WHAT DO I DO WHEN...?
by Steve Buckmann
Any discussion about teaching students with Autism Spectrum Disorders
in school settings will invariably turn to a discussion about the
role of consequences in managing inappropriate behavior. Usually
the discussion takes the form of this question: What do I do when
"Johnny" does . . .?
Few educators would contest that consequence interventions
have long dominated the lion's share of our behavior management
efforts. The result is that consequences have become narrowly linked
with managing inappropriate behavior, and it is the misguided use
of consequences for inappropriate behavior that is of concern. Fortunately,
as our efforts shift toward prevention of challenging behavior,
questions about consequences should no longer monopolize our efforts
and energies. Nonetheless, for the present, it represents a valid
question which warrants discussion and some ideas about direction.
The discussion begins by addressing the purpose of consequences,
followed by an examination of how consequences are misused, and,
finally, some ways to use them more effectively.
What is the purpose of consequences?
Consequences have three purposes when used to
manage student behavior:
• Reinforcement to strengthen behavior
• Punishment to weaken undesirable behavior
• Neutralization of behavior in a crisis.
Too often our focus lies on the second of these
three purposes, using consequences solely to eliminate behavior.
Why do negative consequence interventions still dominate our efforts?
Negative consequences meant to punish (i.e., decrease)
behavior are a familiar entity. Responses to problem behavior, such
as verbal reprimands, time out, and response costs (to name only
a few), have a long history in school settings. And they often achieve
results. For most students, negative consequences work exceedingly
well, at least on the surface. They are the behavior management
version of a quick fix because they generally require low effort
and produce a quick change. Unfortunately, for many individuals,
and especially those with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, the fix is
short lived, overly simplistic, and tends to suggest that what is
needed in the future is merely a stronger negative consequence.
It also fosters an elusive and never ending search for the perfect
How are consequences misused?
Below are some ways consequences for inappropriate
behavior are commonly misused in school settings, followed by suggestions
for more effective use:
Consequences are applied continuously and for long periods of
time, even when ineffective.
Although negative consequences represent tangible
evidence to others (e.g., the principal, other staff, parents, the
student) that something is being done about inappropriate behavior,
too often they are applied reflexively, without much consideration
for their individual effectiveness or how the person perceives them.
For many students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, repeated use of
negative consequences quickly loses effectiveness as the student
becomes immune to their use. For others, consequences simply serve
to heighten anxiety levels when the student is doing what is logical
to him or her. They also send the message that the people and activities
in the settings are worth avoiding.
Consequences are predetermined by school policy without regard
to individual student needs.
The first and foremost job of schools is to establish
safe and effective environments conducive to learning for all students.
The second job is to be responsive to individual student needs.
Unfortunately, students with autism, Asperger's syndrome and other
pervasive developmental disorders are often locked into school-wide
discipline practices incongruent with their needs—especially when
such practices focus on exclusion, suspension, or expulsion instead
of instruction and inclusion. The assumption that tough discipline
is effective discipline often supersedes the necessary individualization
of responses to problem behavior.
Certain consequences are assumed to be universally punishing (e.g.,
The effect that a consequence has on future behavior
determines whether we label it as punishment or reinforcement. If
a behavior increases in frequency or strength we say it has been
reinforced, and the consequence we applied is therefore a reinforcer.
If a behavior decreases in frequency or strength we say it has been
punished, and the consequence we applied is therefore a punisher.
It is important to remember that these terms are merely descriptive
ones which indicate whether behavior is strengthened or weakened.
Also important to remember is that consequences are perceived differently
across individuals. A punisher for one individual is a reinforcer
for another. Unfortunately, when addressing behavioral consequences
there is a strong tendency to assume the effect in advance. For
example, we assume that praise and other social interactions are
reinforcing to everyone when in fact they can be quite aversive—especially
to individuals uncomfortable with social interaction. Likewise,
scolding is generally considered punishment when in fact it may
actually be reinforcing—especially in situations where an individual
desires attention but cannot gain it except through problem behavior.
Consequences are used without regard to what the student is trying
to achieve through the behavior (i.e., function).
Of particular importance when examining consequences
is to determine the purpose or function the behavior serves for
the individual. Knowing the purpose has direct relevance for determining
how to respond to the behavior. For example, a student with an Autism Spectrum Disorder who experiences general difficulty with academic
tasks may become aggressive out of frustration, confusion, or boredom.
Removing the individual as punishment "for being bad"
may not actually be punishment at all, but rather reinforcement.
In order to know the effect of the consequence of removal, we must
look to see the effect over time. If the student continues aggression
during academic tasks, we can assume that removing the student is
reinforcing. If the student stops being aggressive we can say the
behavior was punished.
Consequences are often assumed to elicit desirable behaviors which
the student may in reality not know how to perform.
Simply stated, a student may not know what to
do when only told what not to do. Many individuals with autism will
require more explicit instruction on performing alternative behaviors
before they can be expected to replace inappropriate ones. Although
it is true that consequences can suppress behavior by literally
trampling over its function, it is not true that they can teach
the individual something they do not know how to do.
How can consequences be used more effectively?
The following questions and considerations are
meant to promote a more effective use of consequences:
Determine consequences by individual need and
situation. The initial consideration is: Does the behavior require
a consequence? If so, what effect will the consequence have now
and over time?
Consider that predetermined consequences may be
ineffective and incompatible with behavioral functions. A lot of
energy is spent on creating environmental and staff consistency
for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Though this is sound
instructional advice, when addressing problem behavior it is also
logical to consider whether consistent responses may prove problematic
when they don't meet the function of the behavior at any given moment.
When possible, ignore the problem behavior while
establishing future instructional situations to teach the alternative
behavior. Then provide immediate, powerful, and consistent reinforcement
for performing the alternative. Remember that if the alternative
behavior is not sufficiently effective and efficient in achieving
desired outcomes, then the individual will likely re-engage in the
Consider whether the consequence is instructive
or only suppressive. Does the consequence actually help the person
to learn an alternative behavior the next time the same or a similar
Do not assume ineffective consequences will become
effective if used long enough or if strengthened. If individual
needs are not met, the behavior will likely continue.
Finally, gather ongoing functional assessment
information to understand the conditions under which behavior occurs
and does not occur. Understanding the conditions under which behavior
occurs can help shift the focus to prevention and instruction and
reduce the need for consequences which serve as punishment.
Shifting away from reliance on negative consequences to addressing
problem behavior is difficult. On a broad level it will require
ongoing examination of some well-established educational practices.
On a personal level it will require individual reflection on our
own behavior. Both can result in a more appropriate use of consequences
to build skills with long-term utility for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Reproduction kindly allowed by
Indiana Resource Center Autism. Visit their site for more useful
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