extra words. 
  • Restrict access to any type of reinforcers- toys, edibles, iPad.
  • Keep an eye on the child to make sure he is safe and let him know when it will end. Use a timer. 
  • Try putting the toy/ object in time-out if appropriate. 
  • Do not overuse the strategy. 

  1. Response-cost: When the child engages in an undesired behaviour, you take away some privilege a child may have earned. This has seen effects on children 5 years and older as they understand and value their privileges. 

  • Make it concrete with a visual. Example: If you get 3 crosses, you will lose your TV time. 
  • Put crosses on the board in front of the child and state the reason. 
  • Do not engage in negotiations or explanations. 
  • Once you put a cross, do not erase it. 
  • Follow through with the consequence. 

  1. Planned Ignoring: When a child is engaging in a tantrum purely to gain your attention, ignore the behavior. Be casual, nonchalant and go about your business while being aware of your child in the room. 

  • When your child yells from the other room while watching TV, just to see you run into the room. As a therapist, I tell parents- attend to every call but just not with the attention they expect. Run towards the room but enter the room casually looking at your phone- not like the house is burning down!
  • Do not give eye-contact.
  • Talk about other activities with the child while not paying too much attention- ignoring the behaviour but not the child. 

These are some of the ways to decrease undesired behaviour in a less intrusive way. 

Causing the child harm by using punitive measures like chili peppers are definitely NOT RECOMMENDED. Having said that, sometimes aversive situations happen naturally in everyday life. Like when you touch a hot pot on a stove, you immediately pull your hands away and never knowingly touch a hot pot again. This is a decrease in behaviour attributed to direct natural consequences. But connecting undesired behaviour to chili peppers is not something that comes naturally to children and therefore it is ineffective, and unethical. 

These are necessary components of punishment:

  1. Impact of the punisher 
  2. Consistency to follow-through
  3. Decrease in future occurrence of the behaviour

In Applied Behaviour Analysis, we use the above three measures or any punishment based intervention as a last resort. We maintain a strict record of all the reinforcement strategies used and data proving its ineffectiveness before we implement a punishment procedure. 

Let us attempt to reinforce them doing good rather than punish them for bad.

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