In my work, I routinely encounter adults who are exacerbated by a challenging behavior that they see in their child or student. The focus tends to be on how to get rid of the disruptive behavior, often using punishment as the sole method for obtaining compliance.

While this is common practice, it is also grossly misunderstood. Why? Well, first of all, they are inaccurately focusing on the least effective method of extinguishing a behavior – punishment. Yes, it is true that punishment can in fact be helpful; however, punishment alone rarely results in a complete decrease in behavior.

Mostly, when a child is punished, if they dislike the punishment enough, all it does is teach them that they should not engaged in the behavior when someone is watching.

So, what happens when no one is watching or when the child forgets about the punishment? Ah, the child once again engages in the disruptive behavior. Or worst yet, let’s say that the child does stop doing that specific behavior. Then, next thing that I hear goes something like, “Well, she stopped throwing things when she wants to get her way, but she’s started jumping up and down when she wants to get something.” In this instance, the child has simply replaced one disruptive behavior with another because no one taught her what she should do when she sees something that she wants.

Give and Take 

I like to think of behavior change and behavior extinguishment (making a behavior go away) as give and take. What does that mean? It means that when we try to get rid of a behavior or take one away, another behavior is working just as hard to emerge so we should give a new behavior. As we weaken the disruptive behavior, another behavior becomes stronger. Because we know this to be true of any behaviors, it is our responsibility to ensure that the behavior that emerges is desirable and meaningful in that student’s life.

How to Get Rid of a Behavior

To avoid playing Wack-A-Mole (the game where you hit one mole, and another pops up in a different place) with behaviors, childhood professionals need to remember the importance of teaching one replacement behavior for each disruptive behavior that they want to disappear. For example, if you are tired of a student hitting (target behavior) others whenever they want a specific toy, then you have to teach the student what you what to happen instead of hitting, such as raising their hand (replacement behavior). You have to replace the challenging behavior with one that is acceptable. Perhaps you have heard of this in another way but have not known how to implement. The most common example is when you want children to stop running indoors. You may have been instructed to tell the children to “walk” instead of just focusing on telling them to “stop running.” That is similar to the concept of replacement behaviors. Children need to know what to do with equal, if not more, emphasis than what not to do.

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