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The ABC's of Behavior: Consequences (How to Handle a Tantrum) Part 3

The most important thing to keep in mind when we’re talking about consequences is that rewarding positive behavior is so much more effective than punishing bad behavior.

Each time a number of antecedents come together to create a perfect storm for an epic tantrum, you are able to create a learning situation. The most important aspect in behavior change is helping the child to avoid a tantrum. Do your preparation work. Provide the child with alternative behaviors that serve the same function as the problem behavior. Practice these behaviors in a low-stakes environment. By doing this, you create a win-win environment when the child is presented with a trigger antecedent. The child gets what they want and you don’t have to deal with an epic tantrum. Best of all, you get to provide a reward for your child because they did something right!

As a teacher, I get to dole out consequences on a daily basis.

Consequences can take many shapes and forms, but I’m going to categorize them for you using fancy behaviorist mumbo-jumbo. All consequences can be classified as either reinforcers / rewards (increase likelihood of behavior) or punishers (decrease likelihood of behaviors). Both types of consequences have their purposes, but I find that reinforcement is far more effective at changing behavior than punishments. This is why I encourage parents, teachers, and other caregivers to do the prep work to help their child identify challenging situations and strategies for how to deal with them. (Want to hear more about preventing challenging behavior? Post your questions/opinions in the comments below!)

Positive Reinforcement (most common and most effective):

These are consequences where a reward is added and has the effect of increasing the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated under similar circumstances. For example, Johnny ate all of his vegetables and was presented with his favorite ice cream cone. Positive reinforcement, as with all consequences, is far more effective if the reward is explicitly linked with the desired behavior. “Johnny, since you did such a good job of eating ALL your vegetables without complaining, I made you your favorite ice cream cone. Thank you for being a healthy eater.” I threw in a bonus reinforcement. Did you catch it? That last bit of positive praise is a huge reinforcement for children. Adults don’t often realize their power in helping students develop a positive sense of self. By pointing out things that children do to improve their own lives, children can internalize the behaviors as things they do to better themselves. It increases their sense of self-worth by linking positive behaviors to positive self-concepts. I always try to help children see the link between their positive behaviors and the benefit they enjoy from it beyond what reinforcements I can provide in the moment.

Negative Reinforcement (relatively uncommon yet still pretty effective):

This type of reinforcement still increases the chances of a behavior being repeated in the future under similar circumstances. However, the reward is achieved when a negative stimulus or demand is removed. Removing a stimulus requires identifying some background stimulus that is unpleasant to the child and removing the stimulus as a reward. That means there already exists a noise, smell, sight, or feeling in the environment that is making the child uncomfortable. I do not recommend working in an environment where the child is not already very comfortable. However, if in the process of working on a goal (doing homework), the child politely requests to turn off the A/C, dim the lights, close the window to shut out the noise, etc. it may be appropriate to offer to do that when the child completes some small portion of the overall goal. For example, if Johnny is doing his homework, but complains he cannot think because he is too cold (and you don’t believe that is actually the case, but an attempt to avoid/stall work on his part) you can present him with the contingency: “finish the first problem and I will turn off the A/C.”

Another option is to present an opportunity to get out of some other demand or expectation that is already set. I personally dislike communicating to students that set demands and expectations are negotiable. It can set the precedent for a back-and-forth haggling where a child trades compliance with one demand in exchange for escaping another. However, as a special educator, I am constantly assessing the appropriateness of my demands and will, on occasion, realize I have set the bar too high. When a student genuinely struggles with meeting a series of expectations, you can adjust the expectations to help them reach the goal by taking away a set of demands, as long as they complete some part of the goal. For example: “Johnny, I know this homework is hard for you today. However, I can tell that you are trying your best and working through these problems. Since you are doing such a good job of working hard and not giving up, we can cross off some problems. If you do # 3, 4, and 5 all by yourself, we can cross off 6 -10.” In this case, the goal is demonstrating understanding (by completing a worksheet), the behavior being rewarded is persevering (not giving up), and the reward is less work to do. Again, the important point is to link a positive behavior (not giving up) with the reward (do less problems).

Rewarding positive behavior quote.png

Negative punishment: (all too frequent and not as effective)

Taking away something in attempt to decrease the frequency of a behavior. For example, little Johnny wants a popsicle at the store, despite being reminded that he has popsicles at home he can eat after dinner, if he behaves. Nonetheless, Johnny breaks down into tantrum mode in the middle of the supermarket. An hour later, after dinner, Johnny is denied a popsicle because of his unacceptable behavior at the supermarket. While there is justice in this type of punishment, it is all too often lost on the young, developing minds. Other examples include loss of privilege, such as no computer time, no dessert, no going out with friends, etc. A way to put a positive spin on these things is to set everything up as a reward, contingent upon some behavior on the part of the child. If they do not earn the reward, it is not so much a punishment as a failure to claim a reward.

Positive punishment: (less common, not very effective)

Positive punishment is when an undesirable stimulus is introduced in an attempt to decrease a negative behavior. For example, Johnny is using inappropriate language, and as a result now has to rake the leaves (assuming Johnny does not regularly rake leaves, and he dislikes the task). Spanking is a more extreme example of positive punishment. This strategy of introducing a negative stimulus in response to a negative behavior is best used to extinguish bad habits (such as swearing). In order to put a positive spin on extinguishing behaviors is you can set up a goal for number of hours or days without the bad habit, to reward the absence of a negative behavior, rather than punish the behavior after it occurs.


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