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Positive Punishment

Article: Descriptive Analysis of the Use of Punishment-Based Techniques with Children Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. By Leaf and others. In Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 54, 2 (June 2019).

In grad school I was taught that punishment, to be effective for behavior change, has to be so intense that it risks hurting the person being taught. Therefor, it was said, forget about punishment use reward exclusively for behavior change. This made sense at the time and I have pushed a reward-only curriculum for behavior change ever since. I suppose it's time once again to examine what I was taught.

Just so we're on the same page, punishment isn't just spanking (although spanking is a form of punishment). In behaviorism, punishment is any stimulus change that follows a behavior that decreases the chances of that behavior happening again. So, telling a child "no" when they reach for another handful of cookies is technically a punishment. It is true that behavioral specialists have advocated in the past for "aversive" punishment (e.g., shocks, spankings, etc.), and this combined with the belief that punishment is not very effective and can lead to acting out behavior has made punishment unpopular among professionals for a while now.

The interesting thing is that even though professionals say not to do it, people use punishment all the time (i.e., the "no" example above). Punishment is prevalent in society (and in therapy), and probably because on some level it works. This study wanted to challenge certain notions that punishment was ineffective and leads to negative reactions (e.g., getting upset and hitting) among ASD children learning new behaviors. In fact, this study noted that among the 15 ASD children studied, punishments like saying no or removing a token were used all the time in interventions and kids rarely, if ever, flipped out when they were punished. Consequently, this was demonstrated in both a high and low cognitive functioning group.

Of course, my summary of this study is broad and general and lacks much detail, but the take away is that we can challenge some assumptions about the safe use of punishment for behavior change. And, for the record, there is such a thing as "positive punishment". In behaviorism, positive means "add" and negative means "take away". Positive Punishment is the addition of something (saying "no") that decreases the chances of a behavior happening again, and Negative Punishment is the taking away of something (taking away a token) that decreases the chances of a behavior happening again.

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