Punish effectively, if you have to.

Have you ever seen an experienced Instructor Therapist or a BCBA reprimands a student? Most parents and school teacher will view this as something not very pleasant. Other kids even come over and protect the friend in “danger”.

Punishment is a positive stimulus given to a client as a consequence of the person’s doing an undesirable behaviour. The goal is to reduce the concerned behaviour in future. That being said, the therapist adds something as a consequence contingent upon certain behaviour to reduce its future occurrence.

The main purpose of mentioning about punishment here is that I would like to make transparent the careful calculation between social acceptance and effective treatment. In the eyes of bystanders, the therapist might look very mean.  We just like to let the world know that a professional behaviour analyst uses reprimand only if necessary. Reprimand is used when other sources of consequence control are considered and systematically exhausted. We use it only after careful weighing both the pros and cons.

Whenever we reprimand a child, we run the risk of the child’s resistance to the dosage. We have to plan ahead for upcoming meltdown or escalations.

We have to be very skillful (and sometimes technical) in what we say and how strong we have to say it.

We need to consider the maximum tolerance level of a punishment for the child. Sometimes, it can be interpreted as how mean or pushy a therapist can be.

We have to use it at an effective level so the child will not get desensitized. Imagine a circus animal being hit a little harder each time. At the end of the day, the animal is going nowhere, not learning any skills. The punishment even loses its therapeutic effect. In that case, why punish in the first place? The key is to use punishment at a dose just effective enough to eliminate the unwanted behaviour, while not hurting client’s feelings for an extended time.

We also need to replace the unwanted behaviour with a good behaviour that the child can do. Without anything else to do, it’s hard for the student to drop the unwanted behaviour.

We need to take care of the whole picture. Will the interaction be too loud or disturbing to the class or the other kids? Will other kids learn something bad? What will the teacher think? What will the parent think? What will the principal think? How can the educators explain to other parents or visitors in the classroom? We have to run through our ethical encyclopedia and think of all kinds of social validity in a few seconds.

The next time you see a reprimand event. Do observe the behaviour of the client. Better still; consider what areas of the client’s brain are at work to fight off the therapist’s intervention. The most important thing is to check if the undesirable behaviour decreases in future.

In certain cases, kindness kills. In same cases, planned punishment pushes for performance.Crying-Baby-iStock

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