Spare The Rod: Addressing Difficult Behavior Effectively
Addressing Difficult Behavior Effectively
The news and social media regularly publish stories depicting parents, educators, and others who are responsible for children with special needs, resorting to punitive approaches to address the children’s problem behavior. Recently, we have seen video and heard about children being dragged or yanked; locked in rooms; deprived of food, comfort, and other necessities; and even struck by the people who are supposed to be their caregivers.
Some people embrace the view “spare the rod, spoil the child”, stating that punishment is necessary for effective discipline. It is estimated that over 70 percent of parents spank their children and that 17% of children experience corporal punishment in schools. Punishment is commonplace, but is it necessary and beneficial?
Punishment can be grouped into two categories: things we do to children and things we withhold or take away. The things we do can include spanking or other forms of physical punishment, as well as yelling and threatening. The things we take away may include the ability to go places and do things children enjoy.
Punishing children for misbehavior often results in an immediate decrease in their problem behavior, which can offer relief for parents. It also can have some negative side effects, which are well-supported in the research. Here are some of the concerns:
- Punishment often leads to emotional reactions causing children’s behavior to get worse. In contrast, the children may get used to being punished and no longer respond. In either case, parents may feel they need to become more punitive in response to get things under control.
- Over time, children who are punished frequently (particularly with physical punishment) are more likely to become aggressive toward other people including siblings, peers, parents, and other support providers. They may also engage in delinquent behaviors.
- Ongoing and/or severe punishment can damage relationships and the mental health of children. Children and parents may be more stressed and feel disconnected. Children who are punished tend to have lower self-esteem and problems with depression.
- Punishment does not teach children better ways to behave. They learn that aggression is an acceptable way to resolve problems. Therefore, the effects of punishment tend to be situation-specific and temporary (e.g., avoiding behaviors only when those who punish are around).
As a result of these facts, the American Academy has come out with a strong statement against physical and other severe forms of punishment. So, what do we do when children misbehave?
First, if we feel it is important to teach our children a behavior is wrong, we must make sure that the way we respond is educational. Logical and natural consequences tend to be more effective in this regard. Logical consequences are naturally tied to the behavior. Logical consequences include things such as restoring damaged items (e.g., replacing, fixing, or cleaning up) and not being able to participate in an activity they disrupted for a while. Using natural consequences simply means that instead of us rescuing our children or fixing their problems, we leave them to experience the results. That may mean they do not have something they destroyed or that friends stay away for a while.
Second, we can try to get out in front of the problem. If children are experiencing ongoing patterns of problem behavior, we want to look closely at what tends to happen before their behavior (antecedents) and following their behavior (consequences). If we notice, for example, that the behavior occurs when they are asked to do something difficult, when attention is withheld, or when they are told they cannot have something they want, that helps us develop better ways to deal with their behavior. We can make sure tasks are doable for them and that we are available to help as needed. We can let them know how long we will be busy and when we can interact with them. Or we can offer them other choices.
Finally, we can focus on reinforcement rather than punishment. We can look for positive behavior such as the children communicating their needs appropriately, participating in activities correctly, or putting up with difficult situations without misbehaving, and reward it. To effectively change behavior, we need to respond at least 3-4 times as often to positive behavior as problem behavior. We can also remind our children of better ways to behave in order to get reinforcement. When children get antsy or irritated, we can say something like, “Remember, you can handle this by…” The approaches described as alternatives to punishment in this article are called positive behavior support. You can learn more about how positive behavior support can improve family lives by viewing this recording of a Family Chat sponsored by the Association for Positive Behavior Support: https://vimeo.com/314243395
Meme Hieneman, has a Ph.D. in Special Education and is nationally certified as a behavior analyst. She has published a variety of articles, chapters, and books including “Parenting with Positive Behavior Support: A Practical Guide to Resolving Your Child’s Difficult Behavior.” In her professional career, Meme has worked with children with severe behavior problems for more than 20 years.
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This post originally appeared on our March/April 2019 Magazine