August 31, 2013

Educate, don’t just punish!

When the word discipline comes up, people often think of punishing someone for doing something wrong. This presupposes that the person (1) knows what he did was wrong, (2) knew what to do right, and (3) chose to do the wrong thing. Punishing only effectively works under those conditions.
However, children when misbehaving, often do not know that the behavior is inappropriate, or how to act more appropriately in that situation. Punishing a behavior will teach the child that it is undesirable, but does not teach the child what they should do instead (the appropriate alternative). In addition, even if the child “cognitively” knows what to do (because we tell them), it doesn’t mean that they can “behaviorally” do it (execute the action under the heat of the moment). Knowing “what to do” is different than “being able to do it.” If the desired behavior is not been practiced and adequately demonstrated, good chance it will not happen in the moment. 

Compounding matters, the child may cognitively know what to do differently, but not have the ability to inhibit his impulses long enough to use the forethought to act differently. He cannot “check” his responses long enough to (1) appraise what is needed, (2) see different options, and (3) evaluate what the effects and consequences of his actions are going to be. This is the child who feels remorseful after doing something, can tell you what he should have done instead, but was unable of doing it in the heat of the moment.

So when looking at designing effective discipline strategies we want to not just suppress the undesirable behavior, but also to teach the child what he should do instead; a more desirable way of responding. When doing so ask the following questions:

1. What is the child doing wrong?

a. Does the child know that it is wrong?
b. Does the child have good conscious control over it (impulse control)?

2. Why is the child doing it?

a. What conditions trigger the behavior (antecedents)?
b. Are the demands (sensory, cognitive, social, or emotional) greater than the child’s skills in dealing with them? Can we lower our expectations or build in stronger supports?
c. What are the gains or payoffs reinforcing the behavior (gets what he wants, attention, escapes doing something unpleasant, etc.)?
d. What purpose (function) does the behavior have for the child?
e. Does the child know any other way?

3. What do we want the child to do?

a. What appropriate response should the child do instead? (Don’t suppress a behavior, replace it with a more appropriate one)
b. Does the child know what and how to do it?
c. Has the child demonstrated that he can do it? Under the heat of the moment?
d. If he doesn’t know it, how are we going to teach it (role play and practice when calm)?
e. Does the child have the ability to inhibit his impulse long enough to choose the appropriate response? If not, repeated practice will make it an automatic response (habit).

4. Why should the child do it (choose the appropriate response)?

a. What is the payoff or reinforcement for choosing the new, appropriate behavior, instead of the original, inappropriate behavior?
b. The new behavior should serve the same function (same payoff), equal or greater in value.
c. How are you going to reinforce (praise, token, natural consequences, etc.) the new response.

Discipline should focus on teaching the children better ways of meeting their needs. Simply punishing an inappropriate response does not teach the child what to do instead. You may be successful in suppressing the undesirable response, but the child is left without knowing how to respond. However, once the child (1) understands that the negative behavior is unacceptable, (2) understands and can perform the appropriate behavior, (3) is reinforced for doing so, and (4) continues to choose the unacceptable behavior, then mild punishment may be used to increase the motivation for choosing the desirable behavior. Discipline should be educational, not simply punishing!

- Autism Discussion Page

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