TOP > Projects > Past Projects > brownU > Vol. 21, No.4, April 2005 - Effective consequences for child misbehavior: Be specific!


Vol. 21, No.4, April 2005 - Effective consequences for child misbehavior: Be specific!

Does this hypothetical example sound familiar?

"Billy, your score today was a 2 (out of a possible 5). While you did clean up after breakfast, which was good, you also had some problems. You did not come in after morning break in a reasonable time period. Also you slugged Joaquin in the arm when he called you a big baby. You need to work on your anger management and try to ignore hurtful statements. Therefore you get a behavior rating of 2 today, which means you have to go to bed early tonight and lose store privileges tomorrow night. Perhaps tomorrow you can get at least a 3 so that you can have your usual bedtime."

Children like Billy often do not earn many 3's (or better) and such is blamed on the ineffectiveness of punishment consequences for children like him. What is a better culprit for the lack of effectiveness of the consequence is the failure to specify a contingency between a specific behavior (e.g., hitting other students) and the consequence (going to bed early). Note in the above example that the multitude of behaviors that are in involved in the subjective judgment make it difficult for any one behavior to be targeted. Deploying consequences for subjective global judgments is often ineffective.

A study that made a comparison between consequences for specific target behaviors versus consequences based on subjective judgment sheds scientific evidence on this issue (White & Bailey, 1990). The rate of target disruptive behavior during a PE class in 10-minute observations was taken over a several day baseline period was between 130 and 343, with a mean of 219 occurrences. That's one tough PE class! In the following treatment condition, the teacher judged each child as to his or her level of misbehavior for that gym period, and gave each child a super, good, fair or poor rating. The primary consequence of a child obtaining a poor rating was loss of a free play period later in the week and/or a parent conference or visit to the principal.

The effect of this treatment on the rate of disruptive behaviors was better than baseline, but not adequate (mean rate of disruptive behaviors down to 98.5). This level of disruption was still too high for this class. The behavioral contingency implemented in the next treatment condition was called "sit and watch." Contingent on the occurrence of objectively defined target disruptive behavior, the child was instructed to take a timer and go to an area away from the activity and sit and watch for 3 minutes. If the child went to sit and watch more than once during the same period she or he also lost a free play period once every two weeks.

How did this specific behavioral contingency affect the rate of disruptive behavior relative to the subjective rating system? The mean rate of disruptive behaviors for the class was 4.6 over the period of the study. What a difference a behavioral contingency can make! Now this teacher has a class that is manageable.

In my clinical practice, targeting a specific behavior such as stealing, rather than a subjective judgment, is essential to eliminating a problem behavior that was jeopardizing an child's status in a new foster family, as the real life case below illustrates.

Roberto: A case of "stealing is in his blood!"

A foster family I was involved with had several children, all coming from the same mother. One of the boys (Roberto, who was 9 years old at the time) had multiple problems. Further, he had not shown any progress in developing a "conscience" in the year he had resided in his new home. One of the most serious problems was stealing money and various things from family members as well as from classmates at school.

This was apparently a behavioral pattern he picked up early in life. His biological mother felt her children should fend for themselves, hence his early exposure to shoplifting. I would imagine you could guess why he and his siblings were removed from their mother.

Prior to my involvement, the foster father had tried many strategies to rid Roberto of his stealing behavior. He tried pleading with him, discussing society's prohibition against stealing, appealing to his better judgment, trying to induce guilt and shame over stealing others possessions, grounding him, and other strategies. Unfortunately, none of these worked to eliminate this behavior.

His current placement was in jeopardy, as both the foster father and his wife had doubts about their keeping Roberto. Further, I could not imagine that any other family would love to have a child that transfers possession of property from somebody else to himself.

The plan I came up with was borrowed from several researchers at Florida State University (Switzer, Deal, & Bailey, 1977). It involved planting items around the house in conspicuous spots to monitor stealing (I called this the planted item technique). Each day the father would place several items, including money, in designated places (unannounced to Roberto). This allowed his father to systematically track stealing by checking each place where something was left, in addition to the usual check procedures.

Roberto was informed of the plan the night before it was to go into effect. If all the items remained in their place at the end of the day and there were no other reports of stealing, Roberto received $0.50 for the day. However, if something was missing, the punishing consequences involved the following: (1) return item(s) stolen, (2) lose the stipend amount for that day, and (3) pay a penalty equal to double the value of the item(s) taken. Note that this plan had consequences for stealing as well as for not stealing. I believe the father also threw in early bedtime as well.

As you can imagine, his rate of stealing went down. In a several week period, he was no longer stealing, and this was also confirmed at school. Stopping this behavior had a profound impact on Roberto's position with his foster parents. Probably one of the nicest outcomes of changing Roberto's behavior happened on one of my visits to the home.

In the earlier part of the week, Roberto had returned some planted money to her, saying he found it (planted item) and that she must have lost it. His foster mother was so proud of him. She thought he had finally turned the corner on his past! He had become someone who had a conscience. Other behavioral procedures were taught to this family, including components of a parental compliance repertoire to deal with Roberto's lack of compliance.*

About a year and a half later, I became involved with this family for another child in their care. They reported to me that Roberto had not had a problem with stealing since the last time I saw him and the program had been discontinued some time ago. Effective treatment for targeting Roberto's stealing involved both punishing consequences as well as reinforcement for not stealing. Other problem behaviors were also dealt with successfully by targeting individual behaviors with consequences.

Rome was not built in a day. Dismantling multiple long standing behaviors requires the same approach, one building at a time!

[Case report used with permission from Punishment on Trial (Cipani, 2004)]
*A Six Week Parenting Program For Child Compliance. (PDF)

Dr. Ennio Cipani is a licensed psychologist in California and full professor of clinical psychology at Alliant International University.

To order a copy of his book, Punishment on Trial: A Resource Guide to Child Discipline, or to read excerpts from this book, go to (search Cipani). You can also order the book by phone at Context Press at (775) 746-2013.

The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, April 2005
Reproduced with permission of Manisses Communications Group, Inc
For subscription information contact Manisses at:
208 Governor St Providence, RI02906 USA
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