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The punishment problem

submitted by Christie Capriotti, M.Ed., Board Certified Behavior Analyst at MK Plus

Parents seeking advice on how to change their child’s behavior often report that they have tried everything and nothing has worked.

Upon further investigation, it is typically discovered that the use of punishment procedures such as time outs, taking away privileges, or yelling is the main tool used in an effort to change a behavior. But there is a problem with punishment: it doesn’t work.

Behaviorally speaking, punishment is used to suppress an unwanted behavior or to temporarily stop the behavior from occurring. And while the punishment of choice may in fact stop the unwanted behavior in the moment, punishment alone does not teach the child what to do instead.

The most effective way to change a child’s behavior is to reward and reinforce the behaviors that you want them to do. The next time you find yourself punishing your child’s unwanted behavior, stop and take a closer look at that behavior.

Identify what the child isn’t doing that you would like them to do instead. Next, during a time when everyone is calm and focused, tell your child what behavior you want them to do.

Practice together the new behavior.

Finally, find opportunities where the behavior is occurring and draw attention to them. Praise your child for attempts at the new behavior even if they aren’t done perfectly at first.

You are building a new habit and a new behavior, so it is important to praise successful attempts. Children look for continuous attention from their parents, and they will take it any way they can get it.

Rather than repeatedly punishing (and therefore attending to) unwanted behaviors, increase your attention through praise for wanted behaviors and you will start to see the positive change you are trying to achieve.