Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Dissertation on Why Punishment Generally Doesn't Work

I've been talking a lot lately. I know...shocking. But it's true. Between classes and licensure conferences for behavioral health professionals looking to work with kids diagnosed with Autism, I feel like the host of Oprah's Lifeclass on the Principles of Behavior. I don't consider myself an expert. I like to think of it more like....being Oprah. I'm just the messenger (actually, I do consider Oprah an expert on many things but that's for another day). (On another sidenote, I love that the word Oprah does not come up as a misspelled word on spell check. It just goes to show you how much street cred she's got.)

But anyway, in order for Behavior Specialists to continue to work with kids on the spectrum in Pennsylvania they are required to obtain a "license" and part of that requirement is sitting through 90 hours of training on a variety of subjects pertaining to working with individuals with autism. So I talk and talk and talk about all sorts of things that are important when working with this very unique population. But a lot of what I train on can be applied to people in general and is just good psychoeducational material to have in your backpocket when dealing with a child engaging in what us "behaviorists" call "behaviors".

Before I get to the title and why I think (and pretty much) know its true, let me give you a little back story. While talking and talking and talking, I'm encountering a heckler in the crowd. Other attendees referred to him as my "co-presenter". Because, no matter what I said, he felt the need to elaborate on and, in essence, show all of us how incredibly brilliant he is as a human being (and the British accent only added to his air of intelligence). Now, me being me , I initially considered this a intellectual duel per se, and met him tit for tat. I relayed information, he challenged, then I countered him with even more brilliance. It was like watching a tennis match. I know this because I could see everyone's heads bouncing back and forth between the two of us. After the second day, I made a pledge that I would no longer engage him in this manner because I started to feel like an ass.

So today, with a renewed sense of humility (I know...), and an agreement with one of our clinicians that if I felt the need to snap at Mr. Brilliant I would instead mock her (yes, she did  agree to the terms), I went in for a 5 hour stint of talking and talking and talking. And I did a pretty good job of it. First I present on the research on what causes autism (we don't really know if you were wondering) and then I gave a presentation about working with individuals with autism and the importance of looking at behavior as a valid, powerful form of communication. Now Mr. Brilliant, while still acting quite brilliant was somewhat subdued in his responses. I'm guessing he may have made the same pledge with himself that I did. But there was one thing he just wouldn't let go of, besides from being completely right in every sense of the word. He insisted, over and over again that the best way to decrease behavior is to increase punishment.

This is where I'm going to get all "expert sounding" on you. He's wrong. He's so wrong I can't even stand it. He's so wrong that I wanted to punch him, thereby punishing him, which would prove my point because there is no way he would have decreased his behavior of running his mouth about things he had no business saying.

We have all grown up in a punitive society. Historically, its what parents have done to deter negative behaviors. Your parents may have told you stories about having their mouths washed out with soap for cursing or having to sit at the table for hours because they refused to eat a green bean. They may have done these things to you themselves. You may have been spanked or even worse, abused as children. Now I want you to think back and ask yourself, did it actually work? Did you never curse again? Did you fall in love with green beans as a result of hours spent at a table? Depending on what you were spanked for (minor infraction), did you never engage in that behavior again? Did you even really know why you were being spanked in the first place? If you were actually abused, what did it teach you? To love your parents or to fear your parents?

The facts are (and there is research to back it up) that punishment only deters behavior in the very short term. More often, it simply teaches kids to discriminate, which is actually a quite valuable skill, between when they can curse (behind their parents back) and when they can't (when their parents are around). It doesn't teach them not to curse. They may suffer through eating the green beans, only to go throw them up in the bathroom. Or, it may teach them ingenious ways to rid the plate of green beans without the parent ever knowing (I've heard some dogs looovvvee green beans).

In terms of physical punishment, yes, it can be a powerful deterrent to negative behavior. I always counter the argument for the use of any form of punishment on children with behavioral or mental health diagnoses with the idea that typically developing children can learn from the cause and effect aspects of spanking. My mother used to just touch her shoe, as a signal that she may take it off and throw it at one of us, which I don't think she ever did. But that threat was enough to stop us in our tracks. On the other hand, kids with diagnoses such as autism, ADHD and ODD don't learn that way. They learn from being taught the appropriate skill, not by being punished for the inappropriate skill. So while it is NEVER okay to use physical punishment with kids diagnosed with a disorder, typically developing kids can learn from it. But at what cost? This man, who spoke so highly of the benefits of using punishment procedures, spoke openly of his disdain for his own father, who beat the living crap out a him (a variation of his own words). And he was not a young man. This hadn't happened to him 10 years ago. Or even 20 years ago. But he still hated his father for it today.

In today's society, we like to use things like "time out" as a form of punishment. We also like to take highly desired items away from our kids in order to "teach them a lesson". Well, I've got two thinking points on these strategies. In terms of time out...does your kid really care? What I'm really saying is have you spent enough "time in" with your kid ( meaning one on one positive attention) that the threat of you withdrawing attention from them for a period of time even matters? Yes, they may cry and scream and be upset in the short term but I'm here to tell you, if you are repetitively sending your kid to time out, you better be prepared to accept the fact that a) it's not working and b) you aren't spending enough quality time your child. I sent Max to time out once in his life. He is an only child and for most of his life had my undivided attention. Those 5 minutes were the longest 5 minutes of his life. Never had to do it again.

In terms of taking things away like the computer, the cell phone, the iPod or the iPad.....think very hard about that one. Because that one will hurt. Not only the child but you will hurt also. If you say no electronics for a week and that's all your child does because they wear their technology like an IV drip, are you really going to follow through? What do you think they are going to do without all that stuff? I'll tell you what most of them will do. They'll drive you completely insane until you can't take it anymore and you give in. Are you prepared to stand your ground? Like a soldier in battle? Because you are in a battle at that point. And I'd be interested to see who wins that one.

So, here's the good news in a nut shell. Rewarding your kids works. Why not let them earn the time on the iPod? Catching them being good instead of waiting for them to be bad works. It takes just as much time and energy to spend 5 minutes talking to your kid about how their day went (aka "time in") as it does sitting listening to them scream and cry for 5 minutes (aka "time out) because they asked you a question nicely and were ignored the first 5 times, so they screamed at you the 6th time. And its a much more pleasant experience.